Write Advice: screenwriter Justin Young defines a good script editor

Justin Young
5 July 2017
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Mo Harber-Lamond

In the final session with writer and guest tutor Justin Young, our John Yorke Story: Story for Script Development students find out exactly what makes a good script editor, the importance of first impressions and how writers prefer their notes to be presented.

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Story for Script Development

Q – Hi Justin, we’re honoured to have you take our questions, and I’ve got a few! Firstly, can you tell us what you appreciate in a script editor?

Justin Young – That’s what I’m here for! What I appreciate in a script editor above all else is clarity. The best script editor for me is someone who has a really clear-eyed sense of what is working and isn’t working and – ideally – can suggest specific, tangible solutions. Even if those suggestions are the start of a discussion rather than being the exact suggestions that I subsequently apply, a clear, tangible suggestion will kickstart a far more practical and productive conversation. The worst experiences I’ve had with script editors are when they were confusing and general. There’s nothing worse than coming out of a notes session more confused than before you went in. Clarity. Focus. Conciseness.

Another hallmark of a good script editor is a sense of humour. That’s vital when you’re both slogging through a 10th draft, or a set of amends that are mangling your work, but

Production are demanding be made. Crucially, great script editors have confidence in their own opinions, but are collaborative. My favourite script editors feel like allies and comrades; we’re in it together. They’re not there to tell me what to do – they’re there to assist/cajole/ nudge me towards doing my best work.

Also, script editors make my work better. As a writer, they’re my first audience, so if something doesn’t work for them, chances are it won’t work for the ‘real’ audience.

My preferred method of notes delivery depends on what stage of the process we’re at.

Justin Young

Q – When you meet a script editor for the first time, how important is that first impression, and do you need to click with your script editor right away? Can you tell immediately if this is going to work, or does it take awhile to figure out if you and the editor are a good match?

JY – In terms of first impressions, I guess it’s like any working relationship. In my experience, first impressions are usually fairly accurate. You know pretty fast if you’re going to click with someone or not. Then again, I’ve been wrong – both by being pleasantly surprised and bitterly disappointed. I think it’s unrealistic to imagine you’re going to click with all writers instantly. Some writers are suspicious and defensive with anyone who’s going to be making suggestions about their work, and will assume you’re the enemy until you can prove otherwise.

Also, the writer/editor relationship is one that develops across a project or a number of projects. The best situation is one where you have time to build a shorthand. By your third or fourth project with the same writer you’ve established enough trust to cut straight to it and say “this line isn’t very good”, knowing they’re not going to take offence. I’d also add that it’s perfectly possible to have a productive working relationship between a writer and editor where they’re not 100% simpatico – if you’re both professionals, you just get on with it. However, it’s infinitely more enjoyable when you get on well and can take huge 15 minute diversions in the middle of a notes session to discuss what you did at the weekend or last week’s Game of Thrones.

Q – In what way do you prefer your notes to be delivered? Do you like to meet with your editor in person first? Also, is this something that really depends on the individual writer, or do most writers prefer their notes delivered similarly?

JY – My preferred method of notes delivery depends on what stage of the process we’re at. In the early drafts, it’s vital to meet face to face, although I do quite like a few rough headlines sent over in advance as it can really help me to come to the meeting in the right headspace. Otherwise, I spend the first 10 minutes of the meeting while we’re making small talk thinking ‘just tell me if it’s good or bad, for the love of God!’.

If the notes are awful – i.e., ‘this needs a total rethink’ – it’s better to have time to kick things and calm down so you can come to the meeting in a productive, positive frame of mind, rather than someone dropping it on you at the start on the notes session like a bomb.

In those early drafts, it really needs to be a face to face discussion where you can agree on where you’re going to go in the next draft. By the time you get to draft three or four where the notes are hopefully getting much more specific, I’m happy to talk over the phone – again, sometimes it helps to have something written in advance. Then, by the time you’re into pre-shooting/rehearsal and those late drafts, I don’t even mind when an editor sends me a copy of the script with his or her notes in revisions mode. By that point, everyone’s out of time and energy and you’re just trying to get to the shooting script as fast as possible.

I would say my feelings on this are pretty much universal among writers I know, but there are of course exceptions. Some writers are happy to be given a written shopping list of what to fix, but personally I can think of nothing worse. In general, if a writer blindly accepts every single note they’re given and tries to unquestioningly action them, your script is dead in the water. It has to be a discussion.

Q – Fantastic! Thanks for all your help, Justin.

JY – No worries, and good luck!

Don’t forget to read part one and part two of this series of interviews.

Justin Young

Justin is a playwright, producer and screenwriter. He was Head Writer and Series Producer of Holby City for three years and has also written episodes of Ripper Street, Dickensian and Death in Paradise as well as developing his own pilot scripts with Drama Republic, Company Pictures, BBC Wales and Red Planet among others.

John Yorke Story: Story for Script Development

Begins: 29 January 2018