5 Ways Becoming a Pro Screenwriter Will Change Your Writing Process

Becoming a pro screenwriter will change a lot of things about your life, including your writing process.
by Ken Miyamoto - updated on May 9, 2023

When you become a paid and working professional screenwriter, will your writing process change?

The short answer is, "Yes. It will. Big time."

Becoming a professional screenwriter — continually hired and paid by major networks, studios, and production companies — is a game-changing step in your screenwriting journey. And many screenwriters aren't prepared for changes that occur in their lives and their writing process.

Here we share five ways that making the transition from potential screenwriter to professional screenwriter will change the way you write.

What is a "Professional" Screenwriter?

Congratulations. You've made it to the show. Whether it was a few years or over a decade of struggle, evolution, and rejection, you've proven yourself worthy of a major network, studio, or production company contract. A contract that pays you to write.

  • We're not talking about writing that ultra-low-budget indie or short film for a couple of hundred dollars.
  • We're not talking about optioning a screenplay and doing endless rewrites for development executives or managers.
  • We're not talking about Open Writing Assignments, where you are asked to write and develop material for free.

Read More: 10 Steps Screenwriters Can Take to Avoid Writing for Free!

We're talking about an actual contract that pays you for writing outlines, treatments, and drafts of screenplays. And we're talking about you being at the level where you're earning a consistent living doing so, whether it be blue-collar screenwriter numbers (Lifetime, Hallmark, Direct-to-Streaming/Blu-way), white-collar screenwriter numbers (mid-level studio or significant production company releases), or one-percenter money (screenwriters in the highest demand making six figures per contract).

  • What is going to change in your writing process?
  • What has to change in your writing process?
  • What needs to change in your writing process, and why?

laptop notes

The Days of Taking 6-12 Months or More to Write a Script Are Over

When you're on assignment — or even when you've sold a spec and are contracted to handle rewrites — the days of taking as long as you need are over. We know this is a pretty obvious thing to write. But you'd be surprised how many screenwriters don't consider this.

The average screenwriting contract offers screenwriters just 4-8 weeks to finish the first draft. Before that, for assignments, you'll get just 2 weeks to write a detailed outline (see below) accounting for nearly every single beat of the eventual script from beginning to end.

This is a significant change in a screenwriter's writing process. The deadline is set in stone within the contract. You need to adhere to it. You have no choice.

Pro Screenwriting Tip to Prepare Yourself For This Change

Train yourself to write like a pro under professional deadlines while writing your spec scripts. Give yourself just 4-8 weeks to finish that first draft. And then an additional 2 weeks to finish the rewrite. 

Read More: The 10-Day Screenplay Solution: Learn How to Write Lightning Fast!

The Professional Writing Process Is Collaborative with Multiple Individuals

When you're an up-and-comer (anyone not working as a professional screenwriter), it's just you (and any co-writers) and the script.

When you're a professional screenwriter, it's you and:

  • One or more development executives
  • The readers of those development executives
  • Network or distributor (including major studios) executives
  • Directors
  • Line Producers
  • The production company, network, and/or distributor legal reps

5 Ways Becoming a Pro Screenwriter Will Change Your Writing Process

When you're on assignment, here's the general writing process to expect:

  1. You write the outline detailing all of the story and character beats from beginning to end.
  2. When you hand it in to your contact (often a producer or development executive), they will have their readers read the outline and offer notes (or they'll do it themselves, depending on the individual and company).
  3. You'll rewrite as needed.
  4. When you hand the outline rewrite in, you'll go through that same process until they are ready and willing to send the outline up the ladder.
  5.  If all goes well and the higher-ups (prominent executives and producers) like what they see and the story/character direction you are taking, you'll be retained and they'll tell you to go to script.
  6. You write the script in 4-8 weeks.
  7. Steps 2-5 will repeat with the screenplay development process when you hand it in to your contact.
  8. If the script is greenlit for production, your work isn't done yet.
  9. The line producer and director will review the script and offer notes based on their creative and production needs and wants. Steps 2-5 will repeat with them.
  10. If you get that draft(s) approved, they'll also send the script to any major attached talent that has script approval in their contracts.
  11. You must apply their notes if the line producer, director, and producers approve.
  12. Lastly, your script with go through legal vetting and you may need to change elements like character and location names, dialogue, and other things that could potentially cause legal issues after release.

Pro Screenwriting Tip to Prepare Yourself For This Change

Know the difference between feedback and notes. 

Read More: How Do Screenwriters Know When to Embrace or Reject Notes and Feedback?

And be prepared to understand that film is a collaborative medium. It takes many individuals to develop and produce a film. The moment you push against any of the notes you're being asked to apply is the moment you'll be replaced by a screenwriter that will with no argument. 

5 Ways Becoming a Pro Screenwriter Will Change Your Writing Process

The Outline Will Be Key

We've already mentioned this once but need to hit it home so you understand the importance of writing an amazing outline.

In ScreenCraft's To Outline, Or Not to Outline, That Is the Screenwriting Question, we discuss the topic of there being many different approaches to screenwriting. Some screenwriters outline. Others don't. We all have different processes.

However, outlines (and sometimes treatments) are part of the average assignment contract. Outlines are used as beat sheets to break down your intended vision and approach for the story. It's easier to fix story and character issues within an outline than with a finished script.

Development executives and producers use outlines to collaborate with the screenwriter to the point where everyone is on the same page before the writer goes to script.

Pro Screenwriting Tip to Prepare Yourself For This Change

Start using outlines as you write your spec scripts. 

When you eventually do get hired, here is a general break down of how to write them. Use this process in your spec scripts as well to prepare yourself. 

General outlines are simple:

  • A numerated beat sheet
  • Usually 7-12 pages long
  • Anywhere from 35-65 beats (give or take)

You can take your 1-2 page synopsis they likely had you write before offering you the contract and build on it, creating a beat sheet for the screenplay.

The outline covers every single story and character beat. You won't have every single scene in the outline, but it's the closest thing to a scene-to-scene breakdown.

With each beat, you'll communicate what's being seen and said. No, that doesn't mean you include dialogue. You're just telling them what's happening in the scene/story beat.

You can always ask your contact for an example of what they prefer for their outlines. They'll usually give you samples from previous projects. When you get those, copy the format to a tee.

You Can't Rely on Peers, Writing Groups, Consultants, and Your Own Readers

When you're a professional screenwriter, you need to be able to do the work on your own (beyond the collaborative process above with those employing you). By contract terms, you cannot employ (via script consultants) or share your work with others. Every single word you write under contract is the property of those that have hired you. You are on your own.

Pro Screenwriting Tip to Prepare Yourself For This Change

Utilize peers, writing groups, script consultants, and your own readers (family and friends) if you must, but if you're doing this years into your screenwriting journey, you're not evolving. Many screenwriters use those individuals as crutches. You'll find yourself relying on their feedback, which is dangerous for your future career. 

Sure, you'll always have those peers that you can go to get another set of eyes on the work. Major directors screen cuts of their films to their peers for feedback. But the faster you learn to depend and trust in yourself, the better. 

After your first 2-3 scripts, you should be self-reliant. Companies aren't hiring you and your crutches. They're hiring you

Expectations Will Change

When you first start your screenwriting journey, you're like everyone that does so — with the same expectations.

  1. You want to sell your first script.
  2. You want to see it produced by major directors and stars.
  3. You want to be nominated for awards and/or make six to seven figures.

After becoming a professional screenwriter, you'll quickly learn that these expectations are far too high. It rarely happens like that. Most professional screenwriters will never see their spec scripts produced — at least not until they are well established by way of assignments.

Assignments represent likely 99% of the screenwriting contracts out there.

  • You'll likely start with entry-level assignments like TV movies (Lifetime, Hallmark, SyFy, etc.), Direct-to-Streaming/Blu-Ray movies, and other low-to-mid five-figure contracts (that only fully pay out if and when the project is produced).
  • If you're lucky, you may earn a higher-end deal with streamers like Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc. Or even a higher-end production company with limited theatrical release deals or Direct-to-Streaming deals with streamers. Even then, you're looking at just slightly higher-end five-figure deals.

Your expectations will become far more grounded. That doesn't mean great things can't happen. They can. It just means you will realize that you'll have to pay your dues and earn your way up the ladder.

Pro Screenwriting Tip to Prepare Yourself For This Change

Read our article "What to Expect (And Not Expect) as a Pro Screenwriter for Features"!

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, the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies

Get Our Newsletter!

Get weekly writing inspiration delivered to your inbox - including industry news, popular articles, and more!

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Developing Your Own Script?

We'll send you a list of our free eCourses when you subscribe to our newsletter. No strings attached.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

You Might Also Like

Your success is our #1 priority. We provide aspiring writers industry access, free resources and inspiration, and a community to support you through every step of your creative journey.

Writing Competitions

Success Stories