Film & TV

How to Become a Screenwriter: 10 Tips for Screenwriting and the 6 Habits of Successful Screenwriters With Spike Lee, Shonda Rhimes, and Judd Apatow

Written by MasterClass

May 14, 2019 • 4 min read

Everyone has a story to tell. But if your story has drama, a cast of colorful characters, and a narrative arc fit for a film or serialized television show, then a career as a professional screenwriter might be right for you. Read on to learn some creative habits that can help steer you in the right direction, as well as tips and tricks from some of the most successful screenwriters in the business.

Close

What Is Screenwriting?

Screenwriting is the craft of writing scripts for film and TV shows. Developing a script is both an individual and collaborative effort; screenwriting relies on either a solitary writer, or a writers’ room made up of many screenwriters. While film screenwriters work closely with a director, television screenwriters usually have more control of the creative process from start to finish.

10 Steps to Becoming a Screenwriter

There is no definitive rulebook to guide screenwriters to fame and fortune in Hollywood. However, there are certain steps you can take to better position yourself for success. Keep in mind that many new writers cannot survive on screenwriting alone; many have part-time jobs to support themselves along the way. Here are 10 steps to guide you.

  • Step 1: Start writing. If pursuing a career in screenwriting is what you want, then approach your work as you would any other career: dedicate each day to your craft. Start writing, and keep writing. You should always be working on the first draft of something.
  • Step 2: Learn the business. Subscribe to trade publications to learn about what television shows are being picked up, what scripts are being sold, and who is behind the projects. You should also read screenplays—as many as you can get your hands on. Learning how other screenwriters work is the best way to see how it’s done.
  • Step 3: Move. To be a serious screenwriter, you should live where the work happens. Los Angeles is the epicenter of the American film industry. This is where studios, production companies, and agencies are located. New York City is also home to many production companies and is especially good for screenwriters looking to work on independent films and talk shows.
  • Step 4: Find a mentor. Mentorship is a great way to get a foothold in the industry. Find a person to keep you accountable for your writing. There are also mentorship programs for aspiring screenwriters, such as the Sundance Institute; CBS Writers Mentoring Program’ and NBC Universal Writers on the Verge Program.
  • Step 5: Get a job in the film industry—any job. Working as an assistant is a great way to make connections with executives and your peers. Grey’s Anatomy creator and writer Shonda Rhimes says that an assistantship job is a rite of passage for any aspiring screenwriter. The most important rule, even when performing mundane office tasks, is to have a positive attitude. Rhimes says: “People who have a great attitude are the ones that I always end up saying, ‘What’s your script about?’”
  • Step 6: Continue learning. Pursuing a graduate degree in screenwriting is not a necessary step to becoming a screenwriter. There are many schools that offer two-year MFA programs. This is a great way to learn about the structure and form of scriptwriting. Obtaining an MFA also affords graduates the ability to teach. Another way to build skills and practice is to take screenwriting courses. Screenwriting books can also be helpful.
  • Step 7: Join a writer’s group. Form a simulated writers room with other writers. Discuss and debate plot ideas for a current television show, and come up with future episodes. This is a great way to share ideas, work collaboratively, and practice creative writing.
  • Step 8: Create a portfolio. Remember that you don’t need someone to hire you to write. Keep building a portfolio so that when someone asks what you’re working on, you have a body of work to present them. It is also important to have synopses and query letters prepared for each of your projects.
  • Step 9: Build your support team. It is important to have industry professionals to help steer your career. A manager will help you develop and market your scripts. An agent will help you find work opportunities and negotiate contracts.
  • Step 10: Sell your script. There are a few ways to get your work seen. Make connections with producers and creative executives through websites such as IMDB Pro. Upload your screenplays to online databases such as InkTip, and submit your projects to film festivals.

6 Habits of Successful Screenwriters

The most important rule for screenwriters is to write every day. Whether your goal is to craft a half-hour drama or a short film, it is important to develop creative habits that support your work. Here are some tips from professional screenwriters.

  1. Freaks and Geeks creator Judd Apatow’s first step in the creative process is to write down scene ideas onto notecards without thinking how they will connect.
  2. Apatow is also a firm believer in the “vomit pass”—the practice of getting all your ideas down on paper without judgment or self-editing.
  3. Shonda Rhimes suggests rewarding yourself when you stick to a writing schedule.
  4. Rhimes also encourages writers to find daily inspiration by eavesdropping on conversations, reading obituaries, and recording surroundings in a notebook.
  5. BlackKklansman writer/director Spike Lee advises writers to dedicate a set time each day to write, without distraction.
  6. Lee also encourages writers to share work with a trusted reader. “This is some hard sh*t to do,” Lee says. “It takes dedication, it takes love, it takes compassion. It’s a continuing process of educating yourself, getting experience, and being the best you can be.”

Learn more screenwriting tips from Spike Lee, Judd Apatow, and Shonda Rhimes here.