I am, by nature, a planner. Calendar, task lists, goal sheets, schedules, productivity journals and life planners are all my friends, so I love taking a little time come January, both privately and with my coaching clients, to look back and learn from the year that passed, then take everything I’ve learned and utilize it in order to effectively plan for the year ahead. In my experience, planning is a dynamic, ever-evolving practice; every year you plan a bit differently based on the successes, failures, challenges and potential pivots from the year that has passed.
Challenging though it is, there is a method to the planning madness, which I explore with many of my writing clients who are willing to indulge me, whether they are just at the outset of their screenwriting journey, or already well on their professional path. The point? Capitalize on everything you know to make the year ahead better, more effective and more productive for the writer’s screenwriting efforts. Or, in other words, staying vigilant, thoughtful and methodical about moving one’s screenwriting career FORWARD.
Whether I do it for myself and my business, or with my clients, making an effective plan that will get the current year off to a great start often looks something like this:
Assessing, honestly and soberly, where you’ve performed well and where you might have fallen short in the year that passed is incredibly important for helping identify where you just have to stay the course, and where adjustments are needed. For example, some writing clients are great at producing pages, but fall short when it comes to nurturing their industry relationships, or growing their fledgling network of contacts. While some fall short when it comes to staying on task when working on a particular project, others may fall behind when it comes to reading scripts or consuming content on the regular. Some work too hard and forget to stop and enjoy themselves; others take on a million responsibilities, but could use more work/life balance. I, for the record, suffer from this as well. Apparently, I can keep a business running effectively throughout the year, but fail miserably when it comes to finding time for even 15-minute meditation for any regularity.
Now, just because some things may have been off kilter, doesn’t mean they are not working for you. For example, one of my long-term clients is a working TV writer who probably doesn’t watch 20 hours of television in an entire year, but she keeps getting staffed and everyone loves working with her, so there are no changes there that are needed. And even if there were, we both know that she is not going to watch TV with any regularity, unless she is prepping for a meeting on a particular show. Of course, every writer should have a consistent writing routine, watching and reading material in his space, reading industry news, participating in industry events, fostering an effective community and network, and getting new work out there on a consistent basis, consider what works best for you.
3. Set Goals
Now that you’ve assessed what worked and what didn’t in the year that passed, and considered what should be adjusted and how to best move forward, it’s time to set some goals on a number of fronts. It’s not just about how many scripts you want to write in a given year; it’s also about how much TV you want to watch, how regularly you want to read scripts, how frequently you want to reach out to industry contacts for coffee, how frequently you want to take classes or attend screenwriting panels and events, and if you’re still submitting to contests and fellowships, how many of those you want to check boxes for.
Remember: goals should pertain exclusively to things within your control, those that you can achieve effectively, whether or not anyone else signs off. One of the tools I love right now for setting both short-term and long-term goals that will help move your screenwriting career forward at a steady, thoughtful pace is the Writer’s Wright Journal, developed exclusively for writers and based on years of Greta Heinemann’s industry experience.
And one last note about goal setting: You want to set goals that, while aggressive, you will be able to meet and exceed. Your goals should set you for success, not for an ongoing stance of apology and excuse-making for why, yet again, you weren’t able to meet the goals you set for yourself this week or this month. Setting effective goals is not just about what you are motivated enough to get done up front, but rather what you will be able to meet consistently three, six and nine months in.
4. Commit to a Routine
In order to be able to meet the goals you have set for yourself, make sure to create or maintain an effective routine, keeping in mind that this is a marathon rather than a sprint, aimed to foster at least 11-months of productivity. If you already have a routine that – for the most part – works, in which both your writing and your industry efforts are serviced, consider this a wash-rinse-repeat sort of exercise with a few potential tweaks. You are doing great writing every day from 7am until 10am at least 5 days a week, but have not been watching enough movies? Be sure to bake the viewing time into your regular routine. Great with watching, reading and writing, but not so much with consistent outreach to friends in and around the industry? Set a routine for when those email reach outs are sent, so that when, say, Tuesday afternoon rolls around again, you know you have to check those communications off the list.
For those of you who have yet to nail down a routine you can make stick, this will be more of a “ground up” exercise as you think about how to fit in everything you feel you should be producing, consuming and engaging with on any given week or month. Consider what are your best writing hours, and how many days and hours per week you can challenge yourself to write consistently. If you have yet to find a system that works for you, try everything from writing morning pages to the Pomodoro technique. If you need time to meditate before you write, be sure to carve it out in the schedule, as time will not just present itself miraculously. Equally, identify good times during a giving week to watch movies or TV shows, or read a feature spec or an original TV pilot. Additionally, determine when you’ll be prepping submission materials or reaching out to contacts in the industry. The point is to take the thinking out of it, and create and then commit to – as the title of this section suggests – a routine.
The big idea here is that, for most people, what has to get done mostly will, so you want to be clear and specific about all that has to be included – from writing to reading to watching to submitting to networking – in your particular screenwriting routine.
5. Create Accountability
The final and critical step in setting yourself up for a great screenwriting year is making sure to establish some ongoing accountability. Sure, it’s great to make plans, and I’m sure you will keep to them for the first few weeks or even months of the year, but for most, those commitments do start to slip when no one is looking.
Over the years I’ve seen writers create accountability for themselves in many different ways: Some organize accountability groups with other writers; others step into an “accountability partnership” with an equally-motivated writing friend. The only challenge here is that should one writer in the partnership become unmotivated, he would usually take the other one down with him. Some writers groups build accountability sessions into their regular meeting schedules, while other writers decide to work with the likes of me.
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Side Note: Avoid asking non-writing friends or spouses (whether or not they are writing) to hold your hand to the fire. You’d be surprised how quickly having one check regularly on the other can change and even damage the power dynamics.
Accountability should be matter-of-fact, and straight forward: If you’re keeping to your goals, great! If not, consider what has to be adjusted in order to be successful moving forward. But the most important thing is to examine your routine and be held accountable to your goals on a regular basis, as it will be consistent work on every front that will push your screenwriting career forward, whether you are just starting out or already a working professional seeking to continue to propel your career to the next level.
Author of Breaking In: Tales from the Screenwriting Trenches from Focal Press and Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide To A Screenwriting Career published in 2014, I am a career coach for screenwriters, with an exclusive focus on the screenwriter’s professional development. My clients include working film and television writers, writers who sold feature specs, original pilots and pitches to major studios and networks, as well as contest winners, television writing program participants, feature film lab participants and fellows, and emerging screenwriters just...