I’m not changing a word of this

September 24, 2013


(This was originally posted on my Posterous blog. Re-upping it for @gerstaunton  and anyone else who might be interested.)

People often ask me for for writing advice and I usually respond by pointing them to my DVD commentary for IT Crowd Season 4, which is a complete guide to writing a sitcom from concept to screen. Everything I knew about sitcom writing to that point in time is on that DVD, so when people ask me for advice, that’s literally the most helpful thing I can do for them. The fact that it also gives me an excuse to plug the DVD is completely beside the point, of course.

But there is one piece of advice on which I may not have placed enough emphasis, because it is almost impossible to place enough emphasis on it, and it is as follows: when someone reads your script and gives you notes, be grateful, and act on those notes.
Act on them, apply them. You are not a genius. You are just a schmuck. You need help, your script needs help. That opening you think is so hilarious? It’s not. It’s confusing. It doesn’t work. Stop pretending it’s the Odessa Steps. It’s a fucking mess.
And you know what, the scene that follows it? The one that really IS great? The one that everyone loves? That’s going to have to go too. Do you know why? Because as soon as you changed the scene-that’s-not-the-Odessa-Steps, it made that other scene not work either.
Writing is rewriting.
Rewriting is not polishing.
Rewriting is heavy lifting.
Now, there is a flipside to this rule. Unless you are lucky enough to have a real-life, honest-to-goodness, says-it-on-his-business-card script editor who has been paid to give you a full set of notes, you may well run into people who have lots of opinions on what is wrong with your script, and not one of them makes a bit of sense; notes that might as well say “This script would be great, if everyone in it was taller.”
What you do when you hear this kind of note is very simple. You nod, you say “That’s interesting”, you go home and you try to work out what the real problem is. Even the dumbest person in the room can help your script, because if that person felt the need to open his big dumb mouth, it’s because your script didn’t hold his attention enough to keep him quiet.
By now, you’re probably wondering why I’ve adopted such an aggressive tone for this piece. It’s because I’m sick of hearing from very clever friends of mine–script editors and producers who DO give great notes–that the writer they’re currently working with refuses to change anything, or sulks and whines or worse yet, explains that “No, no, you see…HE’S saying it to HER. That’s why it’s FUNNY!” (If you have to explain ANYTHING, you’ve ALREADY LOST).
I heard of a writing partnership who handed in a first draft and said “We’re not changing a word of that.” If I had been in that room, and had been in a position to do so, I would have said “OK, you’re fired” and then laughed like Doctor Doom for a week. You might as well say “We do not know how to write, and we refuse to learn.”
So repeat after me, you fuckwits who refused to implement that very simple fix that your EXPERIENCED and CLEVER producer suggested:
He is not the problem.
I am the problem.
My script is the problem.
Writing is rewriting.
Writing is rewriting.
Writing is rewriting.


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