Productivity is a vast and complex field of study. You may have seen bits of it in articles like “lifehack your day,” or “Five tips to turbocharge your output!” Basically, productivity is the study of best workflows and best organizational practices. Ironically, productivity fans waste a lot of time reading productivity tips.
This article is slightly rewritten from an earlier form (1), but it’s a practical distillation of some productivity advice that may help beginning writers.
1. Empty out your brain.
Set aside two hours and sit with a ream of paper and a marker. Jot down everything that’s on your mind, be it an item for the grocery list, or the epic fight scene for that action movie you’re writing. Everything, you’ll sort it later. Use one idea per sheet of paper, and don’t stop until the two hours has elapsed. Purging everything from your memory frees up valuable mental real estate, allowing you to focus on what’s important.
2. File your ideas in a trusted system.
Now that the ideas are all out of your head, you’ll need to file them in a useful manner, otherwise, your brain will fear that you’ll lose all that valuable brain juice, lock up, and refuse to give you more ideas. Your system can be as simple as labeled manila folders in a shoebox, or a complex software tool like Evernote. It doesn’t matter so long as the system is trusted, and that you actually use it. For more on the subject, read Getting Things Done, a great book on organization and productivity.
3. Make a project list.
It is a sad fact that we’ll never be able to fully render half the ideas that we have. I have a spreadsheet with 250 half-assed ideas for movies. Given that it takes about 6 months to write a spec (if you’re incredibly lucky) and I’ll be dead within 75 years… well, you can do the math. This is a sad thought about limits and mortality, so let’s not think about that right now.
The trick to writing is not to keep everything, but to give the gift of your full attention to the projects you really care about. To this end, make a list of the few projects you most want to do, write down the title, the logline, and the reason why you’re writing it (i.e., to develop your craft, to get an agent, to make a sale, whatever). Carry this with you and if you have an idea for any of these projects, you can jot down a note about it.
4. Set a daily writing appointment.
Make a commitment to write every day. Use a kitchen timer if you have to. Keep track of the days you hit your goal. If you miss a day, forgive yourself and move on, but we only improve as writers through concerted daily practice.
5. Grow the draft.
I could write all day, journal writing, to do lists, blog posts, dreams, all that stuff. But without an overarching project to work on, I’m just moving around papers, not advancing as a screenwriter. Screenwriting is project management, so manage your projects. Keep one master file for your screenplay and make sure it grows a little every day. Keep track of how much you’re growing it, so you have a rough idea as to when you’ll be finished with your draft.
(1) The original title for this was “How to Get Started (or five steps for beginning screenwriters).” It’s an early piece an it shows. For starters, the orignal title was misleading. It’s not really how I’d start someone nowadays, it’s more about productivity and organization tips, which are important, but not necessarily the first thing your average writer would look for. Also, the rule of five thing was cutesy, a faintly desperate stab at trying to capture buzzfeed-like virality, which doesn’t really work with my current style.
Still, it’s more useful that not, and I like it better now that I’ve called it five simple productivity tips for screenwriters.