Screenwriting Mistakes: Not Vetting Your Work

As I conducted interviews for my new book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, there was one mistake that agents, managers and executives kept reminding me that writers, and especially new writers, are continuously making: Getting their work out into the professional space, be it to a potential agent or manager, to a producer or an exec, before it’s been properly vetted.

The process of vetting is a straightforward one. It means: to subject to usually expert appraisal or correction. And it is also, inarguably, the most important thing that writers can do for the work before they get it into the professional space. It’s been said before, in different contexts, and it holds true here as well: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. If you send a screenplay or television pilot out to an agent or manager in the hopes that they represent you and they find the material to be less than professional, you are not going to be able to submit it to them again. Your work proved to be unworthy of their time the first time out, so unless you have a powerful referral who is close enough to the reading entity to make your case, you are not likely to get the chance to have it read again. You will have, for all intents and purposes, wasted your opportunity. Therefore, you want to make sure that the work you submit to any industry professional has been, for lack of a better word, tested. They won’t always love it or think it’s for them, but in the very least they will respect the fact that you did your job in getting your script to a professional level.

I would like to think that by this point, any internet-savvy fledgling screenwriter out there (who was savvy enough to find this blog post and therefore my website) has found his path to vetting his script. But all too often, perfectly intelligent, well read screenwriters tell me that even though they are sure that their script – be it a pilot or screenplay – is 100% industry ready, no professional eyes have ever looked at it. Now, just to be clear, professional does not necessarily mean paid. If you have a path to industry professionals (and by that I mean pros in the creative space rather than grips and gaffers – no disrespect) reading your work, by all means, engage them. But if you’re not able to easily obtain the seasoned creative insights of an industry pro for free, then it may be time to consider investing in a consultant, or in the very least, in coverage.

Before your screenplay goes out into the professional space, you want to make sure that it’s as ready as you can make it. The question I always pose to my writers before they send a script out to their agent or manager, to a producer, or even to a fellowship or contest is: Are you ready to be rejected on the merit of this script? The reason I ask this particular question is because there is no doubt in my mind that the script will at some point be rejected. It’s part of the job, and if you’re not getting rejected, you’re just not doing it properly. But if you’re ready to be rejected on the merit of the script, then you absolutely stand beside the work that you have put in, and the product that you created. Because you had the work vetted and tested, you will likely not be running back to the drawing board or doubting your work at the first sign of disappointment; instead, you will move on to the next person or opportunity with certainly, knowing that the rejection you got wasn’t due to the script not being well written or thoughtfully executed, but simply because it wasn’t the right fit.

I asked two of my long time clients that I hold in high esteem, Greta Heinemann (NCIS: NEW ORLEANS) and Eileen Jones (LETHAL WEAPON), to weigh in on getting your script vetted before you get it out there. Here is what they told me:

How do you know when a new script is ready to show professionally? 

Eileen: When I’m comfortable clicking send on that email! There’s always a second’s hesitation where you think, “Is it ready? Did I address that thing?” If I’m not sure, I’ll read it again. If I’m confident enough to click send, it typically means that I’ve read it through multiple times and nothing bumps me anymore. Of course, that’s not to say there won’t be things that will change, but I feel confident in the choices that I’ve made on the page. 

Who do you turn to to vet your work, give you notes, and confirm that the work is where it needs to be?

Greta: I usually survey the script through a small circle of writer friends first. Then, after incorporating their notes, I like to loop in a trusted reader. After getting notes from the reader, incorporating those and taking a few days off before giving the script one last polish I usually can consider it a solid first draft to share.

How early in the writing process do you start getting notes on your work, and why? 

Greta: This is a double-edged sword. Sometimes getting too much input too soon can do more harm than good. I like to run my stuff by trusted friends as I go through stages (idea, treatment, rough outline, detailed outline, script) but developing with some managers and agents seems to ask for a collaboration from the start… something I’m only learning to get comfortable with.

Eileen: It depends on the project. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, and you have to show things quickly. Other times, if you’re creating something on your own, you may get to be a bit more precious. In general, I feel there’s a balance there — you want feedback to make sure that you don’t have blinders on regarding the material, but you also don’t want feedback so early that it complicates the concept before you’ve had time to get really clear about what it is for you.

How do you know when a script is not working?

Greta: When there’s a little critical voice inside my head calling bullshit. I have to either listen to it or find friends telling me what I need to hear.

Eileen: When it’s incredibly difficult to write — when you have that getting-blood-from-a-stone feeling. Not that it’s always going to be simple, but if I’m genuinely struggling to connect and get the words going, inevitably it’s because something just ain’t right.

What advice do you have for testing and vetting the work before it goes out into the professional space?

Greta: ASK FOR FEEDBACK AND TAKE IT. I think the most common mistake is not asking for feedback directly followed by ignoring feedback.

Eileen: Read it to yourself over and over, and then when you can’t bear to read it again, read it one more time. I always find something on that final pass-through. Reading it out loud is helpful, too! Other than that, be careful of sending it to someone new for “one final opinion.” I did that once, asking for something very specific, and it was a bit of a disaster!

If story-smart friends and colleagues are not available to you for notes, consider any of the below resources. As a general rule, you want to know who you are getting your notes from, what their experience level is, and whether you see eye-to-eye where taste is concerned. While contest – or any other “blind” notes – may provide a good temperature gauge, below are a few of my favorite industry resources for vetting your screenplay:

Industry Readers:

Industry Consultants:

Remember: It’s your job to make sure that your material is received in the way it was intended. And the fastest way to find out whether your screenplay will deliver the impact you hoped or fail to impressed boils down to two simple words: Qualified feedback.