How to Motivate Yourself to Write

by Mathew Allen

One thing I get asked a lot is how one goes about finding the motivation to actually sit down and write (and complete) feature screenplays. I hesitate to teach this element of screenwriting—as there seem to be as many different ways in terms of what writers call their “process” as there are famous screenwriters—however, I thought I’d do up this list of the five most commonly used techniques that I’ve heard of. So, without further ado, here goes…

1. Vomit Draft

This is the most oft-recommended method. However, it does have its detractors. It consists, as the colorful name suggests, of just writing any old crap and getting the story down as quickly as possible. As Hemingway is reported to have said, “The first draft of anything is s@#t”. It therefore doesn’t make a lot of sense, this theory holds, to agonize over the wording of your first draft. As you’ll have to do a ton of rewriting anyway, why not just get it done ASAP? That way, you’ll at least have something to rewrite. Those opposed to this approach say that more planning is needed; that people shouldn’t start writing until they know their story inside out (perhaps by first writing an extensive treatment in prose form); that actually typing out scenes is a surprisingly small percentage of the writing process…

2. Leap-frogging

And this leads me to #2. The opposite of writing a vomit draft is what’s sometimes called “leap-frogging”. This consists of a more perfectionist approach in which one writes a little, then goes back and reads and rewrites till comfortable enough to move on. That process is repeated again and again, with a growing portion of the script “done”, till the first draft is completed in surprisingly not that much more time than it would have taken to write a vomit draft. Opponents of this technique point out that the biggest danger when writing is giving up, getting distracted, or otherwise losing momentum—and thus never finishing. If you’re agonizing over the precise wording of P. 1 from the get-go, you might never actually make it to P. 2…

3. Time Goal

Whether you’re writing a vomit draft or leap-frogging, one approach is to set yourself a goal of a certain number of hours per day, or per non-working day if your day job precludes that possibility. Some famous writers would wake up early and write before their day job, so that may be an option too—as you’re always too exhausted after work, but not necessarily before. He’s not a screenwriter, but famed novelist Haruki Murakami writes for a certain number of hours each morning and then spends the rest of the day having fun. If you choose this option, it’s essential to not do anything productive such as cleaning or other work during your designated writing time—procrastination through computer games or surfing the web is fine as long as it makes you feel guilty enough to get back to work; productive work of other kinds runs the risk of fooling your brain into thinking you’ve made good use of your allotted time. The point is, if you adopt this approach, you have to take the work hours seriously. At least one famous writer would dress in suit and tie before sitting down within his own home to write…

4. Page Goal

Once again to be used in combination with either option #1 or #2 is a page goal. If you find yourself not getting much done despite sitting in front of the computer for hours, the answer may be to set yourself a certain number of pages that you must get done no matter what during a designated writing day. If you’re super-busy, you could set that figure as low as 1 and you’d still have a finished 90-120-page script finished within a few months (assuming you found a little time in the morning or something each day). Famed screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin only writes two pages each day—and therefore tries to maximize the quality of those two, à la leap-frogging…

5. Deadline

Whether you’re working on commission (i.e. have been hired by someone) or on spec (i.e. on your own idea), a deadline can be a big help—even if it’s one you artificially set for yourself. That way, if you fall behind in terms of your page goal (if you’re using option #4), you can force yourself to speed up—to catch up. Again, a sense of internal guilt can be a big help, but you may want to reinforce it by telling others the date you’ve set for yourself and making them promise to keep their schedules open to start reading your script on that day…

So, in short, if you’re having trouble completing screenplays (and don’t already have your own method for motivating yourself), I recommend choosing either #1 or #2 and then using either of those in combination with #3 or #4. That gives you four (i.e. 2 x 2) ways to write. And then the deadline can help to keep you on track no matter what…