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Secrets from a Script Reader: Script Doctors

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Wait…this is supposed to be secrets from a script reader. Why are we talking about script doctors? A secret you might not know is that script readers often make fantastic script doctors. Why is that? Let’s first get into what a script doctor is.

Script doctors are writers that step in when a screenplay has already been written, but the producers need a new writer to get it to the next level. Sometimes writers themselves hire script doctors to help punch up their scripts. Like a doctor, a script doctor diagnoses what’s ailing a script and then does the surgery to make it better. Hence, the term script doctor.

A producer might have a script that they love the premise or concept of, but the writing isn’t up to par. The powers that be are aware that the original writer isn’t the best writer to execute the rewrite, and although they know the script isn’t as strong as it could be yet, they might not know how to fix it. They need to find a writer that can identify what’s working and what’s not in the script and implement the changes needed by doing a rewrite.

If you’ve read my column about what script readers do, then at this point, you probably understand why script readers that are also writers can make wonderful script doctors. Notice that I’m saying, “script readers that are also writers” and not just “script readers.” Not all script readers, aka story analysts, are writers. 

How can that be? I love “The Great British Baking Show,” so I’ll use it as an example. Paul Hollywood is a great judge, because he not only has the ability to analyze a bake when he’s judging it to say specifically what works and what doesn’t about the textures, presentation, and taste, but as a baker himself, he’s able to articulate what happened in the baking process that affected what went right/wrong from his own experience as a baker. If Paul only had expertise in identifying the tastes/textures/presentation that work and don’t work, he would only be able to assess based on that one skill. It’s another skill entirely to be able to bake, or in our case here, to write. Story analysis is a different skill than writing.

In the same vein, not all writers are skilled story analysts. A writer that doesn’t understand screenplays from a reader’s perspective won’t always make an effective script doctor if he or she can’t specifically pinpoint what’s working and what’s not in a script from an experienced, objective analyst’s point of view. Script readers are not only versed in analyzing but also offering development notes for how to strengthen the script and what changes can be made to fit a certain budget, audience, or production company.

This is why the combination of script reader + writer makes for a great script doctor. I learned this from the work I do as a reader and writer. Eventually, I started to recognize that these two skills combined were all the makings of a script doctor, and it was a natural next step to help rewrite the screenplays I was assessing.

How can you identify the script doctor that’s right for you? A few tips below:

CHECK REFERENCES – Script doctors usually won’t be able to show you samples of their script doctoring work. Unless it’s already been produced and distributed, a script doctor has no rights to the screenplay. Instead, checking references is a great way to find out if a script doctor is a fit for you. Ask the script doctor for a producer and/or director reference. You can also utilize IMDB Pro to find others the script doctor has worked with. Note that script doctors are typically uncredited on projects they work on, but if they are, it’s usually under Script Consultant.

ASK FOR WRITING SAMPLES – While you likely won’t be able to see a script doctoring sample, you can always ask for a writing sample. If you have a comedy and the script doctor’s writing strength is drama, it might not be the best fit. Samples will give you an idea of how he or she writes, although you won’t get to know their story analysis skills. Remember, identifying what’s working and what’s not in a screenplay is a different skill than writing.

GET AN ASSESSMENT FIRST – This is where you can get an idea of the script doctor’s story analysis skills. Before investing a lot of money in a script doctor to do a rewrite or polish, ask him or her to first assess your script’s strengths and weaknesses, and articulate what he or she would change. Basically, you’re asking for script coverage with development notes. You might have to pay for this initial step, but it will cost less than diving into the re-write to only then discover the script doctor isn’t able to effectively identify what’s working and what’s not in your script. To be thorough, you can get professional coverage done on your script first to have that to compare the script doctor’s notes to.

MEET AND TALK – Meeting face to face, either in person or over Skype, is one of the only ways you’ll really get to know how the script doctor communicates. The rewrite process is a collaboration of ideas between the director, producers, and script doctor. It’s essential that the script doctor be able to communicate clearly, work well on a team, and be able to receive feedback well. You’ll get to know this best by having a meeting with him/her, and you’ll also get to know if you’re on the same page story-wise for what needs to change in the screenplay.

If you’re looking to hire a script doctor, know ahead of time whether or not the script doctor will receive credit for their work. That is dependent on your agreement with the original/previous writer(s). The majority of the time, script doctors don’t receive credit, which means they receive higher pay. Also know that there is a difference between a rewrite and a polish. A polish is less work than a rewrite. A script doctor will have different rates for each, and you’ll know from the coverage you had done and their assessment of your script which one is needed.

There are many unsung heroes in the entertainment industry, and I think that script doctors are definitely in that group. You’ll never know if a movie you love had a script doctor on it, but I guarantee you you’ve seen many that have benefitted from one. If you need help getting coverage on your screenplay or are looking for a script doctor for your project, you can always find me at my website.

 

Joanna Ke

About Joanna Ke

If grace married silliness, their child would be Joanna Ke. Joanna is an award-winning filmmaker that thrives in the industry as an actor, writer, professional script reader, and producer. She champions diverse stories led by women both behind and in front of the camera. Joanna has been creating stories ever since she was a child, performing skits for her sisters and scribbling in journals before she even know how to write. She studied the craft of screenwriting with the late, great Syd Field. As a professional script reader, she is known for her ability to masterfully analyze screenplays. Joanna runs the twitter account @femcharacters, highlighting the unfortunate way women are often portrayed on screen. She also isn’t too shabby as a stunt performer and sword fighter. Wielding her broadsword is a favorite both on camera and off.