Write Advice: script editor Caroline Young discusses giving writers notes
How do you get the most from a writer? It’s part of the art of being a script editor. Caroline Young, experienced script editor and tutor on our John Yorke Story for Script Development online course, answers questions from students, and explores how to deal with writers who find it tricky to take notes.
John Yorke Story: Story for Script Development
- Learn how to plan and structure drama scripts
- Gain experience and confidence in working with writers
- Improve your note-giving skills, including those you’d rather not give
Q – Hi Caroline! Thanks for joining us. I have a question about working with a ‘difficult’ writer. What do you do when you’ve given your feedback and suggested changes to the writer in person, they’ve accepted them and agreed to incorporate them, but then they don’t?
Caroline Young – It’s a pleasure! That’s a good question, and something that I’ve experienced on a few occasions. It’s hugely frustrating because you leave the briefing thinking that the next draft is going to really move forward, and then it doesn’t. It would depend who the writer was and what your relationship with them is like, really.
If it’s someone you have a good relationship with, I would be tempted to give them a call and just ask them – it may well be that they went away and thought about the notes and decided against implementing them. I would also discuss it with my producer/exec producer and see what they think I should do. If the writer really pushed against the notes and you weren’t the only one who thought they should be implemented, then I would eventually ask my producer to talk to the writer.
Actually – thinking more about it – even if you don’t know the writer well then I think you would have to talk to them about it. The more high-end the writer, the bigger the chance that they aren’t going to always take the notes on board – they tend to work on more authored pieces and don’t always want other voices in the mix. It’s all about the writer’s ego and making sure that you don’t dent it too much!
Q – If you’re in the minority on the notes you’ve given, would you reconsider them?
CY – If I’m in the minority on a note then I always think twice before giving it, especially if I’m working with high end writers. I might try and talk to the writer about what I felt, but would back off quickly if I sensed them pushing back.
More experienced writers tend to be more aware of where things aren’t working in their own scripts, but newer writers often need a lot more hand holding and encouragement.
Q – I imagine you develop a certain sensitivity when it comes to dealing with personalities. Do you think it’s as much part of the job description as the editing/developing itself?
CY – Absolutely! Working out the best way to get the most from a writer is half the battle. I’ve worked with so many different writers and I’ve never really used the same approach twice! I’ve had a writer who never wanted to talk through notes, so I’d end up sending him pages and pages of thoughts and he would politely do the notes he wanted and ignore the others.
I’ve also worked with someone who used to come in for a cup of tea and we would just talk about the script for hours until we hit on something that he felt comfortable with. Each writer has different needs.
Q – My current job deals with less experienced writers. Is there anything that you would do differently when dealing with a rookie writer versus a more experienced one?
CY – Yes – dealing with rookie writers is usually a different kettle of fish to working with a more experienced one. The scripts, on the whole, tend not to be as polished, so you have to do more spoon feeding and possibly pointing out where they have gone a little off course.
More experienced writers tend to be more aware of where things aren’t working in their own scripts, but baby writers often need a lot more hand holding and encouragement. Having said that, you can get pretty terrible scripts from more experienced writers too! I think the best thing with writers is just to be as available as they need – some will need you more than others.
If a script really isn’t working then you have to let them know, but there are ways to do it so that you don’t leave them rocking in the corner!
Q – I’ve worked with producers/writers/talent for years, and I feel confident in my ability to communicate effectively with personalities of all types – so long as I am in the room and can respond to them in real time. However, my natural style is quite direct and I wonder if my written notes sometime come off as too pointed. I am working on this, but is there space in the world for a script editor who tend to cut to the chase?
CY – I’m quite a direct person too, and it can sometimes be a virtue as there’s nothing worse than a writer thinking that they’re doing well from their experience with their script editor, only to be sacked by the producer. However, I do think you have to dress up your thoughts a little as writers are on the whole a very sensitive bunch. You have to remember that writing is an incredibly difficult and personal process. Most writers will have left themselves on the page a little, so criticism can cut deep.
If a script really isn’t working then you do have to let them know, but there are ways to do it so that you don’t leave them rocking in the corner! In the room is a different experience as you can have a conversation – you can explain yourself more and the writer can’t read more into your notes than you intended. Also, when you work with a writer more than once you can start to develop a shorthand. If a writer trusts you then you can cut to the chase a lot quicker.
Q – That’s very reassuring! It’s a tricky line to tread as you don’t ever want to upset anyone, but at the same time you’re trying to help them make their script the best it can be.
CY – As you say, so many writers feel very connected to their work. I think the hardest thing I’ve had to face is someone who doesn’t want to change anything for any reason because they feel it’s their story.
Q – I’m very much a newbie in the industry, but I imagine face-to-face meetings are becoming less and less common. Is most of the job done via email these days?
CY – I think a lot of it is, but I still tend to have writers come in wherever possible. Even writers who don’t live in London (or wherever you are based) tend to prefer face to face. I’ve briefed via Skype before, too.
I enjoy the process the most when there’s a script, as I find treatments quite tricky to work with. However, I love breaking story in the room with a writer too – I see it all as a great privilege.
Q – In an ideal world, how early in the development process do you like to get involved in a project? At what point do you feel that your skills can be deployed to optimal effect?
CY – I guess everyone would answer this question differently, and it varies from project to project, but I would say the earlier the better. If you can pin down problems early then there are fewer chances of having to unpick the script further down the line. Personally, I enjoy the process the most when there’s a script, as I find treatments quite tricky to work with. However, I love breaking story in the room with a writer too – I see it all as a great privilege.
Q – Do you have any advice for finding a good balance between being answerable to the producer while still maintaining a sense of trust with the writer? I’ve definitely worked on shows where the script editor ends up having to act as almost a go between to keep everything on track. Do you feel you are more autonomous most of the time, or is it a fine balance of being loyal to both?
CY – Another good question. It can be hard sometimes if you really don’t agree with your producer, but when push comes to shove they are ultimately responsible for the show. As a script editor you are a bit of a go between for the production with the writer and the writer with the production, and it’s vital that the writer trusts you.
As a general rule, if I was asked to give notes to a writer that I really didn’t believe in, I would try to get to the bottom of why the producer wanted to give the note. Then, if the writer pushed back, I could explain the reasoning. If it was getting uncomfortable with the writer then I would ask the producer to talk to them about their thoughts.
In terms of politics, there are producers that have been editors and love that job. In that case you have to be really sensitive and grab hold of the reins whenever you get the chance. There will always be times when the producer has to do other things. A lot of this job is trusting your instinct and being sensitive to the people around you.
Q – Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions, Caroline!
CY – Thanks you for having me. Enjoy the rest of the course!