Aspiring writers are always trying to find tips and tricks on how to improve their writing and how to get their work in front of readers. Giving suggestions can be a full-time position in itself. But that won’t be a problem anymore. I’ve reached out to writer heavyweights from the movies, television, books, comics, and everything in between and asked them to give their one piece of advice they have for aspiring writers. Reading this isn’t going to turn you into the next Charlie Dickens, but it’s certainly knowledge worth taking in.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Finish what you start (for writers, that’s the one true piece of advice - perhaps the only true piece of advice).
John Dies at the End
All creative people get a very confusing mixed message from society. Some will tell you to ignore the haters and believe in your vision (“The studio hated the original script for Star Wars, but George Lucas showed them all!”) and others will tell you to do the opposite (“The Star Wars prequels sucked because George Lucas surrounded himself with yes men instead of taking feedback from others!”)
What I’ve found is that it’s all about distinguishing which feedback is actually useful, and finding sources of useful feedback. You’re not an island —you won’t teach yourself how to write and you won’t succeed without a support system. You need to find people who will be honest and blunt (your friends and family are too afraid to hurt your feelings) but who also know what they’re talking about (random strangers on the internet are happy to tell you your thing sucked, but won’t have any good tips on how to fix it).
Good feedback won’t be all about ruining your vision or, “Here’s how I would write it!” The good stuff will come from people who can see what you’re trying to do and want to help you get there. Also, don’t hesitate to be that person for someone else. Half of what I’ve learned about writing was from trying to help others troubleshoot their own creative problems.
Deadpool & Uncanny Avengers Comics
Finish what you start. It’s the only way improve. Complete your work in a reasonable amount of time. Writing will be your second job. Treat your after-hours writing job like you’re answerable to a boss who might fire you. Be persevering, but patient. You may have to write a long time before you land a paying gig. Write only what you would pay to read. Be whatever it is you are, but be entertaining. When you start to get paid: Beat deadlines. If you can’t do that, meet them. If troubles come up and you can’t meet deadlines, communicate that. Editors hate surprises. Be boring in real life. Be exciting on the page. Good luck. Don’t take any gigs from me.
The Usual Suspects
Screenwriters tend to measure their self-worth by their most recent screenplay. This contributes to that feeling of powerlessness when we present a script or a pitch. But the truth is, not everyone can write. You possess a power that is essential to the process. Always remember that you are the commodity - not your idea. No matter how good your script is, it will never be more valuable than your ability to write it.
The Big Short
My advice to aspiring filmmakers is to shoot movies and write. Don’t wait for people to hand you opportunities. The Internet and cheaper better cameras allow young auteurs to hit the ground running. The more you work the more you will learn and grow. Do read-throughs in your living room, screen your movie in your basement or at small festivals or online.
Write, write, write, as much as you possibly can. Every new thing you do will be better than the last.
Read Alexander Mackendrick’s On Film Making. It’s a moviemakers’ bible.
Always keep creating. Don’t get precious and put all your faith into one story. Write all kinds of stories. Then re-write them. Nothing is perfect on the first draft. And always, always… Make sure your story is bold and interesting. If it’s interesting, people will pay attention.
Because this is supposed to be one piece of advice I’m gonna say “Walk over to your router and unplug it”. But it’s really two pieces of advice: “walk” and “unplug the internet” - that both sound super easy but in practice are super hard to do (at least for me). Nietzsche, who I’m not normally a big fan of, said “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking” and, honestly, whether I’m walking for miles or just getting up and walking to the snack room, walking always helps me conceive ideas and also break through logjams. And, as for “unplug the internet”, quit fooling yourself: you know you need to. I have my router on a timer and the program Freedom on my computer and even then I have to turn off my iPhone and forward it to a landline to actually get anything done. The temptation to do ANYTHING other than write has beset writers for centuries and now we have more ways to avoid it than ever before.
Parks & Recreation
My biggest piece of advice to young writers is to constantly make stuff of all types and put it out there, whether or not you think it’s “ready,” and to share it with friends you trust! Also consume media of all types and ask yourself why you like it, so that you’ll build up your own internal compass of what’s good! These are both boring!!!
You’re the Worst
I’d say it’s don’t give up. Keep going. When people say no, when you hate your script, when you think you’ll never make it, keep writing. You’ll make it. (Unless you suck.)
Two and a Half Men
The writer’s tip I offer is one that I break too often (and ALWAYS regret). Whatever you want to say, say it in the fewest words possible. I think Twitter is actually good training for this.
Life experience makes great writers. Don’t piss and moan about the drama in your life. It’s that drama that makes great writing! It’s about the journey, not the destination. It’s about the writing, only the writing. Writers write. Writers can’t not write. Writers write every day. Writers are mostly unemployable at anything else. If this doesn’t sound like you then you are not a writer. Not trying to be mean, but I also don’t want you sleeping in your car either.
If you’re making something to get noticed, make sure it’s something only you could have made. No one is impressed by how well you imitate other people’s work—find your voice and make sure you understand it yourself.
I usually turn down requests to give advice to those pursuing comedy. Not because I don’t believe practical advice exists, but because I was never practical when it came to pursuing comedy. My path was rooted firmly in obsession. I was obsessed with writing comedy. Ten plus hours a day, I’d sit in front of my laptop and push myself to get better. And I wrote, frantically, desperately, not because I knew it’d pay off someday, but because it was all I wanted to do, in the moment.
Which is all to say: if you’re out there and you’re like me, I want to encourage you to keep being insane. Don’t worry about finding an agent, or getting your foot in the door, or whether or not you’re ever going to make it. Instead, be obsessed. Keep your head down. Struggle with your writing for days on end. Forget to eat. Don’t leave your apartment for two months when you’re nineteen because you’ve lost all sense of time. Be passionate. Because if you’re passionate, your writing will be passionate, and if your writing is passionate, eventually the right people will find you. Just like they found me. And then, many years later, after you’re successful and have money to burn, you can also, like me, go to therapy. Twice a week.
I’m someone who screenwrites for at least a couple hours everyday, many more if I owe a draft. I don’t know if everyone needs to do this, but I do know that there’s this common perception that screenwriting is something you can just jump in the mix and do professionally because almost everyone technically knows how to write something. Some people pull this off, but most don’t. If they’re still willing to take risks after years of being urged against it by an industry that prefers familiarity, screenplays from experienced screenwriters are almost always the best ones. Being brutally honest with myself, even though there’s nothing I’d change in Spring and Resolution, the last few features I’ve written make the screenplays to those earlier scripts seem like they were written by someone a bit green - it’s all just hours, sweat and hustle.
One time I took a writing gig because there was literally nothing going on at the time. Lots of studios circling my stuff but no one was buying anything. I was offered to come in and pitch my rewrite for the next movie in a somewhat popular franchise. The problem was, I had not seen one minute of the franchise. I didn’t want the job. My agents talked me into going, I drove to the movie lot slower than usual and dragged my feet towards the building.
I sat down at the meeting, and the executives asked how I’d change the script. I simply said “I’d delve more into character and raise the stakes in the third act.” This is code for “I don’t know, I don’t care.” I walked out, thinking they hated me.
I got the job.
They liked me, they liked my writing samples, if I wanted the gig, it was mine.
But I couldn’t accept the job if there wasn’t anything I clicked with in that world. It’s very obvious when you’re sleepwalking through a writing job. That weekend, I immersed myself in the world, got to know every character, watched every movie, read every book…and I fell in love with the world.
By Monday I was excited to start writing. A month later, I turned in a script I was really proud of.
It didn’t get made, a similar movie beat us to the theaters with the same plot, but that script was my calling card with studios for the next couple of years.
I still love those characters and hope to return to them someday.
Take every meeting. You’re not too good for anything, you’re not to cool, you have the time, and, at the very worst, it’s a free lunch or coffee. And when someone wants to you write, and you accept, find something within that world that really excites you. A character, a moment, whatever it takes. And then write quick because holy crap studios are making a similar movie to the one you’re working on RIGHT NOW.
#1 New York Times Best-Selling Author
Write. Just write. Just get it down. You can always fix bad pages. You can’t fix NO pages.
Certainly it’s your job to bare you soul, with the hopes that something personal can become universal but without collaboration, you run the risk of your work only speaking to you.
I find that remembering this comes in particularly handy when suffering through notes from your insensitive friend or when network suits want you to add a cute monkey sidekick.
Don’t try to write somebody else’s story. The only story you were born to tell is the one that is already inside you. Yes, mask it, twist it, dress it up however you like but always stay true to the core of who you are, the uncensored guttural honesty of what you’ve seen, said, tasted and lived.
Write shit. Write complete and utter shit. Just write it. Then give yourself the time to turn that shit into chocolate cake.
One piece of advice I’d pass on was actually passed on to me from Mark Duplass and it’s that the goal of sitting down to write the first draft should never be an amazing script but instead a “structurally sound piece of garbage.” I found that this advice freed me up immensely by taking the pressure off. The non-shitty dialogue and nuances can come later, just get the structure solidly in place.
I’ve gleaned a good amount of advice over the years from friends, colleagues, books, observation, etc. Some of the more prevalent being… write about what you’re passionate about. Develop a unique voice and point of view. Write and read as much as you can. Surround yourself with like minded people who make you strive to create more and influence you to be better. Learn from both the excellent and sub par material of others. Work. Every. Day. And so on.
A thing that has seemed to work for me is leaning heavily on myself and my instincts as a barometer for what I think is funny. I believe your gut will tell you if it thinks something is funny. You don’t have to overthink it. And in staying true to this consistently, for me at least, it became easier to develop my voice (which I’ll always be developing). It begins to fall into place naturally. Also, comedy is like golf. Play against yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others. Allow yourself to be influenced and inspired, but don’t compare. There will always be someone funnier. You will always end up with “Why can’t I achieve that?” or “Why didn’t I think of that?” We’re all in varying stages of our careers and processes. Grade yourself against you. Of course, if you have terrible instincts you’re a lost cause. You can’t teach funny. Then what you’re hoping for is an honest mom that’ll tell you “No. Just, no. It’s not going to work, honey.” And if you don’t have that, just start front-loading dick jokes.
I get asked frequently what my advice is for aspiring writers, which I find frustrating in itself, since anyone who’s writing is a writer as far as I’m concerned. But I realize what they’re really asking from me is advice for writers who aspire to be financially solvent, which is a far more difficult matter. My main bit of honest advice would be to stop asking filmmakers for a magical dose of advice on social media and get to work, but no one wants to hear that. As such, I’ve come up with another piece of advice, which is to read or watch everything you can, and then try to write something that you haven’t seen or heard of, that’s at least in some significant way different from what you see everyone else doing. Originality might seem undervalued, especially in Hollywood, but people still get excited by something unique and new. And if you can’t afford to option a Hasbro property, I’d say that’s your best bet. And seriously, don’t ask people online for advice, they’re not going to help you; you have to find your own path when it comes to being creative.