Consultants, Contests, and Coverage—Oh My! Sorting Out the Professional Script Reader Landscape
You’re a writer. Your job is pretty clear. It’s right there in the title. But what happens when you get hopelessly stuck? When you don’t have a writer’s group, or when you need some next-level feedback your peers can’t give? When you need to develop a pitch? When your promising career path suddenly goes cold?
Sounds like you need a reader, friend! But just a quick glance at all the options out there makes it pretty obvious that what a “reader” does is much less clear.
Have no fear. I’ve enlisted the help of a bunch of professional readers (avg. experience 8-10 years) to break down their various roles and to demystify the process of hiring a reader without getting screwed.
First piece of Google etiquette: there is no such thing as a “script reader”(or rather, that is too generic a term to be helpful).
Readers can be grouped into five categories: career coaches and consultants, coverage writers, contest readers, story analysts, and development executives. There are shades and flavors within each category of course, and there is some crossover between the services some readers offer, but these are the general buckets.
Most professional readers have held positions in most, if not all, of these areas at some point in their careers.
Coaches/consultants (sometimes called script consultants or career coaches) are focused less on developing the writing and more on developing the writer. They are usually from the producing side and may have connections with reps. Their main job is to get burgeoning writers up to snuff and will sometimes pass their work to contacts.
Coaches help with pitching, marketing yourself, networking, and helping you develop a portfolio that plays to your strengths, with the goal of getting you to the next step in your career. Sometimes consultants are connected to fellowships as mentors, or intimately understand the ins and outs of those programs, and have a high success rate of getting clients into those programs. They often run classes, workshops, retreats, etc., aimed at cultivating your voice and craft.
Reader mantra: person over product.
My job is to help a writer develop their script and screenwriting technique. My job isn't to give "notes," it's to make a larger assessment of a writer's abilities, particular voice and perspective, and to help them achieve their goals by leaning on the strengths already inherent in their writing. The best bang for your buck is development pro that works at the intersection of experience, empathy, understanding, access, and affordability.
My specific angle on this ecosystem is evaluating scripts through the eyes of a director. I’m not here to analyze your market potential or claim to be able to get your script in the right hands or anything like that. What I am able to do—in my eyes—is take an excessively granular approach to the visuals, characters, dialogue and storytelling, and give feedback based on, essentially, what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of the script if I was going to direct it.
Coverage writing is a “gatekeeper” role. Coverage writers can be freelancers, but also work as executives and assistants at studios and agencies. Their job is to communicate to their bosses what your script is and whether they think it has merit in the current market. The rubric for coverage is Can This Sell (does this meet our mandates)? vs. Is This a Good Version of What It Is?
Some readers offer coverage as one of their services. In those cases, coverage is for the writer’s benefit only—they are not necessarily passing to an upper-level exec (unless they love it so much, they choose to under their own volition).
Reader mantra: a script is greater than the sum of its parts.
I have two distinct roles—product placement coverage for studio films, and a reader at a major screenwriting website. Don't use ratings sites for the ratings; you'll get frustrated and there are no guarantees. The best time to get coverage is when you know there's something off in your script but can't figure it out, or you're trying to see if what you have connects with a random person who isn't biased in one way or another toward you. Coverage is a tool for analysis—NOT A GRADE.
This is also a gatekeeper role, but these readers are specifically employed by contests to judge materials based on their own proprietary scoring system. Contest readers can literally be anyone (especially at the early stages) and are normally unpaid or low-paid, with few exceptions.
[Editor's Note: the majority of contests may use unpaid or low-paid readers, but it is of this company's opinion that that's total bs, so ... always do your research]
Pro contest readers are closer to assistants at a studio. Their job is to communicate to their bosses in brief whether your script aligns with their internal rubric. The general marker for contest readers is Is This an Engaging Story? vs. Can This Sell?
Reader mantra: it’s a numbers game.
Contest Reader 1:
Separate from my role as a contest judge, I analyze and help develop scripts from our finalists. The main difference from a typical reader role is that I primarily work with writers who our company scouts through contests, so they're a little further along in their craft. This means I can go a little more in depth and not worry about softening my criticism.
Contest Reader 2:
There is a misconception out there that all contest readers are inept, don’t actually read scripts, or aren’t even writers themselves. I’ve been doing this for five years. I have optioned scripts to studios and produced my own work. I have worked for several different contests now and have never once experienced readers “skimming” scripts or not caring deeply about their jobs.
Most professional (paid) contest readers have their own credits or are working execs and do this to give back to emerging writers. I won a contest and was later contacted by my reader, who was a manager interested in representing me. Don’t dismiss a reader just because you don’t know who they are.
Story analysts are usually writers themselves. They may also have connections with reps/studios and should definitely have an idea of what the market is doing. Analysts work with writers on all levels to do deep-tissue work on the story the writer is trying to tell.
Like coaches, analysts answer to the writer, but their focus is on the story itself. Think: coverage with a side of talk therapy. Good ones will be supportive but honest in their feedback.
Writers who work with analysts may not have writer’s groups, or are not getting the quality of feedback they need from those groups. They may be preparing a draft for development or getting ready to pitch. They might be stuck on a specific story problem that won’t untangle. You can work with an analyst once, or become a long-term client. Story analysts are not script doctors; they may give you suggestions, but it is not their job to rewrite your script.
Reader mantra: break it down, and build it back up.
My job is to give constructive criticism on scripts that are mostly preWGA and (ideally) ready to be taken out to the town. My job differs from most in that I have minimal space in which to give said criticism and must prioritize glaring issues that might make an exec stop reading, like logic holes, unnecessary characters and scenes, or a weak first act.
Development executives are on the production side by default, but may also be writers themselves. Their mission is to make a submitted project as good as possible (as aligned with the studio’s mandate/upper level’s tastes) before pitching it up the line. More than any other, this is a classic gatekeeper role because the projects they work on are in a development pipeline. Like story analysts, development execs also work deeply with writers, but they balance their “reporting lines” between the client and their bosses.
Reader mantra: perfection is possible.
Normal readers tend to focus more on the narrative itself and how best to tell it, but my job is to analyze with a management/production company lens in mind. I want to make sure I'm giving our writers the best possible chance to sell their material. Occasionally, that means having to deliver some hard truths about the viability of certain concepts and storylines, knowing what's going on in the market behind the scenes.
On a basic level, it’s pretty simple, right?
Now here comes the caveat: there is no one right way to approach these roles. One consultant will work very differently than another, based on their personal strengths and business sensibilities. I prefer to run my story analysis sessions like informational interviews, where I ask the writer to think deeply about different choices they’ve made, rather than impress notes upon them. I know other analysts who will only work on a project if there is an outline attached.
Freelance readers are often also flexible about how they work with different writers. I have clients who have very regimented analysis sessions, and others who I work with on almost a stream-of-consciousness level.
Shop around. This is your career and your money (and good readers aren’t cheap). Anyone worth their salt will be very open and knowledgeable about what they do, why, and what they won’t do. Not every relationship is a good match. If I think I am not the best fit for a writer, I will refer them to a different reader who aligns better with their needs.
Now what about scams?
The reading landscape is the wild west. Like any other contract-based industry, anyone who can market themselves well has a shot at cashing in on vulnerable customers.
So here are a few tips to help you avoid the rattlesnakes:
- Readers should have their own verifiable credentials (if freelance), or work for a reputable company.
- They should have clients who are willing to vouch for them. Ask around—this town is small, and often readers get clients from word of mouth. They should have a consistent roster—although they cannot always disclose who those clients are.
- They should be organized and be able to turn around notes for you within a reasonable timeframe. If you’re waiting months to get coverage back, that’s not a good sign. If they stop communicating, that’s a worse sign.
- They should not charge significantly more or less than others who do the same job. This is where you need to do your research. There are people who have been working in the industry for decades, who have great track records, and who charge thousands for their services. There are unreliable shell “companies” with big flashy websites who also charge thousands, but have no discernible track record.
- Be careful about companies who claim responsibility for “X number of clients repped, projects sold,” etc. This does not necessarily have anything to do with the work of the company. If a writer has accomplished something that they believe was achieved in part from the work of a company, they will happily tell you.
Avoid self-styled screenwriting "gurus" like the plague—the last thing you want in a critic is someone who's more interested in marketing themselves than helping you. If you're looking into a reader, ask about their experience in the business and who they've read for. If you're ever unsure, don't be afraid to ask for a sample coverage!
Look at their reviews. Look at their [social media] posts. Do you agree with their philosophies? ... and you can always tag #pipelinewriters asking which consultants come highly recommended.
Like anything, there’s a spectrum of quality here. Do your research and ask around: quality feedback tends to travel quickly via word of mouth. Terrible or rude feedback tends to do the same as well.
Ask what sorts of projects they've worked on, how they approach feedback, and whether you have a chance to discuss your work or will just be told what the "problems" are.
There are also lots of emerging writers and execs who try to get in on the ground floor by undercutting other readers. They see what professional readers do and think, “I know how to give useful notes; I can do that, too.”
Sounds kind of like how the entire industry talks about writers, huh?
While these folks may be well-meaning, and might even give solid notes, they are often missing two things: verifiable experience (Have they sold or optioned projects? Won reputable contests? Been in a room?) and contacts (Do they understand the market? Do they know people? Can they get you read?).
The old adage is always true: you get what you pay for.
Make sure you find someone that has had active industry experience reading for a management company or production company. That way, you know you're getting advice from someone who's been in the trenches and can give you an idea of what's actually sellable.
Likewise, you should not love the feedback you get every single time. The reader’s job is to be honest and detailed, not stroke your ego. There are plenty of people out there who are more than willing to collect a paycheck by telling you that you’re the prettiest writer at the ball, but never actually do anything to improve your writing or advance your career. Notes should be clear, fair, candid, and actionable.
There are good readers and there are bad. Though by far, more are kind, hardworking individuals just trying to make a living while pursuing their own writing career. It's a subjective industry, aka not generally a fair one, and most of us are exhausted on either side of the page. Take this into account before publicly slamming your reader. Are they entirely at fault, or are they giving you workable criticism you might be unable or unwilling to hear?
The reader should be ready to back up their notes. If you get notes back that you don’t understand, it is reasonable to be able to ask clarifying questions about that feedback. But perhaps a more important step is to make sure you are asking for the right kind of notes in the first place. When I take on a new client, I ask them where they would like me to focus their notes. That way I know if they are asking for the best service for their project, or if I need to suggest a different approach.
A misconception that I think the overall screenwriter resource circuit has is that producer's coverage is the best approach for empowering writers. I believe a good paid script development professional is someone who helps a writer find and maintain their own voice within the specific cinematic context of a screenplay, and there's something deeper to that sort of guidance than producer's coverage can give.
Most of all, the reader should be on your side. When my clients go out for pitches or get options, I am always on the sidelines rooting for them. When a client gets a win, that reflects positively on me.
Like any important relationship, don’t waste your time on someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. The entire purpose of readers is to help writers succeed.
*Featured image by Cristina Conti (Adobe)