Saturday, June 22, 2013

Four ways to be a polite screenwriter

It occurred to me recently that a lot of new writers don't know yet all the faux-pas they're liable to commit in this technological age, so I figured I ought to post some. I asked for tips on Twitter and got quite a few from the screenwriting community. So if you're new to screenwriting and you're about to take your script out for a test drive, here's a few things you should NOT do. These behaviors are considered rude.

1) Do not send a read request with your screenplay attached to someone you don't know. ANYONE you don't know. If you want someone in the industry - a writer, a reader, a producer, an agent, whatever - ask first. Ask politely. I'm not talking about queries specifically, but favors too. On a regular basis I get emails asking me if I have time to read someone's script and give notes. Sometimes the request will say things like "Hey I love your blog! I wrote this screenplay about suicidal monkeys and I think you'll love it! I'd love to hear what you think!" And the screenplay is attached. The person is polite enough. I almost never get a truly rude request of this nature. But it's still rude.

Why is it rude? Because you're asking me to take a large chunk of my time to do you a favor. Would you call up a lawyer you've never met and ask her to look over your contract for free? Would you call up a contractor you've never met and ask him to come to your house and fix your plumbing for free? Would you email a graphic designer you don't know and give them the link to your website so they can make it better for free?  No, you would not, not if you have any social skills at all. You understand that this person's skill and time are valuable, and that if you want them, you have to pay for them. Unless you know the person. Do I know you? No? Then no, I'm not going to read your screenplay, especially not if you attach it. There's just something so presumptuous about that. Plus, it might be a virus since as I mentioned, I don't know you. If I do know you, I'll read and give notes and maybe even pass it on to someone. But I do that for friends or even talented acquaintances, not complete strangers.

2) Do not ask a writer to send your script to his or her agent. It can be frustrating to toil away for a long time and get nowhere. Then you make friends with someone who's well repped and think - here's my chance! And you hand your script over and ask if he'll pass it along to his super star agent.

Why is it rude? If I want to read your script, I'll ask. Fee free to drop hints. If you and I are hanging out and you mention this great script you're excited about that you just can't seem to get into the right hands, I hear you. I'm not a dummy. If I don't ask to read your script, then I either don't think it's an interesting concept, or I don't think I'm at a place where I can recommend things to my reps, or any number of other reasons. But if you ask, you'll put me in a position where I have to tell you no. Or, if I'm really polite and begrudgingly agree, you've now made me dread reading your script. I will always read it before I decide whether or not to pass it on, and if I don't like it, I'm not going to give it to anyone. But I have asked for scripts in the past, and if I read one that blows me away, you bet your ass I'll pass it onto one or more of a few reps I know. I will make that decision on my own. Don't try to force me into it.

3) Don't query on the weekend. You're really excited because you just finished your polish and you are ready to send your script out. You want to get it into as many hands as possible as quickly as time will allow. But it's Sunday. What the hell, people can choose to open emails any time they like, right? Wrong.

Why is it rude? We have smart phones now. Back in the day, you had to actively choose to sit at your computer to check email, so you were at work when you did it. But now we take our email with us everywhere we go. That means when you email Agent Phil on a Sunday morning at 6am, he gets a notification right away. It puts him in a bad mood. He's trying to change his baby's poopey diaper - he doesn't have time for your query. Not only does he delete it, but now he kind of hates you. Is it fair? Probably not. He can choose to ignore his emails. But too bad - that's life. Reps hate getting queries on the weekend. It doesn't hurt you to just wait an extra day or two. If it's the difference between getting your query read and getting it deleted, just put your outrage aside and wait until Monday.

4) Don't argue with the notes. You poured your heart into this script. It's amazing and high concept and perfect and everyone's going to love it. You send it away for a read, and when the notes come back, they bash the hell out of your carefully crafted work of genius. Your instinct is to shout back, to argue, to let this person know how wrong they are and explain that they just don't understand your brilliant vision. Don't do it. Say thank you, ask clarifying questions if you need to, but don't argue.

Why is it rude? Notes take a lot of time - I usually take about two hours to do one set of notes on a full-length script. Nobody goes into doing notes - especially for free - unless they are genuinely hoping to find a great script, or to help this script become better. Nobody takes the time to read your script just to tell you how much you suck. If someone reads your script and gives you notes, he is doing you a favor. What did your mom teach you to do when someone does you a favor? That's right. She taught you to say thank you. She's a smart lady. So say thank you. If you don't like the notes, that's okay, but say thank you anyway and ignore the stuff you don't like. Ask questions about the stuff you don't understand. Keep the stuff that works. Sometimes notes can be a bit harsh, so if that happens, just look at the true intention behind the note. You're still a good person. The screenplay does not define you. It does not mean you're less of a man or some kind of pushover if you don't protest the stuff you don't like. And if you say thank you and look objectively at your notes, the person who did them for you is more likely to do them again. I cannot tell you how many pages of posters on Done Deal Pro I now completely ignore because of the way they've handled criticism in the past. Sometimes I'll think of a note I believe would be really useful, then I'll stop halfway through typing when I realize it's not worth the abuse that will probably be heaped on me for daring to say this person's pages were anything other than perfect. Nobody wants to volunteer to read your script if you're a dick.


  1. Regarding the first - it's also an issue because people who handle scripts professionally (readers, execs and agents) prefer the submitting writer sign a release form so they won't sue down the line, should that exec be involved with a project that looks like a rip-off.

  2. I've seen #3 played on out twitter a few times and it always surprises me when screenwriters argue about it. Because, really? You'd rather make a point about how to filter emails on a smartphone than get your script read?

    If I really want a certain person to read my work, and that person says he only accepts queries by semaphore, I'd head to the sewing machine to whip up some flags. Priorities, people.

  3. Bitter, such a good point that I always forget about. Legal concerns are no joke.

    Barbara - seriously I don't get those people. And plus a million for managing to work semapohores into the conversation.

  4. Good stuff, Emily. I got my break into TV last year, and I'm finally on the receiving end of this behavior. Hopefully your post will cut down my inbox overflow

  5. Here's the other reason why arguing with people who call this stuff rude is a stupid idea...

    I walk by and pinch your ass. You call me a rude pig and accuse me of sexual assault. I say, "Ease up! I was paying you a compliment! You've got a nice ass. You should be glad that people want to touch it."

    If it's not your ass being pinched, you don't get to tell someone that they're wrong to call your actions towards them inappropriate.

  6. very good advice, but if i may, i'd like to add something to this working scale of how to progress in the business. while we all want to be in the know, now... there is a learning curve to this bubble. People make mistakes. listening is not easy, in any endeavor, but with screenwriting it's so important to progress, even though you may have made 'all' these mistakes.

    It doesn't mean you suck, it means you suck if you don't learn from what you're sucking at. that's what screenwriting is. hopefully with each script you learn how to reveal information, create organic red herrings, 3 dimensional characters, limit exposition, create building narratives, just like it's important to learn all the hard lessons emily described and then NEVER do them again.

    It's far easier to learn if you're not yelling back at the teacher.


  7. Love this post. Great advice.

    Off of point 2, where you said, "If I want to read your script, I'll ask."

    Do you think it's rude to ask people to read your stuff? I ran into an old co-worker who works at a production company and we were just chatting. She knows I've been writing. She didn't ask to read my current material, but is it out of line to say, "I'd love for you to take a look if you're interested?"

  8. Not gonna lie - I've queried on the weekend. Had one guy tell me it was a bold move that he respected... a few people got back to me on Monday. Other than that, a whole lot of silence.

    I didn't really think about that before, that whether they want to read it or not, it's going to intrude into their personal time in some way.

    But this is the 2nd or 3rd piece I've read that suggests not doing that, and it really makes sense. I definitely won't do it again. I just hope I didn't make someone drop their baby or something with an ill-timed phone alert.

  9. Vehemently disagree with #2. I've asked repped friends to pass a script along to their agents and managers with no problems. I've also asked people who have better connections to pass my material along to reps and have gotten reads, meetings, and two managers that way.

    Getting a referral is the best way to get a rep. If you wait around for someone to make the suggestion, you might be waiting a long time. But how do you know if you or the script is ready? Judge their reaction. If they love the script, go the next step and ask if they'll pass it along to someone. More often than not they gladly will.

    Other three points are good, but the second is bad advice.

  10. Some of these techniques may work for some people. I've no doubt they do. But that doesn't really make it any less rude to a lot of industry folk. I guess you have to decide what kind of writer you want to be, and what kind of reputation you want to have.

  11. I think I should clarify. Anyone I've asked - and I can count on one hand how many and have some fingers left over - have been friends for years, and knew both me and my writing very well. I think what you're saying is not ask someone you may barely know or just have a loose connection. I don't think it's rude at all to ask a friend for a help and so far neither did they.

  12. Oh of course, Shawn, if it's a close friend and you can have that kind of honesty, then yeah, ask away. I'm talking about people who meet someone, maybe have a couple of conversations with them, then ask. And I'm willing to bet that a ton of people had the same experience I did - literally a day after news hit that I was repped, I got emails from a few people asking me to pass their scripts on.


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