Bit of a shorty today as I’m steamrolling my way through several projects at the moment. This includes revising two of my own scripts.
As part of the effort to make the next drafts of both that much better, I’m trying to take the time to read scripts in the genres of both. Why not glean what I can from prime examples?
The learning truly never stops.
Added bonus – a lot of these are just fun to read.
This is one of those basic pieces of advice that every screenwriter, no matter their experience level, needs to heed on a regular basis:
Study them. Use them for the learning tools they are and wring every last bit of help out of them that you can.
Everything really is right there in front of you. 90-110 pages of primo learning material. Pages and pages of “See what they did there?” Take notes. See what’s there and NOT there.
Take it a step further and read a script of a film while watching that film. How do they compare? Lots of similarities? Lots of differences? Do the actions onscreen do justice to the words on the page?
Apply what you learn to your own script. It might help more than you realize.
Side note – DO NOT copy that writer’s style. You’re working on establishing your own voice. No good can come from trying to sound like somebody else.
Thanks to a big, determined push, I managed to wrap up the initial edit of the pulp spec last night. Amazingly, it’s still 116 pages. Much as I’d love to take another pass on it, a better option is to gently nudge it aside and let it simmer for a few months.
In the meantime, my attention now turns to a few other items, including providing some script notes and a major overhaul of one of the low-budget comedies.
To some, it might seem I’m taking on too much. Others might think it’s great to be so busy. No matter which opinion you have, it all comes down to how the individual (i.e. yours truly) sees it.
Me, I enjoy the diversity and variety. I like to work on my own material AND read other people’s stuff. All that mental stimulation helps me in the long run; the equivalent of maintaining a regular workout schedule at the gym. Or in my case, a steady regiment of training runs.
Always working on something, or even adding some reading and watching into the mix, not only helps your creativeness, but your actual output. Wouldn’t you say your writing skills are significantly better today than they were, say, a year ago? How about compared to when you just started out? I know mine are. Especially in terms of the latter.
All that being said, I think there’s a big difference between being a productive writer and just being a non-stop writing machine. A productive writer definitely produces material, but they also take the time to have a life outside of writing. The machine is just full speed ahead and don’t let up. Granted, there are some who can do both, and kudos to them. I prefer to be the former.
I also don’t have any problem with transitioning to a new project once one is completed. Even though I haven’t directed all attention on the new one, it’s always been in the back of my mind. Maybe an idea about it would pop, which would then be added to an always-handy list, then brought back out later. You might have a different approach, but this is what works for me. Everybody writes in their own way.
In the meantime, my nimble little fingers will now get a bit of a rest while I dive into the aforementioned giving of notes. And once all of those are done, the dust gets blown off the keyboard and the cycle repeats.
Well, it took a little longer than I’d wanted, but I’m happy to announce that the first draft of the pulp spec is complete; 116 pages of potential cinematic goodness.
So what now?
The usual. Take a little time off, then jump right back in with my trusty red pen, ready to have at it and let loose the dogs of editing. The script itself has already been printed out, along with a change to a line of dialogue.
Even though I kinda-sorta edit as I go along, once I initially write a scene, it’s done and I push forward. Sometimes there’s something about it that’ll nag at me afterward, so I go back and do the necessary touch-up work.
I was tempted to send the script as-is to some of my trusted readers, but at this point, I want to see what I can do to improve it before reaching out.
Also pretty important – it was fun to write. This definitely falls within the realm of “stuff I like to write”. Hopefully others will be as enthusiastic about it when they read it. In a recent email correspondence conversation with another writer, I’d expressed my anticipation about how the script would be received. Their response: “You’re a great writer. Don’t worry so much.” Their kindness was much appreciated.
So for the time being, I’ll be fighting the urge to jump into editing in order to put some space between “just finished it” and “round two underway”. I actually do have a few other projects standing by, so I might redirect my focus on one of those, and then come back to this one in a couple of days.
It was a good and productive couple of months, and I’m quite happy with how this one turned out. I stuck to around 90 percent of what was already in the outline, but as usual, would occasionally come up with a different idea for a scene or sequence. I’d say the changes were definitely for the better.
The hardest part is out of the way, so now begins the next-hardest part: making it better.
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.
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.
“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.
When somebody reads your script,is there something about the writing that they can tell you’re the one who wrote it? Do you have a certain style or “voice” regarding how your material reads?
Each writer develops their own particular way of not only how they write, but how that material comes across on the page.
When you’re just starting out, maybe you play it safe and keep things simple and straightforward. Or you might try from the get-go to emulate a script or writer you really, really like, because if it worked for them, then it stands to reason that it will undoubtedly work for you in the exact same way. This is occasionally referred to as the Tarantino Syndrome.
There’s nothing wrong with appreciating a pro’s style, but for crying out loud, DO NOT try to duplicate it. That’s how they do it, which is not the same as how you do it. It also smacks of laziness. You want to make a name for yourself, right? So how are you going to do that by writing like somebody else?
Find a way that works for you and stick with it. Hone your writing skills with each draft until every script you offer up is undeniably identifiable as yours.
The more you produce, the more comfortable you’ll get with how you write, along with becoming more confident in your abilities. You’ve put in the work learning the rules, so now you feel ready to see how far you can bend them (but not too much! They can be very fragile at times.).
Soon you’ll have no hesitation to start putting your own spin on things; little touches here and there. Although the usual challenges and obstacles will still be there, you might discover that your overall process of writing has gotten just a little bit easier.