So, I write for television and I get paid for it. It literally pays my bills and keeps me fed. I don’t earn an outrageous living, far from it, but I earn enough to maintain independence and sanity. I don’t have to dig wells, sell shoes or wait tables* to keep myself afloat. AND I love what I do. In this sense, I have the great privilege of leading a writer’s life.
By some crazy twist of fate, lots of other people want this for their own life too. A fresh, new writer and script editor who’s starting out in the industry (here in Australia) got in touch with me recently and asked if I could give her any advice on what she should be doing to help her develop her career. So I thought I would share and expand upon what I told her in case it’s of benefit to anyone out there that may be reading this.
(I should also add that it is always humbling and flattering and all those other things to be asked this question – and know that I actually have a couple of things to say that may help. Thanks Cat.)
It’s A Long Game – You Must Connect.
Whatever stage of your career you’re at, it’s important to remember doing this malarkey is a long game. Most writing jobs aren’t advertised, so you have to be pro-active about networking and meeting people in the industry beyond your immediate connections in order for people to get to know you and your abilities. This takes time, patience and grit – people want to trust you and get a sense of what you offer before they will start hiring you routinely, especially as a writer. All the scriptwriting work I’ve ever been paid for has come about through people who I’ve worked with before, or via word of mouth recommendations. It really does take years to build up this kind of circle of connections. Which brings me to…
Use Social Media.
I think one of the best tools around that wasn’t really there when I was starting out is social media. If you’re on Facebook, there are numerous writing and screen pages to join. Same goes for Instagram or whatever new fangled network that will no doubt pop up in the next five minutes. Find interesting newsletters and subscribe to their emails. This is so easy, so get onto it! In the real world, join the AWG, join WIFT, join AACTA – these groups are there to help people network and improve their skills with regular industry nights. Membership is relatively inexpensive and tax deductible. And when they do hold industry events, make the effort to go. The Guild in particular often run masterclasses and seminars designed to help broaden the knowledge of new members and emerging writers and script editors. The people running these are great to meet! Don’t be shy!
Write! Actual scripts! Find excuses to write actual scripts! And don’t be so picky about what you write. You don’t need to launch into a feature project straight off the bat. Short scripts are great because they take less time but teach you brevity. I’m a big fan of the NYC Midnight Short Screenplay competitions (I wrote about why here) – they force you to write and it’s honestly like going to the gym for your writing. Plus it’s heaps of fun. I did them for about two years straight, and while they don’t seem immediately helpful to your career, the skills I picked up from sheer practise and feedback were invaluable.
Script Edit. Duh.
Script Editing is a tricky business. It is not the same as providing generalised feedback on a screenplay or a pitch – it’s about critically analysing the narrative structure of a story and providing constructive and thoughtful notes and questions which help the screenwriter address weaknesses, inconsistencies and a lack of clarity in their story. The aim is to help a screenwriter get perspective on their work, and offer suggestions and insight that lead a screenwriter to a more refined and successful screen story. (I really should write a whole post about this…) I would always recommend doing some sort of course run by an experienced script editor if you’re starting out and don’t have access to a writer’s room where you can see the process in action. And even then, script editing is a different beast in different rooms. BUT – I can tell you it is always best to be a respectful script editor. Script editors in a non-professional setting DO NOT re-write other people’s work. Script editors in a professional setting DO NOT re-write other people’s work until they absolutely have to (that is, when the screenwriter has fulfilled their contractual obligations and it is now the script editor’s job to do a final pass in order to prepare a shooting script.) If you want to script edit, learn what it is from someone who knows, and then offer your services to emerging screenwriters as a way to practice those skills. People want clear, constructive feedback, so take the opportunity to hone your skills and your diplomacy when you get the chance. Like becoming a solid, reliable writer, becoming a solid, reliable script editor is a learning process that takes commitment and practise.
(As an example, a writer friend recently shared his experience with an emerging script editor. My friend handed over his script to the script editor for feedback, only to have the script editor make a bunch of notes on his script in a dot point, all over the place, fashion, then proceeded to re-write the script himself, then demand that he be credited as a co-writer. This ’emerging script editor’ is a complete sham who has no idea what he is doing. DO NOT BE THAT PERSON.)
Find Your People.
Get to know some emerging producers and directors and offer up your skills. Make friends with other writers. Actively seek out like-minded people you think would be good to collaborate with. This can be hard, but if you’re out there networking, you’ll run into people like yourself who want to improve their skill set and get some on-screen credits too. These people will become your friends, and you never know where your next opportunity will come from. I should clarify that you do not need to hang out with people you don’t like. Everyone is different and there are lots of people out there – keep looking til you find people you click with and actually want to hang round with.
Find Your Way Into A Writer’s Room.
Depending on your interest, get in touch with production companies. Call them up and ask that you’d like to send in your CV. Receptionists are generally very nice people and used to receiving these calls. Re-send your CV every 6 months or so when you have new things on it. Pitch yourself as someone who’d love to come in as an observer (to a plotting session), or a note-taker. Being a note-taker sounds like a fairly low level job, but honestly, it’s how you get to sit at the table in the writer’s room, and it’s how people get to know you. In the current climate, there’s very few clear paths to entry anymore. Find ways to make yourself known and show you are open and interested in these kinds of opportunities.
Know There Is No Longer A Clear Path.
My career path was fairly roundabout – I started my career in publishing, moved into factual telly, then into development, then into scripted. It’s taken time, but I’ve done my best to jump on opportunities and reassess my goals every couple of years to make sure I felt I was moving in a direction I wanted. I share this mostly because I think it’s important to know that there’s no real right or wrong way to getting to ‘the next level’. It’s about putting yourself out there, keeping in touch with people, and doing your best.
Take Responsibility For Your Own Education.
While I did a degree in media production, most of what I know about writing and screenplays has come from personal study as well as working experience – reading lots of books, going to lots of courses, forcing myself to absorb everything I can when I can from the pros I meet. THEN applying what I’ve learnt from all of that in my own work. That’s the important part. Set aside time to do your own study, then set aside time to explore what you’ve learnt in your own writing (or script editing if that’s your bag). Not all of us can ‘learn on the job’ these days, so you need to commit to doing some learning on your own time and dime.
And Be Nice.
By that, I mean genuinely nice. I can’t stress to you enough how important this is. This doesn’t mean you should be dishonest or obsequious – you should always be yourself, and if you can, be the best version of yourself. This is sometimes very, very hard to do. (I am no saint and have been very not nice on occasion – I can hear you gasp in horror from here…) But it’s true. Be nice.
And these really are the things I feel are most likely to help any of you starting out, so I hope it proves useful. My very best wishes to you!
* To be clear, digging wells, selling shoes and waiting tables are perfectly respectable livelihoods, they just happen to be livelihoods I am spectacularly crappy at. Ta.