Conventional wisdom says that the best way to learn to become a professional screenwriter is to write more screenplays, because the more scripts you write the better you become. Yet the vast majority of people who follow this advice will fail. Why is that?
Either the conventional wisdom is right, and most people fail because they simply lack the talent to pull it off, or the conventional wisdom is wrong.
When I first started teaching screenwriting at UCLA I believed in the conventional wisdom. In every class there’d be one or two students I felt had a real shot at success—there was something different about their writing, something that popped off the page and made me take notice—while the rest of the students, it seemed, probably didn’t have much of a shot. And sure enough, those one or two students would go on to careers, while none of the others would.
I always felt bad for the students who didn’t make it and wondered if there was something I could be doing to boost their chances. I talked to my colleagues who confirmed that unfortunately just because someone has the dream to become a professional writer, it doesn’t mean they have the talent to become a professional writer. These folks will eventually realize they don’t have what it takes and will quit to go pursue another dream. That’s just the way it is and nothing can change that.
But what ten years of writing, teaching and script coaching has taught me is that this way of thinking is wrong.
The reason so many people fail isn’t because they lack some inherent talent but because there are certain essential skill sets required to write at a professional level. Very few people are naturally strong at these skill sets, and these tend to be the people who have careers. But everyone else doesn’t have to quit. Because these skill sets can be learned. I know this for a fact because I have seen it.
I’ve seen people who have never written a script in their lives learn these skills and write a first-ever screenplay that is stronger than the scripts written by far more experienced writers. I’ve seen people who write script after script, year after year, with nothing to show for it, develop these skill sets and see their writing exponentially improve, even to the point of being able to launch a career. Learning and developing these skill sets is the single most valuable investment a writer can make in her or his long-term success.
But these skill sets are not taught in screenwriting seminars, books or classes.
That is why there’s such an overwhelming failure rate.