What are the best screenwriting habits that screenwriters should get into to be effective and successful in their screenwriting?
Whether you write novels, screenplays, or teleplays, the most vital element of becoming a productive and successful writer is developing great habits.
If your development process is random and your writing process is sporadic, you’re going to fall far behind the most effective and successful writers out there.
With that in mind, here are ten screenwriting habits that you should consider developing, based on years of screenwriting experience and varied success.
1. Watch Movies and TV Shows with a Writer’s Eye
As you hopefully know by now, watching movies and TV shows is an important habit that will make you a better cinematic screenwriter. All of the answers about effective screenwriting are just a movie theater or TV/Device screen away.
When you watch movies and episodes, you see the end result of all the work. If you’re watching a classic or contemporary acclaimed hit, you’re able to see what works. If you’re watching a critical or box-office dud, you’re able to see what doesn’t work.
But it’s not enough to just watch. You need to always watch with a writer’s eye — meaning that you need to pay specific attention to the story and characterization elements within every movie, episode, and series you watch. You need to have a keen eye for the structure, when particular story moments happen, how characters react to those story moments, the pacing, as well as the placement of twists, turns, reveals, and revelations.
You need to train yourself to get into the habit of remembering how scenes were arranged, where the story lingered too long and where it sped by too fast, how little dialogue was used, how too much dialogue affected the pacing, where cuts could have been made, where the story editing was perfect, etc.
Movies, series episodes, and series seasons are the best educational tool available to you.
2. Write for Yourself
You have no control over how any single person is affected by your screenplay. Too many screenwriters write with the script reader, producer, agent, manager, director, actor, or audience member in mind. That’s a big mistake.
The only audience you should be writing for is you.
What makes you cheer? What makes you cry? What makes you scared? What makes you inspired? What thrills you the most?
If you write what you love and what most affects you in cathartic fashion, you know that there’s more than likely millions of others that enjoy the same types of stories and characters. The odds are well in your favor. But you can’t possibly predict what X reader, producer, agent, manager, director, actor, or audience member is going to enjoy or be moved by.
Focus on you.
And if you’re writing on assignment with a concept that isn’t yours, it’s your job to find what you love and enjoy within that concept. Yes, you have to adhere to the notes the powers that be give you. But you’re perfectly capable as a creative writer to make those notes your own.
3. Learn to Interpret and Adapt Studio Notes
Now, there’s a difference between feedback and studio notes. Feedback is optional. Notes need to be applied.
And all-too-often, studio notes may go against what you believe is right for the screenplay. But you have to respect the notes because you’re under assignment and adapting someone else’s concept.
When you get to the level of being a paid screenwriter working on assignment, you need to get into the habit of having a positive approach to notes. Yes, you can plead your case, but you must choose those battles wisely. Beyond that, you need to get into the habit of adequately interpreting those notes by asking questions about them. And not in a divisive way. Instead, in a way that shows you’re attempting to understand what they truly want.
And when you get to the core of what they are looking for, you can adapt those notes and make them your own while accomplishing what your producer or development executive is requesting.
So get into the habit of approaching notes positively, as opposed to looking upon them as bad choices being forced upon you.
4. Rewrite As You Go
This may be counterintuitive to some, however, it’s a proven method for working screenwriters writing under strict deadlines.
During your first writing session, let’s say you write ten pages. During the second writing session, you should begin by reading those first ten pages. As you do, you rewrite and tweak those ten pages, fixing typos, cutting down description and dialogue, shortening scenes (if not deleting them), working on pacing, etc. Then you write on.
You repeat this pattern as you write that first draft.
The results? By the time you write FADE OUT at the end of the draft, you’ll have a much more focused, tight, and flowing first draft of your script.
You increase the effectiveness of your first drafts by getting into the habit of rewriting as you go.
Learn how to master the art of the rewrite with this free guide.
5. Daydream While on the Go
It’s hard enough finding time to write amidst your busy work, school, and family schedules. But writing isn’t just about fingers on keys. Most of the writing should take place within your mind’s eyes through daydreaming.
It’s very easy to jump into your car and head out on a long commute with music blaring as you sing along with your favorite songs. But that time could be better spent on writing.
Get into the habit of using commute time to work on a scene that you’ve either been struggling with or are about to write for the first time during your next writing session. Within your imagination, play the visuals of the scenes that happened before the scene you’re working on and then try to visualize what’s going to happen next.
The same can be done when you’re walking the dog, running, working out, waiting in line, sitting the theater waiting for a movie to start, etc.
But the key is to remember to do that. It needs to become a habit. Whenever you have time to let your mind wander, even if it’s just for a few minutes, get your imagination to engage.
The great thing about this habit is that once you get your mind into it, it doesn’t stop working — even when you have to turn your attention elsewhere to work, study, or take care of the kids. Once you light that fire within your creative mind, it’ll do a lot of the work for you on the backend.
6. Don’t Share Your Work While Writing
Writing groups are excellent. It’s great to find your tribe and brainstorm with peers. But you need to get into the habit of closing the door on that outreach once you start a script.
You may feel the need to utilize your peers to help you problem-solve, but it’ll be your undoing as a writer. If you’re working in a series writers room, then that’s the obvious exception because that is an overly collaborative situation. However, when you’re writing on spec, your writing needs to be yours and yours alone.
You need to get into the habit of relying on yourself, not others. Feedback is excellent, but only when you’ve completed the script and that feedback is in response to the finished product. Otherwise, peers and mentors are speculating on what should come next instead of you displaying your own story as you have envisioned it.
7. Find Your Writing Space
Random writing locations throughout your writing process can cause problems with focus.
Most great writers are creatures of habit — primarily because habits are what keep them focused and disciplined. And nothing is more important to a writer than writing in an environment that is familiar. Because when you sit down in that writing habitat of yours, you know it’s time to focus — you know it’s time to get to work.
If you’re randomly sitting down in various rooms in your home, random coffee shops or book stores, and what not, you’re not giving your brain that trigger.
So do your best to find a place you always go to write. It’s perfectly fine to have a backup location as well. But the best habit to have is a perfect place to write.
Some people prefer to be locked away in a study or bedroom. Others prefer the open solitude of a table at their favorite coffee shop or book store.
When you know your location you also know the stimulants and distractions — you expect them because you always write there.
Find your writing space and get into the habit of writing there with every writing session that you carve out for yourself.
8. Vet Your Emails, Texts, and Messages Before Writing Sessions
In a perfect world, you’d seclude yourself in a room for three months with no distractions, but we know that — in this day and age especially — that’s just not possible.
So you’re tasked with eliminating as many distractions as you can during your writing session.
Because email, text, and message notifications induce a physiological response within your body that will surely distract you, it’s best to go through all of your emails, texts, and messages right before you sit down to write, as if you’re clearing your schedule.
Answer what you need to answer. Leave what you can leave. And then turn your notifications off and start writing.
When you get into the habit of starting your writing session with clearing your emails, texts, and messages, you won’t have those lingering in the back of your mind as distractions.
9. Read Your Previous Pages as a Reader
In #4 we discussed rewriting as you go. But you also need to read your pages as a reader. While these two habits together call for two reads of your pages before you start writing, it’s so important to be up to speed with where you are at in your story.
As you continue on with habit #4, there will be less and less that you’ll need to rewrite anyway.
So get into the habit of reading through those pages as a reader experiencing the story. This will get you into “game mode” while allowing you to retain the story momentum and pacing that you’ve established.
You can eventually scan through those pages once you get to know them well, but before you start typing no words, this is an integral part of your writing process if you want to maintain consistency, momentum, and pacing.
10. Take a Vacation from Your Script
This is a vital habit to get into. When you finish that first draft, you need a break. Without any hesitation, once you’ve written THE END (or whatever equivalent), go celebrate — with yourself or with others. And enjoy a two week to month-long vacation from the script. Don’t think about it, talk about it, or share it. Relax.
And then, when that vacation time is over, go back and read it cover-to-cover. You’ll see every mistake and misstep you’ve made. You’ll see what needs work — when, where, and why.
Watch movies and TV shows with a writer’s eye, write the script for yourself as the audience, understand studio notes and learn to make them your own, daydream (write within your mind) whenever you’re on the go, don’t share your work while writing, find your writing habitat(s) and stick with it, take care of your emails and messages before each writing session, read your previous pages and experience them as a reader, and then don’t forget to take a well-deserved vacation from your script for two weeks to a month so that when you return to read it cover-to-cover, you can see and experience it with fresh eyes.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies