How To Become a Professional Writer
I always start my UCLA classes by asking my students to raise their hands if their goal is to become a professional writer. Usually everyone raises their hands.
I then tell them that I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that there’s a tool they can use that is guaranteed to make them a professional writer.
So what’s the bad news?
There’s a tool they can use that is guaranteed to make them a professional writer.
Before I explain, let me define what it means to be a professional writer.
Many people believe they become professional writers when they sell a script or get their first studio or network writing assignment. This kind of thinking goes a long way to ensure such events never happen.
If you want to make screenwriting or TV writing your career, I recommend you define a professional writer as someone who writes. All the time. No matter what.
Amateurs sometimes write. Amateurs write when they have the time, or when they feel like writing or when they take a class and have an immediate deadline.
This is why they remain amateurs.
So how does one become a professional writer?
THE WRITING SCHEDULE
Most people have a weekly work schedule with certain tasks—meetings, reports, presentations—that must be accomplished on or by a certain date. If these objectives are not met there will be consequences. So if a person values their job they are going to make sure these things are done on time. That’s what a professional does.
It’s the same with writing.
The tool I give my students is to create a weekly writing schedule. Block out all your writing times for the next week. Schedule writing sessions at least five days a week for at least an hour per session. A minimum of five hours a week. More is obviously better, but it’s not quantity that matters most. It’s consistency.
I tell them a professional writer is someone who creates such a schedule and sticks to it. An amateur is someone who doesn’t make up a schedule or doesn’t stick to it. Because amateurs tend to schedule their writing around the demands of their life.
Professionals schedule the demands of their life around their writing.
Just like people do in their work life. If someone has a meeting scheduled with their boss they don’t blow it off because they don’t feel like going or because a friend invited them to lunch or because they’d rather surf the net. They are at the meeting.
Failure to value your writing in the same way minimizes your chances of ever getting paid to do it. You need to invest in yourself before expecting anyone else to do so.
And writing doesn’t mean staring out the window thinking about story stuff.
Writing means fingers flying across the keyboard creating actual words. Students sometimes complain that thinking about characters and stories is part of their process and should count. I agree that for many writers thinking about characters and stories is vital. So they need to schedule some good staring out the window thinking time. Just like you would schedule time to prepare for a big presentation you have to make. But when the time for the presentation arrives you are no longer preparing. You are presenting. Scheduled writing time is for writing. Preparation time is different.
I used to require my students to make a writing schedule and stick to it. But then I realized I was being foolish. You can’t make somebody be a professional writer. They have to do it themselves. So I now recommend the writing schedule tool.
And I have found that most of my students do not consistently stick to it.
Most of them try it out and find the quantity and quality of their writing significantly improves, yet they don’t keep it up. Not surprisingly, once they abandon their schedules they write less. They realize this and intend to go back to a schedule, but somehow, for whatever reason, they don’t.
When I ask why, they shake their head with no answer, often with a real sense of shame.
I tell them that the answer to the question of why they stopped writing to a schedule might very well be the most important question they ever ask themselves as a writer.
I will blog on this over the next month, giving my theories on why so many people fail to keep to a writing schedule and what can be done to make it easier to stay with it. The first tool I would suggest writers check out is the War of Art.
Because the few students who do stick to their schedules are the ones who improve the most. They are also the ones who go on to have careers as writers.
I find this reassuring. It makes me feel there’s more justice in the world then we sometimes realize.
People who summon the courage and dedication to become professional writers are the ones who tend to go on to get paid to write.
Because as Dina Hunt once said, “Goals are dreams with deadlines”.
Corey Mandell is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter who has written projects for Ridley Scott, Wolfgang Petersen, Harrison Ford, John Travolta, Meg Ryan, Warner Brothers, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Family, Working Title, Paramount, Live Planet, Beacon Films, Touchstone, Trilogy, Radiant, Kopelson Entertainment and Walt Disney Pictures. Corey is a distinguished instructor at UCLA, where he earned his MFA. He is also a mentor for Film Independent's Screenwriting Lab. His students have gone on to sell or option scripts to...