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February 18, 2022

What Is a Screenwriter? Everything You Need To Know

If you've ever thought about becoming a screenwriter and would love to see some of your ideas represented on screen, you might have wondered what is required of you to become one. What exactly does the job of screenwriting entail? What does a screenwriter do on a day-to-day basis?

The article will answer these questions and learn more information to help you decide if this career in the movie industry is for you.

The role of a screenwriter

A screenwriter writes, develops and creates screenplays for film and TV. They work alongside directions and producers to make the script idea come to life.

The day-to-day duties often involve working on various screenplay drafts with feedback from producers and directors. However, when actors are cast for the role, the screenplay may require adapting to take into account what they bring to the script.  

Table reads are another big part of this process. Sometimes a scriptwriter will be required to be on set, particularly if they also have an executive director credit for their film. But, this doesn't usually happen regularly.

The cast of Modern Family at a table read.
The cast of Modern Family at a table read.

How do you become a screenwriter?

Unlike training to become an accountant or a lawyer, there's no straightforward way to achieving this job . There are many different routes, but they all have one thing in common: persistence.

No formal qualifications are necessary; for example, you could be working as a cleaner while writing scripts in your spare time and still make it.

With that said, a highly sophisticated command of the English language will stand you in good stead, so a college degree will undoubtedly improve your skillset, particularly in a subject such as English literature.

In general, here are the skills required for this job:

  • Creativity to come up with original ideas and stories
  • Excellent English language and writing skills
  • Time-management and organizational skills to meet quick deadlines
  • Motivation and discipline
  • Resilience in coping with rejection
  • Networking skills (both for marketing and promoting your own work)

Some other things to consider are if you love film and watching movies. These are both important if you are to work in the industry.

Do I need to go to college?

Yes and No.

Many great screenwriters did not attend college, such as Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, Dunkirk, Inception) and Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction). However, attending a writing program and getting a degree in screenwriting can give you a leg up.

There are many postgraduate film schools and specialist programs. The most prestigious courses, such as those at UCLA and the National Film School in the U.K, will expose you to contacts and industry practices that will put you a cut above other scriptwriters. Unfortunately, these courses are incredibly competitive and often expensive.

Ultimately, however, it's your ideas, how good your script is, and your understanding of what producers and production houses are looking for that will get you through the door.

Most writers write spec scripts without a formal commitment, hoping that a studio will like what they've written. Unfortunately, this doesn't always lead to that script being green-lit, but it can lead to assignments for pre-planned projects or spots in a writer's room.

How much does a screenwriter make?

This is a very tough question to answer since it varies considerably; in short, it depends on how successful you are within the movie and film industry.

The first factor to consider is how many screenplays per year you can produce and get green-lit. The more consistently you write, the more money you can make.

Another factor is how well you can negotiate from the studio. For example, a big-name writer will command upwards of six figures per episode, but that's because they have provable success. A first-time writer will struggle to get these kinds of sums unless there are exceptional circumstances.

If you have a good agent, they will take care of the negotiations on your behalf, and although they will take a cut of between 15-20 percent, they will have much more knowledge on the rates different houses pay and will be able to leverage you the very best deal for your script.

On average, screenplays should sell for around $50,000 though remember an average is almost meaningless in the film industry since every script is different.

How can you break into the movie industry?

Perseverance

Perseverance is the key. It's very rare to do something right the first time, so the chances are your first draft of a script will not get picked up by a studio. But that does not mean you shouldn't finish it or attempt to get it under as many noses as possible.

When you write your second screenplay, you will have learned all the pitfalls of your first screenplay and will be in an even better position. You can only get better! Pro tip: try to set up a writing schedule to write something original every day. Bottomline: just keep writing. Your pages and drafts will gradually get better the more you write.

Feedback

It's essential to understand the process of writing a screenplay and that it needs several drafts and lots of feedback before it can go out in the world. Your first few pages are likely not screen-worthy, and that's ok! This means that receiving feedback is important for your growth as a writer.

Responding to feedback by giving up or attacking the person who criticizes your work is the wrong attitude: be mature and get to work straight away on any comments you get on your screenplays. Even if you believe you have what it takes to create the next blockbuster film, everyone needs help. Accept feedback even if it's hard to hear, it will only make you a better writer.

If you are looking for some help with your screenplay, such as formatting dialogue, character development, formatting your screenplay and more resources (including this ultimate guide to screenplay formatting), feel free to check out our blog!

A screenplay is laid on a table being edited.
Every screenwriter has to learn to manage feedback on their scripts.

Networking

While agents, producers, and executives do search for new writers, if you have a personal connection to someone in the film and TV industry, they are more likely to appreciate a script from you since they know and trust you. Don't be shy, contact those who may have an in - it's in your best interest in the long-run. You'll never know if you don't try. Additionally, if you have any contacts, they can be very helpful in guiding you in the right direction.

How do you network as a writer? Attending a course at a film school can help you make these contacts as can simply living in a big city where films are made. Hollywood is the most obvious example, but London, New York, and Paris are also good cities to network in. Remember that many seminars and networking events are hosted online on Zoom: look for free or lost-cost ones.

Screenwriting competitions and fellowships

Another way to get some experience under your belt and gain credibility is to enter and win  contests. While there are many competitions out there, some of the more prestigious ones, such as the Nicholl Fellowship and Sundance, could help get your name on the map. Producers and directors will often look at scripts that win or place near the top. These competitions are also a great way to receive feedback and get your ideas out into the world.

However, it is important to note that in order to enter these competitions and expect to win, your script must be in the proper format and have proper scene structure. Check out our ultimate guide to formatting to ensure your final screenplay is up to par. We also offer much more content that can help bolster your writing skills on our blog.

Is a career in film for you?

Screenwriting is a great career that allows you to create and learn, but also involves discipline and perseverance. It's also more collaborative than novel writing since you have to work with a director, producer, and a whole cast, so it's a less solitary experience.

However, the downside is it's a very competitive industry. There are a lot of people who are trying to make it in the film industry. You will face lots and lots of rejection. At the start of your career, you can generally expect low pay for long hours compared to other typical 9-5 office jobs.

But if you know in your heart this is your path, never give up on pursuing your dreams! Find the right support system and keep searching for the right opportunities. Even if you face rejection, never stop learning and continue to believe in what you have written. No matter what, keep writing your screenplay, even if that means pulling many late nights at home. You never know when your movie or film may become a reality.

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What Is a Screenwriter? Everything You Need To Know
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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