The 4 Steps to Become a Professional Screenwriter
Breaking down the steps that can help realize the dream.
I’ve recently been teaching a few courses on screenwriting, and inevitably when it comes time for the Q&A the first question asks the steps on how to become a screenwriter.
Learning how to become a professional isn’t an easy task. Part of the problem is that no two people have the same breaking in story. Still, there are a few decent steps that apply to most writers I know.
How These Steps Teach You How to Become a Screenwriter
For me, learning how to become a screenwriter was a bit of an arduous process. I moved to Los Angeles after finishing graduate school, and took a few unpaid internships. I interned at Scott Free, in the Mad Men Writer’s Room, and for a manager named Myra Model. Are these the only ways to get where you want to go?
No. But what these steps can help you do is get a sense of the industry, and figure out what part of it you want to be in and why.
So let's get into it!
Step 1: Internships! Jobs!
Those internships became a battleground where I learned a lot about the industry. But they were also a proving ground where I saw professional writers in their element.
There’s only so much you can learn in school. It’s way more important to get out in the real world. I also got to learn about how hard it was to work in the industry.
While the internships I did were unpaid, a struggle in itself, they taught me a lot about the workload I could handle, ways to budget my time, and as a result they were a graduate school unto themselves.
Spoiler alert, I did not succeed all the time.
In the beginning, I was great at tasks like getting coffee and lunches, but I had a lot to learn about Hollywood and the way writers work.
I’ll be perfectly honest, I was not a great intern at Mad Men. I was too scared to ask questions, and incredibly intimidated by the level of writers around me to make myself useful. It took me learning some hard lessons there to be good at my other internships. But that failure didn't stop me. It actually helped me.
Luckily, I heeded those lessons and wasn’t an unpaid intern for long. I was promoted at Scott Free to a floater, and then I became the assistant to the president.
My official title went from intern to runner, to floater, to assistant, and eventually, I was a story editor. The pay always stayed pretty low.
But it was better than $0 as an intern.
So how does all that teach you how to become a screenwriter?
It helps us see that there is more to becoming a full-time writer than writing. What exactly?
There’s pitching, there’s handling agents and managers, working with directors and producers, and even relating to fellow writers.
My internships put me into the ring with some of the most successful writers of film and television. I got to watch their habits. The way they outlined, broke story, gave feedback, and took criticism. And we still haven't even gotten to the most valuable thing it gave me.
I made the necessary contacts to get my material read. Suddenly, I was able to get crucial feedback and a foot in the door.
Getting feedback from your Mom and best friend can be great for self-esteem, but if you want to make it in this business, you need to know what working professionals think.
Most of us don’t have access to a development executive on a daily basis, but interning in Hollywood can put you on or near their desk. You can hear how they think, learn what they love, and then apply that as you see fit to your own writing.
You can be a great writer, but if you can’t navigate the business, you can never move forward.
Step 2: Write A LOT.
Look, I know this is a cop-out step, but here is why you should still listen to me:
I know a ton of people who tell me about their one amazing spec screenplay. They've spent years working on it. They think it’s perfect. And it might be. But what if it’s not?
Or what if it’s perfect but Disney has a competing project?
Or what if the life-rights are tangled up?
My point is this, if you want to learn how to become a screenwriter, you need to put the effort into writing and breaking screenplays. Not screenplay. It's a hugely important difference. The effects of which are far reaching. What do I mean by that? Let me tell you more from my own story.
Shovel Buddies was the second script I ever wrote. After that, I spent a ton of time writing less successful scripts, but the more I wrote the faster I got. The more efficient, the more I learned how to cut, edit, and build character.
Sure, Shovel Buddies made the Black List and helped me become a pro, but the other scripts in between helped me book other assignments.
They proved that I had other stories inside me, that I knew how to work well with others, and that I was getting better on the page.
We can all get caught up in the idea of produced credits. They’re valuable, and if you want to advance your screenwriting career, produced credits matter.
But when you’re starting out, what you really want to do is produce quality work, develop your voice, and stay in the conversation. Why?
Because Hollywood is built on “What have you done for me lately.” You can’t rely on that spec from five years ago to keep you relevant. That’s why you have to be constantly creating. To stay on the tips of tongues and at the fore of executives minds. There are even more reasons to keep writing.
Another is that there are a lot of jobs out there. You might be closing yourself off from them without the appropriate samples. There’s no exact number of spec screenplays you should have, but I would recommend having AT LEAST one feature and two pilots to show people.
And you should have a few ideas of what you want to write next. The catch with those?
These can’t be barely finished. They HAVE TO be polished, ready, and proofed. And you have to be excited about them.
Lots of people break-in when someone asks to read their script and then passes it up the ladder. You’re not going to get passed up the ladder or win a contest with a script that’s not finished.
How to Become a Screenwriter Lesson 2:
If your first project doesn’t sell, maybe the next one will. Or the one after that. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Keep writing!
How To Become A Screenwriter Step 3: Win a contest.
All screenwriting contests are scams.
Yes, you heard me right. They’re scams. Contests, from the Nicholl to ScreenCraft, are all inherently scams. They are built off people paying $50-$100 (or more) to send their screenplays in to be evaluated by industry readers.
Screenwriter John Gary talks about “the hope machine.” It’s a theory that Hollywood profits off giving people the hope that any day, any time, they can “make it” in the industry.
Contests profit off that hope, so be wary. Film is a subjective medium. One contest may hate your script, but the readers from another contest might love it.
It’s hard to predict this stuff, so chose organizations with a long history and that seem to break more prominent writers.
Many of these contests provide no feedback, they just tell you if you cut it or not.
If you’re going to try the contest route, I STRONGLY encourage you to do your research. What do I mean by that? Ask yourself:
Who is reading your script?
What have past winners done in the aftermath?
Does your entry fee get you any perks?
Personally. I would advise against submitting to any contests that didn’t come with feedback on your entry. Otherwise, you’re throwing your money into the abyss. On the other hand...
Placing or winning a contest can give you the necessary exposure you need to make a dent in this town, especially if you’re not located in Hollywood.
In 2013, I put my script, Shovel Buddies, on the Black List website. I paid the fee to host, and I paid for professional readers to provide me coverage on the screenplay. This was a good idea and I'll tell you why.
While this was not a contest, the site did rank my script against others. When Shovel Buddies scored highly, I started getting agents and managers reaching out quite quickly.
At the time, I think I had invested about $250 worth of reads and hosting. In the end, that was a small investment for what turned out to break me into the professional screenwriting scene.
Still, the only way I stayed professional was to follow Step 2 and to keep writing.
How to Become a Screenwriter Lesson 3:
Not all contests are created equal. Research, spend wisely, and be careful.
How To Become A Screenwriter Step 4: Make A Connection
As I mentioned earlier, at some point the way to become a professional screenwriter is to get read, passed up the ladder, repped, and eventually sell something or get hired on an open writing assignment.
The only way any of this happens is if you put as much energy into making connections as you do into writing. Because what good is it to have a bunch of great scripts if you don’t have the people to read them and pass them up the ladder.
I made a ton of connections when I was an assistant, it was easy to find people who would come of age with me in the industry. These are now the people hiring and producing me.
So go out there and make some friends with execs who can read you.
The best way to do that is to live and work in Los Angeles. But what can you do if you’re not in Los Angeles?
Find places you can meet people also making movies and creating content. Even forums and message boards. Share material, share ideas, and connect.
I’m not a fan of pitch-fests, but if you research and think they’re good for you, go ahead check them out.
You can also cruise places like LinkedIn, but most people won’t read cold call scripts or emails.
Hollywood is all about who you know. Network. Reach out. Be a good person. If your reputation is good, the work will find you.
Summing Up The How To Become A Screenwriter Steps…
Hopefully, now you have some clarity on how to become a professional screenwriter. No two people have the same entryway, but these steps can help direct you toward success. Or at the very least direct you towards a better understanding of the whole process.
No matter what, booking an agent or a manager is only the beginning. You have to spend the rest of your time pitching, writing new things, and pounding the pavement. No article or blog can substitute for hard work.
Writing is a personal journey, and even if you do all these steps, Hollywood doesn’t owe you anything. Keep writing, keep making connections, and if you do it from a place of passion good things may follow.
You get better with every script, and you never know whose business card you’ll accept around the next turn.