How to succeed as a screenwriter: Female writers share top tips for breaking into the TV industry
Successful screenwriters including Sharon Horgan, Caitlin Moran and Charlie Covell let us in on some excellent advice as part of our Women's Words campaign...
How do you succeed as a screenwriter? There's nobody better to ask than the women who have fought their way to the top and forged careers in a television industry where female writers are under-represented.
In support of our Women's Words campaign, thirteen screenwriters including Lisa McGee, Daisy May Cooper and Sharon Horgan have shared with us their top tips for breaking into TV.
Here's all the advice you'll need...
This Country's Daisy May Cooper
Daisy May Cooper had her breakthrough as a writer and performer with BBC3 mockumentary drama This Country, in which she co-stars with her brother Charlie Cooper. The role of Kerry Mucklowe earned her a Bafta TV Award for Best Female Comedy Performance, and the writing itself landed her and Charlie the Best Scripted Comedy Award in 2018.
"My advice is: write what you know. Always ALWAYS write what you know. There's nothing better than your own story - because if you tell it truthfully, it becomes everyone else's story.And never EVER give up because talent will ALWAYS out. It's a cliché but it's true."
Actor and writer Susan Wokoma
Best-known for her roles as Raquel in Crazyhead and Cynthia in Chewing Gum, Susan Wokoma was named a Bafta Breakthrough Brit in 2017 and also earned a spot on the Forbes 30 under 30 list for Europe. She's just put out her first work as a screenwriter – a Sky Comedy short titled Love the Sinner – and tells us she's writing a new pilot, Fix You.
"Collaborate. Meet other actors, and directors, and get to know crew as well. Because if it's just the case that you've got something for camera and you wanna go and shoot something, you wanna have people where they'll go: OK, got an afternoon, let's go and shoot a scene together.
"I would say, watch as much as you can. Read as much as you can. That's how I've learned. And also be an optimist. Things are so bleak, and sometimes writing my little story can feel like I'm not contributing or doing anything or saying anything, but don't knock your story down because it's important.
"And look after yourself. If you do an all-nighter make sure that you sleep for the rest of the day. Self-care, very important."
Catastrophe creator Sharon Horgan
Actress and screenwriter Sharon Horgan teamed up with Rob Delaney to write (and star in) the sitcom Catastrophe. Her credits also include BBC3's Pulling, BBC2's Motherland and US comedy Divorce starring Sarah Jessica Parker.
"Industry tip: it’s a fickle business. Always have three or more things on the go. It will make it less devastating if/when you get a no. Also remember that there’s a hundred reasons why a project might get turned down. Doesn’t mean it’s not good. Don’t lose faith.
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Always have three or more things on the go. It will make it less devastating if/when you get a no.
"Really seriously only pitch an idea that you love, don’t pitch something because you think it’s the right time, or because it hasn’t been done before. You’ve got to live with it for a long time so you better bloody love it."
The End of the F***ing World's Charlie Covell
Charlie Covell is best known for adapting Channel 4 and Netflix's Bafta-nominated hit The End of the F***ing World. Aside from acting credits in Peep Show, Marcella and Cucumber, she's also written a couple of episodes of Banana and the black comedy film Burn Burn Burn.
"Know when to say “no” (politely, if possible) and know that it’s acceptable to say if you’re struggling with your workload. It’s not weakness to ask for help. During the process of writing The End of the F***ing World, I had a really debilitating bout of anxiety and OCD which was triggered by stress, and my agents and Clerkenwell were absolutely brilliant at looking after me and helping me get the job done without compromising my health.
Look after yourself and don’t lose perspective: it’s TV, not heart surgery.
"This job expands to fill whatever time you give to it — therefore, if you give it all your time it’s actually counterproductive, because you never have a moment to park things and unwind and be able to return to the writing with fresh perspective. This is essential to make your work better; I often find myself late at night, trying to solve something thinking 'Oh god – I have to stay up until I work this out,' and then go 'actually, sod it' and go to bed. More often than not, sleep and some time off from the problem helps you solve it.
"Look after yourself and don’t lose perspective: it’s TV, not heart surgery."
Coronation Street writer Debbie Oates
Playwright and screenwriter Debbie Oates has contributed more than 200 episodes of Coronation Street since 2002, including the live episode in 2015 which marked 60 years of ITV. Her other credits include episodes of Brookside, Robin Hood, Fat Friends, Primeval, and The Dumping Ground.
"Be patient, keep writing, it will develop your voice and give you material to draw on later. Be bold when writing your own work. Don’t try to imitate – you are already unique, no one else has lived your life or sees the world exactly as you do.
"In development, work with people you enjoy spending time with, on projects that will get you up in the morning – i.e. enjoy the process, because there’s rarely a product at the end. Don’t wait for confidence, it might never turn up. Ever."
Vanity Fair writer Gwyneth Hughes
Having started out as a newspaper journalist and moved into directing and screenwriting, Gwyneth Hughes recently adapted WM Thackeray's Vanity Fair for ITV. Previous works include 2014's Remember Me starring Michael Palin, and the Golden Globe-nominated BBC miniseries Five Days. Next up, is BBC2 drama Doing Money.
"You can write what you don't know, of course you can, but only as long as you do the work – which means, essentially putting lots of questions to people who do know!
"Always research the world of your story to within an inch of its life. The audience will find you out if your ship's not watertight.
Always research the world of your story to within an inch of its life.
"Writing is teamwork. Mostly, the producers who will read your stuff and suggest changes are not idiots. Even if their rewrite suggestions seem daft, they deserve close attention so that you, the writer, can come up with something better. It's your name on the tin, and wherever the good ideas come from, you'll get the credit as your script improves! Sometimes, mind you, they are idiots..."
Raised by Wolves writer Caitlin Moran
Writer Caitlin Moran penned the comedy drama Raised by Wolves based on her own upbringing. Her semi-autobiographical novel How to Build a Girl is being turned into a film starring Alfie Allen, Beanie Feldstein, Paddy Considine and Sarah Solemani, and is currently in post-production.
"Keep a notebook, and every time you think of something you haven’t seen on TV, write it down. That’s your world. That’s the blindspot male writers have. That’s your work. That’s going to be your pay-packet and your greatest joy – being the person who writes things no one else has before.
Keep a notebook, and every time you think of something you haven’t seen on TV, write it down. That’s your world.
"And all writers need to make sure they have a posturally correct chair, for the NINE HUNDRED HOURS A DAY THEY’LL BE SITTING AND TYPING – else their lower back will compact like plywood, and the first word of their Bafta speech, when they get onstage, will be 'Oooooof! Those stairs were steep.'"
Actor and writer Milly Thomas
Milly Thomas has written episodes for TV shows River City and Clique. Her plays include Clickbait and Dust, and she stars in upcoming drama The Feed.
"Truthful writing, fiction included, will hit you off the page like a punch to the face. It won't get on TV unless it's wrestled the people reading it, bored in an office, wrestled them to the floor.
"Your truth is the most powerful thing you've got and I spent a great deal of time people pleasing and I bitterly regret it and it was a period where I wasn't necessarily going anywhere. Because being polite and being a people pleaser are two completely different things, and I think if people ask you questions a truthful answer is the thing that people value."
Performance artist Bryony Kimmings
Multi-platform performance artist Bryony Kimmings was featured in Channel 4’s Sex Clinic: Artist in Residence. She's co-written (with Emma Thompson) the screenplay for new film Last Christmas, based on George Michael's iconic song.
"To be honest, a short is the way to get into [the industry]. There’s plenty of shorts competitions, and what we should be writing are those stories that we don’t hear.
The thing that’s most appealing now is voices unheard. So be radical and be bold.
"So [a] Japanese young female writer, or a young trans writer or young person of colour who wants to be a writer – whoever that is who’s marginalised within the industry: write about your own experience. Certainly don’t try and write about something you think makes a good film.
"The thing that’s most appealing now is voices unheard. So be radical and be bold. There are plenty of allies in that industry, particularly women."
Playwright and screenwriter Stacey Gregg
Stacey Gregg has previously written episodes of Riviera, The Innocents, The Frankenstein Chronicles, Coming Up, Raw, and Doctors. She also has several plays to her name, one of which may soon become a BBC drama.
"Have patience, it is such a slow industry. I find that really hard. I remember when I first was commissioned and people were like, 'Oh, maybe it'll be made two years down the line.' And I was like: I could be dead by then! I just literally couldn't handle it. But there's loads of stories out there of people who have had stories or scripts knocking around for years and they finally find a home. It's not about you a lot of the time, it's about finding a home. The right set of circumstances."
Derry Girls writer Lisa McGee
Lisa McGee is the writer behind the hugely popular Channel 4 drama Derry Girls. Her other TV credits include Being Human, London Irish, The White Queen, and Indian Summers.
"I would say get your script finished and get it out there. Then try to find the right people to work with, people who share your vision, and who want to create the best version of it rather than change it.
"Learn the difference between a good note and a bad one. A good note can be invaluable, a bad one is always dangerous."
The Long Song's Sarah Williams
Sarah Williams is perhaps best-known for co-writing royal drama Wallis & Edward and 2007 feature film Becoming Jane. She's adapted the novels Poppy Shakespeare and Small Island for TV, and later this year her new drama The Long Song will premiere on BBC1.
"Hone your pitch. So that your idea can be told in a few sentences in a meeting/elevator/short email. Incorporate not just what it’s about, but why only you can tell it this way, why it’s a story no-one else has told and why now is the time for it to be heard. If the first three people hate your pitch, keep going, don’t be disheartened. However if thirty people turn it down… maybe get a new pitch?
"If commissioned, celebrate. But also remember that this is when the real work starts and lots of other people will suddenly have ideas and want input into your project. Remember screenwriting is much more about collaboration than for example writing novels or plays. You need to develop the skill of working with people, while still protecting the heart and soul of your idea.
Hone your pitch. So that your idea can be told in a few sentences in a meeting/elevator/short email.
"And support. Connect with other women writers and swap stories, tips and contacts. Connect with male writers. Find a mentor. Go on writing courses. Try collaborating. Being a writer can be lonely work and there can be a lot of knock-backs. Make sure you have a network of close friends and supporters who think you are great."
Nighty Night's Julia Davis
Writer and actress Julia Davis is perhaps best-known for writing and starring in BBC3's Nighty Night, as well as Sky comedies Hunderby and Camping. Her other on-screen credits include Gavin & Stacey, Love Actually and Four Lines, and her latest project is titled Sally4Ever.
“It’s about believing in your own ideas and following what you honestly think, whatever it is, and be true to yourself if it’s funny or sad or moving. Don’t try and write something you don’t know anything about, or to write to please somebody else.”