Film & TV

5 Ways to Stay Focused While Writing a Screenplay With Tips from Spike Lee

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 28, 2019 • 6 min read

Successful writers produce literally thousands of pages of content over the course of their careers. For some people, writing even one page can be a daunting endeavor. Yet even if you’ve never written anything beyond what was assigned for a school project, it is still possible to develop the habits necessary to take on serious writing projects.

But before you can start writing a blockbuster script or a best-selling novel, you need to focus on something much more elemental: writing without distraction.

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Why Is Writing Without Distractions Important?

Successful writers are evaluated on the quality of their work, the quantity of their work, and their ability to meet deadlines. While quality is the hardest to teach, good writing habits can be taught and learned.

  • Productive writers treat their creative work like it’s a job. Most professional writers have a set period of time dedicated to creative work. Perhaps they reserve four hours every weekday as their writing time, and they don’t permit any other activity to bump a writing session from the schedule. Or perhaps they don’t write daily, but they set aside longer blocks of time to focus on writing without distraction.
  • Whether you’re writing your first draft of a short story, screenplay or a magazine article, great writing requires time and focus. If you don’t clear out any potential distractions, your work will show a lack of clarity and focus.
  • Even writer’s block can sometimes be traced to a lack of concerted focus on the act of writing. Writers may spend too much time ruminating outside distractions and not enough time contemplating the mechanics of the story they are creating.

5 Tips to Avoid Distractions While Writing

There are a number of proven ways to stay focused on writing. While not everyone will respond the same to all these methods, it is worth trying all of them to see what resonates with you.

  1. Manage the sounds in the room. Sound resonates with us in unconscious ways. A dull, nonspecific ambient soundscape may not be distracting, but being too physically close to someone else’s conversation may prevent you from hearing your own thoughts. Working in a home office can help stave this off. But if you don’t have an office and do most of your writing in a coffee shop or other public space, consider investing in a good set of headphones and listen to music that’s relatively ambient—in other words, music that won’t compete for your focus.
  2. Set a reasonable length of time for your writing session. It takes a little time to get into the proper headspace for writing, so a session that’s too short may wrap up as you’re just getting on a roll. It’s also a mistake to schedule a session that’s too long. A human brain can only maintain focus for so many hours, and after that, it’s only natural that a person’s mind will start wandering. So set realistic workday—six hours tends to be a good upper limit, with a thirty to sixty-minute break for lunch.
  3. Don’t alter your caffeine routine. Do you drink two cups of coffee every day? Then stick to that schedule throughout the duration of your writing process. Writing is hard work to begin with; you don’t want your body to tackle a new variation on chemical management on top of that.
  4. Be honest with yourself about internet use. Most writers work on personal computers, which are invariably connected to the internet. It’s easy to drain hours on social media, and that can directly eat into your writing output. Consider whether it would be helpful to turn off your wifi while you work. Or if you need wifi to research while you write, make sure you’re only looking at web browser topics that are relevant to your work. Twitter threads and online shopping can be addictive, but they certainly won’t help you hit your deadline.
  5. Create a distraction-free zone. If you’re working at home, create a distraction-free zone, like a room or corner of a room, with just the essential elements you need to write. This way, it will be easier to resist the temptation of procrastination. Write a to-do list and stick to it each time you sequester yourself in the distraction-free zone.
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Spike Lee’s 5 Tips For Maintaining Focus as a Screenwriter

Spike Lee has spent three decades challenging audiences with his groundbreaking work as a writer and director. Here, Lee shares a number of his tricks for maintaining focus when writing a screenplay.

  1. Have a process and stick to it. Spike begins his writing process by jotting down ideas about the story in a notebook—character names, dialogue, plot points, et cetera. Once he feels like he has everything down, he transfers his notes onto index cards. He then begins the process of ordering. Using cards allows him to order and reorder until he feels that he’s gotten it right. This work—plus research—gives him an abundance of material, which he eventually transforms into a script.
  2. Work in manageable chunks. If you find it daunting to think about finishing an entire script, it may be easier to break the writing into manageable chunks that you tackle daily. Know what works for you. For instance, Spike knows he writes best in the morning for four to five hours at a stretch and he writes every day until the first draft is completed.
  3. Put your phone away. When you sit down to write, endeavor to remove all distractions—especially smartphones. Be experimental. Let your mind wander. This is a necessary, sacred time to get to know your characters.
  4. Make research part of your writing routine. Spike believes that research is a fundamental part of the screenwriter’s job. His approach is to immerse himself in the time period—he listens to the music of the time, reads books and magazine articles, and watches documentaries. When Spike embarked on the BlacKkKlansman project, about a Black man who infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan in the 1970s, Spike and his co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott immersed themselves in the 1970s—the Vietnam War, the Black Power movement, the Civil Rights movement—making sure that they knew their material front to back. Cinema is about storytelling. So you gotta pick the right story, the story you want to do at that time, the one you’re most passionate about.
  5. Writing partners should share a work ethic. If you work with a writing partner, make sure you share the same sensibilities and that your skills complement each other. If you’re strong in dialogue, someone who is strong in structure could make a great partner. On BlacKkKlansman, Spike and Kevin tackled the rewriting of the script by dividing and conquering. They divvied up the material between them, and then exchanged scenes to get feedback from the other. Working remotely over email can work, especially if you have a long-standing relationship with your writing partner. Make sure you’re both committed to the project over your egos—and always meet your deadlines.

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Want to Become a Better Filmmaker?

Whether you’re making your first short or working towards your first feature in the festival circuit, breaking into the world of independent filmmaking requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No one knows this better than legendary director Spike Lee, whose films have shaped movie history. In Spike Lee’s MasterClass on independent filmmaking, the visionary behind Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and 25th Hour breaks down the process of independent filmmaking, from writing, self-producing, working with actors, and making movies that break barriers.

Want to become a better filmmaker? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master filmmakers, including Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Jodie Foster, Werner Herzog, Aaron Sorkin, and more.

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