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The writer who practises the craft of screenwriting is known as a screenplay writer (also known as screenwriter for short), scriptwriter, or scenarist. Screenplay writers are responsible for the creation of screenplays that are used to create mass media such as films, television shows, and video games.

Screenwriting is a career that is performed on a freelance basis. To work as a professional screenwriter, no formal schooling is needed; instead, strong narrative skills and creativity are required. Screenwriters are not salaried workers, but rather independent contractors. It is estimated that 90% of screenwriters begin their careers working on conjecture (spec) and as a result, they write without being employed or compensated for their work. If a screenplay of this kind is sold, it is referred as as a spec script. One distinction between a professional screenwriter and an amateur screenwriter is that professional screenwriters are often represented by a talent agency. Amateurs are not. In addition, professional screenwriters are seldom willing to work for free, while amateur screenwriters are often willing to do so and are referred to as "writers in training." Spec scripts are typically written by unknown professional screenwriters or amateur screenwriters who are not known to the production team.

Although there are many would-be screenwriters who seek to get into the film business, it typically takes years of trial and error, failure, and tenacious perseverance before they find their way into the spotlight. Michael Hague writes in his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, that "Screenplays have become for the latter half of the twentieth century what the Great American Novel was for the first half of the twentieth century: a kind of literary classic. Closet authors who formerly dreamed of the pleasure of seeing their work in print are now dreaming of seeing their work on the big or small screen, and vice versa."