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The Different Jobs of a Screenwriter

May 30, 2023
6 min read time

There are many different writing jobs a screenwriter can be hired to do in Hollywood. And the more flexible you are with filling one of these roles, the greater your chances you have of creating a long, sustaining career as a professional screenwriter. 

Below are the different jobs of a screenwriter…

Adaptation. (2002)

Writing a spec script

A spec script is a screenplay that you write on “speculation” - which means you aren’t paid to do the draft, but you hope that it may sell in the future, or at least open a few doors. A great spec script is one of the best things a writer - beginning and seasoned - can have in their portfolio.  

Like many professional screenwriters, I broke into the business with a spec script sale. Sometimes, just one spec sale can lead to a long and auspicious career as a working screenwriter. There have also been cases of screenwriters who didn’t sell their calling card spec, yet it worked as a writing sample and launched their careers. This is why it’s important to treat writing a spec script as a job, even if you’re not initially being paid to write it.

Ideally, your spec script is an entry point into the screenwriting profession. Aspiring screenwriters tend to focus on writing that spec which will sell and/or break them into the film industry and that’s exactly what you should focus on.

Rewriting Your Spec Script

If you sell your spec script, most screenplay purchase agreements include at least one mandatory rewrite step and polish (especially if your script was bought by an employer or company that’s a WGA signatory). What this means is you’re going to get paid to rewrite your own script

There’s a chance you already rewrote your script for free several times beforehand (whether it’s due to your own perfectionism, a manager’s notes or you had a free option agreement), but now it’s a job and, more importantly, it’s your job. 

Your screenplay no longer belongs to you but to whatever party purchased it and they’re your employer until you’ve satisfied the terms of the agreement. 

Some writers have a knee-jerk reaction to receiving notes and being told to rewrite their script, but this is a major part of the development process and in general the job of a screenwriter. In my article “There isn’t a Perfect Screenplay,” I wrote about how writers should think of their screenplay as “a fluid document.”  This is because you will likely have to rewrite your script many times.

Polishing Your Script

A polish is a minor rewrite and it’s typically the last stage of your involvement with the script unless you get optioned to do more work on it (optional rewrite steps are usually included with most purchase and writing agreements). Like the other writing steps, you get paid for optional rewrite steps and it’s a clear sign that your employer is happy with what you’ve been doing.

Little Women (2019)

Rewriting Someone Else’s Script 

“Rewrite jobs,” as they are called in Hollywood, happen when you are hired to rewrite a script that is in development at a production company or a studio. These jobs, especially if they are at  a major studio, are highly sought after, and they’re one of the primary jobs of a professional screenwriter. 

Like with any open writing assignment, you’ll most likely have to pitch to get the job (at least if it’s for a major studio or larger production company). 

This might also involve a one or two page “take on the story” outlining the general direction of your rewrite and explaining what you intend to change about the current draft. 

Typically, the producers, execs or director attached to the project will give you a general idea of what they want to change about the current draft and the direction they want to take it. If your pitch aligns with their thoughts about the project, and you demonstrate how you would execute said changes, you might get hired to rewrite the script. The lawyers will draw up a writing agreement, which is likely to contain guaranteed and optional steps and a polish.

A note for the writer - it’s common for various writers to be brought onto a single project and a screenwriter shouldn’t feel guilty for rewriting another writer’s work; it’s simply one of the jobs of a screenwriter. The original screenwriter sold their script to the employer or company and was compensated for it. If you’re not going to do it, another writer will. It’s a business and your profession.

Late Night (2019)

Script Doctoring and Round Tables

Sometimes a writer is brought into the development process at a later stage to simply punch up the dialogue or fine tune certain aspects of the script. These types of writing jobs are sometimes referred to as “script doctoring.” 

Script doctoring can be short term work where the writer is hired for a week or two. Sometimes a punch up job is just a one day event where you are invited to the studio or production company with a group of other writers to have a discussion about areas to improve the script, or dialog alts. This is referred to as a writer’s “round table.” After the changes are agreed upon, there’s a division of labor for the rewrite (similar to what staff writers do on a TV show). 

Usually these punch up and round table jobs become available when the script is closer to production or sometimes even afterwards. it might be decided that some aspects of a film aren’t working and reshoots are required. In this scenario, the producers will have a writer’s round table in the hope that the assembled writers will find ways to fix whatever issues the film has. 

Other Screenwriting Jobs

Sometimes a producer will have an idea for a film and they will meet with different screenwriters. If you flesh out the idea to their liking and pitch it successfully to the necessary party, a writing agreement will be drawn up and you’ll be employed to turn the idea into a feature screenplay (you typically get paid more to write a script from scratch than a rewrite). 

These days, more often than original ideas, you might get paid to adapt an established IP (e.g., a novel, comic book, video game or older film). This is why it’s important to have a spec script with a distinct voice and you develop a brand for yourself: certain types of writers will be considered for certain types of jobs.

Babylon (2022)

Writing on Set

Sometimes a producer or director will want a screenwriter on set during a film’s production in case there are any logistical issues that require an “on the fly” revision to the script: this can be anything from a change in filming location to an actor wanting their dialogue revised in a certain scene. 

More often than not, the screenwriter on set had the largest role in the script’s development or has a good working relationship with either the director or producers. You’ll be paid for your time and get to experience a film’s production firsthand, which is not only exciting but a great learning experience.

The more of these above jobs you land and successfully execute, the more work you’ll be up for in the future. The life of a screenwriter is always looking to seize an opportunity and make the most of it. Each job can potentially lead to the next job and before you know it… 

You’ve got a bona fide screenwriting career!

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