Writing Coaches are Mean People

Recently, I met with screen­writ­ing coach Jim Mercurio to dis­cuss some ideas and screen­plays I was try­ing to pitch.

Jim is a won­der­ful, high­ly ranked writ­ing coach and for­mer colum­nist for Creative Screenwriting. He knows writ­ing and he knows Hollywood. He told me right up front, this is going to be chal­leng­ing. It was weird because he said to me every warn­ing I offer my own clients.

Being a writ­ing coach means telling peo­ple what they need to fix. Most writ­ers don’t want to hear what isn’t work­ing in a man­u­script or screen­play. Having spent months or years on a work, the writer has invest­ed seri­ous emo­tion­al ener­gy in the work.

And this hor­ri­ble, mean coach, is about to tell the client that the work isn’t fin­ished. It isn’t as good as it must be. It’s just okay, if that, and needs to be refined. You hire a writ­ing coach like you hire a per­son­al train­er: expect­ing to be pushed hard­er and being told you can be a lot bet­ter than you are at this moment.

When a writ­ing coach push­es you, and cer­tain­ly Jim push­es his clients, it’s because you real­ly do have to be 10×, 100×, maybe 1000× bet­ter than what’s already in Hollywood. Your script has to be bet­ter, from for­mat­ting to the struc­ture. You don’t get to bend or break any rules. Your query let­ter, pitch, treat­ment, and logline(s) have to be bet­ter. Way bet­ter than what you might imag­ine.

During my last meet­ing with Jim, he destroyed every log­line, every con­cept, every treat­ment I offered, shoot­ing them down like he was play­ing the old Atari 2600 Shooting Gallery. And if I tried to defend my idea, the answer was quick: you aren’t big enough to rely on being okay or good or even slight­ly bet­ter than most.

There’s a rea­son I don’t charge (and sel­dom work with) new writ­ers. They aren’t used to how the sys­tem works and how much is expect­ed of a spec script. They don’t have a clue how hard the film, stage, and pub­lish­ing mar­kets are in this econ­o­my (media mar­kets have nev­er been easy to enter) and many writ­ers don’t want to hear any­thing but how great their ideas are or how easy it will be to tweak the ideas.

It’s not easy for a spec writer. Statistically, it’s near­ly impos­si­ble. You have to be writ­ing, and writ­ing, and writ­ing. You get reject­ed, you revise. You get reject­ed again, you revise.

If you pay for cov­er­age, some­times they’ll tell you how close you are, or even how great you are. That’s usu­al­ly not the truth. Sorry, but the truth is your work like­ly isn’t that close to per­fec­tion. These ana­lysts and con­tests want your mon­ey. Have you seen the lists of scripts mak­ing quar­ter­fi­nals or finals in these con­tests? Pages of scripts, 98 per­cent of which won’t be optioned, and 70 or more per­cent of those optioned will col­lect dust.

Pay some­one like Jim or David Trottier (“Dr. Format”) if you want unvar­nished, bru­tal truth. If you don’t want to pay, and are okay with strong opin­ions based on my expe­ri­ence, that’s fine — but lis­ten and take the advice seri­ous­ly. Jim, Dave, and even I WANT you to suc­ceed. We WANT you to sell a script or man­u­script. But we also know how awe­some the pack­age has to be. It’s not per­son­al when we point to weak­ness­es in a sto­ry or in some oth­er aspect of a client’s work. It’s not try­ing to show that we are mean or picky. It’s to help you sell the thing you’ve cre­at­ed to some­one, to some pub­lish­er or pro­duc­er.

I am not a famous script con­sul­tant. I’m not a major name. I have taught at uni­ver­si­ties and I’ve worked with a hand­ful of clients. So, if you don’t want to lis­ten to me, that’s under­stand­able. Yet, my stu­dents seem to have done okay and my clients have had some small suc­cess.

None of us, from the big name con­sul­tants to the (cur­rent­ly inac­tive) uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sors like myself, want you to fail. We want to help oth­er writ­ers be the best they can be. That’s why we point out for­mat­ting errors, gram­mar errors, and prob­lems with sto­ry struc­ture. We’re not being picky to demon­strate our exper­tise: we are teach­ing you what not to do, so your sto­ry will be read and treat­ed with respect by a stu­dio, pro­duc­er, pub­lish­er, or edi­tor.

And if you don’t believe that, fine. Whatever. But I want every stu­dent I’ve had, every client stu­dio, every friend I’ve tried to help to SELL some­thing each writer can feel was a great effort and rep­re­sent the best pos­si­ble prod­uct hand­ed off to a stu­dio, pub­lish­er, or media house.

Yes, I take this very, very per­son­al­ly. You want help, I’ll ask ques­tions and hope you lis­ten to what I’m ask­ing. If you want guid­ance, that’s what I can offer. It might not be per­fect and it might not be what you want to hear. If you don’t want my expe­ri­ence, research, or plain opin­ion, don’t ask for guid­ance or tips or ideas to help pol­ish and sell your writ­ing.

Look into a mir­ror, and tell your­self how mag­i­cal you are and how stu­pid Hollywood is. You’ll feel much bet­ter than I’ve ever made any­one feel about their works.

If you want to self-pro­duce, do it. That’s the best way to get movies made. It’s like the­ater today: self-pro­duce, and you’ll have a show. Self-pub­lish, you can sell a few copies of a book. If your work is so great, then you go make it hap­pen if nobody else wants it. It has worked for a few dozen film­mak­ers and play­wrights, and even a few authors have sold mil­lions of self-pub­lished books.

You want affir­ma­tion? Find anoth­er career, because screen­writ­ing is about get­ting fired and replaced by the sec­ond or third writ­ing team. You SELL the script, you let go, or you get hired to replace some­one you know and like. Writers end up replac­ing each oth­er, and try­ing to laugh it off over cof­fee or drinks.

Professionals all know that writ­ing is hard work, espe­cial­ly writ­ing for hire in the media. There are a lot of writ­ers, all try­ing for the few jobs and try­ing to sell one of the few works that a media com­pa­ny will buy and pro­duce or pub­lish. It’s not an easy career choice, and a good coach or teacher reminds you that it is dif­fi­cult.

Photo by jugarsan

Writers and Silly Media Biases: Stories are Flexible

This sto­ry is a movie. That oth­er sto­ry needs to be a nov­el.”

One of my pet peeves is the com­mon assump­tion among writ­ers that par­tic­u­lar types of sto­ries are best suit­ed to a sin­gle medi­um. This assump­tion belies either a lack of skill or a lack of under­stand­ing and appre­ci­a­tion for var­i­ous media.

Cinderella can be a pic­ture book, a nov­el, a short sto­ry, an ani­mat­ed short, a full-length fea­ture, a musi­cal, a play…. The pos­si­bil­i­ties for telling any sto­ry are lim­it­ed only by the writer’s knowl­edge of a par­tic­u­lar form and audi­ence expec­ta­tions. It is pos­si­ble to tell the sto­ry of Cinderella with­out words. In fact, silent films, ani­ma­tions, and bal­lets exist with­out dia­logue and yet audi­ences under­stand the sto­ry being told.

The basic sto­ry of Cinderella is well known in our cul­ture. A young woman is raised by her self­ish step­moth­er along­side two equal­ly nar­cis­sis­tic sis­ters. A grand ball is announced, dur­ing which the Prince is expect­ed to find a suit­able wife from the nobil­i­ty. The mag­ic of a fairy god­moth­er trans­forms Cinderella from a house­hold ser­vant into a beau­ti­ful lady, com­plete with fine glass slip­pers. For the rest of the sto­ry, I encour­age you to read, watch, and lis­ten to as many vari­a­tions as pos­si­ble.

A short sto­ry of Cinderella might not explain how the step­moth­er came to mary Cinderella’s father. A full-length nov­el or motion pic­ture might explore the com­plex back sto­ry. A bal­let would rely on the music and motion to con­vey thoughts, emo­tions, and the gen­er­al plot. The orig­i­nal fairy­tale fea­tures some star­tling­ly grotesque imagery, which con­tem­po­rary children’s books and ani­mat­ed fea­tures have removed.

My point is that a well-known fairy­tale such as Cinderella can be adapt­ed to any media by a tal­ent­ed writer. However, not every writer is a mas­ter of all forms and gen­res. I cer­tain­ly could not score an opera or bal­let based on Cinderella. Nor could I illus­trate a word free pic­ture book of the sto­ry. My lim­i­ta­tions as a writer are not the lim­i­ta­tions of the sto­ry.

Most ear­ly movies were adap­ta­tions of famous plays. Yet, I fre­quent­ly hear screen­writ­ers claim that a sto­ry is a “good play, bad movie.” Instead, a screen­writer should be con­sid­er­ing how to tell the sto­ry max­i­miz­ing the strengths of cin­e­ma.

A col­league post­ed the fol­low­ing to Facebook:

  • If your pro­tag­o­nist is a THINKER you have a BOOK.
  • If your pro­tag­o­nist is a TALKER you have a PLAY.
  • If your pro­tag­o­nist is a DOER you have a MOVIE.

The prob­lem with the pre­ced­ing sim­ple check­list is that a main char­ac­ter can be adapt­ed to doing, talk­ing, or think­ing based on the medi­um des­ti­na­tion for the sto­ry. Sometimes, you must add a char­ac­ter or oth­er device to allow thoughts to become dia­logue. Sometimes, voiceover works well in a film and can reveal thoughts. Great direc­tors can reveal thoughts with quick cuts and sug­ges­tive images. Never lim­it your­self by assert­ing any char­ac­ter is only one aspect of the above list.

We are all thinkers, talk­ers, and doers. Choosing which to empha­size is a choice made based on the form and genre select­ed by or for the sto­ry­teller.

As an aside, I also dis­like the empha­sis on the pro­tag­o­nist in the above list. Main char­ac­ters may or may not be “pro­tag­o­nists” in the tra­di­tion­al sense of good ver­sus evil. Equally impor­tant, oppos­ing char­ac­ters (antag­o­nist, oppo­si­tion, impact, muse, et al) can be adapt­ed to any form and genre. Evil thoughts can be expressed in dia­logue, or sug­gest­ed through action, lim­it­ed only by the skill of the writer.

When some­one states that a movie was not as good as the book this can reflect either a bad movie or unusu­al expec­ta­tions. The audi­ences for full-length nov­els might not be the same as the audi­ences for two-hour movies. However, it seems more like­ly that the adap­ta­tion is to blame for audi­ence dis­sat­is­fac­tion. Nobody would try to com­pare the short sto­ry of Cinderella to a full-length fea­ture film. Each medi­um must stand apart even when telling the same sto­ry.

Lose your media bias­es. Stories them­selves are flex­i­ble, ready to be told in any medi­um by a tal­ent­ed sto­ry­teller, some­one aware of that medium’s strengths and weak­ness­es. If you can­not see a sto­ry in a par­tic­u­lar medi­um, maybe you aren’t the right choice for writ­ing that adap­ta­tion. That is not an insult or a crit­i­cism. As I men­tion above, I’m not the best choice for any num­ber of forms and gen­res. Know your strengths and tell the sto­ries you want to tell in the medi­um or media you pre­fer.

Just don’t tell anoth­er writer that his or her sto­ry must be told in a par­tic­u­lar medi­um, accord­ing to your bias­es.

Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

WE SEE… Why Screenwriters Started Using WE

As a play­wright, I am accus­tomed to “direct­ing” the action. One of the attrac­tions of writ­ing for the stage is the pri­ma­cy of the script, as sub­mit­ted by the writer to a direc­tor. Changes require the approval of the play­wright, and well-known play­wrights have chal­lenged direc­tors who felt the need to “improve” plays (and the writ­ers win these chal­lenges).

By com­par­i­son, the direc­tor is in charge of screen pro­duc­tions. Always. The writer pro­duces a work-for-hire owned by the pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny, with cre­ative con­trol falling to the direc­tor, except in the rarest of cas­es. Short of being a writer-direc­tor, the screenwriter’s “vision” of the work is noth­ing more than a sug­ges­tion.

In the ear­ly years, direc­tors of films were like the­ater direc­tors. They adhered to the script because a lot of movies were made quick­ly. Changes hap­pened, but the ear­ly indus­try was focused on releas­ing works to meet a high demand.

Over time, direc­tors start­ed to exert greater con­trol.

Up through the 1970s, spec scripts (spec­u­la­tive, mean­ing writ­ten with the hope of sell­ing the work) and ini­tial drafts includ­ed some cam­era direc­tion, and a good deal of nar­ra­tive direc­tion. The direc­tor might change these direc­tions, but they were includ­ed by the screen­writer to sug­gest a vision.

Though there had been pow­er­ful direc­tors since the start of film and tele­vi­sion, things changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly dur­ing the 1970s. Theatrical fea­ture direc­tors told writ­ers to stop direct­ing in the spec script or ini­tial draft. Television direc­tors start­ed to adopt the same pol­i­cy. (It should be not­ed that in series tele­vi­sion, many pro­duc­ers are writ­ers, so the ten­sions are lit­tle dif­fer­ent.)

Told not to direct on the page, writ­ers have con­tin­ued to bend this com­mand­ment from the film gods by writ­ing nar­ra­tive and action that attempts to direct. You often spot these non-direct­ing direc­tions with WE SEE and WE HEAR in con­tem­po­rary scripts. You also spot the direc­tion with objects, sounds, and oth­er ele­ments types in ALL CAPS, as if scream­ing to the direc­tor that “This must be so!”

Consider Lynne Pembroke’s reac­tion to these non-direct­ing tricks of screen­writ­ers:

COVERSCRIPT TIPS — A Heated Disagreement


July 21, 2015, Lynne Pembroke

A heat­ed dis­agree­ment. In this case, about two tee­ny, tiny, itsy bit­sy phras­es. And a per­son­al much-detest­ed pet peeve. Contained wrath is the imme­di­ate reac­tion when I run across them….

Using these two phras­es is a writ­ing cop-out. Because it’s easy; with­out them a screen­writer is forced to Show not Tell.

Besides, “we” are in the the­ater seats watch­ing, or in our office chairs read­ing, not in the &%#$@% sto­ry! I don’t dis­agree in prin­ci­ple, but direc­tors set the stan­dards no mat­ter what any­one else argues. I swapped to WE SEE, but only for very spe­cif­ic cam­era changes.

TOURISTS mill about a foun­tain.

(No need for WE SEE.)

WE SEE the feet of tourists, splash­ing in water. (Very spe­cif­ic visu­al want­ed.) Could WE SEE be omit­ted?

BARE FEET splash in the foun­tain.

It would then be up to a direc­tor if this is a close up or not. The old days, when spec writ­ers includ­ed more shots, before direc­tors told writ­ers not to direct:


Feet splash in the foun­tain.

Personally, I would rather have “CLOSE UP:” in the spec script, instead of “WE SEE” or or “BARE FEET” cap­i­tal­ized. I sup­pose there’s no per­fect approach to try­ing to direct, with­out being the direc­tor, short of get­ting rewrite and shoot­ing script duties in your script deal. If you are hired for the shoot­ing script, the SFX and shot slugs can replace WE SEE and WE HEAR.

As a play­wright, I am the all-mighty last and final word on the direc­tion. As a screen­writer, I have to accept my posi­tion and do my best to cajole a direc­tor to accept my ideas. Some direc­tors will recoil at any sug­gest shot, WE SEE stunts, or oth­er direc­tion. Other direc­tors rec­og­nize that the writer had a vision or there wouldn’t be a screen­play.

My sug­ges­tion: avoid WE SEE and WE HEAR and all the cap­i­tal­iza­tion stunts unless you lack a bet­ter way to con­vey an absolute­ly essen­tial visu­al or sound in the script.

Photo by Carl Mikoy

Your Script is a Snitch, Part Two

Part One of “Your Script is a Snitch” explained how your script is snitch­ing on you before the read­er opens or scrolls to page one. Now, let’s exam­ine what your script says to read­ers as they skim the pages of your screen gem. The mes­sage might not be the one you hoped the script would con­vey.

A read­er doesn’t have to read much to make some edu­cat­ed assump­tions. With dozens, or even hun­dreds, of scripts to read, any hint from your script that its writer wasn’t seri­ous and pro­fes­sion­al can doom the script to the trash can, real or vir­tu­al.


Read me, trust me, I’m from a pro­fes­sion­al.” That’s what you want your script to say.

Did you use the appropriate template?

Page One (1.) screams loud­ly about your abil­i­ty to fol­low the rules for screen­writ­ing. Assuming you prop­er­ly bound the script and the fly sheet stuck to the basics, the first page is going to tell the read­er if you under­stand how to for­mat a script.

Hello. I’m a well-for­mat­ted, prop­er­ly writ­ten script,” the page should tell read­ers.

The eas­i­est way to ensure a script is for­mat­ted prop­er­ly is to use Final Draft or Screenwriter and the appro­pri­ate tem­plate for the screen­play. Both writ­ing pro­grams include basic tem­plates for the­atri­cal spec scripts, spe­cif­ic stu­dios, cable net­works, and broad­cast series. The for­mat­ting is not the same for all screen­plays! TV scripts, in par­tic­u­lar, should be based on the right tem­plate for the desired pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny or net­work.

If your script doesn’t look like oth­er scripts for the same type of film or series, it tells the read­er you didn’t both­er to read sam­ples or look at the avail­able tem­plates. And if you thought you had a “bet­ter way” to for­mat the script, the script just revealed what a fool you are. There are sam­ple scripts galore online. Search for them. Download the sam­ples for Final Draft and Screenwriter. Study the stan­dards and repli­cate them.

If you don’t have Final Draft of Screenwriter, you can still search for and fol­low exam­ple scripts. You might have to work a bit hard­er to match the for­mat­ting, but you don’t want your script to tell read­ers you didn’t know about Google.

Again, this blog post isn’t a detailed for­mat­ting guide. But, I can look at the run­ning head­er of a script and often deter­mine the writer didn’t use the cor­rect tem­plate. TV show scripts for most pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies include the show name and episode in the head­er, with vari­a­tions in for­mat­ting. TV shows also have teas­er and act head­ings, indi­cat­ing when com­mer­cial breaks occur in the script.

Page One is often as far as a read­er gets, espe­cial­ly if the script says, “My writer was too lazy to do some basic research on for­mat­ting.”

Did you submit a spec script or a production script?

A spec script with scene num­bers and cam­era angels? That script is say­ing, “My writer has no idea what a spec script is.” Look up the dif­fer­ence in The Screenwriter’s Bible or any oth­er for­mat­ting guide. A spec script is “clean” with­out any num­ber­ing. The num­ber­ing is used to plan film­ing, and that’s a long way from the first reader’s desk.

Spec scripts also haven’t had “(CONTINUED)” on each page for some time.

Did you write a story or try to direct?

A script with cam­era angles, cuts, and oth­er choic­es a direc­tor should make tells the read­er, “My writer real­ly dreams of direct­ing.” That’s nice, but a script that reveals you’re more inter­est­ed in direct­ing isn’t going to be greet­ed warm­ly. If you want to direct, get behind a cam­era for a while. Don’t use your script to prove you have a vision.

Avoid the “WE SEE…” and “WE HEAR…” not-so-sub­tle attempts at direct­ing. Sometimes this might work. One exam­ple I’ve read that made sense was, “WE SEE feet splash­ing in a foun­tain.” That nar­ra­tive worked because of what came next. It real­ly did set up a sur­prise, which was effec­tive­ly writ­ten. But don’t write some­thing like, “WE HEAR a PHONE RING.” No, just write, “A PHONE RINGS.”

Generally, the only cam­era direc­tions are “FADE IN” and “FADE OUT” in a spec script. Respect the direc­tor and let him or her inter­pret the script. If a sto­ry is well writ­ten, it comes close to direct­ing itself with shots a direc­tor knows have to be in the film.

Does the script have “curves” or is it poles, Ts, blocks, and oth­er reg­u­lar (poten­tial­ly bor­ing) shapes?

Pages of dia­logue or pages of nar­ra­tive tell a read­er, “My writer doesn’t under­stand pac­ing.” You might believe you have a great three-page con­ver­sa­tion, with no action. The script is say­ing, “This writer isn’t think­ing about the visu­als.” This is a screen­play, not an audio dra­ma. Something should be hap­pen­ing.

A script can also have too much action with­out any dia­logue. That’s a rare prob­lem (very rare), because most writ­ers do like dia­logue. Why should you have dia­logue dur­ing a chase scene or a tense stand­off? Think about great films. They often have those mem­o­rable lines spo­ken in iso­la­tion, with no response from anoth­er char­ac­ter.

Readers look for scripts with vari­a­tions in the blocks of text. There’s a mix of dia­logue and action, with nei­ther fill­ing page after page. A script has a “shape” that’s inter­est­ing. It isn’t a “pole” (dia­logue end­ing with nar­ra­tive) or a “T” (nar­ra­tive fol­lowed by dia­logue). Look at your pages from a dis­tance. Is vari­a­tion obvi­ous? You don’t need to read to see a script has a good bal­ance.

What font did you use?

Believe it or not, this is a prob­lem. I’ve seen scripts set in Helvetica, Arial, Times New Roman, and var­i­ous mono­spaced type­faces such as DIN and Andale Mono. Those type­faces are wrong. Always. A script is in 12-point Courier. Not a “close enough” font that looks some­thing like a type­writer. Come to think of it, American Typewriter was the worst face I’ve seen used for a script. You might as well use Dymo (named for the plas­tic impres­sion let­ter­ing tape).

Don’t play with 11-point, 11.5-point, 12.5-point or any oth­er point size. A script is 12-point Courier. You don’t get to cheat to reach a page count. A read­er can tell some­thing isn’t quite right with a small­er or a larg­er font.

Okay, I’ll pre­tend that every aspir­ing screen­writer knows to use Courier, but did you know which Courier mat­ters to some peo­ple with good eyes for detail? Final Draft and Screenwriter include their own cus­tomized ver­sions of Courier that are not Courier New. If you can use Courier or one of the cus­tom Courier faces that isn’t Courier New, do so. Why? Because, and I’m not kid­ding, the oth­er Courier type­faces scan and copy bet­ter.

Yes, there are dif­fer­ences. The screen­writ­ing appli­ca­tions ship with Courier fonts that are remark­ably close to the type­writer face Courier from the IBM Selectric type ball. The spac­ing is per­fect at 12 points.

Nobody is going to reject a Courier New screen­play. But, your script should say, “I’m easy to copy, easy to share!” because if some­one likes your script, copies will be made. Simply print­ing more from the laser print­er isn’t an option because read­er, direc­tors, agents, actors, and exec­u­tives make notes and com­ments on scripts, which they then pho­to­copy. I’ve even had some­one write on a script, scan the pages, and email those to me. Sure, that reveals a lack of tech know-how, but I’m not going to tell some­one she should learn how to make com­ments in Adobe Acrobat. Maybe the notes were made over din­ner. Whatever. Just use a nice, dark, Courier type­face.

Did you get the margins and tabs right?

As sil­ly as using the wrong font, set­ting the wrong mar­gins and tabs screams, “My writer is entire­ly clue­less!” Once again, allow me to sug­gest screen­writ­ing soft­ware. Buy Screenwriter or Final Draft. If you’re cash­flow neg­a­tive, at least down­load a tem­plate for Word, Pages, or your favorite word proces­sor. You can type a script in almost any good word proces­sor, but you have to get the set­tings cor­rect.

No screen­writer should be with­out The Screenwriter’s Bible. Not con­sult­ing a good guide to for­mat­ting is the surest way to sub­mit a script that tells every read­er, “This screen­play is by a care­less ama­teur.”

Once your script snitch­es on you, it’s hard to win over any read­er.

Your Script is a Snitch, Part One

Your script is a snitch. It’s telling read­ers all about you, and what it is say­ing might work against you.

Some ques­tions that read­ers eval­u­at­ing a script will ask them­selves can help you pre­pare and deliv­er a script with a bet­ter chance of being tak­en seri­ous­ly.

How did the script arrive at the reader’s desk?

The answer to this first ques­tion deter­mines quite a lot about the script’s chances. If the script was hand­ed to a read­er by a friend or close col­league, it’s odds of devel­op­ing into a bright young movie improved dra­mat­i­cal­ly. If it arrived via an agency with a sol­id rep­u­ta­tion and a ros­ter of high-wattage stars, then the odds of the script being treat­ed with care also improved. If a pro­fes­sion­al script cov­er­age ser­vice with a record of iden­ti­fy­ing tal­ent­ed writ­ers sent the script along, usu­al­ly through that friend and for­mer co-work­er net­work, the read­er might still treat your script with some respect.

If you enroll in class­es with a good film schools (USC, UCLA, Pasadena, NYU), your script might be passed along by an instruc­tor. In the best case, your instruc­tor is a pro­duc­er or direc­tor and falls in love with the script. Yes, school can be a great path to suc­cess, assum­ing it isn’t some “film school” with no famous alum­ni or fac­ul­ty. For net­work­ing, noth­ing beats a degree from the right uni­ver­si­ty, and you will learn what stu­dios want.

If your script arrived via a pitch fest or con­test, it isn’t going to get the same atten­tion as a hand-deliv­ered script from an insid­er. Still, if it is a win­ner it has some promise. Contests aren’t usu­al­ly the best avenue for dis­cov­ery, but win­ning a con­test gets some­thing on a new writer’s resume. And, yes, the top-tier con­tests (about a dozen of them exist) do work to move scripts into con­sid­er­a­tion. Understand, though, that you can spend a lot of mon­ey on con­tests, mon­ey you could spend on class­es and books (see above).

If your script some­how man­ages to arrive via email or U.S. Post, it faces pret­ty long odds of being read. For one thing, don’t for­get there are 40,000 scripts reg­is­tered each year and 250,000 or more in cir­cu­la­tion at any time. Desperate screen­writ­ers are send­ing out screen­plays to any­one they can locate, and that’s rarely effec­tive. Again, it can be, but you might as well send a query let­ter with a good log­line and wait for a devel­op­ment read­er to con­tact you.

How professional does the script appear to be at a glance?

You wouldn’t go into a job inter­view wear­ing shorts and flip-flops; don’t send your script into the world look­ing like it isn’t a seri­ous can­di­date. No slop­py script is going to be moved up from a read­er to a pro­duc­er, no mat­ter how good the sto­ry might be. And in my expe­ri­ence, a slop­py appear­ance cor­re­lates with slop­py writ­ing.

Don’t include any­thing you weren’t asked to sub­mit. A script with extra bud­dies along tells the read­er you have no clue what is expect­ed: a script. By itself. Not a fam­i­ly of doc­u­ments, from a cast list to a bud­get. I’ve seem posters sent along. Don’t do that. Your script doesn’t need a posse along for the ride.

- Situation 1: Physical Script

In the unlike­ly event you are asked to send a phys­i­cal script to some­one, or if you are asked to bring a copy to a meet­ing, get the phys­i­cal print­ing and bind­ing right. Don’t put your script in a three-ring binder, comb bind­ing, or any­thing oth­er than the tra­di­tion­al two-brad loose bind­ing. Let’s review the basics:

A script is print­ed on one side of the page. It is three-hold punched. On the top and bot­tom, serv­ing as the cov­er, place 110-pound light-blue card­stock. You can use oth­er col­ors, but blue is the tra­di­tion­al col­or for some rea­son. There is noth­ing, not one let­ter or stain, on the cov­er. No art­work, no title, noth­ing.

The pages should be good, bright-white paper. The U.S. stan­dard is 24-pound, 94 white. You can use bet­ter, but don’t use gray or off-white paper. Certainly do not use recy­cled paper. Don’t use thin paper, even to save some pen­nies. Spend extra and buy the best paper, such as Hammermill. (Trivia: The “pound” rat­ing refers to the weight of four reams of let­ter-sized paper. A 20-pound stock weighs five pounds per ream, or 20 pounds for 2,000 sheets.)

Use two brass brads to bind the script. Not three. Not one. And select the right length, so the brads aren’t three inch­es too long or bare­ly hold­ing the pages togeth­er. Do not write the script title down the spine. Please. That’s not for you to do. Let an intern do that for the read­er.

A cute or “cre­ative” bind­ing tells the read­er you’re not a pro­fes­sion­al. The script scream out, “This writer is a hack try­ing a gim­mick.” This isn’t a scene from Legally Blonde. Cute won’t impress any­one.

- Situation 2: Email or Uploaded

If asked to email or upload your script as a file, sub­mit a stan­dard PDF. The “Portable Document Format” is… portable. Unless told oth­er­wise, don’t send a Final Draft, Screenwriter, Fountain, or Word doc­u­ment. If a read­er wants a Final Draft or Screenwriter file, you’ll be asked for the desired for­mat. Otherwise, send a PDF.

If the read­er can­not high­light text in your PDF, that tells the read­er you didn’t cre­ate the PDF via Adobe Acrobat or by using the spe­cial “Print to PDF” option. Never scan print­ed pages into a PDF. The PDF should come direct­ly from a screen­writ­ing appli­ca­tion. Don’t let the script snitch that you have no clue how to cre­ate a PDF.

What does the fly sheet reveal?

The page that is most like­ly to snitch on you is the fly sheet, also known as the fly page. The rest of the world, even in Hollywood, calls it a title page. Consider what is (or is not) on that page and the infor­ma­tion sends clear sig­nals to the read­er.

If you have an agent, the agent’s name and con­tact infor­ma­tion appears on the fly sheet. And if you don’t have an agent? That infor­ma­tion isn’t there. There are dif­fer­ent views on where to place the agent infor­ma­tion. Some tem­plates place it below the writer’s name; oth­er tem­plates place the agent infor­ma­tion in the right-hand low­er cor­ner of the page, below the WGA reg­is­tra­tion num­ber. My advice: do what the tem­plate calls for and check The Screenwriter’s Bible for any for­mat­ting ques­tions.

The WGA reg­is­tra­tion mat­ters, too. Don’t send out scripts until they are reg­is­tered. Not that your idea will be stolen (that’s actu­al­ly rare), but it is good form to show that you have reg­is­tered the script and respect intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty. There’s no need to copy­right a work, since stu­dios will buy the work and own the final copy­right. Putting a copy­right notice on the page is okay, but the WGA reg­is­tra­tion is essen­tial.

Update 2015-Sep-08: The best experts I know on script for­mat­ting rec­om­mend NOT includ­ing a copy­right notice. They also lean against includ­ing the WGAw reg­is­tra­tion num­ber. If you are more com­fort­able stak­ing a claim, use “Registered, WGAw” with­out a num­ber. You should pro­vide full con­tact infor­ma­tion, with an address for your agent being the best pos­si­bil­i­ty. If you include agent infor­ma­tion, still include your phone and email, with­out a mail­ing address. Including a per­son­al street address (at least a mail box) is still con­sid­ered good form if you lack rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

The fly sheet reveals where you call home. That mat­ters, unfor­tu­nate­ly. If you option or sell a script, the pro­duc­ers will want to meet. Technically, the sec­ond meet­ing con­sti­tutes buy­ing your sto­ry if the pro­duc­er works for a major stu­dio. (That’s beyond the scope of this post, but that’s the WGA rule.) Nobody is going to pay to fly you to Los Angeles. The clos­er you are, the bet­ter. That’s just the real­i­ty of writ­ing for Hollywood. Either you are in the area or you aren’t. Some peo­ple believe you can live any­where and write, because suc­cess­ful writ­ers do live on nice farms in Vermont. Yes, but those are suc­cess­ful writ­ers who can fly back and forth and stay in Los Angeles or on a set for weeks at a time. Beginners need to be avail­able.

The email address on your fly sheet should be pro­fes­sion­al. That seems obvi­ous, yet plen­ty of writ­ers use fool­ish­ly “fun­ny” email address­es. Again, cute and cre­ative pack­ag­ing isn’t going to help sell the script. Use an email address that is your name.

If you wrote with a part­ner, know the dif­fer­ence between and and amper­sand (&) in the cred­its. The amper­sand is a for teams. The “and” means you were fired and some­one else had to rewrite the script. Don’t make a rook­ie mis­take.

Your script has already “snitched” on you by now. If you didn’t send it in the right elec­tron­ic for­mat or tried to be cre­ative with the bind­ing, the script has told the world you’re an ama­teur. If your fly sheet says you live in Ohio and don’t have an agent, sad­ly that can work against you. If the script reveals you don’t have an agent at a major agency, the read­er knows that rec­om­mend­ing the script is a lot riski­er.

A seri­ous fly sheet has the script title, your byline, con­tact infor­ma­tion, and the WGA reg­is­tra­tion num­ber. That’s it. The only excep­tion is for episod­ic tele­vi­sion, in which case the fly sheet fea­tures the series name with the episode title below that in quo­ta­tion marks. Do not date the script, label it a “draft” (or “revi­sion”), or add any oth­er infor­ma­tion. Adding infor­ma­tion that should be includ­ed only dur­ing pro­duc­tion tells the read­er you haven’t learned the craft’s tra­di­tions and norms.

We’re on to page one and what more the script will tell the read­er.

Part Two will cov­er the script for­mat­ting and what it reveals, with­out read­ing the words!