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How Do I Become a Screenplay Writer?

Read on to learn about potential degree programs you may complete and the skills you need to be a screenplay writer. Learn about what salary to expect as a screenwriter.

What Is a Screenplay Writer?

A screenplay writer is a professional writer who prepares scripts for movies or television shows. They may create characters or write a story that is meant to develop a pre-existing character in a specific way. They incorporate the desired elements into the script in a way that is intended to be logical and compelling so that the viewer can follow the story. Screenplay writers write the dialogue that is stated by characters, and they also write set directions. The screenplay will include information about the setting where events within the script occur, and may indicate specific movements a character will make, such as firing a gun or slamming a door. Screenplay writers may be commissioned to write an episode or movie, or they may write independently and try to sell material after it's written.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree preferred
Key Skills Strong creative writing skills, strong communication skills, ability to meet deadlines
Key Responsibilities Developing plot for stories, writing script, collaborating with other writers as needed
Job Growth (2020-2030) 9% (for all writers and authors)*
Median Salary (2020) $67,120 (for all writers and authors)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Skills Do I Need to Become a Screenplay Writer?

As a screenplay writer, you may develop movie or television scripts from your own original ideas or based upon another work. In addition to strong writing skills, you may need to be creative to keep your writing fresh. According to the Occupational Information Network, to be an effective screenplay writer, you need to be a strong communicator since you may work closely with producers and directors. You also need to be able to convey your thoughts clearly on paper (www.online.onetcenter.org). Since changes may be made to the scripts often, you may need to make several rewrites under a tight deadline.

What Education Do I Need?

A degree isn't required to be a screenplay writer, but it may help you develop your skills. Several colleges, universities and film schools offer bachelor's degree programs in writing for screen and television or film studies and screenwriting. In these programs, you may learn how to analyze specific television or film genres through workshops. Courses may also cover the history of film and television, with internships at multimedia companies or television stations capping off your senior year.

A more common degree option is a Master of Fine Arts concentrating on screenwriting, which typically takes two years to complete. Within these programs, you may study copyright law, the fundamentals of film directing and contracts. You may also learn how to analyze screenplays for film and television. Before you can graduate from a master's degree program, you may need to write a thesis, which typically is an original short film script or speculative (spec) feature-length screenplay. These spec pieces may come in handy when applying for screenplay writing jobs.

What Job Outlook and Salary Should I Expect?

In the 2001 book The Screenwriter's Guide to Agents and Managers by John Scott Lewinski, becoming a successful screenplay writer may be difficult, since most jobs within the entertainment industry are hard to enter. You may be able to network with others while completing your internship or coursework.

Typical screenwriting salaries may also be difficult to determine because there are so many variables to consider, including location, level of experience and type of project. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median wage of all writers and authors was $67,120 in 2020 (www.bls.gov).

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Authors, writers and editors all have similarities to screenplay writers. Authors may write novels that involve character development or specific plot points. Writers may develop characters and plots in short stories or comics. Editors work with authors and writers and review their material to make sure it is error-free and organized effectively. Editors need a bachelor's degree, preferably in English, journalism or communications. Although authors and writers do not necessarily need a degree, a bachelor's degree is recommended and may be an asset for those who are seeking contracted work.