How to Transition Into the Pro Screenwriting World

By November 5, 2021 Advice

Making the transition from novice screenwriter to pro can be a real challenge -- and I'm not even talking about breaking in and the whole gatekeeping aspect of it all. I'm talking specifically about the practical side of a burgeoning career in entertainment, from communicating with agents, managers, and executives to avoiding rookie mistakes. Getting started can be a little scary, especially without any insight

Luckily, literary manager and producer, John Zaozirny of Bellevue Productions, provided some in a series of recent tweets. He laid out four practical tips for making the transition into the professional screenwriting world, so we distilled each one to find the best takeaways from this great thread.

Work in Revision Mode

First, he says that all writers need to know how to work with Revision Mode in their screenwriting software. This allows every change in an existing script to be marked as a revision, making it easy for execs and reps to track what’s been changed. They see SO many drafts of various scripts, often separated by weeks or months, that being able to highlight what’s been rewritten is crucial. For writers, it’s an important skill to master. If you don’t already know how, you can quickly learn in a tutorial on your screenwriting software.

Become a Team Player

Second, John talks about going from being a solo writer struggling to get your work seen to being part of a professional team once you get signed. He says that change requires a philosophic and strategic adjustment because you need to align yourself with the group effort. Your representation will work with you to formulate your career strategy, and then you have to stick to the plan. 

Don’t Outsmart Yourself

It’s crucial that you adhere to that strategy and not do things on your own that you think are clever, but which are actually counter-productive. He says that, for example, sending your script off to some exec from a long-ago pitchfest or slipping it to your buddy who’s an assistant to a big producer can undo your representative’s strategic plan to make your writing feel exclusive and difficult to find. Likewise, don’t enter your script in some contest when your team is deliberately keeping your writing under wraps to make it more competitive. You think you’re being clever, but you’re really just outsmarting yourself. 

Allow Yourself to be Guided

Making a steady living as a writer in the entertainment industry is notoriously difficult and is plagued with mirages, false starts, and dead-ends. You knew enough to be able to get signed as a writer, but there’s probably still a lot you don’t know so listen to your rep. You may also have erroneous ideas about how the industry works, which can lead you astray. One of your reps’ central intentions in launching your career is to create the perception in town that you’re a rising star because that makes people sit up and notice. It creates heat, and played right, can help catapult you into the realm of sought-after writers. Let them guide you -- let them work their magic. 

The Fins on Your Rocket

A rocket without fins will fly wildly and crash. The fins keep it on track and fly straight. You are that rocket engine but it’s equally important to let your representative be the fins on your rocket. You need to understand how to let them help you, and how to be a conscientious, intelligent member of the team. In NASA, all the engineers, scientists, and astronauts work together on the mission. They’re all central to the process and they’re all working hard to do everything properly and at their top level. Let your reps do their job and be good at yours.

Don’t Make Rookie Mistakes

Focus on doing your job, consistently turning out scripts that work—one of the hardest jobs anywhere. If you have any energy left over afterward, don’t impulsively blunder into some bone-headed “career move” that might derail your reps’ game plan. Talk to your representative about everything, and don’t go off half-cocked and make rookie mistakes. Your rep will tell you what you need to learn. Don’t try to pretend to know more than you do. Your parents didn’t expect you to know how to ride a bike when you were born. Don't be a know-it-all. Keep it simple, be professional, learn as you go, and work hard to do things right. 

Communication is Mission-Critical

Communication is obviously important, and most people in every walk of life fail at it. In fact, it’s standard knowledge among experts that most communication is miscommunication. People get things wrong constantly, and it takes extreme deliberate discipline and focus to consistently communicate clearly and effectively. Top-performing executives the world over stress clarity of communication as one of their absolute central pillars, saying that each person must be 100% responsible for communicating reliably and effectively. A true professional listens completely, then thinks and communicates clearly, making sure they’re understood.

Talk to Your Management Team Constantly

Your representative wants more information from you rather than less. Don’t assume you’re overburdening them. Err on the side of telling too much. Email your rep after every meeting to tell (briefly) how it went and what got discussed. Then they can follow up and see who your fans are—and who you’re a fan of. Like your lawyer, your reps should know everything, and tell them before, not after. It’s harder to set the ground rules after you’ve, say, pitched someone who is bad to be in business with. Strive to be reliable, consistent, and collaborative, not impulsive, argumentative, and hard to manage. 

Saying No is a Crucial Skill in this Industry

John Zaozirny says this may be the hardest thing to master because rookie writers are so afraid opportunities will dry up that they’re driven to say Yes to everything. Even some veteran writers never get that fear out of their system, he says. But the industry is so harsh that it’s critical to say Yes only to those things that make sense for you. And not only does it have to hit your sweet spot, but you need to make sure you have the bandwidth to complete the quality work on the timetable that the opportunity requires. Being able to professionally evaluate how much work and time is really involved to turn out solid product is vitally important.

Executives Respect a Writer Who Says No

A writer who says No has a strong sense of what they want to work on and what they can do well. In an arena where people will say and do anything to get ahead, execs respect a solid writer who stands firm. John says that not every job has to be a perfect fit, but if you’re seriously considering it, then do the math and calculate whether it’s worth your time, effort, and focus. Like bidding on a construction job—if you miscalculate and bid too low then you end up doing way more work for the same money, so the job is a big loss. Be brutally honest with the numbers before you leap into something that’s more than you can manage.

Four Questions With Which to Assess Writing Opportunities

John says that he tends to ask his clients these questions when evaluating a potential job.

  1. Is this something you’re passionate about?
  2. Are the people involved worth working with?
  3. Is the (potential) money worth it?
  4. What are the odds this will get produced?

Saying No Can Be Terrifying

If you’re being offered paid work for a project that checks some of your boxes but doesn’t feel like a good fit, then saying No can be really scary. But, John says, “Just like in dating, saying no to the mediocre is all about saving space in your life so you can say Yes to something amazing.”

Be Professional, Savvy, and Reliable

In spite of what you might hear, the industry is starving for writers who are the complete package. People who can consistently and reliably deliver quality writing are extremely rare and are sought after, and people like that who are professional and a pleasure to work with are gold. So do a brutally honest self-check about the ways in which you can sabotage your own success and rigorously keep that troublemaker at bay. Being professional means you bring your best self all the time. Think about what you’d want if you’re hiring for an important position and work hard to be that solid and reliable. 

Model Yourself on Someone Extraordinary

Study the biography of an extraordinarily successful person that you look up to. See how fiercely intelligent, well-disciplined, visionary, and driven they are and draw inspiration from that. Look at how they use their critical thinking skills to cut through muddled thinking and obstacles. Use them as a role model, as a way to forge your own professional behavior and thinking as you navigate your career. “Character is the governing element in life, and is above genius.” George Saunders

Decision and Action in the Face of Crisis Reveals True Character

As a dramatist you know that decision and action in the face of crisis reveals the true character, stripping the mask away. People who stand up well under pressure are rare and sought-after. Show up for yourself and your team in the crucial moments. A great compliment among sailors is, “He’s a good man in a storm.” Turn yourself into that person and do your best work, and you can go far. 


Join us on Friday, November 12th for a FREE live event with literary agent David Boxerbaum!


Jeff Kitchen has taught thousands of writers from Broadway to Hollywood in the craft of the dramatist, with former students nominated for multiple Oscars and Emmy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Jeff is the author of the bestselling book, Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting. He runs a two-year training program for writers at http://script.kitchen