Being Your Hardest Critic

Being Your Hardest Critic

I get asked to critique or do coverage on screenplays all the time. I get scripts from producers and production companies to read, asking for my notes for possible rewrite jobs, from my manager or agent for the same reasons, from friends who want me to read their latest and greatest, from strangers who think I’m going to read their script—I’m not—and give it to my good friend, Steven Spielberg.

FYI: He’s not my friend, by the way. When I worked at ILM on Jurassic Park 2, he wasn’t even there, just the ILM effects guys, including Stan Winston, who were fun as hell. We laughed the entire two days they shot us running and me getting smashed by a T-Rex.

Sometimes it’s fun, reading those scripts. When I read a bad one with a great premise, and I can see what needs to be done to fix it and know the notes will resonate and will probably get me a good crack the job, it’s fun.

Sometimes it’s not fun.

I’ve had to ask a producer (who I knew well enough to ask) after reading a script, “What would have possessed you to buy this piece of crap?” The answer? They loved the premise, throw out the rest. It’s also fun when one of my friends writes a great one. And horrible when I get one from somebody that's irredeemable, like one a read last month.

The truth, most of the scripts I read shouldn’t have been sent out the way they were, unless they were from good friends in the middle of the write, looking for my opinion.

People who have asked me to read their scripts will tell you I don’t pull punches. I tell the truth as I see it, good or bad. I tell writers first what they did right. Good premise, if it was, and the other things I liked. And you can always find those things … almost always. Then … to do them a favor, the hard news of what doesn’t work.

But you know who I’m hardest on? Me. You should be, too.

No, not hard on me, on yourself.

The great writers I know are the ones who can say to themselves, after reading their own scripts, “This doesn’t work.” It helps to put them away for a couple of weeks, or more, and then reread them with fresh eyes. Something I do all the time.

Don’t send them out before doing this. You’ll save yourself some grief and maybe a rejection or twelve.

Self-editing is essential to being a good writer. I’m not talking about fixing a typo or polishing dialogue. I’m talking about looking at whole scenes, whole sections, whole acts, and blowing them up if you have to. Looking how your scenes move the story and getting rid of the ones that don’t. Have you over-written dialogue? Have you made sure you thought of the story as a whole with each scene? Are your characters consistent with the way you’ve defined them to your audience? Have you looked for redundancies? Is your action clear? Do you have too many coincidences? One coincidence is the max by the way … and it can’t help your protagonist. Audiences recognize this and hate it. Do your pay-offs have good set-ups?

Yes, you have to think about all these things … plus … is there small talk that needs to go? The list is endless.

I’m constantly in rewrite mode on my specs and a lot on my assignment writing. I’m doing a paid rewrite right now that I went back and fixed a setup on last night, after I thought I was done for the day, because I was still thinking about it. I’ve dumped huge sections of this one because they weren’t right.

Could I have sent it out as it was and have it be OK? Sure …. Maybe.

But OK isn’t good enough for me and shouldn’t be for you either. The idea is to send out your best work, and YOU need to be hard enough on yourself to be the ultimate judge of that.

Too often I meet and talk with writers who are convinced that their scripts are perfect as they are. If they were filmed as they wrote them, they’d win any award they can dream about. This is NOT TRUE and not the way it works, of course, but they believe it. I know I did when I first started writing, but then I was lucky enough to work around some pros who set me straight pretty quickly.

There is nothing in a script that can’t be improved or changed.

I’m not talking about notes you get from others on occasion that make you throw up in your mouth a little. I’m talking about notes you get from YOU. You, as a writer, need to believe that there is nothing in your own scripts you can’t change to improve your story. You need to view your own work with the same eyes you read other people's scripts.

You need to be that critical. It will improve what you’re working on. It will improve your old work.

Got some time? Go back and read your old unsold scripts. Read them like you didn’t write them. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll find you need to rewrite. How much you hate.

I have an old script idea that all of a sudden is gaining a lot of interest from the synopsis. Wrote it at least 8 years ago. Because of this renewed interest, I read it again and was appalled at what I saw. So, I immediately embarked on a rewrite to fix the glaring weaknesses, overwritten dialogue, and a clichéd last page to beat all clichéd last pages. A 1990’s bad TV series episode last page. And this was after it had started gaining interest again. I’ve sent the new version out to the interested parties.

You, as a writer, have to be able to do the same thing. Be the hardest critic of your own work. Your stories need to be living, growing, ever-changing things.

Take them out and do a test drive every once in a while.

Change the technology in them to reflect today. Fix the stupid dialogue. Blow up your bad second act, if you have to. Get rid of characters that don’t work. Kill subplots that don’t move the story forward, or fix them so they do.

Be bold.

Use your improved ability as a writer to bring all your work up to your standards today. You’ll discover all kinds of things and maybe resurrect an old script, making it new and exciting.

*Feature image by Cristina Conti

Script Pipeline Script Notes
Bob Saenz is a produced screenwriter with a dozen plus films, author of a popular screenwriting book, producer, & actor with numerous credits. He speaks at film fests & writers conferences nationwide.
More posts by Bob Saenz.
Twitter icon Twitter Facebook icon Facebook Pinterest icon Pinterest Reddit icon Reddit
Click here for our recommended reading list.

An Invitation

To a global community of creatives.

All Pipeline Artists members are eligible for monthly giveaways, exclusive invites to virtual events, and early access to featured articles.

Pipeline Artists
Thanks for Subscribing