Scriptwriting: Fail early, work harder

Stephen J Cannell was one of the most prolific screenwriters and TV directors, creating (often with creative partner Frank Lupo) classics such as “The A Team”, “The Rockford Files” and “21 Jump Street”.

Yesterday, looking for good advice to pass on about scriptwriting – I came across him speaking on his career and was transfixed.

Video 45 minutes

In this video, posted by WGBH Studio, he gives 45 minutes of description of his life and writing process.  As you would hope from a storyteller, he tells it well.  Do watch it.  If you truly can’t spare the 45 minutes, then below are a FEW helpful pointers from it, but without the storyteller’s verve and passion.

Dyslexia – fail early

Stephen was extremely right-brained and creative through school – and also very dsylexic – as a result, he kept being put back a year in Primary School (Kindergarten in America).  Despite problems spelling, he loved story.  In College, he found he loved a writing class, with a broadminded tutor who was unfazed by random spellings and in fact privately told Stephen that he had a very unusual skill for storytelling.  The plus point of dyslexia was that when Stephen began writing and submitting scripts and receiving rejections, he was unperturbed, as he had got used to rejection aged 5.  He just carried on, regardless.

Work Harder

Stephen figures that most people put as little energy into work as they can get away with – whereas, he worked out the maximum he could put in.   He treated writing as another job, and wrote every day.  He figured he might not write as well as he’d like on some days, but he turned up to the typewriter for the given time he had committed himself to, anyway, and wrote as best he could.

“Young writers today don’t assign a high priority to their work – it’s something they do when they aren’t doing anything else… that’s not being a writer.  You got to do it when you got stomach flu.”  


“Your job should be to support yourself and then high prioritise your writing time – If you have any talent – you will get better and better and you’ll walk right away from everybody else who’s just doing it when they feel like it.”


“If you assign a high priority to your goals – I don’t care what they are – you will achieve your goals – you will, because nobody else is going to do that – you’re going to be one of the very very few that will assign a high priority to your dreams.”

Writing Schedule

The schedule he set himself while working a full-time day job:

Monday-Friday   Daytime work, then write 5.30 until 10.30 (5 hours)

Saturday & Sunday  Write for 7 hours (he called that a ‘half-day”)

“You must not give up on yourself”

Eventual Success

This self-set apprenticeship lasted about 6 years until he gained an agent who really liked his work and was excellent at baking cookies.  This was critical – producers and directors welcomed her pitches because she’d bring gifts of her delicious baking and pitch them writers and scripts as they ate.

Creative Takeaway

How many hours do you turn up and make your creative work?

Looking at Stephen’s schedule, are you inspired to find more time?


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