You don’t have to go far on the internet to find writers berating script readers … Because too often, writers just don’t understand what this job really entails! But as I’ve made it my business to demystify the submissions process on this blog, here’s a look at my job under the microscope … hope you find it illuminating!
1) Industry pros RELY on script readers … and interns
Industry pros RELY on script readers … They will pay readers (or get them to work for free) because they have no time to read the scripts themselves. I know, cuz I’ve literally worked with them.
The most any reader ever gets asked to provide is a sample script report and/or to do a trial report. Occasionally, they might get interviewed. That said, the pool of readers is less clueless than it once was, thanks to blogs like B2W, screenwriting MAs and even actual script reading courses.
Some writers make assertions like ‘surgeons do not do their jobs unqualified’, but this is false equivalency. For one thing, script reading is not about life and death (it just feels like it for the writer).
But even if it were, in actual fact there ARE junior doctors and unqualified nurses still on their degrees on the wards, plus dentists working on patients when they’re still in training. When I was an unqualified teacher, like many thousands of others, I was let loose in the classroom with REAL kids and teenagers. How else could I learn to teach them??
In other words, you cannot get experience in your job without doing the actual job!
2) Scriptreading is about assessment
Some writers can be found on forums saying script readers are JUDGES. They’re not. They’re assessors. Readers are asked how they think a script works, with reference to certain criteria, which is not set by them.
Often these criteria have numbers attached, so scripts are scored. What’s more, in many environments scripts are read and scored multiple times. A third person may look over the scores and readers’ reports. I have had my work checked like this AND I’ve been the person doing the checking.
Assessing a manuscript or screenplay is NOT the same as writing one, it’s a whole other skillset. If we were to believe this wasn’t true, then it suggests no need for teachers … because after all, students can mark their own work, no? Ludicrous suggestion.
But okay, you agree FRESH EYES have to look over your screenplay. So do peer review. There’s absolutely no reason for you to pay for notes if you don’t want to, or lack funds. (Unfortunately for you, this doesn’t mean you’re any less likely to get assessed by a script reader, newbie or not, further down the submissions line).
3) Script reading and scriptwriting are two different skillsets
Following on from my first point, assessing narratives is not the same as building them. Having a talent for DE-constructing narratives does not necessarily translate itself to a talent for CONstructing them, or vice versa.
Yet all the time writers will insist on script readers ‘needing’ writing credits of their own to be ‘able’ to assess work. But would you say an architect should also be able to physically build a house, as well as design one? Now, some can, but not all do — yet we don’t all say that architects are all useless because most don’t get their hands dirty.
Similarly, there are many screenwriters out there capable of writing great scripts, but they provide shit notes. Not because they’re clueless at writing, but because they are simply clueless in the art of giving notes!!
That said, some writers are intuitive and give great notes, too. And yes, I do believe the better a writer is at understanding feedback and giving it, the better they can be at writing. But this does take practice — and leads me on to my next point.
4) Script reading is an entry level job
As I frequently say on this blog and on my LondonSWF courses, work experience kids are reading our work. And yes, the more inexperienced a reader is, the more likely they will focus on niggly things like screenplay format, rather than structure and characterisation. Boo. Hiss.
But like it or not, script reading is an ENTRY LEVEL job. This is where people start. This is where they have always started. If writers don’t like that, then they should vote with their wallet and not enter paid-for competitions which will – and always have – used beginner readers. That’s just for starters.
Even so, you simply cannot avoid work experience readers in the industry. They are everywhere. Because people have to start somewhere!
Remember, many of them won’t JUST be reading; they will be office dogsbodies or runners as well, typically. So if not there, then where?
Yeah, still waiting.
In addition, the uncomfortable truth is, just because someone has little experience does not mean they have nothing to offer. Every writer knows this, really. Like new writers have to ‘earn their stripes’, so do readers. To say otherwise is both futile AND facile — new writers have just voted themselves out of the industry!
5) Writers think script readers are more powerful than they are
Script readers have NO LITERAL POWER over writers. It’s even possible to write a scathing report about a script you dislike so much your brain explodes just thinking about it … And yet it STILL gets made!! (And yes, this has happened to me).
Writers earnestly believe script readers hold waaaaay more power than they actually do. It holds writers back and makes them think there this is big bad cabal of people keeping them out.
Nope. You can unlock the door at any given moment, by writing that awesome screenplay that stands out from the plethora of others.
This is the reality: script readers WANT your script to be awesome but more importantly, to BE MARKETABLE. Hell, we’d be happy it if it was RELEVANT. 9/10 I’m assessing work that doesn’t even vaguely hit the brief or remit I’ve been set! (More on this, next).
But as I always say: if you have something worth selling, people WILL buy it!
6) Script Readers’ Remits & Briefs Exist!
We hear often that script readers don’t know what they’re doing. But this notion that script readers – newbie or otherwise – are chucked into the spec pile with no remit or brief is false.
I have worked at countless places now and the remits and briefs and have been varied, including (but not limited to):
- Agents who are looking for specific types of story and/or writer
- Features and shorts that can be made on certain budgets
- Screenplays with female leads (protagonist and/or antagonist)
- Genres suitable for particular companies that specialise in them
- Competitions that have a specific outcome (ie. Create50’s The Impact)
- Schemes and initiatives that require a certain number of delegates – either the ‘best’ of the crop or sometimes, the most in need of help
But one thing they ALL share:
- The BEST STORY possible in the pile at any given time.
Of course, what the ‘best story’ means depends wholly on the script reader – whether or not they’re good, bad, new or experienced. This will never change.
This Is The Reality
The vast majority of the assessment of those scripts will be incredibly basic and based only on the pages 1-10. i.e. Does it LOOK like shit? is the top one. Anyone can do that. That’s p1 out the way.
Pages 2-10 – if it’s not clear who the protagonist is or what the story is actually about by page 10? BAM! The script is gone. It’s really not rocket science, plus this information is literally all over the internet.
Script reading is an entry level job simply because no one wants to read the spec pile because literally 90% of it is not good – AS IN crap, or not useable, effective or relevant. Those are the three keywords every good writer should understand.
There’s this battle cry constantly from writers that there must be ‘loads’ of brilliant scripts out there NOT getting made … there isn’t. Anyone who’s ever dived in a spec pile can tell you that. Sure, mistakes get made, but overall if one’s scripts are getting rejected for a full read CONSISTENTLY then it’s likely the writer’s own fault.
This is what happens when it comes to submissions:
People like your writing … or they don’t.
There is no big secret.
There is no big conspiracy.
What’s more, ANYONE can like or dislike someone’s writing — you don’t need epic training for that! Storytelling is part of our culture.
Sure, there are shitty readers out there, but guess what: if they’re shit it doesn’t matter how much training they have, they’re filled full of nonsense and hot air on what makes a ‘good’ story. As a writer, you have to chalk it up and move on … and yup, I’ve done that too and yes, it IS really offing annoying when that happens!
But the good news is, the current crop of new readers out there are BETTER THAN EVER … because there IS loads of info out there for the wannabe, curious script reader! And if you want to be one too, check out my links below. Good luck!
Want even MORE script reading secrets?
My sell-out course, BREAKING INTO SCRIPT READING is back!
If you’re interested in becoming a script reader, or finding out more how script readers may assess YOUR own writing – or both! – then this is the course for you.
Tickets are on sale now. GET THEM HERE, or click the pic on the left. See you there!
You’re always spot on, Lucy–and a great resource for writers of all levels!
As someone who both reads (as in, covers screenplays for a producer with more than 20 films under his belt) and writes, I’d like to add one more dimension to the discussion above: even if you write a great script, you still need to be prepared for blowback from some good people in the business. In other words, it’s a tough business and you need to have thick skin, even if you’re good at this stuff. And if you’re still on your way to becoming good? Well, the thicker the better.
I always say, don’t write the script that three out of four people LIKE–write the script that one in ten LOVES. The former script will probably still end up in a pile of other likeable scripts–and not much will come of it. Movies generally don’t get made because someone “liked” a script. But that latter one–the script that someone loves? That one has the first breath of life. For some reason it’s special and different–which may be why some people don’t get it yet. And you’d be surprised. Often that one-person-in-ten, through their own passion, can convert a few that didn’t get your script originally. That’s often how the best work in this business gets rolling. But that also means that you’re going to have to shrug off a lot of criticism–some of it cutting or misguided–from some perfectly decent human beings who didn’t connect to work at first blush.
Case in point: I have a friend who has an Oscar nomination under his belt. But that script, when it first went out? It was greeted with heavy sighs and eye-rolls all over town. And some of those people didn’t take their time to freight their criticisms with Grade-A diplomacy. But my friend understood that that was the cost of writing something special. He’d figured out a while ago that part of working as a writer in this business was (as they say about NFL quarterbacks) having amnesia. You can’t get bogged down by tough criticisms–or believe that the industry is going to change just for you. He figured out that managing his feelings about negative or apathetic responses was as important as developing good writing habits. And now his quote is upper seven figures.
Bottom line: readers are people too and unless you’re sending something to your own agency or management company–whose readers are paid, in part, to be diplomatic with their own clients–most of the feedback you receive will not be designed to tiptoe around your ego. Even the best work–including movies that have actually made money at the box office–will have a healthy number of critics and naysayers. It’s just the cost of doing business in this town, and the sooner you adjust to it, and simply focus on turning out your own best work, the better off you’ll be . . . .
Hope that didn’t just come off as a mad ramble. And it’s not meant to counter any of your good points above. 🙂
Not at all, GREAT addition and so true! Thanks x
Having just read your most recent piece on ARRIVAL? The friend mentioned above is Eric Heisserer. 🙂
And yes, HOURS is totally under-appreciated. He’d put so much heart into it–and then it was (understandably) swamped by Paul Walker’s death. I’m so glad that ARRIVAL and LIGHTS OUT have paid such huge dividends for him last year!
I had a feeling it might be! Great guy who practices what he preaches when it comes to screenwriting and filmmaking. So impressive
I agree with most of what is said here. I will point out that I am working with a producer who strongly believes that script readers rule the industry. Is he right or is he kidding himself? Also, the readers who are reading my work are classifying some of the things I put in (that usually occur in real life) as unrealistic. Was getting sick of this word the more it is used.