Dear John

Paying a reader to give you notes on your script is like paying a prostitute to give you notes on your sexual technique.

Yes, they’re a professional.
Yes, they’re good at what they do.
And yes, if you’re just starting out there’s a case to be made that advice from someone who’s been around the blocks a few times is going to help.

But in the long term, both of them have a vested interest in continuing to receive your custom. And that means two things.

One: You’re never going to be told you’re that bad
Two: You’re never going to be told you’re that good.

To keep your custom, they have to always see that there’s room for improvement, while also approving of your current skills and grasp of technique. Especially the techniques that they happen to like.

Now, if they’re being paid by someone else to judge your work, then you can trust ’em – to a point at least.

They might not like redheads, or muscleboys, or people who dress to the left, but that’s just life. If someone else is paying them to evaluate your performance and they don’t like you, that’s just incompatibility. Bad luck. And they can be as sharp as they like with their critique, because you never get to see it.

But if you’re the one paying for the evaluation, they’d be a fool not to give you what you’re asking for. Really asking for, which is recognition of the skills you’ve got, tips for improvement, and a haven’t-you-done-well.

Whether you actually have any skills, or need any improvement.

In other words, you get what you pay for. Not necessarily what you need.

36 responses to “Dear John”

  1. Laurence: Nothing in particular. Though my mother was frightened by a script reader while I was in the womb.

    Adaddinsane: As I say, I think a reader’s opinion can be valuable if you’re not the one paying for it.

    The problem as I see it is when the person paying for the feedback is the person receiving the feedback – then the reader must give value for money, and that of necessity means not telling the truth in unvarnished form.

  2. I’m not speaking from experience here, but I’d wager that there are script readers and there are script readers.

    Some might adjust their feedback with a view to getting continued business. Most, I feel, wouldn’t. It’d be a false economy.

  3. My case would be thoroughly disproven if at any point someone who has paid for a script report receives one of the following responses:

    It’s brilliant. Don’t send me any more work, there’s no point.

    It’s terrible. Don’t send me any more work, there’s no point.

  4. Well, I dunno, seems like a very sad viewpoint to me.

    And it’s a rare writer that doesn’t work with an editor.

    Personally I’ve already made the decision that, regardless of how “good” I end up being I’ll still pay for my own script consultancy.

    Everyone needs an editor – and that comes after 17+ years writing for magazines, websites etc etc etc.

  5. Oh, and if I were a script editor I *would* tell someone if they were beyond hope. I would also tell them if they were beyond me.

    And if I ‘d do it there will others that would too.

  6. You got to admit, though: there’s a difference between script editors and script readers. Editors (one assumes) would be paid by someone else and be working for the good of the production. Readers would be paid by the writer and working for the good of themselves.

    Or am I getting this wrong?

  7. You most certainly have my utter agreement Piers.
    I’ve stated my loathing for the “Industry” that’s sprung up around the scriptwriting profession.
    You make excellent points, and more eloquently than me. thank you.

    I was recently at a seminar where Richard Curtis, gave his private thoughts on this whole business.
    I can’t go into detail, as it was NCA but, basically if he were here now he would nod his head very vigorously indeed. 🙂

  8. Yes, I’d like to hear that too Tom, since it appears my evil money making scheme* has been busted.

    Po3 or peer review? Handy if you happen to work in the industry already of course. Perhaps there’s a limit to how far this can take you if you work outside the industry.

    Free reading services like those at the Beeb? If you don’t mind waiting up to half a year.

    * aka script reading service

  9. Tom: If at all possible, I’d try to get notes from people at or above roughly the same level as yourself (whatever that level may be for each of us), who are also writers.

    If you happen to know anyone personally, brilliant. Ask them if they’d mind giving you notes. Maybe they can, maybe they can’t.

    If you don’t know anyone personally, then find a writers group.

    Or form a writers group, if there isn’t one local to you already.

    Or make friends on a screenwriters message board and ask them.

    Or join an email list for critiquing each other’s screenplays like Sharpshooter.

    Or set one up yourself.

    Or upload your script to Trigger Street or Zoetrope, which will have the added advantage that you’re forced to read and critique other people’s scripts too.

    Or send stuff in to the BBC writersroom – anyone who gets past the first 10-page sift gets notes on their work.

    Or post on your blog that you’ve got a script which needs notes, and would some kind souls mind giving you a Power of 3 on it.

    At least one of the above should work for you. Maybe several.

  10. Hmmm, some interesting point of views.

    As someone who’s new to this whole process, I have a question: how do you know when you’ve found a good script reader, someone who’s given your script a good and sound analysis. (My limited experience has been bittersweet – and, believe me, I’m not looking for someone to tell me how great a writer I am.)

    Do you have to kiss a lot of frogs?

  11. If this helps. and if its not breaking any trusts.
    Richard curtis gae this advice.
    The best script reader for you is someone you trust. Not someone who is looking for £200 a script. Not someone with an agenda. not someone who is trying to stroke your ego.

    They should ideally be a friend or family who ideally has an understanding of the business, or a producer or script editor who likes your work and is willing to help you craft your work, and not just give you notes for the sake of note giving.

  12. meastwood: so far I’ve just relied on the honest and considered input of other writers and directors. Make contacts (web, blogs, Shooting People etc), read and review other people’s work and enthuse them to do the same for you.

    It’s the Power of 3 thing.

  13. Piers – That’s all great stuff and as you know I’ve always advocated going as far as you can with peer review and Po3.

    However lots of writers like to pay for readers because they know they won’t get into flame wars and the like when others can’t take constructive criticism. Plus they don’t have to wait long usually, so it’s good for the likes of contests, pitching to someone the following week, etc.

    It is also worth remembering professional readers/editors (even paid-for ones) can give you insights that other writers cannot. It might be based on their experience reading for literary agents or funding initiatives like me – or it might be because they’ve worked for other organisations, prodcos, etc that that writer might like to target.

    Of course, if you happen to find someone with that for your peer review group: fantastic.

    Mweastwood – it’s always best to go by word of mouth I’ve found when hiring readers. If someone you know likes their notes from someone, it generally works out okay. I’ve always trusted that when paying for my own notes (and I do pay for my own notes) and I’ve always been 60% pleased or over. No such thing as 100% in my book.

    Dan – writers pay £200 for notes??? I wish.

  14. Dan, I realise that we’re talking about the great Richard Curtis but, in my experience, he’s wrong.

    Trust: yes, of course.

    But for no money? Why? If the person is a professional why shouldn’t they be paid?

    I *know* that I wouldn’t have been shortlisted for Red Planet if I hadn’t paid a highly experienced consultant. (Because I wasn’t last year.)

  15. Laurance, sounds good advice. One of the most frustrating things I’ve found is that I’m toiling in isolation. Hence the new blog. I know one or two people in the business but you don’t like to keep hassling them to read scripts for fear that they’ll get cheesed off.

    I’ve always stayed clear of Shooting People, but I think I may have to give it another look.


  16. Ooh controversial. Brings back fond memories of that ‘Writing is a job’ blog that caused so much of an enjoyable epidemic.

    Now stop it, Piers. You’re hogging the blogosphere (lol).

  17. Hi Piers,

    I don’t have wide experience of readers but I’m quite convinced that paid-for feedback has helped my scripts do OK in competitions. I also PO3 but there is a big difference in the depth of feedback you get from a paid reader. Also – you say readers will never say ‘don’t change anything’ – well I’ve had feedback from Lucy that said just that about whole chunks of a script of mine (admittedly already heavily rewritten) and she’s positively recommended that I get a fresh pair of eyes on a script for further feedback (hardly the actions of a money grabbing script reader!). So my experience has been very positive and I’d thoroughly recommend paying a *good* scriptreader for feedback. Especially for a relative newbie like me it makes all the difference.

  18. Piers – all very good suggestions and to be honest, that would have been useful to add on to your original post for a couple of reasons: firstly because it gives it more of a balanced approach rather than just being a rant and secondly because it isn’t hidden in the comments.

    That suggestion and advice is given for free btw. Next time it’ll cost! 😉

    That being said, Lucy makes some good points in her response post today. While your suggestions are valid, they are not a total solution.

    – My current day-job has me working away from home so a writers group is out of the question.
    – Sites like TriggerStreet and Zoetrope are all well and good but don’t necessarily provide feedback on short film scripts.
    – Asking on a blog is only useful if people actually come and visit your blog – if they don’t, you’re reduced to pimping your blog and sending unsolicited emails. (Yes, okay, that’s a personal issue)
    -As Lucy mentions, Writers Room is fine if you don’t mind waiting x months. As you yourself said, you’ll get feedback if you pass the first 10 page sift but what if your screenplay isn’t even 10 pages?
    -Online screenwriting groups and message boards are certainly a good suggestion (although setting one up yourself still requires a certain amount of selling it and getting people to attend – the sort of thing that eats into writing time and that a lot of people may not feel comfortable doing)

    I’m not necessarily saying that all or any of this applies to me as I do have a couple of friends and contacts I can use but generally I would use peer review for the first few drafts and then consider (independent) script readers for later stages. Even then, I would only go with people who I knew had a good track record, good referrals or who I trusted.

    At the end of the day, script reading is a service and if that service is not of a good quality and does not provide useful and constructive feedback then I would not go back to them or recommend them to others.

  19. Speaking as a sometime script doctor, I have some points of variance with this dogma. And if you have look at the comments made by my clients, some listed at my website ( you’ll discover that my approach is far from telling people what they want to hear because money is involved. Also, some of the time I work for an intermediary, such as people putting together short film schemes, so are you suggesting that my feedback on those occasions is useful and that the same writers working with me outside that context will receive partisan advice??? I think not. As far as credibility goes, where working for third parties is concerned, I was hired in 2005 to spend an hour with any writers and filmmakers who wanted to shape up their submissions for a regional shorts programme. Result? Those who took me up on that offer had their chances of being shortlisted tripled…and I had no input into the selection process. Do you really really think that insight, or whatever, deserts me when I work for individual writers?

  20. Interesting debate. Sorry, Piers, but I definitely have to come down on the side defending paid consultants.

    Sometimes a professional really doesn’t hurt, you know? When I went to a professional dentist the results were somewhat better than when I approached my next door neighbour and let him loose in my mouth with a Black & Decker and some plaster of Paris.

    Seriously, though, the kind of feedback I get from my favourite script consultants is something you could never expect from peer review. I get ten pages of extremely intelligent, thorough analysis. It must be half a day’s work at least. Not something everybody is able or willing to give for free.

    I know that when companies employ me for script analysis, they get a big chunk of my time and effort.

    Are there naff script readers and consultants out there? Yes, absolutely. But there are also some excellent ones.

    And yes, I have been told by one of those that a script was pretty close to where it needed to be and that a second round of analysis wouldn’t be appropriate. If you’re going to argue that a script consultant will always say “needs more rewrites” to keep you coming back for more, you could also argue that a dentist will always do an incomplete job on your teeth, to keep you coming back for more dental work. But the reality is that a ‘professional’ in the best sense of the word will do their best for you, and allow that to be the factor that brings them repeat business.

  21. Nicely put Dan Wicksman. As a professional script developer myself, I certainly don’t want writers coming back time and again with a script that can’t progress, either due to a writer’s lack of ability or because it’s already good enough to be seen by companies / agents / directors whoever. If its the former I’m not interested in working with the writer, or reading the same stalled script over and again. That’s not creatively rewarding and believe it or not, is also not financially rewarding as reports for writers are usually on the budget end of development work. (I earn more working with a company or development agency on ongoing development projects). If its the latter, I’m building a professional, ongoing relationship with talented writers and have no interest in milking them on one project.

    I also believe a script editor can sometimes get too close to a project, just like a writer and a fresh pair of eyes can be more useful and have sometimes advised this before. Over all, Piers I think you’re lumping everyone who provides a service into one pot, when actually there are some dodgy readers and some professionals who are in this for the creative reward as much as financial. Believe me its actually a pretty crap way to make money until you build your reputation and start to work as a script editor/developer! Anyone who tries to milk writers for money would be highly short sighted and not likely to be in the game for the long haul.

    My suggestion, if you want to get good feedback, get personal recommendations, try someone out and find someone you trust to build a long term working relationship with. Getting feedback from fellow writers or family can be good too, but just as there are potholes with paying there are equally potholes with each of these methods – already outlined in comments above. I could go into more detail but maybe another time. I’ve written more on the subject of developers for Scriptwriter magazine last year:

    Cheers all, Sarah Olley

  22. Piers – I disagree. Your view of readers is quite jaded. It is true, there are readers and there are readers. The Script Department tells the truth in such a way that the writer can feel inspired and motivated to do better and take his or her writing to the next level. If we read a script that is brilliant, we pick up the phone and refer that writer to agents and managers. If they get repped or even some meetings, we revel in being a small part of that success. If the script is super bad, we encourage the writer, with kind and instructive notes, to learn to be a better writer. I cannot say with certainty that a writer should give up because they are so bad. Your binary choices: you’re so good never come back or you’re so bad never come back leave out most of the reality of the situation. If a writer has the wherewithal to reach out and get feedback, they absolutely should. If they have trusted peers and colleagues who can do the same thing for them, they should take advantage of that too. But there’s something invaluable about getting notes from a stranger who is NOT your friend.

  23. I’ve always thought that giving your script to a s-doctor is like taking your car to a garage to have it checked up. Although you didn’s spot them, rhere’ll be always things wrong, and not surprisingly, the mechanic tells you he can fix it.

    What I do is: I take the script to one or two ANALYSTS to point out the mistakes and, if they agree on the same points, then I take the script to a different DOCTOR and have him work on that issues.

    Having the same guy analyzing and doctoring your script is plainly suicidal.

  24. “One: You’re never going to be told you’re that bad
    Two: You’re never going to be told you’re that good.”

    This is, of course, patently untrue in some cases. Like mine.

    I was told without hesitation, based off the first script I received notes on from a former Dreamworks Senior Story Analyst, that I had the talent and skill to break in as a writer. That script then went on to place in one of the larger contests, in the first round of contests I’ve ever entered.

    The next script I received notes on (from the same person) is being passed by her to a hot pro writer who loved the pitch and has three big-studio films in production as we speak.

    Clearly, I *was* told I was that good — and it happened to be true. But at the same time, I was also educated on my weaknesses and how to overcome them.

    While I understand your overall point, I think it’s incredibly insulting to the honest consultants who put their industry reputations on the line to get the best work possible out of their clients.

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