Proofreading Q&A panel – part 1

April 18, 2017
Tammy Gross

Tammy Gross

bill.and.puppy.girl.cropped (1)

Bill Donovan and friend (Bill’s the less hairy one)

When you read a script, it’s not just about “Do I find this story interesting?” or ” Why should I care about these characters?”. There’s also “Does it look like a professional script?”

That’s where proofreading comes in handy.

This week offers up a 2-part panel discussion with professional proofreaders Tammy Gross of and Bill Donovan of to discuss proofreading and its connection with screenwriting.


How exactly does one proofread a screenplay? What are some of the things you’re looking for?

Tammy Gross (TG): That’s a loaded question! For me it boils down to what I call “the language of screenplay.” Spec screenplays need to be streamlined, devoid of technical distractions and written in a cinematic style that transports the reader to the theater.

And, of course, it’s my job to fix all the “errors.” In context, misspellings and bad grammar are often intentional and work better than perfect grammar and spelling conventions. However, you gotta know the rules to break them. And there are many ways to format some things, though the best is always whatever is clearest, most economical, and relevant to the story.

My job is to make a screenplay easy, fast, and fun to read – and up to professional standards. So I look for anything that gets in the way of that.

Bill Donovan (BD): My service is a bit of a hybrid. I give some story and screenplay structure notes as well as proofread and copy edit. The proofreading/copy editing part covers:

— Typographical errors
— Spelling errors
— Grammatical errors
— Punctuation errors
— Capitalization errors
— Verb tense errors
— Sentence structure and clarity problems
— Basic formatting mistakes
— Cramming in too many words
— “Saying” when you need to show

What’s the difference between editing and proofreading?

TG: When it comes to screenplays, it usually is a matter of time and thoroughness. Proofreading should be the last step before submitting a screenplay to anyone for consideration. In a perfect world, a screenwriter will go through various phases of self-editing. Once it’s polished, it should probably receive a copy edit to have fresh eyes to catch all the formatting, consistency, and text issues. After it’s been cleaned up and the story is solid, it’s time for proofreading. And the depth of proof-editing depends on the writer’s level of proficiency.

I take it a couple steps further than most. First, I create a style sheet to ensure that preferences are observed and maintained throughout. I also work very hard to help the screenwriter understand the edits I’ve made so they can grow in their craft. I’ve seen writers improve from script to script as a result. Some have gone from disaster to master.

BD: There are key differences. Proofreading, strictly defined, is a bit more limited. It involves fixing actual errors, such as typos, missing words, missing punctuation or wrongly-placed punctuation, capitalization errors and other outright mistakes. Copy editing covers all of those mistakes and also addresses larger issues of clarity, such as fixing a sentence or paragraph which may be grammatically correct but is vague.

I have great difficulty leaving a badly-written sentence or paragraph alone even when it might be okay in strict proofreading terms. Since I make my changes in colored type, I figure that the writer can go in and change it back if he/she prefers his or her own phrasing.

For example, some of my clients write much of their scene description in partial sentences. That’s fine if you can do it well. However, most of the writers who come to me do not write partial sentences well. The meaning is clear to them because they know what they mean. However, if it’s not clear to the reader, I fix it or give the writer a note suggesting that he or she fix it.

A lot of writers might say “I can do just as good a job proofreading it myself.” Your response?

TG: In nine years I’ve read only one screenplay that was error-free, including shorts. The biggest mistake even the most experienced writers make is assuming that because they understand some mechanics, they have a full grasp of format. While everyone claims there are no “rules”, there really are guidelines that are basically rules. Very few writers can keep up with the latest standards the way I and other professionals (hopefully) do.

My favorite trick for self-editing is to simply read backward from bottom to top. But it won’t catch everything. Most quality scripts go through many revisions and rewrites. It’s bound to pick up some introduced errors along the way that you become blind to.

BD: If you’re very good at English language usage, and if you’re an experienced editor, and if you walk away from it for a while, and if you then focus on every word and every bit of punctuation for all possible mistakes from overall clarity down to missing commas, yes, you can.

But will you? For example: I’ve sent out email blasts for my proofreading service about 15 times in the past 15 months. Three times, recipients have written back, gleefully and snidely, “Ha-ha! I found a typo in your email blast.” They were right. How could I make such a mistake, in a blast advertising proofreading, when I have thousands of pages of experience as a proofreader and copy editor? I know exactly how: The mind tends to gloss over the tiniest little details of that which you have written yourself, and you become both tired of reading it and eager to get it out.

What are some common mistakes you usually see?

TG: I have a very long, and boring list of words and format issues I plan to turn into a book once I can figure out how to make it fun and simple to reference. The usual suspects: its/it’s, your/you’re, there/their/they’re, lie/lay. A baffling but common one is “draw” instead of “drawer.” Possibly the biggest peeve and most common issue is passive voice.

There’s also a zeitgeist in the editing world. One year something like “clinch” vs. “clench” needs fixing in every script (or manuscript) I read, then the next year everyone is misspelling or misusing “rifle” vs. “riffle.” It’s weird.

Also, some things in spec writing evolve, so things that were “mistakes” five years ago are perfectly normal or even preferred today. I work hard to keep up on the current trends and roll with the changes, but I’ll probably never accept “how r u” for spoken dialogue.

BD: This is the short answer. I maintain a document on common mistakes screenwriters make. It’s 14 pages of paragraphs and explanations. These are not in order of frequency, but are some of the most common:

1. The “Their, they’re, there” and possessives sort of grammar mistakes.

2. Missing commas. Commas are sneaky little creatures, always slipping away from your text where it needs one.

3. The worst, and surprisingly common, is the “Show, don’t say” mistake. John Vorhaus, author of The Comic Toolbox, summed it up perfectly:

“You could tell by his face he was thinking of Paris.”

But, of course, you can’t tell by his face what he’s thinking of. He could just as easily be thinking about a juicy cheeseburger.

4. Specifying shots. In film school, they used to say that you learn to write by directing and you learn to direct by editing. You don’t learn to direct by writing, so the decision on shots should be left to the director 95% of the time. Even when a closeup is required in order to provide closeup information, it can be done without saying “CLOSEUP” or “CU”. I don’t tell writers not to specify a closeup, but another way to do it is a separate paragraph describing the content of the closeup. The director will get the idea.

5. Run-together sentences. Even grammatically-correct compound sentences can be bad choices when they gloss over the action. They forego the opportunity to emphasize great moments. One way to “direct the director” without specifying shots is to write a separate paragraph for each camera setup.

For example:

“Jack kisses Jill and they walk off into the sunset.”


“Jack kisses Jill. Their lips lock, long and loving.”

“They break the kiss. Grasping hands, they turn, and walk off into the sunset.”

New writers tend to rush through both the blocking of scenes and the emotions of the moment. In contrast, a recent client of mine, a produced director and stage director, wrote a comedy screenplay so precisely that many of his descriptions were delivered with punch lines in visual jokes. It was marvelous to read.

6. Writing in present participle rather than present tense. A screenplay is action taking place NOW. Sometimes, present participle (“Jack is standing”) is unavoidable because it’s needed for clarity. However, if Jack pulls out a gun and then pulls the trigger, then “Jack shoots,” not “Jack is shooting.”

7. Incorrect use of ellipses.

8. Incorrect parentheticals. If a character does something before speaking or after speaking, it doesn’t belong in the parenthetical; it belongs in the scene description.

9. Failure to do research. When laws, government regulations, and historical events are mentioned, they should be correct. I’ve seen two screenplays in which the writers had significant plot turns saying that under HIPAA, they couldn’t get their own medical records because they were company secrets. It’s the other way around.

My list has quite a few more. Again, the “common mistakes” reference I’ve created is 14 pages long and growing.

Do you have a “most memorable” example of writing that was in severe need of proofing?

TG: My very first client almost scared me off from doing this. I put my website up in the middle of the night and a guy in Australia emailed me almost immediately. He sent me a Word file filled with something more like ideas or musings about some stuff in outer space. No formatting. No story. I don’t think there were even any characters or dialogue. Fortunately, my second client wasn’t high after a long walkabout (that I know of) and let me cut my teeth on a good script in Final Draft (my favorite, though I work in every program under the sun).

BD: Yes, and no. I just turn back the “most memorable” with notes suggesting to the writer what should be done before hiring me to proofread the work. For example, I recently sent back a feature script that was 195 pages with the suggestion that it be cut to 115.

Part 2 will post on Friday

Psst! Your desperation is showing

March 21, 2017

Liz knew the value of taking one’s time

Seeing as how I post links to this blog on a few social media and networking sites, it’s inevitable that word about it will continue to spread across the globe (even more than it already has, apparently).

So along with global recognition (which is always nice), this also attracts attention from those with an idea for a story, a dream of hitting it big, and pure, unbridled ambition.

Those that have all of the above seem to be actively seeking me out, as I have once again received an out-of-the-blue request/plea for some screenwriting assistance.

A writer asked if I would take a look at their script, adding that English wasn’t their first language, so that part might still need some work. Even though this was their first script, they felt it was ready to go and if I liked it enough, they’d be willing to share the rights or even give full ownership to me.

They also included the logline and a few personal details about really, really wanting to move to the US so they can make it in the film industry.

One of my guiding tenets is to never insult or belittle somebody, nor do I have any desire to ridicule somebody for pursuing their dream. Tough as it was, I felt I had to explain a few hard truths to them.

-First, about the script itself. “Everybody’s first script is always bad. Always. I say this not to be discouraging, but from experience (both mine and from others). DO NOT expect me to read it and say it’s perfect, because it won’t be. When you’re starting out, you have to realize what you don’t know and be willing to learn from your mistakes.”

-About wanting to move to the US. “It takes a VERY long time to have anything happen. Focus on studying and improving your craft. Fortunately, that’s something you can do at home. Join some online writing groups. Network. Be friendly. Don’t just start with “Hi. Can you help me?” Nobody likes that.”

This was their response:

“Thanks for getting back to me. I really appreciate your advise. I know that everything you said is true. So I understand. I know you are trying to help me. I know it’s bad to ask help at the first moment I get to know someone. So I won’t do that again. I’m really grateful that I got to know you. Thanks again for your support.”

If you’re like me, you totally get where this person is coming from. They want it so bad it hurts. And that this is something that takes an excrutiatingly long time for anything to even happen just makes it that much harder to endure.

We all know this is not an easy or overnight process; there are no short cuts or quick fixes. It takes time to learn how to this right, so patience is an absolute necessity. But if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, then you’ll eventually start to see results.

Doesn’t get any cheaper than this

February 3, 2017

Our helpful staff is ready to assist you!

As my network of fellow screenwriters has expanded over the past few years, I’ve become more active with exchanging script notes with some of them. It’s a pretty even split between me approaching them first, and vice versa.

From my perspective, the whole thing has been quite helpful and I think my scripts are definitely better for it. And as far as I know, none of the other writers have any complaints about my notes. If they do, they’re not saying anything.

It’s gotten to the point where every once in a while, an email will pop up from one of these folks asking if I could look over their latest draft and offer up my two cents. I’m fairly certain I’ve never said no.

Full confession: it usually takes me a little longer than I expect to get it done, but I do make a point of getting it done. I try to extend the same courtesy to them that they would to me.

I bring all of this up because I had a great catching-up coffee chat with a writer yesterday; somebody I haven’t seen since last summer. We shared what’s been going on with our respective projects, and I mentioned finishing/sending off some notes.

“Do you charge for that?” they asked.

No. It’s just an exchange, and I like helping out when I can.

“That’s really generous of you to give up your time like that. Have you thought of charging for notes?”

Of course, but I don’t consider myself qualified to. If I was a working writer and had a couple of produced features under my belt? Maybe.

I’ve always found the bios of professional consultants and readers to be pleasantly diverse and equally fascinating. Almost all of them have spent time working in the industry, many having read or given coverage on thousands of scripts.

Me? I can’t make the same claims. I’ve read a lot of scripts, but nowhere near those numbers, and a large percentage of my time has been (and continues to be) focused on honing my writing skills.

They have a fairly solid grasp of what works and what doesn’t, and provide much more insightful comments than I believe I could.

All things being equal, I’d say my analytical skills have definitely improved over time. I don’t know what kind of pro reader/consultant I’d be, but for the time being, I’ll stick to the friendly no-cost, between-writers exchange.

As mentioned earlier, I like helping when I can, and will continue to appreciate any opportunity to read an associate’s script in order to give them notes that will in theory help them make it better.

*personal note – this is my 800th post. Thanks for being part of the journey, and hope you’ve enjoyed it. I certainly have.

Try the direct approach

December 9, 2016

Nice to see you again. Mind if I ask you something?

Sometime last week, I received a very nice compliment via on online forum regarding the quality of the script notes I give. A mutual associate of ours chimed in with the grumbly “Well, he never does it for me.”

To which I responded “Because you never ask.”

I don’t know what this writer’s standard M.O. is for getting notes, but from what I can gather, usually involves them posting “Anybody want to read my stuff?”

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the drawback is you run the risk of getting feedback from somebody with less experience than you, or worse, has no idea what they’re talking about.

This is why networking and establishing relationships with other writers is so important. If someone posted a generic request for a read, I’d be less inclined to respond. Even if I knew the person. I figure they’ll probably get a few other responses, so why bother?

But if someone came to me specifically and said “If you have the time, would you be able to read this?”, I wouldn’t hesitate to say yes. This shows me that they value my experience and opinions, along with respecting that I can’t simply drop everything to accommodate them. They’ll also include an offer to read something of mine, if I’m interested.

Sometimes I’ll get an email asking me for a read, and it might be because of any number of reasons. They’ve read my stuff before and think this new script is similar. They know I have an eye for fill-in-the-blank. All of this could only have come from myself and this other writer having already established a good professional relationship.

While I always encourage writers to get out there and network, it’s also important to build on those connections once you’ve got them. You don’t have to become somebody’s best friend, but being supportive or offering the occasional words of encouragement really go a long way. Plus, people are much more likely to remember that sort of thing, adding to the likelihood they’d be willing to help you out.

More than often I’ve read about another writer’s projects and introduce myself, tell them how I found them (usually via the forums) and of my interest in the script in question, then ask if they’re cool with me taking a look at it. It’s a rare occurrence when someone says no.

Both of you are writers constantly striving to improve, and some good, solid feedback can play a big part in that. And that can be best achieved by getting to know other writers and treating with the same respect you’d expect to be treated with yourself.


You don’t know me, but can you help me?

November 22, 2016

Let’s not complicate things with petty details like who I am

So this email arrived yesterday.

“Hi, Paul, Do you know any past or current Executive Producers that might be eager to engage in a new multi-billion dollar franchise that could be as good as “Harry Potter” or “Star Wars”?”

Immediate smartass answer: Well, of course I do, person-I’ve-never-communicated-with-before! I like the cut of your jib, especially with that totally unsolicited request for help! I’ll pass your info along straightaway! Even though I think smoking is a totally unhealthy thing, I’m going to learn how just to be able to literally light cigars with hundred-dollar bills which I’ll be grabbing out of the huge bags o’cash which will no doubt be continuously rolling in once Hollywood gets its mitts on this!

Secondary upon-reflection answer: Do you really think this is the best approach?

Sure, we’ve been connected on a networking site for several years, but as far as I can recall, have had absolutely no interaction during that time. No emails. No comments on a post. Not even a single “Hey, how’s it going?” And then, totally out of the blue, you come to me and ask for help.

I’m more than happy to help somebody out when I can, but it has to be somebody I know, somebody I’ve communicated with, and somebody I think is worth helping. Apart from this nebulous “connection” we have, to me you’re little more than a total stranger.

And you’re not asking for just any kind of help. You have what you proclaim to be “the next big thing”. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard or read that about a script/story/idea, I’d be able to fund my own franchise.

It’s great that you have a high opinion of your material, as you should, but keep in mind you might be the only one who does. You can prognosticate all you want, but that’s not going to impact anything. You can’t say something’s going to be a hit because you want it to be.

I’m still a little fuzzy on the details, but I think the title “Executive Producer” depends on the extent of that person’s involvement with the project. Until then, I believe “producer” is the appropriate title. Feel free to enlighten the rest of us in the comment section.

Let’s also discuss the fact that you sent this to me. Me. Why? I’m not exactly Mr Industry Insider. In fact, I’m more likely in the same boat as you; a nobody busting his ass trying to establish a career. Did you know that? Did you do any research, or are you just sending this to as many people as possible, hoping one of them works out?

I never responded to the email in question, simply because I don’t think it’s worth it. I suspect anything short of “Here are those names you asked for” would not be welcome, let alone “This is a really unprofessional email, and here’s why”. As always, I wish them the best of luck.

I’ll admit I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, but each one has been a learning experience unto itself. I’ve learned how to network, how to communicate, and how to interact. I know how to seek out help and how to offer it. I’m a firm believer in researching and finding out everything I can about whatever it is I’m working on.

I always strive to be as professional as I can when it comes to this sort of thing. Everybody’s a potential future partner/connection/resource, but I don’t take it for granted.

I’ll treat you with respect provided you do the same.

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