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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Guest Blog: Copywriter's Rules for Screenwriters

The Wave-inatrix is proud to present Working for the Man, a guest blog by a dear friend and gifted copywriter who weighs in on what he has learned in his career and how it applies to screenwriting:


I’m an aficionado of junk mail. Every time I open the mailbox, I look over each pre-approved credit card offer, clothing catalog and sweepstakes entry, carefully judging the headlines and teaser copy and designs, before I shred them. Call it professional courtesy, because as a freelance ad copywriter, most of my work is made to be thrown out, too.

Like any other copywriter, I have other aspirations. After all, there is nothing even remotely noble about what I do. I write to manipulate people. I spend hours crafting words to frighten sick people, to flatter rich people, to make children and their parents unhappy with their toys and to publicize the most menial details of corporate America.

But writing is writing and every word on the page is educational – even something so blatantly mercenary as copywriting. Just the process of subjugating my creative process to someone else’s schedule is itself priceless experience. For example, I was recently asked to write a 2500-word article on a topic I knew nothing about in three days. That’s six weeks worth of work in 72 hours. Under those conditions, inspiration is a luxury. And that’s excellent training for a screenwriter.

But copywriting is also about cutting to the chase, so without further ado, here are my Two Great Copywriter’s Rules for Screenwriters:

Rule #1: The Goal Makes the Rules.

Freelance writing sucks – make no mistake about that. A career in screenwriting is no different from any other kind of freelance writing – you spend half your time trying to get work, half your time trying to get paid for the work you did, and half trying to actually do the work you have. Those numbers don’t add up? Exactly.

Successful freelancers are pragmatic people. Every choice is made in the context of the bigger picture. If I want to take a vacation, I have to make sure that I’ve done enough work beforehand to afford not only the cost of the vacation, but also the cost of the money lost while I’m not working. That is Rule #1 in action. My goal (vacation) makes the rules (extra work beforehand).

For my screenwriting, Rule #1 has been truly liberating. Selling a script to a major studio brings with it certain rules about structure, character, genre, and so on. So does a self-produced indie drama. Don’t waste time railing against the rules. If you’ve learned them well enough, you’ll get where you want to go. Simple as that.

Rule #2: The First Draft of Anything is Garbage.

I used to get very frustrated when my first drafts came back to me covered with so much red ink, they looked like they’d been used to clean up a murder scene. Then I realized something – clients don’t know what they want until they’ve seen what they don’t want. Everything is theoretical until I turn in my draft. Once I do, then it becomes the thing that’s ripped apart by marketing departments and rewritten by micromanaging VPs. But before that? It’s nothing but an idea.

The same is true of screenwriting, except in this case, the “client” is an amorphous mass of people known as Development Execs. But no matter what they’re called, Rule #2 will always apply. In fact, that endless stream of notes is not an indictment of your talent. If anything, it’s an affirmation of it, a testament to the fact that you continue to give them something to think about and deconstruct. Yes, it would be nice to feel like you nailed it on the first try, but that’s simply not possible.

As I said before, writing is writing and every word on the page teaches us something. And though most of my work goes right from mailbox to trash can, copywriting has taught me the two most important things about screenwriting I ever will learn.

Oh – and it’s bought me some beer.

Pete Considine is a self-professed “word whore,” who has written and edited everything from real estate listings to music web sites. He currently works in the glamorous world of educational publishing, where he mostly gazes out the window and dreams of a career in film producing.

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1 comment:

potdoll said...

cheers. enjoyed reading that.