Spike Lee’s 9 Tips for Perfecting the Writing Process
Next time you're suffering from writer's block and staring at a blank page, try implementing one of Spike Lee's screenwriting tips. While good writing still requires time and hard work, Spike's writing advice will make it easier to achieve your writing goals.
- Write the story you can’t stop thinking about. "Usually I have more than one story,” Spike says, “but I found that over time the one I keep thinking about is the one I'm eventually doing." Great writers often have multiple stories bouncing around in their heads at once, but how do you choose which one to write? Avoid basing your decision on what you think will sell or on current Hollywood spec scripts trends. Instead, realize that your best writing will be born from excitement and passion for the story.
- Keep a brainstorming notebook for your story idea. Spike begins his scriptwriting process by jotting down ideas about the story in a notebook—character names, backstory, lines of dialogue, plot points, etc. As long as you always have your notebook with you (or a notes app on your smartphone), you'll never forget a good idea.
- Organize your ideas using index cards. Once Spike feels like he has everything down, he transfers his notes onto five-by-seven-inch index cards. He then begins the process of arranging the index cards into groups from the first to last scene. Using cards allows him to order and reorder until he feels that he’s gotten it right. "It makes the actual writing much easier for me," Spike says. "Now you have a reservoir of material. You've written dialogue already. Not all of it, but you've written dialogue. You've written scenes. You've just got to put that stuff together."
- Break your daily page count into manageable chunks. "You're not writing 120 pages every time you sit down," Spike says. "Just write three or four pages. It's like chopping a tree. Even if you're John Henry, you're not gonna knock down a tree with one stroke. Keep chopping, and eventually, you'll get to the end." Instead of thinking about finishing an entire script or your total word count, focus on your daily and weekly writing goals.
- Make research part of your writing routine. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, 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.
- Develop a daily writing routine. Spike writes best in the morning for four to five hours at a stretch, and he writes every day. "I have to write consecutive days," he says. "I can't skip. I have to write every day until that first draft is done." When you’re working on a new script, writing every day helps keep the details of your story fresh in your mind. When you go a day or two without writing, it becomes easier to lose momentum and forget important ideas from your last writing session.
- Try writing your first draft with a pen and paper. Spike doesn't type the first drafts of his scripts; he instead writes them out longhand on loose-leaf paper and inserts the script into a three-ring binder. Writing longhand is a great way to help you constantly move forward with your script since it's not as easy to go back and edit yourself. And if you struggle with distractions when writing on your computer, using a pen and paper is also a great way to stay focused on the task at hand.
- Spend time alone with your characters. "I think that for writers, you've got to really put aside time to write. It's just really you there and your characters and your story. That's a very special time, and you should treat it as such." Whether you're fleshing out main characters or minor secondary characters, good character development requires time and focused attention. When you sit down to write, remove all distractions—especially your smartphone. Be experimental. Let your mind wander. This is a necessary, sacred time to get to know your characters.
- Find a select group of trusted script readers to critique your work. Once you feel you're ready to share your script, select a few trusted people whose opinions you value and ask them for constructive feedback. Even a screenwriter of Spike's caliber finds it hard to listen to criticism, but he knows that sometimes the criticism is valid. On the other hand, it’s important to recognize when a note is good or bad; not all notes will improve your script, and you'll do yourself a disservice if you make changes for every single note you receive.
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