Five Things That Separate Professionals From Amateurs

Yeah, this post is a rant. I freely admit it. It’s almost Christmas, I can rant if I want to…

So, here are some things that I’ve noticed seem to separate the professionals from the amateurs – and in this context, I’m not using ‘amateur’ to mean ‘haven’t made it yet’, but ‘haven’t got a hope of ever making it’…

Amateurs think someone else is the driving force in their career.

I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me  “I really need to get an agent”, I’ve asked them how many scripts they have ready to go, and they’ve said  “Well, I’m halfway through my first one…”

Amateurs think that if they can only get an agent, or get [insert name of famous person] to read their work, or meet the right person at a party, they’ll be an overnight success. Professionals know that the only route to success is to write several really good scripts. Write a good enough script, and all these people will find you. But if the script isn’t ready, not only will you not get any of these people involved –  but even if you somehow did, they would be no use to you.

Luckily, your writing is the one part of your career that you have complete control over. You can’t control when you get an agent, or who wants to or doesn’t want to read your work. But you do control your time and your talent. So use them, and write the best damn script anyone has ever seen.

Amateurs think the rules are there to be broken.

“Yeah, I know no one’s making original $200m musicals any more, but they’ll make an exception for my script…”

No, they won’t.

“I know 185 pages seems long for a romcom, but I need every word of it to do justice to my vision…”

No, you don’t.

“My action movie will start a trend for 45-year-old Hispanic female leads…”

Yeah? Who are you planning to cast who can bring in enough box office to recoup an action movie budget?

You want to bend the rules a little, go ahead. Nothing captures Hollywood’s attention like originality. But be the right kind of original. The kind that can be sold. The kind that wins awards. The kind that will make a director’s or an actor’s name. The kind that makes the audience say  “Woah!”  not  “Huh?”

Be Inception original, Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind original, Modern Family original. Not the kind that gives everyone a damn headache and doesn’t deliver any tangible benefits to anyone, least of all the audience.

Amateurs think everyone else’s wins are their losses.

Amateurs waste too much of their valuable writing time bitching on message boards about how that script that just sold is shit (they can tell by the logline, or even by the fact that no logline is being made public).  Oh, and that movie coming out next year is the Worst Thing Ever (they can tell from the 45-second teaser).

Two words.

Sour. Grapes.

You know what? The fact that someone else sold a script/made a movie is not taking anything away from you. It’s not a single combat to the death that they unfairly beat you at. It’s an open field. There’s room for everyone, and if your script’s good enough, you’ll ‘win’ too.

You want to review or critique a finished piece of work? (Not a leaked draft script, or a trailer, or a logline that might have got mangled by the trades before publication, but an actual movie). Go ahead! You’re entitled to your informed opinion of other people’s work, especially if you can draw some useful lesson from it – but think very carefully before you trash someone you could be working with one day…

Amateurs think everyone is out to steal their precious ideas.

Nobody wants to steal your idea. Because an idea is useless. It’s the execution of an idea that makes it valuable.

“A man undertakes a quest into an unreal world to discover what really matters to him” is an idea. It’s the execution that makes the difference between Inception and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Jacob’s Ladder and Flatliners and even It’s A Wonderful Life.

Even if you’re the one person in screenwriting history whose idea actually does get stolen (and you won’t be), their execution of it will be so different to yours that it will make no difference to the success of your script. So stop whining about how everyone’s out to steal your idea, because that’s the number one warning sign of amateurism.

And finally, a positive:

Professionals pay attention to the details.

Professionals not only check the spelling and punctuation in their script, they check it on their e-mails and their Twitter feed too. (This is the point, of course, at which irony strikes and someone spots an error in this post. Bound to happen…)  At industry parties, they check who this stranger they’re talking to is before they slag off anything she might have worked on.

They make sure they know who worked on a movie, and how much of it was each person’s contribution, before they express an opinion. They remember names and faces – always my weak point –  and remember who wrote their favourite films and TV episodes, not just who directed or starred in them. And they think about how they’re presenting themselves all the time, because in the age of social media, there is no more ‘private’.

Attention to detail, in life as in scripts, will get you a long way.

Okay, I feel a lot better now I’ve said all that. Time for a mince pie. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year of writing!

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11 comments on “Five Things That Separate Professionals From Amateurs

  1. Karen Featherstone says:

    Sterling advice, Debbie.

  2. Wow! Go Girl! I couldn’t agree with you more. That’s not to say I’m particularly good at any of the things you mention (read: “Rant”). I’m useless with names, and I am guilty of not pushing myself as a product – it feels very un-British to me, and I don’t like it. When you can blog about the presentation of self (in media circles) please post it on Facebook. I’m an avid reader. Respect.

  3. Guinea Pig says:

    Nice post Debbie.

    A copy of this should be given to everyone starting out in the business.

    it’s a tough game. It’s a very very very long slog. And if you work at it, you will get better.

    There is no short cut.

  4. mypenandme says:

    Wonderful article. Wishing you and yours a happy new year.

  5. […] link: Five Things That Separate Professionals From Amateurs by Debbie […]

  6. xxjboundsxx says:

    People at the top love to tell the”amateurs” how it is. You can’t make it, you can’t do it, you weren’t born with innate ability, etc…not just in writing but in any field. I have a friend who is a stand-up comedian and even he has fallen victim to this brainwashing tactic at those down under him.

    I understand what you’re saying. I get it.

  7. […] you read this excellent blog post by Debbie […]

  8. I like to harbour a thought… but I don’t think I’ve even begun to be an amateur. So that’s alright then!?

  9. […] inspired by this post by Debbie Moon, I got a bit ranty about […]

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