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October 30, 2020

Becoming a Productive Screenwriter in 8 Steps

In an interview for The Hollywood Reporter, Mattson Tomlin, (the writer of Project Power as well as the upcoming Batman and Mega-Man movie) shared how he writes ten scripts every year – much to the astonishment of some in the emerging screenwriter community. Ten scripts a year is a lot, averaging out at a completed script roughly every 36 days. How on earth does he reach such high levels of productivity?

Well, to get the most immediate stuff out of the way, he is a full time screenwriter so he can dedicate more time to the craft than others seeking to break into the industry. Also, while he might write 10 scripts a year, some may not be as good as others. That being said, writing that much will undoubtedly have a positive impact on your storytelling skills.

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our article on managing time as a screenwriter. Once you’ve nailed the basics, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of productivity boosting.

1 – Take notes throughout the day

Whenever you’re writing a story that you’re passionate about you might catch yourself thinking about it in the gym, while you’re doing some chores, or watching another movie. This is a great behaviour and it should absolutely be encouraged. When we’re working on something menial our unconscious mind toils away on the larger complex tasks that we haven’t yet completed, like writing a screenplay. When you catch yourself thinking about your screenplay, this is probably what’s happening.

However, sometimes you accidentally stumble into a great idea in the middle of the day but forget it by the time you sit down to work on the script again. This is why you should keep notes on all of these thoughts. You can just record fragmentary thoughts, or you can try using a more formalized process (I use the Zettelkasten method for my notes).

Be mindful of your thoughts throughout the day and write down any (a notes application on a phone is perfect for this) that you think might be relevant to the script. Then, when it comes time to write the script you can consult your notes which might just help you crack through a particularly tough plot point.

2 – Make screenwriting a habit

We’ve already written a great article on making screenwriting an unshakeable habit so I want to focus on why making screenwriting a habit is important. Broadly, screenwriting is a marathon, not a sprint. If we only relied on fleeting inspiration and passion then we’d write a few pages, get intimidated by the amount of work left to do, then get discouraged. I know I’ve felt this way before and I’m willing to guess you have too.

By making screenwriting a habit you will be able to slip into a writing mode faster, producing more work on a daily basis, and make concrete steps towards the end of the draft. It is far better to write a little bit every day than to write lots on a single day and burn yourself out, not to mention that writing piecemeal will result in a higher page count at the end of the week.

Here’s a great quick explainer video for using Arc Studio’s productivity tools:

3 – Work harder and incrementally by setting tough goals

I need to be challenged, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Our brains are great at being lazy and doing the minimum amount of work required to get the job done. However, professionals from Harvard’s medical centre argue that in order to really stimulate the brain you need to set a goal that challenges what you thought was previously possible.

For example, if you normally write three pages every day, for the next week set a goal of writing five pages a day. This will challenge you, but it’s not such a massive jump that it’s completely impossible. This means that you will have to expend a decent amount of effort into achieving the goal, thereby stimulating the brain by a new and harder challenge.

However, be careful not to jump too far ahead. If you only write three pages a day, setting a challenge of ten pages a day is too big of a jump and you might never get past the second day which defeats the purpose. Bump up your goals slowly, incrementally, and you’ll produce far more pages than you ever have before.

4 – Have some form of outline to work as a signpost

Imagine you’re in a city you’ve never been in and you need to get to a bar on the other side of town. Without a map you could probably make your way there through intuition, asking for directions, and guesswork, but it’ll take much longer than just having a map.

Writing a story isn’t much different. While you absolutely can find the story as you go, generally your page production will be much higher if you have an indicator of where you’re going and how you’ll get there, usually in the form of an outline that follows the three-act structure. I’m not saying that you need an intricate outline that details every single scene, but at the very least give yourself some signposts to guide you in the right direction.

For example, knowing the beginning, midpoint, and ending of a screenplay is a foundation. That means in any point of the script you can see on the horizon what direction you’re going, helping you get started when you sit down to write every day.

5 – Don’t give up halfway through a vomit draft

This is easily the most common mistake I see from beginner screenwriters. They start a draft with mountains of excitement and inspiration only to get halfway through, feel lost, and give up once a sexier idea attracts their attention. This is the road to having a drawer full of half-finished scripts and nothing to show anyone.

If this sounds like you, I want to set you a challenge. Under no circumstances are you allowed to give up on your next script halfway through. You must get to the end, no matter what. It doesn’t matter if it’s absolutely terrible and doesn’t make any sense, just get to the end and don’t rewrite anything until you get there. Just take David S. Goyer’s word for it in this video from BAFTA:

That’s why I call it a vomit draft. There’s no beauty in this, but it’s all about getting it out into the real world to be cleaned up later and feeling so much better for having gotten it out. Forget the idea of your first draft being the best encapsulation of your idea, it won’t be. Instead, get the raw materials onto a page, then chisel it to perfection later on.

6 – Take time to decompress and relax

Relax? What? I thought this was about doing more work, not less!

It is. The fastest way to a burnout is to push yourself beyond your means, get exasperated by the entire process, and giving up entirely. No more pages will ever be produced if that happens. Instead, take the long view and make sure to give yourself plenty of breaks if you start to feel too stressed.

I can’t tell you the best way to decompress as that’s entirely up to the individual. However, I would recommend not choosing a range of activities solely related to writing, or maybe even movies/TV. Go for a walk, finish that DIY project you’ve been meaning to do, practice a musical instrument, chat with friends or family, or maybe even quietly meditate. Just like you need to sleep every night to have energy for the next day, you need to let your writing brain relax so that you can come back better and stronger the next day.

7 – Learn to love the process

This is the hardest tip to implement but maybe the most important. If you are forcing yourself to grind through page after page with no enjoyment or satisfaction in the process then you are going to end up loathing every minute of it, directly impacting the quality of the work. This can be especially hard if you can’t even justify the writing process through monetary compensation.

The next time you finish a writing session and feel that warm glow of satisfaction after a good session of work, take a moment to enjoy that feeling. Really notice it and think about it. That satisfaction is what we crave, so savor it. Know that the road to that feeling is through the hard work you’ve just done. Acknowledging this feeling can induce a kind of Pavlovian response (which this article talks about in greater depth) that gets you into the writing mode fast.

This is how you learn to love the process and how you can look forward to sitting down to write. Eventually, if you’re lucky, every so often sitting down to write won’t feel like work, but an escape from work. I can think of no better way to be productive.

8 – Use the Right Tools

Luckily, there’s a veritable menagerie of tools that will help your productivity. Arc Studio Pro has a suite of features that will help keep you on track such as an integrated scheduling feature, daily reports on progress, as well as a focus mode that gently nudges you away from procrastination.

Wrapping Up

Being a productive screenwriter is important. The chances are you’ll need to write quite a few scripts before you hone your skills enough to make it in the industry. Producing pages lets you see where your strengths and weaknesses are and produces a body of work that you can be genuinely proud of.

More than anything, the best way to be productive is to love the process. If you can find your way there, the rest will come easily.


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Becoming a Productive Screenwriter in 8 Steps
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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