The Most Underutilized Screenwriting Hack: The Writing Break
Sometimes not writing is the best way to get writing done. It's time to talk about the writing break.
Let's first debunk the common myth that most successful writers write for up to or beyond eight hours a day. And that myth usually implies that the writer is typing most of that time.
We've heard this myth in books, interviews, and panels. And let's be frank — it's BS — nobody types for eight straight hours on a regular basis. You may sit in front of your laptop for that amount of time, but you're not actually physically typing. If they were, they could write a typical novel (around 70,000 words) in three days (60 wpm x 8 hrs = 28,000 words per day). And when you equate that to the average number of words in a screenplay — between an estimated 7,500 and 20,000 words — yeah, no screenwriter is writing a single script in one writing session either (again, anomalies aside).
With screenwriting discussions always leading to how much time you should write during your writing sessions, little is discussed about an even more important element within that writing session — the writing break.
Let's go over different types of writing breaks, what they can do for you and your screenplays, and how they are essential to learning how to write a screenplay.
Table of Contents
What Is a Writing Break?
A writing break is a pause in work. It may be for minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months (we'll cover everything below). Regardless, it's where you step away from the computer or laptop and disengage yourself from the task at hand.
Robert Pozen, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, told Fast Company:
“When people do a task and then [take a break], they help their brain consolidate information and retain it better. That’s what’s happening physiology during breaks.”
Most productivity researchers agree that breaks are vital to all working shifts. It allows you to refresh and re-engage in the task at hand.
Writing Breaks By Minutes
Productivity researchers offer excellent breakdowns of an ideal number of minutes of productive work.
“Don’t think of breaks in terms of taking a set number a day, such as 12 or five. The real question is, what is the appropriate time period of concentrated work you can do before taking a break?"
There are a few different professional suggestions regarding the minutes of writing breaks when it comes to productivity.
75 to 90-Minute Writing Sessions
Pozen states that working for 75 to 90 minutes takes advantage of the brain's two modes:
- Learning or Focusing
Kevin Kruse, author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, points to the work of Tony Schwartz, founder of the Energy Project. Schwartz coined the practice as a pulse and pause process, essentially expanding energy of productivity and then renewing it.
"His research shows that humans naturally move from full focus and energy to physiological fatigue every 90 minutes."
Yet how do most battle that fatigue? Kruse says:
"We override them with coffee, energy drinks, and sugar… or just by tapping our own reserves until they’re depleted."
Instead of burning yourself out by depleting your natural reserves or masking your fatigue with sugar and caffeine, you can simply, yes, take a writing break.
75 to 90 minutes can be a very productive writing session.
52-Minute Writing Sprints
Most novice screenwriters usually write as their secondary (or third) focus during each day.
- Most have day jobs.
- Some have multiple jobs (including school).
- And don't forget family duties as parents or siblings.
If you can't get a full hour and a half fit into your busy day, maybe a shorter writing session of 52 minutes is a good option. Finding under an hour of writing time before your day starts or before your day is about to end is a bit easier than finding a full 90 minutes.
The software startup, Draugiem Group, used a time-tracking app called DeskTime to track productivity. The study showed that working in 52-minute sprints (with a 17-minute break in between) increased productivity.
"The reason the 10% most productive employees are able to get the most done during the comparatively short periods of working time is that they’re treated as sprints for which they’re well rested. They make the most of the 52 working minutes. In other words, they work with purpose."
And that's a fantastic point, as far as looking at your writing sessions as sprints. When you have more time, that just means more time to procrastinate and let your mind wander. There's an urgency to the session when you have under an hour. You write with more purpose.
And then there is the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo, who named it after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he used. His technique focuses on short bursts of work in 25-minute intervals with five minutes of break in between.
This technique is more well-suited for single tasks that require complete focus. For screenwriting, you can use this technique to focus on the following:
- Conjuring a specific scene.
- Rewriting a particular sequence you've been struggling with.
- Polishing the dialogue of a critical scene.
These 25-minute bursts can be used a la carte throughout your whole day.
- You can utilize short bursts during your work shifts during lunch breaks.
- You can fit in a short burst of writing during breakfast before your day shift.
- You can get another writing burst in before you head to bed.
The point is to find the best session, sprint, or burst time for you within your schedule and situation — while always making sure that you have an extended writing break in between.
If you're on a professional assignment with a tight deadline, your burst may actually have to be 75-90 minutes, with your sprint as a couple of hours and your writing session consisting of a few hours.
Writing Breaks By Days, Weeks, and Months
Taking a writing break from your screenplay is vital to the creative process. As mentioned before, when you step away from your writing sessions, you're helping your brain consolidate and retain information better. As you go about different business and leisure during your breaks, your brain constantly tries to process the information and visuals you've had running through your head during your writing process.
- It's putting pieces together.
- It's making sense of the scenes, characters, actions, and location.
- It's processing a consistent tone, atmosphere, narrative, and voice.
When you walk away from the screen, your mind is still writing. When you come back, it's refreshed and rejuvenated.
Another popular myth is that you need to be writing every single day. You don't. In fact, it's probably better that you work in full days off from writing, whether it's a couple of days during the week or taking the whole weekend off.
Remember, you can still be "writing" on these off days.
- Visualize your next scenes during daydreaming, driving, walking, running, exercising, etc.
- Figure out options for potential twists and turns (and their story ramifications).
- Replay scenes you've written and see if they play out visually.
Writing isn't necessarily typing. Since screenwriting is for a visual medium, you should see these scenes and moments in your head before you type them onto the page.
Spreading your writing sessions out between day breaks can be highly effective for your visualization and story/character problem-solving.
You don't want to take weeks in between writing sessions. It'll take multiple months to write a single script, and it's best to train yourself to write like a professional. And professionals, under contract deadlines, don't have six months to write a script. Pros generally have 4, 8, or 12 weeks to finish a draft (depending on the contract).
Week writing breaks are more reserved for breaks in between drafts. When you finish a draft of your script, the worst thing you can do is go right into the reviewing/rewriting process. You've already spent one-to-three months working on your script, and if you dive back into it, you're going to start suffering from paralysis of analysis.
Once a draft is complete, take some time away from it. How much time will depend on your situation.
- If you're writing on spec (not under contract), take a couple of weeks away from your script.
- If you're writing on assignment through a strict deadline, work in a week where you can step away from it.
What does this accomplish? You can revisit the script with fresh eyes by doing a full review through a cover-to-cover read. Experience the script not as the writer amidst deadlines but as a script reader looking for a good read.
When you take these week(s) long breaks, you will see every glaring issue with your script that you couldn't see during the initial writing process.
All of that and more.
Stepping away for a week or two between drafts will be a true difference-maker in your script and rewriting process.
Read ScreenCraft's 7 Ways to Master the Art of the Rewrite!
Each script is a baby, and it needs your undying attention and focus. While it may sound romantic or badass that you can jump from one script to the next with little-to-no breaks in between, it's not advisable if you can avoid it because the more focus you can put on one, the more nourishment you'll be able to give to each.
So once you've finished a script, before you move on to the next, take a good month before you start typing any script pages for the new one.
Read ScreenCraft's 5 Ways You Can Determine If Your Script Is Done!
Each script needs to exist within its own universe. If you're quickly jumping from one script to the next with no break in between, you're not giving the next script a fair chance to blossom and shine.
The development and visualization part of the screenwriting process is so important. You need to do the necessary front-end work. And that can take some time.
Read ScreenCraft's 5 Front-End Tasks to Complete Before You Start Your Screenplay!
If you're a pro bouncing from one paid gig to the next (congrats), there's usually a buffer time you can negotiate in between contracts. A single month isn't hard to acquire in that respect. And, sure, if you're an in-demand pro, you may have to forgo that writing break (and you're an in-demand pro, why are you reading this?). But if you're like most out there, you're writing on spec. You can make the time. It's worth it.
Focus on Writing Sessions, Not Amount of Writing Hours
Here's the final takeaway we'll leave you with — don't worry about trying to write X amount of hours per day. Instead, focus on X amount of writing sessions per script.
Writing sessions can be any number of hours you dedicate to sitting in front of that screen to mentally and physically write your script (visualizing and typing).
It doesn't matter if you have multiple-hour sessions, 75-90 sprints, or 52-minute bursts (whatever variance to each that fits with your schedule) — each of these writing sessions is how you can dictate how long it takes for you to finish that script.
Trying to make a specific hour count each day (that whole eight-hour thing) isn't going to be sustainable for most. And each time you sit down to write may produce different productivity results.
- You may sprint for an hour and suddenly have ten pages because you did the front-end work.
- You may only have 25 minutes but manage to write an amazing pivotal scene thanks to great visualization.
- You may go on a bender and write for a couple of hours and have twenty pages.
Other variables include your schedule, mindset, ability to focus amidst work, school, life duties, etc.
Regardless, make sure you're getting enough writing sessions per week to stay disciplined. You could easily finish a single script within just ten writing sessions — all while embracing the screenwriting hack of using writing breaks effectively.
If you're looking for a proven pro writing process that embraces writing sessions over writing hours, check out ScreenCraft's The 10-Day Screenplay Solution: Learn How to Write Lightning Fast!
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