How Screenwriters Should Plan Their Writing Days

Unless you’re a TV writer working in a highly structured environment in a TV writers’ room, most screenwriters have to create their own work schedules. You may choose to keep regular nine to five, Monday through Friday, office hours to mimic a “normal” working life, or you may be a true artist and work in blocks of time.
Being too much of an artist may mean you procrastinate until your muse finds you. The latter is a sure way to avoid finishing your screenplay. As an artist, you are privy to enjoy flexibility in your work schedule, especially if you have a home office. Your day may begin at nine pm and end at five in the morning. You know what level of structure you need to complete your work. You can be as vague as finishing a rewrite by the end of the month or writing a minimum of five pages per day, five days a week.
Being a screenwriter often means that you need to manage your own time to ensure you’re working at your optimum level. This requires a particular mindset to make the best use of your days.

Planning each day requires:

  • Creating a task list
  • Prioritizing that list
  • Removing non-essential items from that list

An efficient writer knows the best time of day when their creativity is at its peak level.

It’s a sprint not a marathon

Set your workflow for each day in one-hour blocks. Studies have shown that we can sustain focus for fifty to sixty minutes before our minds begin to drift. Allow for a few minutes break between blocks. Stand up, stretch, rehydrate, walk around. They are essential to allow your mind to reset. Writers who claim to write for multiple hours each day, rarely mean they are at their desks writing effectively or this entire block of time. Those that do will probably become overwhelmed and fatigued, leading to poor quality pages.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Photo by Dorothea Oldani

Be very specific with the tasks in each block. You can check emails, watch something, do research for a script, write a screenplay, outline a story. Don’t have too many tabs open in your browser. Humans are not designed to multi-task like a new generation computer chip despite what the internet says. It dilutes your focus on all tasks and won’t let you complete any task effectively.

Writers that juggle more than one task at a time will probably get lost or give up.

Rank the complexity of each task on your list from one through three – easy, medium, and complex. A burst of writing new pages is likely classed as a complex task while a proof-read and spell-check might be considered a medium complexity task.

Some writers also divide their tasks into three categories:

  • Creative
  • Logical
  • Administrative

This will help you stay focused and capitalize on the natural ebbs and flows or your work patterns. If you develop writers’ block you can pivot to another type of task such as reading the trades.

Keep regular hours

Carve out blocks of writing time and stick to them as best you can. Avoid writing a few pages when you get a chance. Your mind (even your messy, creative one) thrives better in a routine. If you write for a few hours each morning, stick to that routine. This doesn’t mean that you are enslaved to that schedule and need to cancel all other morning appointments in perpetuity. You are allowed to be flexible.

If you need to, mix up your routine every now and then. Take that morning off to go for a hike, but make up those screenwriting hours in the evening. Occasional disruption won’t destroy your routine. Taking too many mornings off will.

Consistency is the key to planning your day. If your mind thrives in a less structured environment, you may opt for writing a certain number of pages each day, or possibly each week, rather than during a time frame. Don’t allow too much time to pass between writing sessions. It will be much harder to pick up where you left off and you will spend the first part of a subsequent session catching yourself up.

Be honest with yourself in terms of what you can reasonably achieve in a day. Writing fifty pages of your screenplay or outlining a new story in its entirety is rarely an achievable goal. On the contrary, don’t set the bar too low either, or you will lose discipline and won’t grow as a screenwriter.

Know when you’re in the zone. Your creative juices are gushing and your screenplay almost seems to write itself. Honor that space. Keep writing if you have the stamina. But don’t write fifty pages just so you can claim to have completed your screenplay. Get yourself out of the zone somewhere after the one hour mark. That’s right. Yank yourself out of it midstream so you can start your next writing burst with greater enthusiasm.

Celebrate the small wins

Being a screenwriter is a solitary pursuit and you need to be the champion of your successes. It’s important to recognize small successes as being as valuable as the bigger ones. A small fire is still a fire. This is especially relevant to things you can control. You can take a full day off if you write five pages of your screenplay each day over the previous week. You earned it and deserve it. By all means, celebrate that script sale or greenlit project too, but don’t wait for these events because most of the time they are not in your control. These celebrations will keep you motivated and inspired.

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas

Distractions are the enemy of focus. Some distractions can be eliminated like turning off your phone or not checking your emails for a few hours. But for the majority of screenwriters, we accept them and learn how to manage them.

Recognizing distractions as being such is the first step to coping with them. Acknowledge them, but don’t react if you can’t eliminate them. Constantly reacting to distractions is… distracting. Your time is better spent on your writing.

Good things don’t happen in your comfort zone

Learn how to have internal dialogues with yourself. Good ones and bad ones. It’s not helpful to your screenwriting career if you only focus on one. Let’s start with the bad self-talk. Criticism is not the same as critique. The former is a pervasive, unduly harsh portrayal while the latter serves more to identify room for improvement. Criticism is destructive and critique is instructive.

Critique gives you a balanced and realistic assessment of your skills and elevates your mood. It acts as a performance motivator and leads to self-acceptance. No screenwriter is perfect in every aspect of the craft, so you shouldn’t expect to be either.

Know your limits. Every screenwriter faces the dilemma of obsessing and over-tinkering with their screenplays in a vain effort to make it perfect before they send it out. That extra time you spend wordsmithing your script is usually not worth the stress. Your final pass should be to check for typos, grammatical, and spacing errors.

Value your downtime. You don’t have to be consciously working all the time. Engines can’t work continuously without a break. Neither should you. Every engine needs time to cool down and recharge.


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