Proofreading Q&A panel – part 1

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 proofmyspec.com and Bill Donovan of screenwritingcommunity.net to discuss proofreading and its connection with screenwriting.

Enjoy.

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.”

Better:

“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

Q&A w/Phillip Hardy about Hosting vs DIY

Phil Hardy

Phillip E. Hardy is a four-time optioned screenwriter who also runs The Script Gymnasium script consultancy. His work has recently been presented to Jay Roach, William Morris Endeavor, Tyler Perry Productions and A&E Network. He has placed and won at 45 film festivals and contests including Page International, Austin Film Festival, Cannes Screenplay, Shore Scripts, Screencraft, Beverly Hills Film Festival and Sunscreen Film Festival.

Today’s post stems from a discussion between Phillip and myself regarding the benefits and drawbacks of posting your script on a hosting site or taking a more proactive role and doing the work yourself.

You’ve had some experience with both handling your own material and hosting sites. Do you find one to be more effective than the other, or is it more of a case-by-case basis?

I’ve had varying degrees of success with different hosting sites. But it’s a total crapshoot, especially with paid hosting and pitching sites. One of my colleagues swears by Virtual Pitchfest (VPF). And, at 10 bucks a pop for a pitch, they look attractive to writers on a budget.  I’ve done ten pitches at VPF and though I received some very good feedback on one of my period piece dramas, nobody at that website has requested a script read.

When I first started out, I used Project Greenlight (PG), which was expensive and the responses I received were very sloppy and unprofessional. I did get one read request from a video game company. But I would never use PG again. I know of nobody who has scored with them.

Don’t ask me about the Black List. Okay, I’ll tell you. I hate them and everything they stand for. However, if you wish to pay their reviewers (frustrated writers with their own axe to grind) seventy five dollars a pop to review your script, then that’s the site for you.

International Screenwriter’s Association is fairly inexpensive for a premium listing. However, anyone that uses them can call themselves a producer or director. I’ve made several connections there but they led me nowhere and have netted no financial remuneration.

I’ve also hooked up with a few folks on Craigslist (CL), which can be a real pain and you have to answer a lot of adds to get any action. One of the best connections I made on CL was with one of the stars of the TNT show “Falling Skies”. So you never know who you’re talking to but you should vet them out before sending them your scripts.

I’ve had my best luck at Inktip, which allows you to list a script for four months at a price of sixty dollars for four months. Producers at Inkitp shop loglines and will read your summary or request a script read if they’re interested in your spec material. For example, I had multiple logline reads today and two of them read the synopsis as well. However, a lot of Inktip clients troll loglines and do little else. I’ve had a number of script downloads, which have also netted zippo. However, the Inktip Newsletter has been much more effective for me. The price is the same as the listing. The difference is you can pitch producers looking for specific genres and concepts. I’ve also written pitches for these clients, which led to a script option and three right-to-shop agreements with a producer that got my work into the hands of some big time production companies and cable networks. I’ve also bullshitted people and told them I had scripts I hadn’t written yet. And then banged them out in a week. This method is not for the faint of heart.

I’m sure most writers know that Amazon Studios has an open door policy about submitting television and feature screenplays. Unfortunately, that door leads to oblivion. And if you can locate one unproduced writer that has something produced by Amazon, I’ll buy you lunch at my local Sonic drive-thru. Several months back, I did some research on this and could find no unproduced writers who have made it out of development purgatory. And by unproduced, I mean you’ve never had a big budget movie made from one of your screenplays.

Lastly, I’ve used Stage 32 for paid pitch sessions and gotten script requests from four major players including Ridley Scott Productions and Good Fear Management. But if you do a written pitch, you better make sure your logline is catchy, your synopsis is clear and concise and you include the character arc for your protagonist.

The bottom line is use any means possible to get your work into the hands of people you are looking to make movies.

If you’re going the DIY route, what methods have worked for you?

Smack-talkin’, bold action has worked best for me. I hooked up with several producers looking for projects by telling them I had scripts already written about things they were looking for, including a story about Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared in the Papuan Islands more than fifty years ago. In this particular instance, the producer was advertising and I wrote a logline and synopsis in three hours and pitched it to the guy. He optioned the screenplay I wrote in six days.

In another instance, I did the same thing with another producer looking for an Angela Davis screenplay. However, when the producer asked me if I had a script, I said “sure, it’s sitting on the shelf with my screenplays about Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver.” He got the joke and we wound up working together on several different projects. The DIY Method should include whoring your wares at any given moment and making as many connections as you can. Also, make friends with writers like Paul Zeidman.

Never heard of him. Keeping that theme going, what do you recommend when it comes to using hosting sites?

Passive hosting sites where you don’t aggressively work the leads may be a waste of time. Just listing a script without supporting efforts offers little chance for anything happening to further your career.

What’s your opinion of hosting sites overall?

If you’re not living in Hollywood and getting meetings with producers, hosting sites, along with promoting yourself vigorously and IMHO, competing in film festivals and script contests to relentlessly build your brand, can be a very useful tool to get you access to producers and agents. As a direct result of hosting sites, I’ve had material read by A & E, History Channel, Emmett Furla, William Morris Endeavor, Jay Roach, Tyler Perry Productions, Ridley Scott Productions, Zero Gravity, Good Fear Management, Zane W. Levitt and many others.

After putting your script on a hosting site, what should you NOT do?

Don’t nag the contacts you make. Don’t be a pain in the ass if someone’s interested in your work.

As an experienced writer, what tips would you like to pass along?

-If you’re a delicate, sensitive woodland creature, then scriptwriting isn’t for you.

-Learn to suck up constant rejection. Never spend more than a few hours wallowing in rejection or failure. Remember, opinions are like assholes, everyone has one. With each setback, learn how to sally forth with renewed vigor.

-The best cure for rejection is writing; particularly if it’s better writing.

-Sometimes a script just sucks. Everyone thinks they have a great idea for a script. More often than not, they’re wrong. Sometimes a script just sucks, no matter how many times you rewrite it. Therefore, don’t attach yourself to any one effort too much. It may take writing fifty scripts before you find something that really resonates with readers.

-If you see writing scripts as a path to riches and fame, you may wish to consider other options.

-There ain’t no such thing as writers block. There are only writers that write and ones that don’t. Look at Bukowski. Drunk or sober, he did great work every day of his life.

-Writers who build relationships, maintain their humility and help their colleagues will do better than ones who don’t.

-If you keep losing script contests, then write better scripts until you win one.

-Read books, take classes, seminars, and good advice about scriptwriting and then march to your own creative drummer. If I listened to every asshole who told me I couldn’t do something, I’d never accomplish anything.

What are some absolute “Do NOTs”?

-Don’t tell anyone “this is my first script”. But don’t think you’ll set the world on fire by writing one script.

-Don’t write something because you think it will have commercial appeal. Write something you believe in.

-Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Endeavor to be an original.

-Don’t ever rest on your laurels. Keep writing until it becomes second nature AND you can produce even under the most adverse or stressful conditions. You may one day have a job that presents you with just that set of conditions.

Opening doors with a calling card

reader
Hokey smokes! This is almost exactly what I’m looking for!

Amazing fact time!

Did you know that for as loved a genre the western is, there is an inordinate amount of hesitation to actually producing one?

It’s true. Shocking, isn’t it?

I can’t blame them. Westerns are an expensive undertaking. Locations, set design, wardrobe, horses. All that moolah really adds up. And fast.

And if the film bombs? Well, that bankroll is now gone with the tumbleweeds, along with an increased level of reluctance to look at other works in that genre.

I knew all of this all too well while I was working on mine (along with a steady barrage of reminders of that nature from those with nothing but good intentions), but it was a story I really liked and was excited about, so I wrote it anyway. Still very glad I did.

Now the script’s done and I’m working on the next one, but I’m also devoting some time to seeing what I can do with it. Contests, queries, the usual rigamarole.

As fantastic as it would be to see this story up on the big screen, the odds of that happening are not exactly in my favor, which is okay. I’m quite content to use it as my go-to calling card script. The ideal scenario: people read it, love the writing, and think I’d be perfect for another project.

A lot of writers write something with the intention of selling it, which 99.9 percent of the time ain’t gonna happen; it’s more important to write something to show, or maybe prove is a better word, that you’ve got talent and skills. Somebody reads your work and can tell this writer is somebody who know what they’re doing.

Would I love for somebody to read any of my scripts and say “I want to get this made!”? Of course.

Would I love for somebody to read any of my scripts and say “There’s no way I could get this made, but I really like the way you write. Would you be interested in this writing assignment?”

Without a doubt.

Good or fast? Pick one.

hurdles
Careful! All too easy to end up flat on your face.

As some of you may recall, earlier this year I had to get a script done in order to send it to somebody who’d requested to read it. Seeing as how I had all of eight pages written, I wanted to finish it and sent it out as soon as possible.

It took a grueling 10-day writing marathon, but somehow I managed to do it. I got a draft written, polished it up and sent it out.

It was quite an experience, and the end result could best be described as…adequate. I’ll be the first to admit the script still needs a ton of work.

My sole objective was simply to get it done to the best of my ability in as short a time as possible. Would I have benefited from more time? Of course, but at the time, it wasn’t an option.

Fast forward to the beginning of November. My goal: have a completed draft of the latest project by the end of the month. Sadly, I wasn’t able to get as much writing done as I’d hoped, so I’m heading into December with a script that’s right at the halfway point and the intention to have the whole thing done by the end of the year.

Sure, I could push myself through that exhausting process of cranking it out just to get it done, but by working with a slightly longer timeframe, I can take it slow and spend more time fine-tuning the script. In theory, this increases the likelihood the end result will be more acceptable and not require as much extensive follow-up (i.e. rewrites).

Would I love to be done with this draft sooner rather than later? Again, of course. But I’m also willing to be patient and focus on a few pages at a time. If that means it takes me until the end of the month/year to have a quality script ready to go, so be it.

Everybody writes at their own pace. Some are extremely prolific, some aren’t. It doesn’t matter how many pages you write. The important thing is that you’re actually writing.

This whole process can seem excruciatingly long at times, and we all want to produce lots and lots of quality work. But it already takes time to learn how to do it properly, let alone effectively. Patience is one of those things that gets easier the more you work on it.

There’s nothing wrong with churning out a draft in record time, but be aware that focusing on quantity rather than quality will definitely be reflected in those pages. I went through this firsthand, and definitely see it as a positive learning experience. I know I can write something quickly, but also know it’ll require a lot of cleanup work.

But given my druthers, I prefer to take my time. It’s less exhausting.

Just another gradual shifting of gears

gear-shift
Start at first and take it from there

Notes continue to trickle in for the comedy-now-dramedy spec. General consensus – solid concept, underdeveloped, reads like a first draft, still needs a ton of work, and so forth.

All of which is fine by me. I wrote it in an extremely short amount of time, which is probably quite evident in the draft itself.  It’s also the fastest I’ve ever cranked out a draft, and to me that’s still a victory in itself.

Would I have loved for everybody to gush about it and claim it truly wonderful? Of course, but that ain’t gonna happen. As long as nobody says “This is terrible!”, I’m good.

Is it at least a decent script? Well, I like it. There’s a lot of potential in it, and the quality can only improve from its current state.

So while the thoughts of “what to fix and how to fix it” percolate, I’ll slide it to the always-expanding back burner and move on to the next couple of items on my agenda, which includes notes on some friends’ specs, followed by the first draft of a long-in-development project.

Exciting times, chums.