Giving notes on writers’ scripts is a delicate process, requiring clarity of thought, nerves of steel and a diplomatic sensibility. The script editor needs to be a clear thinker, expert communicator and in possession of highly tuned diplomatic skills if they are to serve the production.
The John Yorke Story experts have compiled a comprehensive list of dos, don’ts and advice to help you navigate the tricky process of helping a script get better with each draft.
- Your job is to give the writer an indication of how much work is needed for the next draft. Think of it like the plumbing in a house – have all the radiators got to be moved and a new boiler installed, or is it simply moving one tap and a lick of paint? The scale of the job ahead is an essential indicator for a writer.
- It’s the writer’s script. Not yours. Your job is to steer/guide them, not to imagine how much better the script would be if you had written it.
- Read the script properly. Know the script. It’s respectful.
- Only give notes to a writer that make a script better. If your notes make a script different, and not better, don’t give them.
- Begin notes with a positive introduction listing the things that you like, and the things that work well. Don’t just launch into all the things that haven’t worked.
- Keep notes clear, concise, constructive and do-able.
- Only sweat the big things. Don’t give notes on minutiae.
- Avoid sweeping generalisations – give precise examples.
- Try to be as joyful and passionate about the writer’s script as you can be. There’s nothing worse than getting notes from someone who doesn’t feel any excitement for the story a writer is telling.
- Let the writer know they’ve done something right. Praise the good things – please!
- Give brief notes in writing first, and follow up with a phone call or face-to-face meeting to discuss in detail. Always.
- Start with your big notes, and then work your way down to your smaller notes.
- Always throw questions back to the writer – it helps to engage and involve them in the notes process. So, suggest that something doesn’t work for you, and ask the writer for help solving/suggestions to fix. That makes it a process of working together rather than one of dictating opinion.
- Know the note you are giving. For example, don’t waffle on for ages about actors and performance, just say ‘I worry that some stage directions are unplayable’. That’s enough for most writers to know what’s wrong with a script.
- Remember your job is to send a writer away enthused at the prospect of writing a new draft.
- Don’t lie to writers.
- Don’t over-egg the pudding – if something doesn’t work, just say: ‘I’m not convinced XYZ worked. Can we have a look at it please?’. Be brief and to the point.
- Don’t dictate to a writer – allow them to work out a solution to a problem for themselves, and let them fix the issues. Help them with this process, discuss, give pointers, but never dictate. It’s a collaboration.
- There’s nothing more likely to get a writer’s back up than giving them notes on spelling, grammar, formatting – and not giving good story notes instead. This is a clear sign of an editor who cannot see the bigger picture. You will immediately lose a writer’s respect.
- All a writer wants to know is what works, what doesn’t work and how to fix it.
- Don’t give every note – judge how much a writer can cope with in one session. You may have to hold some of the smaller stuff back.
Working with writers
- Sometimes writers may behave badly, defensively or cry. It is your job to show compassion. Never allow yourself to be treated badly, but also understand that sometimes bad behaviour is a sign of insecurity. It’s rarely personally directed at you. Make writers feel safe in your hands.
- Every writer is different. No one set of rules/processes fits all. Learn each writer’s foibles.
- Remember, if you tell a writer that they’ve written something beautiful, delicate and nuanced they are unlikely to remember it. If you tell a writer that something isn’t very good, they’ll never forget it. Be mindful that writers take things personally, and latch onto negativity. Without lying, it is your job to keep a writer motivated, excited and positive.
- Be aware of saying things like ‘Can we brainstorm?’ to a writer – it’s their script, and they need to have ownership of it. However, what you could say is something like: ‘I wasn’t convinced that XYZ worked. Could we possibly have a quick chat about it to see if there are any other ways of doing it?’. This keeps ownership in the hands of the writer.
- You don’t have to be the writer’s best friend, but you do have to be on their side. Work with them, encourage them.
- The TV industry is cruel. It is your job to be a firewall against that cruelty. Writers should never know about the politics.
- Two sides of A4 is enough – you should be able to fit all your notes onto one side of A4. Two is the absolute maximum. I’ve seen mammoth sets of notes given to writers – 20 or 30 pages. This does nothing but demoralise a writer.
At the end of the day…
- Your job is to make sure that the script gets better with each draft.