Breaking the Spec Screenwriting Loop

Joel Eisenberg
Jan 17 · 7 min read

“The key to successful screenwriting is writing.” — Every other screenwriting guru who has ever plied the trade.

We know. It all starts with the written word. We get it. Then, if you truly want to sell yourscreenplay, the real work begins. Effort, refining your craft, and dogged persistence representsthe rest of the equation. I know first-hand. I preach all this constantly, and I practice all this daily.

Maybe a little luck has something to do with it too.

Or, maybe prudently positioning yourself to earn an above-average income writing movie-related product while working on your script, which will also service your all-important networking needs, can actually manifest that luck.

No, this is not metaphysics, and I am not writing the second coming of “The Secret.” I use the word manifest as it’s as good a word as any to describe the likely results of a determined mindset necessary to make a living as a screenwriter … without counting on your job and/or spec sales as your primary source of income.

To increase your opportunities, consider exceeding your scope soliciting writing projects outside of your preferred field.

Where there’s a will …

In other words, there’s something to be said for getting out of your comfort zone.

My contention is you can earn an excellent living as a writer while waiting to sell your specs. Most screenwriters I know, including myself, still write spec screenplays.

But why not get paid for your other creative work while waiting for those screenplays to sell?

Here’s a quick personal bio for you to best understand my perspective: I worked 100 day jobs in my life. That is not hyperbole; they were all part of my journey. As a writer in heart and soul, I could not maintain even a remote interest level in any of my places of employment. I telemarketed everything from medical billing software to low-rent action and exploitation films.I was also a launderer for a mental hospital, a stock boy for a department store, a special education teacher … You get the picture. The latter, which fell within my college major, was at times quite rewarding. However, my heart was not into teaching at the time. Today, I speak and teach regularly for writers’ and filmmakers’ conferences, so that experience proved valuable in the end.

I published a book about my employment experiences in 2005 when I decided I was going to sink or swim on my own and write for a living. Barely a month after making that decision, I found a screenwriting job on Craigslist for which I was paid $35,000. As I came to realize over subsequent years, perhaps 10% of all writers gigs on Craigslist are legitimate, or otherwise well-paying.

To be clear, that means perhaps 90% are not. But there can be gold in that 10%.

The question arises: Was I lucky from the beginning … or did I put myself in a position to change my fortune?

10 Ways to Break Out of the Spec Screenwriting Loop

To the answer to that question posed above, the following became my strategies. I strongly believe my efforts enhanced my luck …

1. Keep an open mind for online screenwriting opportunities, which is what I did for that first big assignment. Do your diligence in all instances, as many of the opportunities you will find online will either not pay enough, or not pay at all. However, authentic high-paying opportunities do exist. You have to find them. I will admit to earning a six-figure income treating my writing as a full-time job prior to entering the WGA.

2. Many writers, including those in the WGA, outsource work for presentation bibles, decks, formats and other sales materials while they write their scripts. This becomes a matter of networking. Regardless of where you live, especially as many meetings are presently being held over Zoom, you can find such opportunities. How? LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter. Keyword “Writing Opportunities” or “Writing Jobs” to see what’s available. As ever, do your diligence. You will very likely run into opportunities that lead nowhere; however, if for every 10 submissions you receive one legitimate response, that’s a “win.” Building a writing resume is very much a game of averages. The more you submit, the more opportunities you will find.

3. Work on increasing your social network following. Join Screenwriting groups and pages that apply to your work. Follow established writers and filmmakers. Post and interact with them. You may well be surprised at how many established pros are willing to mentor new, or less-established, talent. You may also be surprised at how many of your casual connections are willing to introduce you to those in their circles who may be able to make a difference. We live in an electronically-connected world, now more than ever. Take advantage.

4. Join online (or in-person, once we return to a degree of pre-pandemic normalcy) film-based networking groups, festivals, and related events. Everyone you meet is a door to someone who may be able to influence your career. Do not overly sell yourself. Agree to read the scripts of others to put a best foot forward, and allow your work samples to speak for you. A combination of both is highly recommended, as fellow writers and/or influencers may be drawn to your work ethic and talent.

5. If you have an idea for a spec script about which you are highly-passionate, or you havepartially completed said script and you do not yet feel it is ready to submit, consider writing — on spec — a bible or treatment (based on whether you are submitting for film or television) for the project. Why on spec, if this article is about not writing on spec?Here’s why: If you impress an executive with the quality of your writing and creativity within your pitch materials, you have increased your odds of being hired for at least a first-draft of your project. Should that happen, you will now be paid to write the script you have been writing on spec.

6. Use IMDbPro to compile a list of companies that produce television shows or films similar to the genre(s) in which you prefer to write. If you do not have an agent or manager, cold call the development head listed on the company’s staff page. In much the same way as submitting to an online writing opportunity, if you receive a 10% positive response rate (one out of every 10 calls for a company to agree to hear a pitch), that is one more pitch than you had the day before. You are not submitting a script; you will have a bible or treatment prepared and are aiming for your pitch to become a paid writing opportunity for a full script. (Note: Prior to joining the WGA, I received several assignments using this method.)

7. Consider writing non-screenwriting-related work to increase your financial opportunities. There are innumerable opportunities online to write books, book proposals, and articles, as examples. If your goal is to earn a real living as a writer, and you believe you have the ability to cross from screenwriting to prose, your opportunities become near-limitless.

8. Find a mentor. Frequently, the passion and talent, and most of all potential, you must display to find someone both compatible and more established to work with is the same passion, talent and potential it takes to make a non-spec living in this business. Once you work with that mentor for an indefinite period, do not be surprised to be offered writing opportunities through them. Further, if the relationship becomes close enough, never be afraid to ask if they can recommend you for projects.

9. Take advantage of writing contests. ScreenCraft offers some of the finest contests in the business for your work to be seen and reviewed by highly-seasoned industry judges. Be sure, though, to only submit when you believe your project is ready.

10. Most of all, keep writing. Write specs, write assignments. With experience comes opportunity. With proactivity comes opportunity. With strongly refined craft and versatility comes an in-demand writer.

No writer succeeds in a vacuum. The necessary scenarios will be to a) meet someone along the way who could make a difference in your career, and b) to keep up your momentum. Networking is a must as this business is, as you have heard, built on relationships.

Earn money while working on your specs. We all have projects about which we are passionate. Most of us now established still write specs that we prepare to sell later. For now, diligently work on your craft, earn a real income while doing so, and when you are ready submit the finest spec script of which you are capable.

This is not about quitting your day job. If that is a consideration, be sure that you have developed a consistent funnel of writing work to replace that income.

It’s been 15 years for me and I never looked back. My personal victory was, finally, my membership in the WGA. All those writing assignments over the years have allowed me to not only refine my craft but to adapt to different circumstances. Different producers ask for different styles of writing.

Embrace writing as a potentially lucrative income stream. In so doing, you will garner much-needed writing experience. With that experience, you will improve all facets of your art.

I hope this helps.

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Joel Eisenberg

Written by

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

Writing For Your Life

Honest, practical advice on the writer’s life for both aspiring and experienced authors and screenwriters, and an uncensored forum for provocative thought.

Joel Eisenberg

Written by

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

Writing For Your Life

Honest, practical advice on the writer’s life for both aspiring and experienced authors and screenwriters, and an uncensored forum for provocative thought.

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