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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sweat the Small Stuff

I hate to sound like a school marm. I do. I'm a fun person. And I'm not a stickler in life. If my dinner order is pretty hot but not piping hot, I don't send it back. If someone cuts me off in traffic, I give them the benefit. If there's sand on my sheets from the beach, I shake it out and sweep up the next day. Anyone who knows me knows that I am in fact diplomatic to a fault. Very little upsets me, very little irks me.

But lately unproofread scripts are driving me nuts. Maybe it's because I'm viewing things through a new lens - that of a possible manager. See - even now, I can't quite commit by using a stronger, more declarative statement. Okay let's just say I'm strongly toying with the idea to the point that I have taken on one client and am mildly, curiously looking for more. Maybe. If I read a great script.

But in the day to day I'm still the mama of The Script Department. And in that capacity, I read at least one script daily. And I read pretty fast. I like to settle down with a cup of coffee and immerse myself in a script without interruptions. I don't sit near my computer, I don't answer the phone. I give each script my full attention.

I always have a pen nearby, to circle problems or leave notes for myself. The little things - spelling, grammar, logic questions, etc., I note directly on that particular page. The big problems I scribble on the title page. So I might have Big Notes that say: scene work. character arcs. structure. soft premise.

Lately, I have been circling a whole lot of little problems on pages. Dialogue that does not end with a punctuation mark. Errant commas. Characters names all-capped throughout the script or not done at all. Missing ages for characters. Misspells, malaprops. Sheek for chic, peer for pier, your for you're, to for too.

And every time I have to stop reading to circle those problems, my read is interrupted. I am taken out of the story for a nanosecond. And that irks me. Because I need to be in the flow of the story. And if I pause for one nanosecond for every error but I do that six times on almost every page - pretty soon my focus on the story itself starts to fade.

Production company readers slam the writer for these types of sloppy, lazy errors. I note the problem to a client but of course, I am not about slamming, just knuckle rapping. Why my clientele feels a good proofread is not necessary when sending to me, I don't know. I think they figure that they'll be rewriting the script anyway, since they're getting notes so the small stuff doesn't matter. But it does. It lowers my estimation of the writer - just a tiny bit. And, more importantly, it distracts me from the story. If a writer keeps making the same punctuation mistakes over and over, you'd think you could stop circling them and just make one overall comment that they need to proofread. That would do the trick. But - I can't help but circle them. Every time I read a your for you're I cringe. It's a tick that most readers have. It bugs us. It bugs us A LOT.

When your script is read, you really want the reader to be totally focused on your story and your characters. Proofreading isn't for perfectionists or bookish types, it's a gateway to a smooth read. How valuable are receiving notes that are mini-lessons in contractions, comma usage or proper punctuation? Aren't you more interested in receiving notes about character arc, dialogue and structure? Isn't that the top priority? It is for me, as a story analyst. But proper grammar, punctuation and spelling are the delivery system for your story.

Imagine watching a television show and every 3 seconds, you see something wrong - a prop that keeps switching, a costume change, a stumble over dialogue. Pretty soon, that's all you see - not the story itself. And imagine the producers of the show saying - yeah, yeah, ignore those details, just get into the story, man!

The details need to be right in order for the story to shine. Why, just last week I read a script in which the writer didn't bother to end lines of dialogue with punctuation marks throughout about 50% of the script. Missing periods and missing question marks. It amazes me that this is something one would not notice.

To me, missing punctuation marks are glaring red neon signs I don't know where the sentence ends I can't tell if the line of dialogue was meant to be a question or a statement and the repeated use of the same repeated words which repeat again and again is distracting because pretty soon I just see the repeated words standing out highlighted against the rest of the words and this bothers me do you see what I mean

These tiny interruptions are anathema to a reader and death for a writer. Interestingly, as I have noted in the past, I have never read a great script with these problems. I have read great scripts with one or two mistakes - but not consistent problems on every page. Every page. Can you imagine?

Please take the time to proofread. And at least as importantly, take the time to write properly in the first place. I know that writers might be writing quickly, on the fly (on the subway, late at night, at a café) but taking the time to write well in the first place will save you a lot of errors. And always proofread before submitting your script to anyone. My job is not to slam scripts and give them a cold and brutal PASS. My job is to find out what is working and what is not and to help the writer take the script to the next level so that when it is read by a production company, agent or manager the writer has literally put his or her best foot forward. It makes my job a lot harder and less efficient if I have six things circled on every page. Treat me the way you would treat any other producer, manager or agent.

Lately, when I read scripts, I have a subtextual agenda. Is this a writer that I might want to manage? Is this the comedy I have been looking for? Is this an opportunity for me to make a valuable connection between the writer and somebody else? But if my read is herky jerky and peppered with interruptions, if the writer was too lazy or too hurried to use punctuation properly, if the writer consistently uses the language poorly - there's no way in HELL I'd work with them beyond these notes.

So if you're thinking about submitting a script to The Script Department for notes, please do a better job of proofreading. I have had a batch of scripts lately, peppered with tiny, very fixable errors. What if I personally read your script? What if I am looking for a great comedy right now? Full disclosure: I am. My readers will simply note the error and get you the notes. I will note the errors, get you your notes and then make a tiny mental note: this writer is lazy and sloppy - down the bad egg chute you go.

Every single person who reads your script in this industry is a possible new fan of you and your work. You never know where that can lead. I can't say it enough times - never send a script to anyone before you have gone over with a fine-tooth comb. You never know. This script could open doors and create connections. This script could get you an enthusiastic fan. Don't give us any excuse to write you off as a lazy writer. Pretty please?

Now get back to work.

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Anonymous said...

What I have found out for myself is that I always have to do a final proof read on a hard copy. Personally, I just miss the most stupid stuff over and over again no matter how many times I proof read a script on the computer.

It's hard to catch small punctuation and grammar errors when you have the script practically memorized. Like Julie, those little errors make me cringe and yet I still miss them. Ugh.


Julie Gray said...

Of course, it's easy to miss these things. But a good friend or spouse can easily sit down with a pen or pencil and go over the hard copy ONE more time....they don't need to be story analyst or expert in the field to simply spot those gotchas. :)

chaia said...

I have worked as a copy editor on and off for a really, really long time, and all I have to say is: I FEEL YOU. If I read one more "sneak peak" I am going to fucking kill someone with my red pen.

meg said...

Hey, Julie, I know it bothers you but would you cut it out? Stop encouraging these writers to learn basic grammar. I need any edge I can get and I figure the fact I even know what a malaprop is or the difference between effect and affect puts me ahead of other aspiring screenwriters.

Seriously, though I've come to the conclusion that the offenders don't know any better. Thus they aren't likely to pick up a basic grammar book. All those books, blogs, etc that always list improving poor grammar as the number one way to improve your script don't apply to them.

I read my stuff out loud. It's amazing how much I catch when I do that. Then I hand it off to someone to correct for errors.

I never sit down at my computer to write without opening windows to and Hasn't hurt my creativity yet to be articulate and accurate.

Julie Gray said...

@ Meg - LOL that's a great idea. Start telling writers what TO DO so that it makes it easier for good writers to get the advantage!

@ Chaia - LOL - I hate malaprops with a passion that is unmatched. Here's one of my all time faves: It peeked his interest. It's PIQUED for the love of god almighty!!!

Anonymous said...

I have to have someone who was not educated in California-with dyslexia and adhd, read my scripts. I am uneducated from a young age and was passed with bad habits and ignorance. It is like an older foreigner trying to write in English-they hardly ever get it right. So, I am not a writer mostly because I am under educated (with a masters) and I try to let more educated, loved as children types, know this. Really, i try to spell check and remember you're. It sucks to be looked at this way when you really never had a chance.

Seth Fortin said...

I don't know -- I kind of like "sneak peak." It makes me think of a giant, lumbering mountain trying very hard not to be noticed.

Third World Girl said...

I'm always amazed at the little gremlins that can remain in the final draft of my submitted scripts, despite all the proofreading and the dutiful read-through by the wonderful significant other.

And the more you rewrite the more chance there is of "old draft-itis": the paragraph or action line that accidentally repeats itself, that character name change you somehow missed. Cringe indeed.

It's tough when you know the thing by're in edit fatigue by then...but thanks Julie for the reminder that getting the small stuff right really reflects on the big stuff.

E.C. Henry said...

Julie, hope you find that GREAT story.

Personally, I think you put too much empahsis on typos and stuff like that. The key is, do you have lightening in a bottle? TRY to remember that writing is very hard. You have to get the story out of your head, AND some people don't have that skill of great spelling and punctuation.

YES, spelling and proper punctuation are important, BUT they're not the endall. Small stuff like that can be fixed, and sometimes a writer just needs a second set of eyes to notice that stuff. From past failures I've come to realize that I've relied TOO HEAVILY on Final Draft's audio playback feature. Maggie's right, I think a final edit off a hard copy by the writer -- BEFORE it's sent of to be covered by someone in the industry -- is the way to go.

"Bad egg chute." I like the visual, good job.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Chris said...

one thing i do when i proofread, which is always from a hard copy because it's just different from reading it on a computer screen, is read the pages in reverse (or even shuffled) order. reading it straight through front to back, i find there is a subconscious bias toward how you *think* it's supposed to read. the more you can isolate each page from the whole and take it on its merits, the more nits are likely to jump out at you

Julie Gray said...

@ EC - I don't know how many scripts you've read, EC, but I figure I'm somewhere around 1,500. I have never seen a good script, with lightning in a bottle, riddled with typos. Doesn't happen. A good writer either doesn't make these errors or has a great proofreader. All I ask if that if you want to make money by being a professional writer, that you act like a professional and turn in material that is in great shape. I have no truck with those who say well, I just can't spell. Figure. It. Out. Get a proofreader, practice, read the dictionary, read great writing, take a class, buy a grammar guide. There is no excuse. The occasional error? Happens to all of us. That is not what I am referring to.

Seth Fortin said...

After I read this post I went to the WGA Library, where I read the pilot script to Pushing Daisies. I found at least four errors, including calling someone the "soul witness" to a murder and a character taking the hand of someone who's not in the room.

But as Julie said, it's not on every page. And that script's a terrific read.

meg said...

I absolutely agree with Julie and that is what I strive for everyday when I write. Be professional. Do it by whatever means it requires. If you don't care enough why do you think some company is going to care enough to spend millions on your script? They will care only as much as you do.

Sure mistakes happen. I just read a script for a currently airing tv show. A character's name got changed during rewrite, only in one scene in Act 2 it wasn't. That was an accident. But using there for they're or affect for effect isn't a mistake. It's not bothering.

DougJ said...

If you ever read Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, keep a glass of red wine handy. You're going to need it.

Anthony Peterson said...

I once corrected the creative director of a major Australian advertising agency for confusing "alter" with "altar" on a sample ad they proudly displayed in their trendy showroom.

Two months later it was still there.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of when I was a writing tutor in college. Let's remember that sometimes these are not typos or mistakes -- sometimes they're just ignorance. In that case, the proofreading needs to be done by a professional or trusted friend who happens to be an English/grammar geek. But first, a person needs to recognize what they don't know and not assume they've got it.

There are rules that need to be memorized for grammar and punctuation, just like you need to memorize spelling. Memorize the most common rules, then look up the rest.

Reading the script out loud will only help so much since it is a common misnomer that every pause requires a comma.

~ Trina

P.S. Here's another one to add to your list to memorize: everyday versus every day. Everyday is an adjective meaning "ordinary," not a reference to time.

meg said...


"Let's remember that sometimes these are not typos or mistakes -- sometimes they're just ignorance...But first, a person needs to recognize what they don't know and not assume they've got it." Those would be the people capable of being/becoming professionals. The rest will complain about a proofreader being "too picky".

Nice point about everyday and every day. There are others too that I have had to look up. We live in a world that is ok with inaccuracies so it's easy to use the wrong word when just relying on what you commonly see.

Adrienne said...

Proof your stuff. Then proof it again. Print out a hard copy. Proof it again. I cringe over some of the errors I read in scripts. Silly errors. If you want to be regarded as a pro, then act like one.