Answering a recent question, I made the following unqualified assertion:

Six weeks is a long time. I say this not to panic you, but to make sure you understand that employable screenwriters need to be able to produce on demand.

In the comment thread that followed — and subsequent emails — many readers wondered exactly how long was too long, and what was a reasonable timeframe in which a screenwriter should be expected to deliver a script. So let’s try to answer those questions.

When a screenwriter is hired to write a project (like Shazam!, or Big Fish), the contract generally allows for a 12-week writing period for the first draft. Subsequent rewrites and polishes are given shorter time period, anywhere from eight weeks to two weeks.

In practice, I’ve never seen these contractual writing periods enforced. 1 Rather, a few weeks into the process, a producer or studio executive calls the screenwriter and the following conversation takes place:

PRODUCER

So, how’s the writing going?

WRITER

Good. Good.

PRODUCER

I know it’s early, but do you gotta sense of when you’re going to be finished?

WRITER

Umm....

PRODUCER

Just ballpark, like, end of January? Start of February?

WRITER

Yeah. Absolutely.

PRODUCER

Great. Great. Because I know the studio’s really excited to see it, and it would be great to get it in around then.

WRITER

Shouldn’t be a problem.

PRODUCER

I’ll just check in with you in a coupla weeks, make sure everything’s going okay.

I’ve encountered some version of this conversation on every project I’ve written. Follow-up phone calls try to narrow the time frame down even more, with the goal of getting you to deliver the script on a Thursday or Friday so everyone can read it over the weekend.

I’m hesitant to give a firm number for how many weeks it should take to write a script. Every project is different. Big Fish took me the better part of four months, while Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was three weeks. But part of the reason Charlie was only three weeks was because that’s all the time there was. There was already a release date, and sets were being built.

And that points to the better question to ask: How quickly should a professional screenwriter be able to turn around a script, given some urgency? In my experience, the most successful screenwriters are the ones who are able to accurately estimate how much time they’ll need. That’s part of the craft, just like a cabinetmaker promising a delivery date. For my work on Iron Man, I told them exactly how many days it would take to address certain issues, and delivered pages every night.

For feature films, I’d be reluctant to hire a writer who couldn’t deliver a script in eight weeks. For television, writers sometimes have less than a week to get a one-hour episode written. You’d like to give every writer as much time as she needs, but in my experience, the deadline is often the main force getting the script finished.

  1. In a few cases where a movie was rushing to production, my contracts have had special language like “Time is of the essence” or similar, which I suspect is a giant flashing arrow to indicate that the studio really would consider withholding payment if delivery were late.