Articles & Advice

Pearls of Wisdom from Working Writers: Early Career Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. You only know what you know and you learn as you go along so… making a mistake is inevitable. That said, isn’t it always useful to learn from other people’s mistakes? With that in mind, I turned to some of my clients and friends who are working writers and asked them: 

What were some of your early career mistakes? 

Jimmy Mosqueda, who staffed on SCHOOLED while in the Disney/ABC writing program, and is currently a Story Editor on the second season of LEGACIES told me that some of his early career mistakes included: 
“Not picking a lane. I was a drama writer, then a comedy writer. I was a feature writer, then a TV writer. I can be all of those things, but in the early stages it helps to be just one thing, and then branch out from there.”

Jimmy is not wrong: A while back, I put out a blogpost chock full of advice from top reps about picking a lane for your screenwriting brand.  

Melissa London Hilfers, who sold the specs scripts UNDONE and UNFIT and is currently on assignment for the JAGGED EDGE remake with Halle Barry told me:
“(My early career mistakes were… ) Saying yes to things I wasn’t passionate about. In the beginning, it’s hard to say no to anything, you’re just happy to be getting paid to write. But the truth is writing is hard work, and committing to things you don’t really care about can be draining and there’s an opportunity cost — you could be working on something else that might be more meaningful in the long run.”

Celebrated author and writing producer on CBS All Access’s TELL ME A STORY, as well as sought-after instructor at Script Anatomy Hollie Overton had this to share: 
“Being too nice and too agreeable is definitely my Achilles heel. I’m someone who actively avoids conflict and I don’t like asking lots of questions, two things that are in direct opposition with succeeding in this business. You have to stand up for yourself and your work and you have to make sure the people you’re working with are on the same page. Because of that, I found myself doing work I wasn’t being properly compensated for and staying with reps who weren’t actively working for me.” 

Moises Zamora, currently Executive Producer and Head Writer on Netflix’s Selena bio-series, who previously staffed on STAR and AMERICAN CRIME had this to offer:
“(My biggest mistake was) Underestimating the stress of being a staff writer. Pay attention when you’re doubting yourself. Always go back to the process that got you hired." 

Want to dig into screenwriting process a bit more? Check out a previous Pearls of Wisdom installment: MY WRITING PROCESS.

iZOMBIE co-producer Bob Dearden shared this from his past experience in the writer’s room:
“Overstepping is probably the big one. In TV, the system is set up with a showrunner who makes all the big creative decisions, and then everyone else. Obviously there’s a hierarchy based on experience and talent under the showrunner, but my point is if you’re not the showrunner, you really have no autonomy. So if you have an idea or a script that doesn’t land, or that the showrunner doesn’t like, that’s just the way it goes. It’s their show, and your job isn’t to make it more like what you would do if you were in charge – it’s to facilitate the showrunner’s vision. That can be a difficult transition, for some, when you’re used to just writing for yourself.”

Greta Heinemann, currently supervising producer on GOOD GIRLS, who previously wrote on NCIS NEW ORLEANS, and won Final Draft’s Big Break Contest with her feature screenplay ANATOMY OF A BREAKDOWN provided her philosophy:
“I don’t necessarily believe in the concept of “mistakes” as our career is learning and experience-based. I believe any experience — especially the bad ones — become valuable, teachable moments. That being said, the moments I’ve seen “mistakes” happen are usually those in which we approach the business from an emotional level (i.e.: Give our honest, unfiltered emotional responses without weighing the options and political implications first…)”

Feature writer Josh Renfree who recently completed a feature writing assignment told me: 
“Writing too slow, as in taking too long to complete my next screenplay. Not holding myself accountable to the fact that if I want this as a career, I have to treat it as one.”

If you’re not sure what’s too fast and what’s too slow, check out my blogpost Your Screenplay or TV Pilot: How Long Should it Take to Write? 

Paul Puri, who is currently staffed on his second season of CHICAGO MED said:
“I still consider myself to be early career, so that’s a little hard to measure. After I had my first script optioned, I was taken into a meeting with a production company. I was working with a producer on some pitches, but he promised me that this was a general meeting only. So I didn’t prep to pitch any story ideas. They wanted to hear “what I brought them.“ I was less than my most articulate self.”

Finally, Richard Lowe a graduate of WB’s TV Writers Workshop who is now on his second year of Greg Berlanti’s GOD FRIENDED ME shared: 
“(My early career mistake was…) Thinking success would happen sooner. It takes an amazing amount of patience to break in. (Or it did for me.)”

Richard is not the only one who thought success would come sooner, especially on the TV front. And in an earlier Pearl of Wisdom blogpost we explored just that: When Are You Ready to Staff?
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...



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