Becoming a Screenwriter: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a screenwriting career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a screenwriter is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Screenwriter

A professional screenwriter is responsible for creating the scripts used for television shows, feature films, and documentaries, or otherwise contributing to the filmmaking process through editing and polishing scripts or pitching new story ideas. Check out the pros and cons to see if you might be interested in becoming a screenwriter.

Pros of a Screenwriting Career
One of the highest paying writing specialties (average salary of about $68,000 in 2014 for all writers and authors)*
Can work anywhere with access to a computer*
Variety of genres to choose from (horror, drama, comedy)**
May have the opportunity to do freelance work*

Cons of a Screenwriting Career
Slower-than-average growth (projected 3% growth for writers and authors from 2012-2022)*
Pay may be inconsistent***
College degree usually required for salaried positions*
Travel may be required for interviews and on-location meetings*
May be required to produce content based on a client's requirements, limiting creative freedom*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. **O*NET Online, ***Writers Guild of America.

Essential Career Info

Job Description and Duties

Screenwriters are creative writing professionals who create scripts for television and motion pictures. In most cases, screenwriters either adapt content for the screen from popular books or generate original content of their own. This is a demanding job, and you can expect to experience long and stressful days attempting to meet deadlines set by studios or production companies. In addition, if you work in television, you may be required to work on a team of staff writers for a particular show.

The screenwriting process typically begins by brainstorming ideas and following up with in-depth research, which usually includes Internet research, library research and interviews. Screenwriters often work alongside directors and producers. A screenwriter needs to create a shooting script that contains instructions regarding the shots, lighting and camera angles. In addition, the screenwriter could end up rewriting the script numerous times during the course of production. If you're writing for a TV show, you may need to come up with a new script every week.

Salary Info

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), writers and authors in the motion picture and video industries earned an average annual income of about $100,000 in 2011 (www.bls.gov), an updated wage was not provided in 2014. The BLS found that the average salary for all writers and authors was approximately $67,870 in 2014, so successful writers have higher earning potential in the film industry than in most other writing industries. However, even though you may have high earning potential, it is difficult to determine how much money you'll actually make. Many writers are given a lump sum for a script, so you may need to supplement your income from other jobs while you write a script.

The amount you get for a script depends on a variety of factors. According to the Writers Guild of America (WGA) 2014 Schedule of Minimums, original screenplays for theatrical films could fetch a low price of about $67,804 or a high price of around $127,295 (these payments were effective from May 2014 to May 2015). Non-original screenplays written in that same time frame could earn between $59,331 and $110,337. The WGA noted that you could expect around $24,788 for both story and teleplay, or $8,264 per story for a television program with a running time of roughly 30 minutes. As you can see, your income may vary significantly, so you should be prepared with alternative income opportunities until you're able to land a steady stream of screenwriting work.

Career Outlook

Screenwriters can anticipate stiff competition, since high-paying, glamorous jobs attract more applicants. Freelance positions are probably your best bet for breaking into the industry. You'll have to promote your work; otherwise, your screenwriting talent will likely go unnoticed. Jobs are always available in the film and television industry, but be prepared for some hard work and dedication if you want to land a job as a screenwriter.

What Are the Requirements?

There are no particular educational requirements for this field; however, you will need experience, self-motivation, the ability to take criticism, a strong portfolio of work and creative talent. Screenwriters generally have experience as freelance editors or writers. You'll need to acquire an understanding of how a movie is made and be knowledgeable about film language. Earning at least an associate's degree or a bachelor's in English, theatre or creative writing could be beneficial, but does not guarantee you a job.

Top Skills for Screenwriting Careers

In order to be a successful screenwriter, one must possess strong writing and research skills, along with creativity and talent. In addition, you will need the ability to market and promote yourself to win jobs. Actual job postings for screenwriters advertised for applicants who have experience writing screenplays and are able to collaborate with a team. Here are examples of real job posts in April 2012:

  • A broadcasting company sought a writer/producer for their office in Atlanta. Candidates were required to have at least three years of experience, knowledge of television production and the ability to write original work in a tone and style matching the network's brand.
  • An entertainment group in New York City advertised for apprentice screenwriters to work in film development. Applicants were required to have experience with story outlines and writing screenplays, either through formal training or by building a portfolio of work independently.
  • A job listing posted through the Writers Guild of America (WGA) advertised for a development assistant with a writing background who could manage and organize both film and television development slates (no location was mentioned). The company preferred experience in television.

How to Maximize Your Skills

Working as a screenwriter is a challenge, but you can maximize your skills and employment potential by becoming a member of the Writers Guild of America (WGA). In order to apply for membership, you are required to collect a minimum of 24 units of work as a writer over the course of three years with an employer registered with WGA. Units are earned through a variety of projects. For instance, two units are earned by completing a full week of work with a WGA employer, while 24 units can be earned through the successful completion and production of a feature-length theatrical motion picture screenplay of 90 minutes or longer. Upon joining the WGA labor union, screenwriters receive artistic assistance and may find jobs through networking.

Screenwriting takes determination and persistence. You'll probably have scripts and ideas turned down fairly often, which means you'll need to become comfortable with marketing your work. Knowing where to market your screenplay can save you time and give you a higher chance of finding a studio that is interested in your work. Most agencies do not accept an unsolicited script, so learning who and where you should send your work can give you a better chance of being noticed.

Alternative Career Paths

Editor

If you prefer to work in a more stable environment with fewer creative pressures, then working as an editor may be right for you. Editors typically work full-time at an office, but many freelance editors work from wherever they have computer access. These professionals spend their time revising and reviewing content for publication.

While little to no employment change was expected from 2010-2020, you could have decent earning potential as an editor; the BLS estimated that the average annual wage for editors was around $60,000 in 2011. A bachelor's degree is required for most entry-level positions. You'll usually need some experience as a writer before you can become an editor.

Public Relations Manager

Professionals in this field are responsible for making a positive public image for the company they work for. Typical job duties include drafting press releases, raising funds and managing public relations programs for organizations. This career path can be extremely stressful, and you may face strong competition for jobs.

The BLS predicted that employment for public relations managers was expected to grow by 16% from 2010-2010. However, you could have fairly high earning potential in this line of work; the BLS reported that public relations managers earned an average annual income of approximately $106,000 in 2011.

Technical Writer

If you enjoy writing but you're skeptical about pursuing a career that doesn't offer a consistent salary, then you might be interested in becoming a technical writer. These writers make manuals, instructions and assembly instructions for a variety of products. You'd need to have a solid understanding of how the product works, so you should be prepared to learn technical terms and be able to express these terms in a way that is easy for an average person to understand.

You'll need a bachelor's degree to become a technical writer, but you should have solid earning potential in this line of work; the BLS found that technical writers earned an average salary of about $67,000 in 2011. The BLS predicted that technical writers would see a 17% growth of job opportunities during the decade of 2010-2020. You should have good job prospects if you have technical skills to go along with your degree.

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