Friday 8 January 2021

Habits of Highly Effective Writers #7: Planning

Lord Byron wouldn’t have done it. Nor Shelley or Keats. Maybe Wordsworth once he’d calmed down.

I’m talking about planning. It’s not cool. It’s not writerly. It doesn’t feel creative.

But it saves a lot of time, pain and disappointment. And right now, who needs more of that?

Didn't think so.

Granted, 2020 was a lesson in not over-planning. All our best laid plans almost certainly went awry several times over. The old military cliché is also true: no plan survives the first encounter with the enemy. Once the fight starts, it all goes out the window. But you still plan.

Not Scripts. But Yes, Scripts

I’m not talking about planning scripts. Although you should plan scripts. Most of the scripts I read bear all the hallmarks of someone who’s started writing the script before they’d properly planned it out. It’s usually a bunch of characters in search of a plot. Nothing happens for the first ten pages. Then there’s a build up to something happening. It happens. Everyone reacts. It ends.

The problem here was a lack of planning. (That’s something I address in my video course, Writing Your Sitcom.)

In this post, I’m urging you to have a career plan, or at least a plan for the year. Given the hours you have available in any given week to write, or kick start your career, you don’t really have time to waste, do you? So you need to plan.

Think about the year ahead. It’s probably hard to see how your fortunes will change in a year. But it is possible to end the year in a better position than the way you began. And to end the year with slightly better skills. And a few more opportunities.

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” Bill Gates (among others)

These are wise words. We are impatient and lose heart quickly. And we want quick results. We see instant celebrity through reality shows. We read about obscure authors getting multi-million pound book deals. But most things - and certainly nothing that lasts - happens overnight.

Let's go back to JK Rowling sitting in a cafe writing her first Harry Potter book. It probably took her a year to finish the second half of that first book, send it out and get a dozen rejection letters. Did that feel like progress? But check back in on her five years later: Progress. Ten years? Success. Fifteen years? She's on her way to being a billionaire.

Please. Make a realistic plan for what you can get done in a year. Account for the fact that everything takes longer than you think it will. (This Freakonomics podcast about why things run late might help.)

But make a plan for this month, for this 'term' or season, and this year.


Douglas Adams famously quipped about loving deadlines and the sound they make as they whoosh past. That's funny. It captures the romance of being a writer. But it's not helpful if you're trying to get on and make best use of limited time, pursue a dream and/or make a living.

So here’s one thing I’d urge you to do. Ignore Douglas Adams. Set a script deadline. And stick to it. Write one really good script by that deadline. Just one. You won't have time to do more than one. But finish it. Polish it. Make it good. (If you have a script that needs finishing, improving, tightening or tweak, I've produced a PDF called 7 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Script Right Now.)

Could Do Better

I often encounter aspiring writers who say they entered a script into a competition knowing the script was no good. Are you one of those? Why was the script no good? Clearly, there a decision was never made to make it no good. A decision was never made. That’s the main problem.

So identify a date by which you would like to have a really good script. And work backwards from that date.

You might want to use a competition deadline as a date, which is as good as any. Or, you might want to take a date that has emotional significance. Maybe your mum’s birthday, or something like that. Maybe you know that by 1st September, you’ll have a whole new season of life to worry about so you want your script done by then. It’s up to you. But pick a date. And make a plan. Working backwards.


Then tell someone close to you who will hold you to account. Who will help you stick to the date. Who will check up that you're putting the time in. If this matters to you, it will matter to them and they will keep tabs on you, and then give you that disappointed look if you miss that deadline.

Then work backwards. Leave yourself a realistic amount of time for each phase.

Let’s say you have three writing sessions a week, each lasting 90 minutes. That’s four and a half hours of writing a week. That’s okay. You could write a sitcom script in a month. Just about. At a push. Maybe take half a Saturday too. But that’s the actual script. That's almost the easy bit. You'd need a scene by scene outline to write that script in that time.

That scene by scene outline - which plots out what happens in each scene, plus has a few bits of dialogue and jokes in it and could be a few thousand words - will take you another month.

To get that scene by scene outline, you need to have found the right story for your pilot script. That’s another month writing four and a half hours a week of picking and developing the right story.

But you can’t identify the story that’s really going to demonstrate your characters and situation – and your voice – without some serious groundwork about the set-up and their relationships at play. That’s another month. At least. 

You get the idea. This takes time. A lot of time. It would just happen. You need a plan.

And most people underestimate how long scripts take.

Your Script

That script you want to write looks beguilingly easy to produce. Scripts are, in fact, fairly quick to type. A sitcom script is about thirty pages. That’s about five thousands words. You could type that in a few hours. Maybe faster. Opening a file and typing doesn’t require any special technical ability or qualifications. You just type. There’s obviously much more to it, but people often don’t realise how much.

Here’s where people make the crucial mistake:

If you’re finding it hard to write a script, that’s normal. I find it hard and I've been doing it for twenty years. I've written or co-written 150+ half hour comedy narrative scripts. It's still hard. But not impossible.

If you’re finding writing your script impossible, you probably haven’t planned it right.

There’s a little trick for that: Make a plan. Plan your script. Plan each scene. Break it down in chunks.

But you need time to do all this. It needs to be built into your plan. A good script takes plenty of time and doesn’t just happen. A few bursts of energy and a couple of inspired late nights are unlikely to produce the goods.

It’s like assuming you can run a marathon fasting than other people by sprinting at the end. It’s just a non-starter as plans go. In fact, it’s not a plan. 

So make a plan. Tell someone. And do your best to stick to it.

One More Thing

If you’d like help doing that, I’d like to recommend my video course, Writing Your Sitcom which really emphasises doing the groundwork. And doing it in the right way. So that writing that script is as painless as possible. The course walks you through the writing process in 12 steps – and will work for comedy drama as well as out-and-out sitcoms. 

You might be able to get the course done in 12 weeks, although it will probably take longer unless you’ve got serious time to throw at this. But build the lessons and sessions into your plan. If you start now, you might have a script you are proud of by the end of the Spring. How about that?

Does that sound like a plan?

The result is a script you can be proud of. That's the aim of the course: to help you write your best sitcom script. After all, sho’s got time to send out half-baked scripts that even you don’t think is any good? It’s just a colossal waste of time. And that’s the one thing we can’t get back: time.

There also monthly Zoom chats where you can ask me anything and we can talk about how it’s going, so you’re not doing this all on your own. In fact, if you’ll give me a few minutes, I can tell you about the course here: 

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