I’ve spent the best part of ten years now hearing the phrase “you’ll look like an amateur” over and over again within screenwriting communities but, more often than not, what’s fussed over is petty and ambiguous. Yet, at the same time, I see behaviour that screams NOOB from the rooftops that it seems nobody’s talking about. So, here’s a list of what jumps out to me and how to correct the course.
1. Obsessing Over Formatting and Rules
Let’s start by getting a little ironic. A preoccupation with supposed screenwriting rules, especially those focused on script formatting, and how it looks amateurish to ignore them, is itself a glaring red flag that you are a new writer. Nobody really cares if you’re using bold slug-lines, using the term “we see”, or directing on the page, not enough to toss a compelling script in the trash anyway. These superficial rules, most of which are made up by people trying to create viral content, are popular because they’re so easy to spot and pick apart. The only thing a professional screenwriter is going to advise you to do here is use screenwriting software as it will do 99% of the formatting work for you. Same goes for use of story structure. Boasting that you’re writing in 3-acts isn’t worth much more than head-rub and an attaboy, and you don’t even deserve that if you think it means simply having a beginning, a middle, and an end.
How to adjust: Pour your energy into learning about the craft, particular storytelling craft and the stages of the Hero’s Journey, aka the Monomyth. That’s your absolute basics, and no, claiming that using a structure always makes stories formulaic just makes you look like more of an ass, as does saying one number of acts is inherently better than another.
2. Focusing on Hollywood
Nothing comes across quite as entitled and deluded than a writer who talks exclusively about Hollywood as if it’s the only respectable part of the film world and specifically where they deserve to be. This includes only ever talking about blockbusters, trying to target the biggest names with your material, and acting like any form of collaboration outside of the a-list is somehow below you. Extra points if you openly mock the kind of films that go straight to DVD/VOD and snigger at the cheap looking elements of low budget productions. Wanting to go straight to the top smacks of dreams of getting rich quick and having the biggest ego in the room. Even if you’re that good out of the gate, the notion that your script is going to somehow sail through a system designed to protect this sector from a tsunami of amateur submissions is kinda ridiculous unless you have some very powerful contacts willing to put their reputation on the line. Are the big studios always looking for great scripts? Yes. Are the big studios also very picky about where they look? Also yes.
How to adjust: Show some respect for the system, wait your turn, and demonstration you’re willing to work your way up by proving yourself. Embrace the global indie film world, not only as an exciting world to work and learn but also as the world most cult-classics from relatively new writers tend to stem from. Stop mocking the hard work and limitations of creatives who are actually way ahead of you and instead support the very people who might help you eventually break in.
3. Unwittingly Boasting About a Poor Process
I’m being generous with the term “process” here as most amateur writers tend to open a blank document and try to ad-lib their way to the the end while battling procrastination and writer’s block. Rewriting is writing, is it? According to you, who hadn’t written a slug-line until six months ago. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. It’s hard to believe in such a sweeping dogmatic statement when someone’s boasting they’re now on draft forty-nine! There’s a better term for that kind of situation, it’s called “trying to polish a turd”. The results will always speak for themselves; issues like poorly structured scenes, a complete lack of theme, and a non-existent character arc, are some of the unfortunate results of a writer who’s clearly trying to wing-it, hope for the best, and willing to butcher their work over and over through second guessing themselves.
How to adjust: Learn more about writer’s development processes and try different methods and techniques until you find something that not only helps you stay on track while building a story but also keeps you motivated and creative. It will be an upfront investment of time that pays dividends later on, especially if you ever work on assignment. Work smarter, not harder and appreciate this isn’t high school, nobody’s impressed by your exhaustion and page-count.
4. Being Ignorant of the Business
This usually manifests itself in the type of mentality that screeches “Hollywood doesn’t make good movies any more” or even worse “Hollywood doesn’t KNOW HOW TO make good movies any more”. If you’re not noticing industry members roll their eyes and gag a little when you make this claim, be more self aware. There is nothing more cringeworthy. Hollywood is cold, calculated, and gets it right enough to generate over one hundred billion dollars in turnover per year. Extra points here if you’re arrogant enough to speculate how it all works without knowing a sales agent from a distributor and believe there are evil little accountants running around the studio system that actually want to invest money in obviously bad scripts while thinking you could walk in tomorrow and sort it all out. Bonus multiplier if you clearly have zero idea about the industry’s history, even major turning points, and still think today’s environment is the same as the day Jaws was released.
How to adjust: Read read read, learn learn learn. The history of the industry and how it all works is fascinating. You should naturally want to do this because you’re so passionate about filmmaking, right? Especially at a blockbuster level. Do your best to see things through the eye of a producer who’s trying to maximise the returns on (or at least not completely loose) the funds trusted to them by an investor.
5. Writing a Dreary Autobiography
This one doesn’t apply if you genuinely have an incredible life-story that’s full of twists and turns while either being light enough for a mainstream audience or fascinating enough to a more mature demographic. Sadly, your teenage frustration with your mother and the narcissistic personality disorder you’ve since diagnosed her with isn’t a very compelling, inviting, or unique concept. There is also a very limited audience out there for stories that dwell on traumatic abuse and outright misery. Based on true stories or not, movies that perform well are generally those that are entertaining, exciting, and uplifting. A common variation on this theme are stories about lead characters who just so happen to be writers who also just so happen to get discovered, become as rich as they are highly acclaimed, and struggle with their new lifestyle which consists of sex, drugs, money, and jealous friends – why wait to sell your autobiography when you can just make it up before it’s happened?
How to adjust: There’s wanting to be a screenwriter and there’s wanting to be famous. The latter requires honed craft skills and the latter denotes chronic self-obsession. Come up with a more interesting story or come with a way to make your dull story more interesting. If you insist on pushing your memoirs out there in screenplay form and you aren’t exactly the Wolf of Wall Street, be realistic about how much the world really wants to know about it.
6. Failing to Appreciate Subjectivity
This is the big one because it’s truly understanding how rife and chaotic subjectivity actually is that tends to define which writers are going to make it and which are going to spend their screenwriting life going in circles. Art is in no way objective and scripts are a form of art. If that statement frustrates you then that’s the amateur inside revealing their fear that they’ll never be lucky enough to be discovered. Amateurs crave validation and early validation tends to come in the form of what feels like objective analytical assessment, scoring, and ranking. They want an academic process where they are graded on effort, following rules, and presentation but none of this matters anywhere near as much as emotional response. It can get particularly ugly to watch when you see a screenwriter living at the mercy of feedback, trying to please everyone, and using it as a poor crutch for genuine craft skills – does constantly asking for directions and second guessing your gut sound like how a professional artist operates?
How to adjust: Sadly, this is one of the hardest issues to get over because it can take years of direct experience watching subjectivity in action before we finally accept how much human nature impacts what feels like rational decisions. A good place to start is to simply look at how both ourselves and the people around us react to films. How one of us can love something while the other loathes it, often for the same reasons. You either get it or you don’t and it speaks volumes about your awareness.
7. Drinking The Kool-Aid
The break-in scene is full of con-artists pushing scams on new writers who think they are being offered a shortcut into Hollywood. Boasting about placing in competitions that have zero standing, championing gurus who have no credits, and throwing money at services that are basically gambling gives off a strong “must be born yesterday” vibe. There are entire platforms run by individuals who can’t get paid to write films and get by on selling their advice on how to be successful, usually in the form of courses, seminars, and books that keep hitting you with that powerful word “selling”. They write clickbait that’s full of misconceptions about how the industry works and then you go out and share it, touting them as some kind of crusader while you buy into their get rich quick scheme. They are feeding you with the very unhealthy things on this list, because they know it appeals to your weaknesses. Worse still, they are probably on the radar of the same people you want to appeal to and now their stink is on you.
How to adjust: Do your due-diligence on everyone you can. Thanks to sites like IMDb, film is one of the easiest industries to look people up and see if their claims match reality. Look for real working screenwriters who are out there sharing their genuine experiences building a career for free or in the form of affordable books. Understand that they aren’t going to fill you with false hope that glitz and glamour is just around the corner. They are going to talk about maintaining patience and perseverance in very tough sector of the creative arts.
8. Thinking Your Dream is Special
Every year, millions upon millions of people decide they are going to finally write that story they’ve had in the back of their head and hope it becomes the next The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, or Shades of Grey. While most default to novel writing, many see screenwriting as the easier route to success. As much as anyone should be applauded for finally embracing an artistic pursuit, acting like the main character in everyone else’s lives, simply because you’ve decided to take your first steps is exhausting to be around. Passion is contagious but, when that passion is about yourself and you’re gushing over completing a feature script like you just scaled Everest, it’s all a bit self-obsessed. This is the new writer who constantly thinks their work is so brilliant it’s guaranteed to get stolen. This the new writer who scrabbles onto the top of everyone’s shoulders and rallies the crowd to carry them to the finish line, where they expect to be applauded for their efforts – don’t worry, they’ve already got the Oscar speech ready and waiting.
How to adjust: Humility, genuine humility and not ego-driven faux-modesty, will not only win far more hearts and minds, it establishes a mindset that’s ready to start at the bottom and work up slowly and steadily from there. The things to be proud of and shout from the rooftops about are the results of all that sustained effort. At the end of the day, actions speak louder than words and every overnight success comes from years of working in the dark.
9. Believing That Writing Spec Scripts is Enough
This is a bit of a controversial one because I know of writers who have been trying to break in for decades who still think it’s the 90’s and having a few specs in a drawer is going to see them getting discovered, signing with an agent, and watching their material spark off high-profile bidding wars by the big studios. This is particularly associated with amateurs though because most people with this mentality give up pretty early on. Getting pissy about having to write anything more than a logline to help market a script when plenty of other writers are packaging up their specs and even creating proof of concepts comes across as lazy. Same goes for refusing to put together a bio and headshot which comes across as unprofessional. It’s hard to take someone seriously when they claim they’re a born writer but seemingly hate having to sit down and write.
How to adjust: It’s time to get realistic about how incredibly competitive the world of screenwriting is and what it takes to standout. That means being willing to put on a variety of hats from marketing person, to PR specialist, to career manager in a bid to gain exposure and raise awareness that you even exist! This doesn’t have to be cynical, it doesn’t have to be tacky, and it doesn’t have to be disingenuous. It just requires effort.
10. Feeling Shame About Being Seen as an Amateur
WHOA! Plot twist, am I right? Seriously though, nothing screams amateur like constantly being obsessed with looking like an amateur. It’s one of the ways the fake gurus give themselves away because they are obsessed with this topic. There is something really quite pompous about trying so hard not to look like the apprentice and pass oneself off as a master, particularly when it’s tied to hierarchy building – many amateur writers blatantly draw focus into this area in an attempt to embarrass their peers and knock them down in the process. The fact is, professional or not, credited or not, awarded or not, we should always see ourselves as students of this craft hoping to continually improve while surrounded by others with far more experience. Others who, more often than not, see the humble sides of our nativity and rough edges as loveable rather than undeserving.
How to adjust: Embrace being a beginner and wear it on your sleeve. Know that nobody thinks any less of you and will actually want to help you a lot more if there’s no ego to contend with. You are not going to ever get a worthwhile mentor if you aren’t willing to put yourself across as willing mentee. Your attitude now also defines your future path. If you think you have to fake it to make it at this stage, it’s only going to get worse and more self-destructive as you move forward. I’ve seen it happen all too often.
BONUS RED FLAG: Trying to Fake It Until You Make It
Quite possibly the most toxic form of blatant amateurism that combines a lot of the above into one self-destructive package. This is the writer who thinks the bluster of posturing as an industry pro along with vague claims of success will mask over the fact they have yet to achieve anything of note. This is the writer so humiliated by their inner feelings of low status and lack of validation they have to imply, exaggerate, and even fabricate their achievements while typically keeping the details just vague enough so they can’t be disapproved. They often use fake names, fake profile pictures, and troll communities with the intent to knock other amateur writers down. They try to talk to industry members as if they are on a level and have a rapport, failing to realise just how easy it is to see through the facade. It’s slimy and creepy to be around and they eventually build up a reputation for all the wrong reasons as producers, executives, and screenwriters all warn each other about certain characters they’ve run into and might darken their door next.
How to adjust: Take action as soon as you can. This approach is likely to do more damage than good, some of which may be irreversible. Take the shame that you feel about yourself and discard it so it’s no longer pushing you to overcompensate. Try to clear up the mess you may have made thus far so there’s no paper trail and you can benefit from a fresh start. Work on becoming a good writer first and foremost while seeing your peers as friends and not enemies. Accept that you may have a major personality issue that could benefit from a lot of personal development work or perhaps even therapy.