We all do it. We write furiously and then desperately need people to see if those black marks on the page are actually words. Having been on the asking end, the reading end, the teaching end, and the consulting end, I have come away with some parameters writers might consider before asking friends and colleagues to read your script.
My first piece of advice is not to ask people who don’t write themselves. An architect wouldn’t think to ask her mother what she thought of her blueprints, and neither should you expect a reasonable response from those who don’t understand the art form. It’s wonderful validation to hear “I loved your script.” from anyone, but if your goal is constructive criticism that will elevate your material to the next level, friends and family are generally not your best audience.
Collecting reads is an essential tool for writers to insure that your story is clear, impactful, and entertaining. It’s an opportunity to seek advice from experts on your subject, other writers you respect, or colleagues who care about your professional journey. It’s imperative that all writers have a group of trusted readers upon whom they can rely and have new work read by an many sets of skilled eyes as possible.
Having said that, a fellow writer’s time is valuable, and the hours spent reading other’s script is not remunerated. A read is a gift and should be seen as such. The asking should be handled with gratitude and sensitivity. Generally, it’s best to seek readers who are at the same level as you are so you can grow together. Being a reader can be a wonderfully reciprocal relationship and it’s great to be able to give and to get. It’s also a very valuable learning experience to see how others write. When asking a reader who is more experienced that yourself, it’s important to understand that their read is your free education and the time away from their own work has tremendous value. I strongly urge you not to attend mixers or networking events and ask leaders in the industry to read your script. If that is your goal you might start out by trying to forge a rapport with that person first and letting the process evolve.
I love helping others and if I had endless time I would like to read for everyone who asks, but this is not reality. I have a family, a home, and am a disciplined writer who sits at my desk most of the day on my own stories. In between projects, when I have spare time, I’m happy to read a few scripts, but when I’m on deadline I simply cannot fit that kind of “work” into the schedule. As creators it’s tough to say “no” to our colleagues, but as an act of self preservation it’s imperative to set limits.
I have taught screenwriting at USC and LMU. Often the writers I worked with were early in their careers and reading their scripts was sometimes painstaking, full of weak storytelling, unclear prose, and clumsy dialogue. Occasionally, it would take an hour to wade through a 5-page script, then hours more to figure out how to communicate kindly to these “baby” writers with fragile skills and egos. I would have coffee with them, invite them to my home, and spent months working with them to hone their drafts into a production-worthy script. Adjunct professors are not well paid. A semester of teaching, at a “high end” institution, pays about $5,000. Working as an adjunct professor is done out of devotion for one’s profession and to new filmmakers who yearn to find their voice. I was delighted to give more than what was expected to my students – so you can imagine how dismayed I was when those same student filmmakers became insulted when I explained that I could not read their feature scripts.
Reading another’s writer’s work is a great way to discover writing partners. A few years ago, I started chatted with a fellow runner in my local park. Turns out he was also a filmmaker and for many weeks we talked our scripts, about story, character and structure, and then he asked if I would read something. I read one script and then another. His writing was very strong, in fact, I had such respect for him that I asked him to read something of mine. For the next year or so, we traded back and forth, getting more and more familiar with each other’s work. He gave great notes and I feel that I was helpful to him as well. The following year I had the need to bring on a co-writer on a project and he was the first person I thought of. We engaged in a great collaboration that was fun and fruitful. If I’d not read his work I wouldn’t have known how skilled he was.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated a few “rules” to consider when thinking of asking someone to read. I’m sure you’ll add your own:
1-Listen carefully and respectfully to the notes you receive even if you don’t agree. If you’ve asked someone for their opinion, be respectful – don’t argue or defend. Remember, that if something “sticks” for a reader they may not articulate what’s wrong, but there’s a good chance that something’s off, and you should respect that red flag.
2- Don’t give readers scripts that have poor grammar, or are hard to read. Don’t give a reader a script and then tell them you have a new draft!
3- Reciprocate. If someone reads for you, make sure you read for that person or for others. Write them a thank you note and let them know how much you appreciate their time and expertise.
1- Be gentle. Don’t rip stuff to shreds. If you feel that by page 5 or 10 the material isn’t your taste, or up to your standards, back out before you feel the need to be too critical.
2- Take good notes. Don’t bother to read it without notating your comments.
3- Try to read in one sitting. Reading scripts in fits and starts is not the best way to “feel” the movie.
4- Respond quickly. Writers are counting the minutes till they hear from you. Don’t accept material until you are ready to read, or be clear about your timeframe.
There is another form of script sharing and that is when a junior writer desires to view the work of someone their senior. This kind of sharing is not so much for notes, but for the education of the newer writer and is a lovely way to share one’s work. Any way you view it, the give and take of our work is precious and important.
Here’s to all of us who toil in storytelling. I wish you all great luck and pleasure on the journey – and I wish everyone a happy, healthy and successful 2016.