Writers on the Verge: Ground Rules for Building A Screenwriting Career

Lee Jessup is a seasoned career coach for screenwriters, with an exclusive focus on guiding and supporting screenwriters as they parlay their screenwriting prowess into a focused and dynamic screenwriting career. Follow Lee on Twitter @leezjessup

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Before you set out to build your screenwriting career, a number of ground rules have to be established. While, on occasion, you will hear of an unusual case in which these ground rules weren’t followed, for the most part every working writer out there utilized them at some point during their ascent to screenwriting success.

  • ground rulesMaking it as a screenwriter is possible – but it’s not going to be easy. People ask me why I remain optimistic about a writer’s ability to break into the industry, and it boils down to this: I see people, friends, clients and colleagues, break in every day. But those who break in had to work at it, to stick to it in good and bad times, and keep working towards their goals.
  • The more prolific you are, the better your chances. While you may have every faith that your first script is as good as it’s going to get, the one consistent common thread that I found between all the writers I know who broke in is this: All of them wrote all the time, produced new content on an ongoing basis, be those feature scripts, TV pilots, short stories or graphic novels. The more you write, the more opportunities you will have to hook fans and make a case for your future career.
  • Approach your career professionally. You wouldn’t submit a resume for a high-profile job without reading it over carefully, giving it to a few seasoned friends, and getting sufficient advice and feedback, would you? Same goes for your script. Make sure that it’s as vetted as can be before it goes out into the professional space. There are no re-do’s here. You want to give every script you write the best chance you can.
  • Writing is only half the game. Many writers HATE when I say this. Sure, once upon a time you could hang out in your living room and write throughout the night, only to mail your script to Hollywood and get a check in the mail 6-8 weeks later. In today’s competitive marketplace? Not so much. In the here-and-now, preparation, networking, and deliberate, ongoing strategy make up the other half.
  • Meeting expectations is key. Set expectations for yourself and meet them. Working screenwriters are expected to produce new work every 3-4 months. Give yourself 6 month windows to develop new work, and deliver on that promise. Having a number of strong scripts will set you apart from the pack. Set goals for contests, for networking, for getting your script out there, and make sure that, every time, you meet those as well.
  • Know your brand – and develop towards it. You will make everyone’s lives – including yours – significantly easier if you recognize the genre you are strongest in, and develop multiple pieces, potentially in multiple formats, within it. Representation knows how to sell a strong brand; lack of clarity only causes confusion and, therefore, hesitation. Equally, development and production executives will seek to work with an “expert,” one who knows everything about a particular genre and is able to execute within it again and again.

On a personal front, here are a few rules you should always adhere to:

  • Be nice. To everyone. Doesn’t matter where you meet: At a pitch event. In an elevator. Outside of the office of the executive you’ve been invited to meet. Today’s lowly assistant may just be tomorrow’s studio head. It will serve you best to be nice to everyone you meet. It may sound like a cliche, but it’s true: Never let personal behavior be your undoing. For all its stature and glamour, Hollywood is a small place. So be nice to everyone you meet, without exception. When you’re nice to others, they are happy to extend a helping hand.
  • Nobody likes a victim. Even if you believe, without any shred of doubt, that your agent sold you out, that a studio stole your idea, or that your writing partner screwed you over and took with him the better part of your creative work, find a way to be graceful about it. At least upon initial meetings. Nobody likes a victim, and if all they hear from you is how you’ve been wronged up and down the line, they will figure it’s only a matter of time until your blame and bitterness is aimed squarely at them.

No matter what, remember this: Whether you succeed as a screenwriter is not entirely in your hands. Elements such as industry needs, trends, and sheer luck may subvert even the best efforts from the most talented scribes out there. What is in your hand is the ability to devise and methodically follow focused strategy to ensure that, win or lose, you will have no regrets.

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4 thoughts on “Writers on the Verge: Ground Rules for Building A Screenwriting Career

  1. Ribtin

    Sound advice, but I’ve got a question about going from script to script: I’ve worked like crazy these last few weeks, and just finished the 4th (and final) draft of a script in time to send it in to a few contests. But now, I’m in somewhat of a post-completion haze, where my creative juices are just about running on empty, and I’m having a really hard time coming up with any ideas which I think are good enough to put more effort into. Any tips on how to muster up the energy to start with something new again?

  2. K. Rowe

    Another excellent article as usual. Although for me, the 3-4 months is not realistic due to the fact I’m a working novelist and farmer. But, I endeavor to put out the best quality scripts I can in between novels and harvesting hay. Prolific is not a problem for me, time is. Each year I mentally create a schedule of how many books I’m going to release (usually 2-3), and that gives me deadlines (and also helps my editor arrange her schedule.) Then, whatever time I have left, I devote to screenplays and researching ideas for more books and scripts. Right now I have enough ideas to keep me busy for 5-7 more years! Of course, should screenplays become a lucrative source of income, I may switch priorities to writing more scripts than books. But for now, the books are selling, and I’m pretty happy. Thanks again for the great articles!

  3. Patrick Mahon

    Great article, Lee. I wonder on the 3-4 month deadline for new work. What are the parameters? Is this from first idea/pitch to first draft? Or second draft?

    1. Lee Jessupleejessup Post author

      Hi Patrick,

      It was great connecting with you at GAPF this weekend! Ideally, you want to get in the habit of having a new script ready to show (i.e. vetted and tested) every six months, AT LEAST. As you go from script to script, you will see the timeline shrink to 3-4 months.