5 Essentials to Becoming a Paid Screenwriter - Script Magazine

5 Essentials to Becoming a Paid Screenwriter

Learning how to write a screenplay is one thing, but demystifying how to become a paid screenwriter is another. Geoffrey D. Calhoun shares five essential qualities and habits needed to for screenwriting career success.
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Learning how to write a screenplay is one thing, but demystifying how to become a paid screenwriter is another. Geoffrey D. Calhoun shares five essential qualities and habits needed to for screenwriting career success.

Screenwriting is growing ever more popular by the day. A few reasons for this trend: It’s exceptionally easy to access and the investment is quite small. Aside from books, conferences and seminars, all you really need is a laptop and software. From there, you sit down, punch some keys, and boom… you’re a screenwriter! Once bitten by the screenwriting bug, it’s easy to get swept up and lost in the dream of becoming a paid writer. To do that, though, you’ll need some serious commitment. Here are a few tips to lead you in the right direction.

1: Design your life around screenwriting

The first thing you have to do is choose to make screenwriting your priority. This must become a volition. It will be your everything. Aside from the time commitment, the big problem here is income. 

There are several cautionary tales out there about writers who, expecting greatness, quit their day jobs to focus solely on their writing, only to inevitably end up broke. This is why you have to set yourself up for success. If you don’t, then your dreams are merely just fantasies. Remember, the only person who can make you successful is you!

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Obviously, income is a must to survive. You need to pay your bills. Restructuring your life by working nights or weekends can allow you time to write, network with a community, and eventually pitch at meetings. If that is too extreme for you, then create time around your current commitments. This new dedicated writing time will become your new normal. 

One writer I know decided to keep his day job due to his seniority. He would get up at three in the morning every day and write until the moment he punched in for work. That led him to develop the discipline and skill to break into the industry. There is a mindset to this method. Your day job will become your side gig as your dedication to your writing grows. Eventually, you are getting paid so well from your writing that you can quit that side gig. Mind you, it may take years to get there.

Tips:

● Shift your mindset away from it being a hobby. Treat it like a job.

● Your writing comes first. Adjust your lifestyle to accommodate it.

● Strategize and plan your way to getting paid.

2: Master the Craft

You have to become a great screenwriter. That is it. There are hundreds of thousands of screenwriters out there. Even more are hobbyists. That is stiff competition. The only way to stand out is to truly become a master of screenwriting. Study the legends of the craft, but don’t stop with them. Everyone has read those books. Continue to grow and seek truth from lesser-knowns. 

Just visiting the local library, you would be surprised at what kind of little-known screenwriting books are out there that are full of unique and interesting takes on the craft. With each book you devour, you will learn little tips and ideas that you can add to your own toolbox. No one person or book has the key to screenwriting.

Don’t become stuck on one technique or system because that will limit your overall capability as a writer. From there, you should tear through screenplays. Don’t just read them—Critically analyze them. What works and what doesn’t. Then watch and analyze the film to compare from the script. Break it down and learn the secrets. It’s easier than you think. The hard part is commitment. Also, feel free to play with your writing style and experiment with each script. Eventually, you will settle into your own unique writing voice. That’s when you know you are on your way.

Tips:

● Read all the books you can find. There are hidden gems on screenwriting at your library.

● Don’t just read screenplays, analyze them. Find what works and what doesn’t.

● Steal screenwriting techniques you like and add them to your own personal toolbox.

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3: Become a Craftsman, not an Artist

Artists excel at creating their own work. At times I meet screenwriters with an artist mindset. I always recommend they look into filmmaking. As a writer/director, they will be able to create their own compelling work and have enough control in the project to retain a strong vision of their art.

Screenwriter mindset is completely different. A screenwriter must view themselves as a craftsman. A working screenwriter may be contracted and hired to create work for someone else, not just themselves. Much like a typical tradesman. I know spec scripts are a great tool to have, but they are better used as a calling card or resume and not as Willy Wonka’s golden ticket into the film industry.

Tips:

● Writer/Directors are best at protecting their vision of their work.

● Screenwriters are hired to create someone else’s work.

● Specs are best used as a resume of what you can do as a writer.

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4: Make Connections

You have heard this one before, but I need to state it again. Network, Network, Network! Yes, there tends to be a focus only on connecting with producers or agents. People who can help “make” your career. In reality, that is only half the equation. You should be networking with everyone. I mean, everyone! 

Lateral networking is great. There are writers who I have come up with over the years. We have broken out at the same time, followed each other across the country as we’d trade screenwriting awards at various film festivals, and have become the closest of friends. They are family to me. Because of that, we help each other find gigs and grow each other’s careers. That would have never happened if I had brushed them off or viewed them as competition.

Screenwriting does not have to be a zero-sum game. Networking properly will lead you to surprising successes and eventually paychecks. Heck, I’ve landed gigs from my Uber driver! Make sure you are earnest when making connections. Writers who only care about what someone can do for them will find themselves quite lonely. Making connections and finding success is a two-way street. I love the quote I first heard from Alex Ferrari at Indie Film Hustle, “In order to make your dreams come true, help someone with theirs.”

Tips:

● Networking is key to finding paid gigs.

● Lateral networking is a great way to deepen relationships and can lead toward work.

● Networking is not all about what you want. Help others achieve their goals.

5: Know your Value

When you first start out, you will be dealing with several “deferred payment” options, which usually means you won’t be paid for the gig. It is up to you to decide if working a deferred gig is worth it. Sometimes it can be justified because you are earning writer credits while you build your portfolio, but don’t let yourself be limited to that. The truth is, if you are getting deferred offers for your work, then you are at the level where you should be paid.

guide for every screenwriter

Knowing your value goes beyond a paycheck. Your value is also what you bring to a project. You may be thinking, “I’m a screenwriter. That’s what I do.” Yes, but what is your strength as a screenwriter? Are you exceptional at writing compelling dialogue? Can you develop story twists or bend structure into something unique? Are you great at punching up comedy? Knowing the value of your strengths as a screenwriter will allow you to better market to the indie film community. 

For instance, I excel at fixing screenplays. The broken, the better. I love the challenge of taking a script that just doesn’t work and turning it into a screenplay that shines. This led to me developing a system of structure that I use to break down and fix scripts which inevitably resulted in me founding wefixyourscript.com. Eventually I wrote my screenwriting methodology into The Guide For Every Screenwriter, which is now a best-selling book. I couldn’t have achieved any of this if I didn’t know my value as a screenwriter.

Tips:

● Deferred gigs don’t pay. But they lead to building up your resume.

● If you are offered a deferred payment, then you’re talented enough to be paid.

● Find your strengths as a writer. Use them to market what you can do for others.

Screenwriting Coach Lee Jessup shares tips on creating a successful screenwriting career in her on-demand webinar, Specs Don't Sell: How to Build Your Screenwriting Career

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