23 Lessons for Writers I Learned in 2023…

From “the material is king” to staying “five pages ahead of the beast.”

Brock Swinson
12 min readJan 1, 2024

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It’s been a H-U-G-E year on the Creative Principles podcast. We published over 100 episodes with authors, screenwriters, actors, directors and musicians…

New fan favorites include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Anne Hathaway, Michael Jai White, Rich Cohen, Diedrich Bader, Mireille Enos, Tim Roth, Jim Gaffigan, and Bill Nye the Science Guy.

But, writing has always been the focus of the series. Here’s 23 tactical lessons from 2023 to help boost your writing productivity in 2024…

1. Stay “Fives Pages Ahead of the Beast…”

“With a play, you can tell the actor to try it differently tomorrow, but in this form, it’s frozen in time,” says screenwriter Branden Jacobs-Jenkins about his series, Kindred. “With a play, you have six weeks of rehearsal, so it feels rushed because you’re holding the whole event in your head. It’s crazy doing a TV show where you get through five pages in a day and that’s it. You always feel like you’re being pursued by a monster and you’re just trying to stay five pages ahead of the beast.”

2. “Create Meaningful Stories of Impact…”

As a storyteller, Sara Dosa (Fire of Love) sees many different roles as one job. “It’s akin to religion for me. Connected to the world. A feeling of humanity. The questions that ignite my mind. Different types of jobs in service of the same thing: creating meaningful stories of impact.” And for Sara, this means a deep passion for the work, but also a strong team of animators, writers, and editors around her.

3. “Look for Fresh Takes on Old Stories…”

For Christopher Landon’s latest project, We Have a Ghost comes from a short story called Ernest by Geoff Manaugh. For years, the screenwriter/director has been chasing this lightning bolt, trying to get the film made. “I knew immediately what it was. I felt like it was this Amblin (Steven Spielberg) opportunity for me. I grew up on those movies as well. It’s not that I wanted to write E.T. or something, but it was a fresh take on an old ghost story. I had never read anything quite like it. I fell in love with it and finally sold the pitch with the short story.”

4. Mix Genres Like “A Con Movie in Reverse…”

“For years, we had been talking about writing a con movie,” says Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka on their film, Sharper. “So when he found those pages, all he had to say was, ‘I was trying to figure out how to do a con movie in reverse,’ I immediately got it. Part of that is that we had been working together for so long that I knew what he was thinking.”

5. “View Every Scene with Gravitas…”

“View every scene with a gravitas, so you have a sense of the scene but you’re not necessarily spelling everything out,” says Lesley Paterson, screenwriter of All Quiet on the Western Front. Within this open space, the writers did show potential team members photographs and trench diary letters. “They always seemed to sort of encapsulate the emotion of what we were trying to get after. We had photographs and vision boards that we took to Directors and other Producers.” This look book somewhat helped them better sell their overall idea for what became the film. It also helped them stick it out while writing such bleak material. “I’ve grown up with monuments of men that lost their lives and there’s a responsibility to tell that story, so we can raise a discourse and have an impact. I think that was the motivating factor that kept me going through the darkness. You feel like you just have to tell this story. I can’t imagine what the mothers, the daughters, the wives…your entire town was decimated and there were no men left. I think that’s enough motivation to push forward.”

6. “The Material is King…”

“Let me describe the process. I started dating my wife. I’m a nineties New York City comic, so writing is everything. The material is king,” says comedian Jim Gaffigan. “The joke should be so good that you [a.k.a. the performance] is not important. Writing is the key element.” He continues, “It’s something where you would never farm it out. Its authenticity and the purity of the joke. You deliver it properly, but you would never collaborate. So I started dating my wife. She worked in sketch and theater and all that. The reality is, the collaboration began to happen. I would run things by her. She has a strong opinion. So it felt dishonest not to acknowledge this collaboration.”

7. Know “the Obligation of Truth…”

“I always feel an obligation to the truth when you’re dealing with real people who left real families behind. You want to get it right,” says Boston Strangler screenwriter Matt Ruskin. Of course, you have to take some liberties, usually in the form of oversimplifications, to paint a picture in an economical way.” If he ever felt stuck in any given scene, he would call a friend who worked in a newsroom to discuss the mechanics of the room. Or, with a character issue, he would call the children of the two real reporters for more character details.

8. “Write Glimpses of Empathy…”

“We wanted to make sure the audience didn’t abandon them, especially early on,” says Lee Sung Jin on the characters in Beef. As an example, Lee bought up The Sopranos pilot, where Tony beats someone up but then spends time with ducks in his pool. “That pilot is genius. It’s genius to put the ducks in there. No matter what Tony does, he spends some time caring about those ducks and suddenly, you love this guy. Similarly, for every asshole thing Amy or Danny does, we wanted to show glimpses of humanity, glimpses of empathy. That’s true of most people in this world. You catch someone at their worst, they’re going to look bad, but if you spend the whole day with them, they’re going to have glimpses of empathy.”

9. “Write So Well the Notes Are Limited…”

Going into the Harley Quinn animated series, conceptually, they wanted to do a workplace, ensemble comedy. “We always pitched it as ‘Mary Tyler Moore if she were a murderous psychopath.’” The studio was excited about the Mary Tyler Moore psychopath idea to get the ball rolling. Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker add, “We got some pushback at first. Are we being too irreverent about this IP, which is a funny note, but we tested the animatics for a couple of episodes — one that was particularly hard on Commissioner Gordon being an alcoholic — but we tested it in front of some self-described super fans and they loved it. Then they never gave us another note after that.”

10. Capture “the High Drama of Everyday Life…”

“Something we had to talk about a lot was the storytelling demands of the episode hour. We just wanted to do people that are living, without ‘soap stuff,’ or overarching concepts. We were stretching the boundaries of how little we could do, knowing we had an obligation to keep people interested.” To find this balance for Lucky Hank, Paul Lieberstein and Aaron Zelman say they rewrote every single episode about four times. “The thing that we kept coming back to is doing as little as possible. We didn’t want to throw in a murder. It was a challenge to keep the audience entertained without doing that stuff, but in my life, things feel pretty damn dramatic without a murder to solve. We wanted to have an audience go on that ride too.” To encompass all of this in one idea, the writers came up with the story drive, “The high drama of everyday life.”

11. “Never Push for Laughs…”

If one were to look for a common element across David West Read’s career, it’s character-driven comedy. “I’m not really a joke writer. I can’t crank out one-liners, but I love Christopher Guest movies, which is why I was so excited to work with Catherine and Eugene [on Schitt’s Creek]. They’re never pushing for laughs. They’re just being honest, truthful and committed. To me, comedy is all about commitment.” Looking back at his earlier work, he says he felt he just mimicked Christopher Guest or Ricky Gervais, but soon found his own voice. “I started to figure out who I am in the spectrum of comedy. Then you can trust your instincts a little more, but I think you just have to absorb so much and go through that period of imitation before you break through with your own individual take.”

12. “Make Mistakes But Learn From Them…”

“Do a lot of work, make a lot of mistakes, and learn from them,” says Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould. “That’s maybe the most difficult thing, to learn from the pain, be tenacious to make a living, but also be tenacious to get good at this stuff, to have your work come anywhere near what your hopes for the work are. And, finally, take pleasure in doing it because that’s ultimately — the doing of it — what has to be the biggest pleasure, not the stuff that you might imagine comes with doing it.”

13. “Animation is Not a Genre, It’s a Medium…”

“I think with Spider-Verse, we learned that animation is not a genre. It’s a medium. It might actually transcend more than live action,” says Maurice Williams and Ian Edelman on Entergalactic. “Early in the process, we said, ‘We are writing a show to animate. We are not writing an animated show. We went about it that way. The story has to hold up if we were shooting it downtown. We were responsible for how it felt. The feeling — [from Kid Cudi’s music] — is thematically what we were trying to do and we didn’t want to lose that in animation.”

14. Know “Your Pain is Your Gift…”

“I think you should write what you know,” says Michael Tennant. “[Pretty Problems] was very much a shared experience for me. I could feel my marriage wasn’t doing great. I was talking to a lot of my friends about the way their relationships weren’t working — male and female. I was looking at my work life and I started to get obsessed with the idea of potential. The problem of writing what you know is that you have to get big with it.” Tennant adds, “There’s this Rick Rubin idea that your pain is your gift. The thing that makes you sensitive or the thing that makes you unique in the world is your gift. But exposing that gift is really hard because we don’t want to open our veins up for people. And you have to be cautious about how you open your veins up for people.”

15. Craft Characters with “Weird Girl Feminism…”

For a show like Teenage Euthanasia, the first layer is probably “weird” but there are also aspects of “feminism” in the show. “I don’t know if feminism is the right word, but I think you can watch the show and tell women are heavily involved.” The creators — Alyson Levy and Alissa Nutting — wanted a “weird girl” feel to the show, both for viewers and female animators. “These are not conventional stories women tell. It’s not about dating. I think it fits into the grand cannon of adult animation, but it also comes naturally to us for our family to feel like a real family and not a joke machine. It is a very personal show and I think it does represent what we were trying to say about families, parents, daughters, and mothers.”

16. Create a “Cohesive, Apparent Style…”

“If what you’re looking for is having something made and something you can stay with as long as possible that you can steward your vision, do it in a way you can make it yourself, or partner with someone as early as possible who is going to realize that. As a new writer, it’s hard to get an A-list director on your side, but with screenwriting, you have to find someone who is on your side. It’s luck, but not like a lottery ticket, but a lottery ticket. The more raffle tickets you put in, the better chances you have,” says screenwriter Ed Solomon. “Then, the style needs to be cohesive and apparent. The characters that you’ve written, from the people who have two lines to the people who carry the movie, are characters that a really good actor would want to play. They need to feel real, feel whole, and be characters you as a writer feel. It’s about who is going to direct it and who is going to act in it. Are your characters compelling? That’s more important than your structure.”

17. Think About “the Subversive Sitcom Model…”

Artist and writer Nathan Pyle was invited to sit down with Dan Harmon and Steve Levy, known for Community, and of course, Rick and Morty. “I had some basic ideas of what it could look like as a TV show and they had some specific, tangible ideas. I knew it was the right partnership to take a webcomic and make it into a world.” The natural bridge the two prolific creators pitched came from Pyle’s original perspective for Strange Planet. “They understood that having the beings have conflict that arises from honesty was a really natural and succinct way to explain to other writers. The beings sit down at the beginning of the episode, square up with each other, and the conflict arises from there. That’s subversive because often in sitcoms, they’re honest at the end.”

18. Understand “the Good Kind of Scary…”

“It’s always scary to make something personal. It makes me cry now. I don’t have an appendage,” jokes writer-director Anna Zlokovic on her film Appendage. “But after it’s done, it’s not really yours anymore. The umbilical cord gets cut and you can start to sedate yourself. It’s the good kind of scary.” She advises other writers to share their personal stories rather than avoiding or being precious with those ideas. “Being precious with creative ideas is totally natural, but I found that it really held me back for a long time. My number one rule is not be precious and trust that you’re going to have more ideas.”

19. “Write Human Stories Despite the Genre…”

For Surreal Estate, like many ensemble shows, the writers first started by thinking about what a real life ghost-whispering real estate team might need. “They’d need a research guy, a tech guy, agents… it was going down those different roads that we created characters who interacted with the ghost of the day. That’s the formula we used,” says creator George Olson. “With this formula, they could have ghostly figures who have their problems solved in an episode and also have main characters who grow slowly across full seasons. “We can show more about their inner lives without being a straight procedural. It’s a strong commitment to characters, as they solve these problems, and look at human stories behind a haunting.”

20. “Connect to Your Inner Child…”

“I feel like I’m still chasing how those movies and those experiences made me feel. I’m trying to connect to that inner child,” says screenwriter Abe Forsythe. Blending the personal within the lanes of genre, the show is about an emotional wreck named Gary (Josh Gad) who struggles to provide for his daughter after the death of his wife. This is when he meets Mary (Isla Fisher), a woman with a howling secret she can’t bring herself to tell another being.

21. “Write a Movie You Want to See…”

BenDavid Grabinski tells screenwriters to “write a movie you want to see.” The writer of Scott Pilgrim Takes Off says, “Try to write something where people aren’t going to get bored and put it down. Be hard on your script. Be engaging. Is someone going to stop reading here?” “Making something readable and entertaining is very important. You’re asking someone to spend hours of their day staring at words on a screen. You want to keep their attention. That doesn’t mean it can’t be complicated or patient, but it should be as good as it can be.”

20. “Filter through Character First…”

For Season 2 of Loki, the goal wasn’t to make something different, but screenwriter Eric Martin took to his strength and leaned back into character. “In character terms, if I’m thinking of a scene, I’m always thinking, where is this person’s head… right now? Everything, I’m filtering through character first and emotions trying to let the characters tell us the story rather than force stuff upon them.”

21. Write “Grounded with a Bit of Dialogue…”

“I always wanted to write a Christmas movie and I knew if I did it would be set in Candy Cane Lane,” says screenwriter Kelly Younger. “I do try to start in a way that’s the most grounded. Who is our hero? What’s their problem? What do they want? What’s going to happen if they don’t get it? Why is this happening right now? What’s the reality for this character? I start grounded, but then I want a bit of magic, either the supernatural or the charmed.”

22. Focus on “Small, Real, Relatable…”

“When we started working on The Office, the thing we gravitated towards is small, real, relatable. How do you tell a story as small, real, and reliable as possible? That’s what we were always excited about.” Writing for The Office fundamentally changed — or perhaps just enhanced — Lee Eisenberg’s perspective on the small and relatable. “The other thing that changed our approach was writing for Jim and Pam. Sometimes, there were great jokes that came with that, but we were trying to tell a great, honest love story.”

23. “You Can’t Write Only on the Page…”

“Serial killer. Cheerleader. Bewitched snowman. It comes from the same place,” says writer-director Emerald Fennell (Saltburn, Promising Young Woman). It’s very helpful to have been an actor because there’s a rhythm to speech. There’s a rhythm to each character’s speech. You can’t write only on the page. I try to only write in my head for years and years. I go over scenes. I live in houses. I live in worlds.”

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