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Why Some Screenwriters Are Successful & Others Are Not

Updated: Oct 5, 2023


With over 10 years of experience leading Screenwriting Staffing, an online platform connecting scripts with producers, over a decade involved in film festivals, collaborations with film commissions nationwide, and my personal journey as a screenwriter, I've identified 12 reasons that distinguish successful screenwriters from those who fall short. Article written by Jacob N. Stuart. Looking for one-one-mentorship? We can help sell your script and land you a job!

SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS MOVE WITH THE TIMES. The entertainment landscape is in a perpetual state of flux. In today's era, content reigns supreme, with streaming platforms leading the charge. Gone are the halcyon days of the 90s when spec scripts fetched astronomical sums. Now, spec scripts seldom command seven-figure sums. Renowned A-list writers are increasingly being enlisted for reboots or sequels. Meanwhile, podcasts, video games, and books are seeing adaptations on the big screen.


Astute screenwriters recognize that television isn't just a lucrative domain, but also a fertile ground for creativity. TV offers the latitude to craft a richer tapestry of characters, delve into extended narratives, weave intricate plots, and exercise greater artistic authority. While directors might helm an episode or two, writers often find themselves shaping the narrative arc across seasons.

Working in a writers' room offers a steadier income, while writing for a low-budget indie film might cover just a month or two of rent. Moreover, many such projects never even make it to production.
While film will always exist, TV is the best way for a writer to have a consistent income.

Successful screenwriters recognize that newcomers aren't typically tasked with penning blockbuster films. Additionally, as previously noted, writers aren't pitching blockbuster scripts to studios as they once did.


Screenwriters who consistently sell and work within the film industry understand they must think like a producer. They write low to moderate budget projects. They know that limited location and character count are essential if they want to sell their work and see it produced. They focus more on story and characters than action and special effects. When writers understand what it takes to make a movie, that’s when writers write movies that sell. Why every writer should have a low-budget script.

“Everybody has talent, it’s just a matter of moving around until you’ve discovered what it is.” - George Lucas

SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS COLLABORATE.

Gone are the times when a writer could craft a 100+ page script in solitude, forward it to their agent (assuming they have one), and expect it to land with potential buyers and professionals. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort. Simply possessing a script won't guarantee a sale; it needs packaging. Approaching a producer requires offering more than just a narrative. Get help with development.

The industry is saturated with scripts. Scripts alone don’t sell often. Packaged scripts do!

Successful screenwriters work with actors. They work with producers. They connect with a specific up-and-coming actor and write a role just for them. The actor then signs a Letter of Intent to work on the project. Writers also attach producers who have a more extensive network than they do. The producer will then go out and shop the script around. Writers will frequently partner with cinematographers to build their reel and shoot a sizzle trailer for their script.


There are hundreds of ways screenwriters can collaborate. Research any of your favorite writers. They didn’t break in alone. But, at the end of the day, it's your script (and vision) and your job to move it forward. Why screenwriters should work on-set.

"I think, at the end of the day, filmmaking is a team, but eventually there's got to be a captain." - Ridley Scott

SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS STAY ACTIVE. Writing is an isolating endeavor, and this solitude is magnified in the film industry. It can take years for projects to secure funding, and possibly even longer to see them produced and released. While you may be eagerly sending your script to competitions, the wait can be excruciating. Even when producers show interest in your script, feedback might take months, if it comes at all.


Yet, thriving writers keep the creative spark alive. They constantly build their portfolio, accumulate credits, and nurture new professional connections. They immerse themselves in research, embark on journeys, and engage with literature. If a producer options your feature film, dive into drafting another. Once it's done, pitch it. Then, consider producing a short film, even if it's just with a cell phone. Submit your creations to film festivals, win accolades, and be present at these events. The key is to remain engaged, continue writing, and always be filming!


In 2019, I shot a short film on a mobile phone in under 18 hours. The film was made to pitch our feature film DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA. The short film won 5 awards and got accepted into 10 film festivals. Instead of just writing a script and waiting for producers to pick it up, we wrote and shot a short, then wrote the feature, then packaged the movie. It's about staying active.

"Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee". – James Cameron

SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS STAY FOCUSED. Let’s be honest. This industry is terrible at times. 10 screenwriters who broke in late but persevered.


Successful writers know that success does not happen overnight. Whether they work day jobs or are full-time writers, they write every day.

A lousy script is better than no script at all.

To be a writer is to write. If your goal is to earn a living from screenwriting or television scripts, it's crucial to cultivate a consistent writing routine.


If the thought of launching your screenwriting software daily feels tedious, then pen a short story, a poem, or draft a podcast episode – just ensure you're writing. Keeping your mind in a creative mode is vital. Like any skill, the more you practice, the more adept you become.


Dedicated screenwriters don't wait for inspiration; they write even after grueling 16-hour days. Those who invest the hours often see their narratives come alive on the big screen. If you possess a dream, persevere through it.

"The good ideas will survive". - Quentin Tarantino

SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS NETWORK. Probably the number one or two most important rule. This business is about people; don’t ever forget that. It’s all about who you know, not what you know. You can have the most incredible screenplay ever, but if no one reads it, then who cares? You have to get your script out there.

Successful writers go to film festivals, industry mixers, red carpet events, and panels. They are constantly taking down names and emails; passing out business cards. They ask producers what they need and ask how they can assist.

They send follow-up emails and add them on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media platforms. They invite them for coffee or a beer and find ways to COLLABORATE. Why screenwriters should use social media.


Successful writers understand that their network can be limited. But understand actors, directors, producers (even the lighting department) have access to those with MONEY. They consider everyone in the industry as a contact.

“How to get your script read? Film Festivals. Be around like-minded people doing the same thing.” – Sean Covel

SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS PERFECT THEIR QUERY LETTERS & RESUME. Your script alone won’t sell itself. Your IMDb page won’t land you a job.


Successful writers understand that a query letter is needed when pitching their script. There’s not a producer (unless it’s a personal friend) who will read your script without first hearing what it’s about. Whether your query letter is written over an email or you're pitching your script in person, successful writers understand they must master their logline and 30-second elevator pitch. Spielberg said scripts are bought based on the concept. Get your query letter to the pros.

A writer must sell their concept quickly and effectively, even before the producer reads the script.

Prosperous writers securing roles, especially through job sites, recognize that merely sending an email with their IMDb link isn't sufficient. They invest in refining their bio, résumé, and writing samples. It's essential for them to master the art of crafting a screenwriting résumé that details credits, accolades, education, skills, past industry roles, and much more. A screenwriter needs to distinguish themselves from the crowd.. Learn how to write a screenwriting résumé.

"It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it." - Jack Kerouac

SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS SUBMIT TO THE RIGHT SCRIPT CONTESTS. Not all contests are created equal. In fact, I’d say there are only 15 (and that’s being generous) that are actually worth the money. If a contest can’t get your script into the hands of buyers and decision-makers, save your money. How to submit to screenplay contests.


Successful screenwriters know that contests are not the only way to success. But they do understand that contests do serve a purpose, especially for screenwriters with a limited network. They search for contests that have a good track record. They read success stories and testimonials. They talk to previous winners and read their interviews. They only submit to contests that, if their script reaches the finals, it will be read by top agencies, companies, and executives.

"If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood". - Peter Handke

SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS DON’T WORK FOR FREE.

The logic is straightforward. If a producer or company isn't able to compensate you, what makes you think they can fund a film?


Accomplished writers recognize that writing is a profession and not just a pastime. Like any other professional endeavor, you deserve compensation for your expertise and time.


While collaborating with local filmmakers has its merits, where everyone contributes and works collectively to develop a reel or portfolio, it's distinct from a professional engagement demanding appropriate remuneration.


It’s also okay for newbie writers to work with newer producers with equipment and basic skills to see their short scripts produced. Film students, for example, are great filmmakers to work with. They have access to film equipment, mentors, and software.


Successful writers recognize that there's a point in their careers when they should prioritize paid opportunities and collaborate exclusively with those who have proven credentials.


While they're aware of the importance of compensation, they also know the dangers of demanding exorbitant fees prematurely. Prudent writers grasp the significance of acquiring a feature film credit. Even if initially, they're compensated with a modest amount (plus potential back-end points), they see it as a stepping stone towards higher-paying future assignments.


Without an established reputation, expecting top-tier compensation, even at union rates, is unrealistic. Accomplished screenwriters comprehend the need to start with modest earnings and then progress to lucrative 5 to 6 figure contracts.

But ALL successful screenwriters understand they must be paid for their efforts -- regardless of how big or small.

Don’t waste your time on free work. That’s time that you could be writing your script or making your own film.

"Freelance doesn't mean free." - Unknown

SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS UNDERSTAND WRITING IS REWRITING. You’ve heard it a thousand times, but how often do you do it? Amateur writers believe their first draft is perfect. It’s the most incredible piece of work ever put on paper. They usually send it off prematurely to producers and contests, never hearing back.

Successful writers understand that writing the first draft is something to celebrate, but millions of writers have done it before. The actual writing is in the 2nd draft, 3rd draft, and beyond.

Successful screenwriters look at the first draft like a fitted bed sheet. It’s needed before you can lay in bed. But the bed is still not suitable for sleeping or comfy. You must add a sheet, then a comforter, then a pillow, then pillow covers. That’s how successful writers look at writing drafts. The bed is not completed until you add the sheets to the mattress. A first draft is just the base, the premise of your story. Your proper character arcs, conflict, humor or horror, and creative visuals will only appear in future drafts.


Accomplished screenwriters often set aside their initial drafts for several weeks, returning later to, at times, focus solely on the dialogue. They recognize and come to terms with the fact that their characters' voices can often mirror their own. Thus, it becomes imperative for them to deeply explore each character, ensuring each has a distinctive voice.


Screenwriters who sell scripts only send out fully polished scripts. And even the best writers still seek out script coverage.

"If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." — Elmore Leonard

SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS READ PRODUCED SCRIPTS RELIGIOUSLY. Watching a movie does not make you a good writer. Reading scripts will significantly improve your writing. It used to be that you couldn’t read a produced screenplay unless you bought it at a store or online. Now the internet is littered with Oscar-winning screenplays. There is no excuse now not to study scripts by successful writers.


Successful screenwriters realize that story structure books and hero journey books will only take you so far.

Successful screenwriters know you can’t teach story, but you can teach screenwriting, and the best way to learn screenwriting is to study how writers format scripts, how they move from scene to scene, how they describe visuals, how they write less with more, and how they utilize white space.

I challenge you to read five published screenwriting books. Then read five Oscar-winning screenplays. Tell me whether reading the books or the scripts improved your craft more.

"We don’t need books to make films. It’s the last thing we want — it turns cinema into the bastard art of illustration". - Peter Greenaway

SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS TARGET PRODUCERS SEARCHING FOR SCRIPTS. Amateur screenwriters think producers will search for them. Successful screenwriters know they have to look for producers. But not just any producer, but producers who are actively searching for scripts.


Collecting emails on IMDb Pro and pitching your script blindly will not land you a sale the majority of the time. Adding producers on Facebook and LinkedIn and sending them your query letter won’t warrant a read. But utilizing sites, like ours, that actively post adverts where producers are searching for scripts and writers is a good starting point. But it shouldn’t end there. They should be going to the American Film Market, Sundance, Pitchfests, and Screenwriting-Film Summits.

"If no producer, no movie." - Unknown

SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS ARE POLITE.

Your demeanor in the entertainment world can be the difference between success and failure. It's often said: Hollywood operates like a close-knit community. Connections abound, and the six degrees of separation concept genuinely applies here. Your behavior in emails, on social media, during face-to-face pitches, within a writers' room, on-set, and at any industry gathering can heavily influence your career trajectory.


It's widely acknowledged, and I've practiced it with my own projects, that many in the industry prefer collaborating with someone personable and amicable, even if slightly less skilled, over a highly talented individual with a poor attitude.

Being polite will open doors. And never underestimate the person in the room. The receptionist at the literary agency will very well be representing clients in 6 months.

Treat people how you would like to be treated, and you will be surprised how far you can go in this industry.

“Be sincere, Be brief, Be seated.” - Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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Article by Screenwriting Staffing's Founder, Jacob N. Stuart

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