A step-by-step guide
By Michael Midis
Who wouldn’t want to become a professional screenwriter? After all, it’s easy work and pays super well, right? Plus the fame, on top of the fortune.
Well…not exactly. Like any other profession, screenwriting is a long and difficult journey. But it is possible to get there with a little talent, a healthy sense of determination, and a whole lot of patience. Read on. We’ll give you a tour.
It’s important to keep things in perspective when making the decision to try your hand at any new profession. Becoming an established screenwriter takes time. Sometimes lots of time. But like any profession, the length of the journey depends on multiple factors. And even if you work hard and arm yourself with the appropriate supply of patience, there is no guarantee you will ever sell a script or be employed as a screenwriter.
If that scares you away, we get it. It’s not easy. But if it revs up your engine and makes you want to prove us wrong, you’re more than welcome. You’ve come to the right place.
The path to becoming a professional screenwriter varies, but there are some common steps:
- Educate yourself in the art/science of screenwriting
- Read Screenplays – lots of them
- Learn how screenplays are formatted
- Join online screenwriting groups and other online communities
- Practice what you learn
- Work your (bad)ass off
- Get lucky (network with other industry people)
Educate yourself in the profession of screenwriting
One of the most confusing parts of learning to be a professional screenwriter is knowing where to start and what to study.
Whether you have the resources (time and finances) to study screenwriting formally at a university or college or you want to learn on the fly, it’s possible for you to succeed.
Here we’ll walk you through the basics, assuming you will be self-educated.
Where should I start?
This can be overwhelming. The internet overflows with blogs and videos about screenwriting. How can you begin to know where to begin?
Here’s the best response to the question: READ SCREENPLAYS.
Read as many screenplays as you can get your hands on. Good, bad, and indifferent. Produced, and first draft specs. Everything. This is truly the only sure way to become familiar with the craft of screenwriting and screenplay format.
Screenplays (film scripts) are readily available for download, mostly for free, and sometimes for a nominal fee. Below are some freebie sites for pdf downloads of (mostly) produced screenplays.
*Includes a list of nine additional sites to find and read screenplays.
While you read your new stash of screenplays, you’ll chomp at the bit for more
It takes a little practice because screenplays haven’t likely been your go-to pleasure reading before now. But once you’ve read a few, you’ll start to notice things: what works, and what doesn’t. You’ll have to learn the difference between a spec script (unproduced format) and a shooting script (from produced films) but start with some Oscar winners and contenders.
Note: It’s important to understand the difference between 1. Selling Scripts (specs), 2. Shooting Scripts, and 3. Transcripts. Especially take note if you’re looking at downloaded scripts for formatting clues. Make sure you follow the correct model. That is, you’re probably writing a spec script, which boasts its own set of rules so it’s good to grasp the format of unproduced spec screenplays by experienced writers.
There are different types of screenplays – careful what you model
Most of the screenplays you’ll find online are ‘shooting scripts,’ which include scene numbering and camera directions, neither required or desired in a spec. Read these shooting scripts for story and pacing and to experience great writing. Don’t follow their format.
Transcripts are often written by mega-fans who’ve literally watched and transcribed the finished film. They are not worth reading: a.) Because they’re invariably incorrectly formatted and b.) They’re incorrect in the action lines because the transcriber writes what they think the screenwriter might have written.
The next step is to learn screenplay formatting
The next step in your self-education to become a professional screenwriter is to learn the different formatting conventions. Reading scripts will give you a great start, but it’s a good idea to learn formatting via another medium. The quickest source is through screenwriting blogs and videos, but you’ll want to make sure to find the right ones. And it’s a good idea to budget for some books and maybe a class or two, which are not always free.
Join screenwriting groups to help you
Next, join some online screenwriting groups. There are many to choose from and most are brimming with encouragement and solid advice. Best to lurk for awhile, though. You won’t be molly-coddled if you ask dumb questions when the answers are easily searched. And if you decide to post something for feedback, don’t expect a pat on the back or gentle nurturing if you haven’t put in the time to do the work first. Only submit “finished” work. Even if it’s an early draft it needs perfect formatting, spelling, and grammar.
Here are some great groups you might want to join:
That’s enough for appetizers. You don’t want to spend too much time on social media, but make sure you budget some. You’ll learn in real-time things you wouldn’t otherwise comprehend, for example, the significance of the WGA vote on the Additional Literary Contribution credit.
A note on the Reddit group, which has well over a million (!) members. There are lots of “break at your peril” rules. But also some fantasic resources for newbies. Enter slowly. Walk gently.
Finally, sign up for some newsletters, including ours. Note that many newsletters are designed to sell you stuff, like pitches and classes. We don’t recommend those, at least not until you’re ready to invest in expensive coverage or courses. Our Badass newsletter’s intent is strictly educational. No selling. As is one of our favorites, written by our prolific colleague, Lucy V. Hay’s Bang2Write. Begin with these to avoid spending a whole lot of time wading through irrelevant mail in your inbox.
Your screenwriting education will be an ongoing process. Even successful, repped screenwriters educate themselves continuously. It’s among the enjoyable aspects of perfecting your craft, so dive in. You can begin with our hand-picked educational resources.
Make time to practice what you learn about screenwriting
While you’re reading screenplays and books about screenplay formatting and following along in the screenwriting groups and forums, and maybe taking a class, eventually you’ll have to start writing.
Now you know what a script should look like, you’re going to type your own story accordingly. Which brings us to an important question:
“What screenwriting software should I use?”
In a few weeks or months, you will likely look back on this question and laugh your badass off. Why? Because it seems to be the question that new screenwriters consider so important that they ask in the forums almost daily. Yes, it is important, but in relation to the entire educational process, it’s minuscule. Depending on the level of your commitment, you’re eventually going to want to purchase Final Draft, the industry’s favorite screenwriting software. If you’re jumping in now, with both feet, buy Final Draft now. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth every penny. If you’re not yet sure, there are several screenwriting programs that offer free versions. Here’s an article about screenwriting software worth a read. Or if you’re ready to dive in, here’s a link to try Final Draft Screenwriting Software free for 30 days.
Like any other skill, your screenwriting will improve with practice. This is not a maybe, it’s a definite fact. The amount of improvement, of course, will depend on the amount of time and effort you put in. Even if you only write a single page a day, your writing will improve drastically over the course of a month or two, and you will be well on your way towards finishing that wonderfully satisfying first draft of your first screenplay.
It takes a lot of hard work to become a screenwriter
Success in the screenwriting industry has a lot to do with hard work. Yes, there are tales in the lore of the occasional brand new screenwriter who sells their first screenplay for six or even seven figures, but those legends are rare and becoming more so. Most professionals achieved their success through perseverance, hard work, and networking.
Of course, it’s not the same kind of work required of a professional athlete or astronaut. But it takes a lot of brainpower. Reading scripts can be tedious, but must be done. Writing every day and avoiding distractions is equally not optional if you want to become a professional writer of any kind.
We can’t promise that if you work hard that you will become a successful screenwriter. But we can guarantee that if you’re not willing to put in the work, your chances of success will be nil.
So, how do you go about doing the work and putting in the time without getting discouraged? There’s no easy answer to this question.
A few more ideas that have helped others become professional screenwriters:
- Treat your screenwriting like a job
If you’re serious about becoming a professional screenwriter, treat your journey as such. Set specific times and days both for writing and for education. As a wise wag once said, if you leave it to chance, chances are you’ll just leave it.
- Find a suitable place to write
A solid, comfortable, ergonomic chair and decent lighting will make a huge difference. Whenever possible, isolate yourself from distractions. Turn off your social media. Hide your phone. Close the Facebook tab.
- Set clear, attainable goals
Be sure to name specific goals that are within reach.
- Reward yourself
When you achieve a goal, reward yourself. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but acknowledge yourself for sticking to the program.
- Get notes Swap scripts with other writers. Join a Meetup group. Pay for pro coverage.
A little luck will also help you become a professional screenwriter
What’s “luck” got to do with it? Quite a bit, apparently, when combined with hard work.
If you believe you need “luck” to be a successful screenwriter, you may be preventing your own success. That said, this industry, more than others, rewards successful networking. Who you know is often more important than a brilliant script, so when you know the right person, who can introduce you to a producer who might bring your screenplay to the screen, there might be an element of luck in that scenario.
Networking is critical to your screenwriting journey. The more people you meet and know in the industry, the better your chances of getting that “lucky” introduction or meeting or friendship. But in the end, it will come down to your ability to write combined with your likeability (this is important too), flexibility, and ability to respond to notes.
So, in a nutshell, becoming a professional screenwriter is neither easy, nor quick, but if you work hard to educate yourself and practice what you learn, you’ll be able to make your own luck. Now, go write something!
Note: If there are terms used here you’re unsure about or flat out don’t understand, head over to our exhaustive glossary of screenwriting terminology.