Final thoughts before you press send

Script Editing

Dave Cohen has some words for those worrying whether they'll have their script ready in time for a competition (in this case it was the Sitcom Geeks Script Challenge)...

Okay you have until Sunday to send us your script. Is it good enough? On our Sitcom Geeks podcast, James Cary and I agree on a lot, but not everything. Last time James and I taught together, one of our students asked this:

I have a script which I don't think I can make good enough in time for a competition deadline, should I send it off anyway? Or keep working on it?

This is no easy question for someone starting out as a writer. You're probably working full-time at another job, or using all your spare hours to get more work, so time is precious and you have to prioritise every moment.

James's first answer, which is a perfectly good one, was "Why would you want to send out a script that you're not happy with?" That's a valid point, this is a script which you've put so much effort into, it's your calling card for future work, why would you want to blow all that by sending something based on an arbitrary deadline?

I disagreed, tentatively at first, but then more as I warmed to the theme. I'm a big believer in deadlines, in my trainee journalist days fear of deadlines was one of the prime motivations for writing.

Feel the deadline fear and send it anyway

The best thing about an arbitrary deadline is it forces you into the mind-set of a professional writer. When you're starting out, writing what is possibly your first narrative script, you're investing a huge amount emotionally into that single project. It isn't "a sitcom" or "a screenplay", it's your passion, a new life you have tried to bring into the world, the piece of work you're hoping will launch your writing career and take you away from whatever it is you're doing now, allowing you to fulfil your dream of becoming a full-time writer.

However experienced you are, you'll never know if a project you're working on is going to be a success until it appears in front of an audience. But one thing you do pick up with practice is a sense of whether an idea is worth pursuing. Over the years I've got better at realising when to give up on a particular project, and when to move on to something else.

Give up?

Giving up, by the way, is different from abandoning. Sometimes an idea that wasn't working three years ago becomes relevant again for whatever reason, and I may return to an old idea and even make progress with it.

When you're starting out, if that perfect script you're aiming for turns into the total focus of your strategy towards becoming a full-time writer, my guess is you won't succeed. Better to have a few projects in your head or on the go, ready to work up when the time is right.

A friend recently told me about a top drama writer who had been commissioned to write a screenplay for a big Hollywood movie director. I won't name him, but trust me, you've heard of him. The writer was paid, extremely well I gather, but heard nothing for ages. Occasionally the big man would call up and talk notes, but after a couple of months without a word the writer contacted his office. His PA patiently explained that, at any one time, Mr Big Shot has 35 projects on the go.

Bloody hell, 35! He'll be more than 100 by the time he gets to make all of them. 35 projects in development is probably the sign of a successful yet indecisive director, even so it illustrates the reality that even for those at the very top, they know that any project they're working on could fall away - or be green lit - in a moment.

Give up sleep

My advice would be, as the deadline approaches, drop everything and concentrate on this script. There might be a few late nights, or cancelled evenings out with friends, but after that deadline you can resume your normal life. As soon as you decide to concentrate on that single script, and throw yourself into it, I guarantee you'll suddenly start to have lots of brilliant ideas for things that are nothing to do with the task you have set yourself.

These are the tests sent to the freelance writer, and the question they ask is "Can you concentrate on one script and shut out everything else?" You have to, or you'll miss that deadline. What I do in those circumstances is write those other ideas down as quickly as possible in a separate notebook, and return to the important task. There will be good days and bad days, hours will pass when you wonder if you'll ever get the job finished.

The deadline is close but not quite close enough to stop you wasting whole sessions staring into space and wondering if you should have just gone to the gym instead. And it's far enough away for you to complete another script that's already half formed in your head.

Start all over again

You can always decide, on the night before the deadline, that actually this script is really so not good enough that you won't send it off. Even if you decide to do that, the chances are that come the next day you've got a notebook full of more half-formed ideas, and you're ready to enthuse about a new project.

You can always wait until the BBC Writersroom contest, which is about six months from now. Six months? That's ages away! True, but also six months to plan and ensure that your script will be as good as it can be.

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