“Writing is the hardest work in the world not involving heavy-lifting.” (Peter Hamill)
Anyone pursuing screenwriting knows they’re in for an uphill battle. Screenwriting is hard. For that reason, it’s important to set yourself up for success. Invest in yourself so that you have the best chance at making it through the wilderness that is screenwriting.
Here are six essential investments every screenwriter should make in themselves.
1. LEARN THE CRAFT
More than any other type of writing, screenwriting is entirely dependent on form. If you turn in a finished screenplay, it can be a work of genius, but if it’s not in the correct form you’ll be turned down before any agent/manager/reader/assistant intern even reads the first page.
Screenplays have certain spacing, page formats, and other hard and fast structural rules that cannot be broken. Learn the form first, then start writing. Screenplay format is fairly simple, but it’s absolutely essential for every screenwriter in the business to know.
2. READ THE GREATS
Before you start clacking away at those keys, do a bit of research. And by research, I mean reading. You’ve seen hundreds of movies in your lifetime… but have you actually read any screenplays? It’s an entirely different, yet oddly familiar experience to seeing a film.
So jot down a list of your favorites, the classics, or just similar movies to what you’re hoping to write, and try to find the original screenplay. You’d be surprised how many there are just waiting out there in cyberspace for your reading pleasure. The Script Lab, IMSDb, Go Into the Story, SimplyScripts, and Movie Scripts and Screenplays are good resources for finding scripts, but you’ll also often get lucky if you just do a Google search! Those local to Los Angeles can always visit the WGF Library to read television and film scripts for free.
3. FIND THE RIGHT SOFTWARE
Once you’ve learned the craft of screenwriting, it’s time to find a software that works well for you. Screenwriting software helps immensely so you don’t have to memorize those margin lengths and spacing rules. A lot of screenwriting software out there is intuitive and easy to use.
The most obvious option is Final Draft, which is used by professional screenwriters and filmmakers — it’s the industry’s gold standard. There’s also Movie Magic Screenwriter, WriterDuet, and Fade In. For those aspiring screenwriters looking for free software, check out Celtx or Amazon Storywriter. Do a bit of research to see which will be most helpful for your writing habits, and learn the software’s basics before you get started.
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4. MAKE YOURSELF A SPACE
It may sound trivial, but having a dedicated space for screenwriting can really help your productivity. Maybe you have a desk gathering dust that could be put to good use. Maybe that guest bedroom never sees any guests. Maybe, like me, you have just enough space in a walk-in closet to squeeze in a desk and chair.
Whatever it is, making a dedicated writing space will be useful in many ways. First, sitting in that space will allow you to get into the “write” frame of mind for writing. Second, a space of your own signals (to yourself and any roommates, significant others, children, etc.) that you are writing; you mean business. And finally, a dedicated writing space ensures that you’re not settling down in front of the TV, or into bed with a nice warm blanket and dog to cuddle with — which means there will be far fewer distractions to keep you from writing.
5. GIVE YOURSELF TIME
Let’s say it again for the people in the back: screenwriting is hard. There are plenty of stories about prolific screenwriters hammering out a finished draft in a single day or weekend, but be real, those stories aren’t the norm. It’s more realistic to give yourself plenty of time to write.
Set up a writing schedule that works for you — whether that be in the morning, during your lunch break, on the subway ride home, after dinner, only on the weekends, or into the wee hours of the morning. So literally give yourself time to write (every day, week, etc.), and also give yourself time to write. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so they say. Your screenplay won’t be written in one either. It takes time to build something great or, in your case, write something great. Don’t rush it.
6. GET FEEDBACK
Movies aren’t seen in a vacuum, which means you shouldn’t write in one either. Every writer — from William Goldman to Nora Ephron to Steven Spielberg — needs feedback. As writers, we’re often too biased about our own work to clearly see it for what it is. We need others to provide comments and criticism so our work can get better.
Whether you give your script to a writing partner, a friend, a co-worker, or someone in the industry, make sure that you’re getting feedback about your writing. And once you get that feedback, train yourself to thoroughly consider each note individually. You’re not a perfect writer… and the person reading your work isn’t either.
So what now? How do you get started on your screenwriting journey? Start at the beginning. Make the investments, put in the time, and always push yourself to grow.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.
Both The Script Lab and WeScreenplay are subsidiaries of Industry Arts.