Script Editing Needs to Evolve

It is time for script-editing to evolve. When I say evolve, I mean it’s time for script-editing to move away from guesswork and opinions. We need more professional ways to educate and empower the script development team.

A hallmark of the professional screenwriter is the ability to take notes stoically. Screenwriters are taught to park their egos. They should remove their feelings from the development process. This is a concept I agree with, script development is a process that requires humility. There is a problem. We don’t ask the same level of detachment and humility from script-editors.

For the process to evolve, this needs to be a two-way process. Writer’s need to see the giving of notes as a beneficial and helpful part of writing. Script-editors need to give notes that are more than well-intentioned opinions.

what’s wrong with script-editing at the moment?

Some of my best and worst experiences, as a writer, have been due to script-editors.  A really inspiring script-editor me how my weaknesses obscured my strengths. She started me on a life-long path of education and experimentation.  I have also had notes that were useless. They were nothing more than inventories of the script-editor’s personal tastes and opinions.

I’ve spent years thinking about script-editing. What is it for? How is it done? Who goes into the profession? I have come t conclusions about why it is such a problematic profession. I also know how to fix it.

I think script-editing as a profession has three major problems:

  1. The wrong kind of people go into script editing
  2. Far too many script editors can’t tell the difference between their opinions and facts
  3. Script-editing lacks a coherent methodology for understanding scripts

For script-editing to evolve we need to solve all of these problems.

1. remove “I’m a better writer” syndrome from the profession

The worst notes I’ve ever had were from people who want to play at being the writer. They’re not really interested in editing.

People who aren’t sincerely motivated in their desire to help writers need to reevaluate what they’re doing. If you don’t want to help stop giving notes for a living.

The feedback ego-driven script editors can be summed up in the sentence, “If I was writing this, I would change the story to this, and alter these characters in this way.” The subtext of these notes is always “Do what I say, because I am a better writer than you.”

I have yet to see anyone take the “I’m a better writer” approach to script-editing whose opinion was worth a damn. Proscriptive notes are less than useless. A script-editor should NEVER tell the writer how to rewrite the script. It should be obvious why this practice is counter-productive, but just in case it isn’t… firstly, it’s just plain rude to rewrite someone’s ideas unless they’ve asked you to. It implies you believe you’re a better writer than the person you’re giving notes to. It also suggests the script’s creator should give up their creative role to become a glorified typist for your ideas.  It’s almost impossible for a writer with any kind of integrity to follow these kinds of notes. Proscriptive notes don’t improve the project and they don’t help the writer.

Producers and Writers need stop hiring script-editors whose starting point is “I am a better writer than the client.”  Even if it’s true, it’s counterproductive.  The note giving process should inspire the writer to find creative solutions to problems in their script.  That can’t happen when the script-editor believes their job is to co-write or rewrite the project.

2. opinions aren’t facts, and shouldn’t be treated like they are

Far too many script consultants act like their opinions are facts. Their approach to note-giving is about the value of their opinions. This approach to script-editing needs to be seen for what it is, an exercise in futility.

If the script-editor has a feel for storytelling, this kind of approach to script-editing isn’t as bad as the “I’m a better writer.” method. But that’s a big if, and it’s still not a productive way to work.

If a script-editor says “I think the script will work better if we strengthen the antagonist,” that may or may not be true. Even if it’s right, it’s less useful than you might imagine. What does “strengthen the antagonist” actually mean? Does it mean the writer should beef up the jeopardy in the action sequences? Does it mean the protagonist isn’t being challenged enough? Does it mean the script-editor prefers an antagonist with big muscles?

There are other problems with opinion based note-giving. The reader’s gut feeling, that the script’s issues are related to the weakness of the antagonist, might throw the writer onto a false path. After all, they are expressing an opinion. But, opinions are always tainted by personal preferences. So, a script-reader who prefers strong female leads is always going to look for writers to create those kinds of roles. A script-editor who likes cinema to be action driven, may see an antagonist’s emotional journey as a distraction, rather than seeing the benefits. Ultimately, script-editors opinions really aren’t as useful as they believe they are. 

Actually, my experience of working with script-editors is that their instinct that something isn’t working is usually spot on. It’s only when they give opinions about what the problem is, that their input become less useful.

There is another problem with opinion based script-editing. Far too many script-editors base their opinions on their pet theory about how to tell a story. So, a script editor who says “the mid-point reversal isn’t working,” is saying categorically that Syd Field’s theories about how act structure works should be treated as gospel. They’re also clinging to the belief that fixing the structural issues will automatically create a better story.  In many ways, script-editors who are devoted to a specific theory about storytelling are the worst to work with. Not only do they believe their opinions are facts, they also believe their guru’s system has all the answers. My experience is that solutions based on conforming to a structural theory rarely make the project better.

3. script-editing needs a coherent methodology

Once you remove prescriptive advice about how to rewrite, and opinions, what’s left for script-editors to contribute? That, in my opinion, is the one question the industry ought to be asking. Answering that question would transform the script development process and drag it out of the “best guess, my opinion” era.

For script-editing to evolve it needs to develop a methodology which helps writers (and producers) to understand the script, and also inspires the writer to find their own solutions to the script’s problems.

I’ve spent years looking for ways to turn script-editing into a profession which can consistently and professionally help writers (and producers) to create better scripts. And, in the past year I’ve developed a way of script-editing which completely transforms the process. A way to show writers (and producers) exactly what’s going on in the script, which not only shows the internal workings of the script, but also gives the writer insight into how to rewrite. And, all this is accomplished without me expressing any opinions about the script, or providing any solutions.  I’m really excited about this, as you can imagine.

Any producers who wants to talk to me about the new era script-editing can contact me here.

For obvious reasons I can’t share my process. I’ve spent years developing and it’s how I make a living. But, what I will share is this. My early efforts to develop a methodology started with two core ideas:

  1. A script-editor should ask questions, rather than give opinions
  2. Asking “what does the audience learn from this moment?” is the key to understanding where scripts fail

There is enough information in those two ideas to put anyone really interested developing a 21st Century approach to script-editing on the right path.

Anyone serious about script development, and a script-editor’s role in that process, should think very seriously about how we, as an industry, can work to increase the professionalism of script-editing. In my opinion, we need to chase out the idea that notes either tell the writer what to change, or be a list of well-informed opinions. Although those approaches may bring some benefits, ultimately they turn project development into a guessing game.

As an industry we need to develop approaches to script-editing which inspire the writer to solve the problems in the script, by making the workings of the script transparent. And, the key to this process is for those of us who work as script-editors to develop some humility. We need to get past the idea that we are being paid for our opinions. Instead we need to embrace the challenge of making the workings of the script transparent.

We need to remember, we are hired to serve and inspire the writer, and the project. A great script-editor puts the development of the project and the writer above all other concerns.

It is possible for script-editing to evolve and to serve the industry better than it does at the present. And this evolution, from “opinion driven” to “script transparency” needs to happen right now.

Anyone wanting to consult with me as a script-editor can contact me here

For More Screenwriting Techniques

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For more techniques to improve your screenwriting Clive has written a ground-breaking book called The Process of Screenwriting.

There is a free sample and other useful handouts here.