This column tries to shine a light on good submission practices because, let’s face it, even if your spec screenplay is BRILLIANT? There is a multitude of mistakes writers fall into when trying to submit their scripts to producers, agents, contests, script calls, investors and more. I’ve seen it over and over in my time as a script reader, which is well over ten years now.
Interestingly though, it has been during my time as a script editor that I became party to the biggest single mistake screenwriters make when it comes to submissions. For the uninitiated, a script editor focuses on the development of screenplays with writers (rather than said scripts’ ASSESSMENT for outside parties such as agents, like script readers do).
A script editor’s job then is to facilitate the writing of the script by the writer, by whatever means necessary. This may range from helping troubleshoot story, craft and format issues right through to career advice and/or moral support, almost like counselling or coaching (“Yes, you CAN do this!”). For many writers, it’s a combo of all the above.
Before I tell you what that this huge submission mistake is, it may interest you to know that numero uno screenplay submission mistake is NOT*:
(*Click on the links above for more on these submission problems).
So, during my script editing, what IS the biggest mistake spec screenwriters make when it comes to their submissions? You’ll kick yourself:
NOT HAVING THE GUTS TO FINISH.
Perhaps this seems confusing: after all, if you type FADE OUT, you’re finished, right? Done. Finito.
Except I’m not talking about LITERALLY finishing a draft, but “signing off” on it – in other words, developing a screenplay, over a number of drafts, within a certain period of time ... and then STOPPING.
That’s right, stopping!
Most writers don’t do this. Instead, these spec screenwriters develop the same script for a bit; submit it for a bit; then work on it again for a bit. This process circles on endlessly, so they end up writing and submitting the same script, over and over and over. Sometimes five, even ten years go by and they’re still tinkering endlessly, developing, writing and submitting that same script FOREVER, effectively.
But why is that a problem? Well, it stops a writer from moving on, literally (from that particular spec screenplay) AND figuratively, in terms of their writing ability/career. It’s not difficult to see the MORE experience one has at writing, on a VARIETY of projects, the more likelihood a writer has of getting to the place they want.
Look, I’m not saying that spec screenwriters can’t have pet projects, or that implementing GREAT notes they might receive from various people they find via the submissions process is a bad idea. However it is a good idea to balance these two things against one’s own writing aspirations, otherwise it’s far too easy to essentially end up staying still via self sabotage.
So, how DO writers know when to “sign off” on drafts?
This is the thing. You have a LOT of competition. If you want to get your work out there and compete with the hundreds of thousands of others in the submissions pile effectively, you gotta be writing and developing and submitting new stuff ALL THE TIME. So why not:
- Commit to developing a new concept and writing a first draft in the next 3-6 months
- Develop it for 3-6 months after that for X amount of drafts
- Sign off on the draft at 12 months [approx .]
- Submit it for six months beyond that (whilst developing a new concept/rewriting ANOTHER new draft obviously)
- At six months of submissions, if no bites – JUNK IT. If someone bites, find out what they do like like about it and develop that relationship, in readiness for either a sale or your next spec!!
As cycles go, I have seen FAR FAR more writers break through using the above, make useful contacts and even sales than I have the “endless rewriting/submitting/tinkering" cycle. Why? Because they have approached the process methodically. Sure, I know a couple of writers who have broken through via sheer luck and spreading themselves and their drafts around randomly, but it’s been accident rather than design.
Yes, it’s a lot of work. But then writing is. No one said it would be easy.
So which route is it gonna be for you?
- More articles by Lucy V. Hay
- Meet the Reader: How I Do What I Do
- Jeanne's Screenwriting Tips: Polishing a Screenplay
- FREE Rewrite Checklist Download
Get valuable movie-writing insights in Christine Conradt's webinar
Writing and Selling a TV Movie