Friday 24 June 2011

How Much Should I Write?

Previous posts and comments have thrown up yet more questions. Let's start with this one:

When should I stop rewriting my script?
In the last post, Dave Cohen sagely advised caution before sending out scripts, and urged writer to hold off sending it out until it was really and truly ready. A while ago, I made the point that this is especially true for script competitions. It is generally worth holding back until you really are sure that the script is as good as it can be - bearing in mind it can still be better and will need to be rewritten depending on casting, rehearsal and technical considerations.

And so when to stop? How do you know when it's good enough to send? You don't know. And yet you do.

If you're sending a script out 'to give a potential producer a rough idea of how the show might look', it's not ready.

If you're sending a script out 'even though the ending still doesn't quite work, but since I'll have to rewrite it anyway, I'll do it then', it's not ready.

If, when rewriting it, you're painfully aware that you're not making it any better, but just changing the words, it might be ready. Put it away. Leave it for a few days - longer if you can - and return to it. You'll see bits that aren't right straight away. Try and explain the plot simply to a spouse or long-suffering friend. If you can do that, it might be ready.

Then Dave said that maybe it's time to stop work on that and start on the next episode. Good idea. But Griff says:

There's a danger of getting to the point when you're saying to producers "I've written the first twelve episodes and a Xmas special" and they start scanning the room for exits. So I guess however many episodes you've actually written, only ever send one out and let the others be your dirty secret?


Should I write more than episode?
Let's take a step back here. One script takes ages. Or at least it should. Working nine to five, five days a week, coming up with a storyline and getting it right could take a week. Maybe longer. The first draft will take a week. Maybe two. Then drafts 2 and 3 might be another week or two. That's a least a month of solid work before it's worth sending to anyone. And then do it again? On spec? Does anyone really have time to take longer than that for free? It's well worth having outlines up your sleeve for future episodes. While you wait for responses, work up two or three of those, maybe into longer scene-by-scene breakdowns. Doing this will reveal whether your show has legs, and whether the characters really are working, or will demonstrate that some of your characters are not generating interesting stories.

If you really have nothing else to do, and no children to read stories to or no hobbies to pursue, you could start to write another episode. But it's likely the first script will, if it is progressed at all, require seismic thoughts and rethinking, so a second script might not be of much use, or be better started from scratch much later.

If I were a producer and someone sent me a script with a note saying 'I've already written six episodes', my heart would sink because I'd assume that the writer thinks that writing sitcom scripts is easy, and not extremely time-consuming. The alternative is that this writer has spent months of their own time, unpaid, writing these episodes - at the exclusion of all other things and human relationships. And this would be a worry, because comedy is all about all those other things and those human relationships.

Is that harsh? Or fair? Bad advice? Do leave comments.


  1. Sounds like good advice James, a useful reminder of how long it takes to write anything worthwhile. And you can multiply the elapsed time by four for those of us who have a day job and manage to write for maybe 10 hours a week.

    And you're not wrong about the "excluding human relationships" thing, which could probably use a whole blog post devoted to it. It's a particularly acute problem as a part-timer, when writing time has to be stolen from evenings and weekends. The divorce courts must be full of aspiring writers...

  2. Only thing I'd add from my recent experience as a new writer is that it is quite handy to have that second episode ready!
    No ones going to commission you as a new writer based on one episode. I had a first episode with the PDG at radio four on two occasions, they liked the episode but wanted to see another to see I could do another.

  3. Thanks James. I wish utilities companies were this efficient answering my questions.

  4. Very good advice. I'd certainly agree that it's not a good use of time having a 2nd episode ready. If a producer asks for a 2nd episode then great but there's no point writing one before you know it's something anyone wants to proceed with.

    Also there's always the possibility of finding out there's a similar idea already in production. A nicer problem when you've only written one episode as opposed to a whole series.

  5. Thanks for answering my question, very helpful.
    Matthew Weiner, creator and writer of Mad Men used to write pilot comedy scripts for all the major networks in the US. He stated an interview that the main problem he found amongst comedy writers was they would hold back jokes or situations saying it work better in ep 2 or 4 and so on. He maintains, in all probability you won't have and ep 2 or 4 so put everything you have into your pilot spec script. Does anyone agree on this? I'm in two minds. In the series I'm writing now there are certain jokes that will only work down the line and also I'm afraid that I won't make an impression on the reader so I should put in everything. When is enough enough or not enough?