Professional Writing and the Rise of the Amateur

Last night, I had the pleasure of giving a guest lecture at Trinity University in San Antonio. While I speak at various screenwriter-oriented functions fairly often, this was unusual in that the event was university-wide, and the focus wasn’t specifically on film.

Part of the deal was that I had to announce the title of my speech months in advance. I picked, “Professional Writing and the Rise of the Amateur,” figuring that in the intervening months I would think of inspiring examples of how the World of Tomorrow was going to be a wonderland of possibility for the undergraduates in the audience.

But the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to talk about the future. Instead, I wanted to focus on one of the biggest challenges of today: in our celebration of the amateur, we kind of forget what it means to be professional.

As I spoke with various classes before the big presentation, I promised I’d post the whole speech on the site for those students who had night classes. And, of course, for anyone else who might be interested.

Let me warn you: this is long. My speech lasted 45 minutes, and that was without a lot of riffing. So if you’d rather read the whole thing as a .pdf, you can find it here.

. . .

It’s a pleasure to be here talking with you tonight. Over the last two days, I’ve been visiting a lot of classes, talking about screenwriting and movies, and well, basically talking about myself. Which I’m really good at. But when I agreed to give a formal public lecture, one of the requirements was that the presentation actually have a title. By which I mean a topic, a thesis. A point.

It all feels very academic, and I love that. I miss that. None of you will believe me now, but some day you’ll look back on your college careers and be wistful. Nostalgic. Because there’s something comforting about having to write a fifteen page paper on the use of floral imagery in “Pride and Prejudice.”

I think what it is, is that even if you’re completely wrong, it just doesn’t matter that much. For the rest of your life, you’re going to get called on bullshitting. In college, you’re graded on it.


I decided I wanted my lecture tonight to be not strictly about screenwriting, but about writing in general. Because everyone in this room is a writer. You might write screenplays; you might write research papers. You definitely write emails. Every one of you is, and will be, a professional writer in some field.

So I wanted to talk about what that means.


How to format lyrics in scripts

I was quite curious as to how one would write a scene with characters singing a song, musical style. Do we just include “singing” as an action within the handy parentheses? Or is there some other formatting we must use? And how much mention are we supposed to give to the music itself?

– Adam Scott
Perth, Australia

For movies and television, the convention is to put the lyrics in italics. It’s probably helpful to include a “(singing)” parenthetical the first time you do it, because some readers may not catch it otherwise. And yes, dialogue in italics can also be used for foreign languages, so you’ll need to make sure it’s clear in context.

Here’s where the former graphic designer in me resurfaces. Screenplays are written in 12-pt. Courier, which is not the most attractive typeface in the world, but certainly sturdy and readable. There’s an italic form of Courier that’s rounded and a little more like handwriting, which would be quite suitable for lyrics.

However, the “italic” form of Courier you find on most computers is really just normal Courier with a slant effect applied (called “oblique”), and it seriously blows. It’s ugly on screen. It’s ugly printed.

It’s impossible to write beautiful lyrics in such an ugly typeface.

So, having written lyrics in many of my scripts, I’ve come to use a different typeface altogether for the songs. For Big Fish, I used 11 pt. Stone Sans Italic. For Charlie and Corpse Bride, I switched to 11 pt. Verdana Italic, because I needed to send those scripts in as .pdf files, and you can safely count on just about any computer having Verdana installed.

Why 11 pt., when the main text is set at 12 pt.? That’s because Verdana looks much bigger than Courier when set at the same point size. You’re also more likely to get a full lyric line in without a break at that size. (Although I feel no guilt cheating a margin slightly to avoid a break in any event.)

Some scripts I’ve read will include a slash “/” at the end of each sung line. I don’t find that helpful, so I never use it.

In terms of talking about the music, your best bet is to describe the general style and tone, such as “bright, Sousa-like march” or “melancholy dirge.” You can give an example if it’s particularly apt, but I’d avoid a reference that makes the reader stop and think, “Hmm, how does that go?”

Note that the convention for songs in stage musicals is completely different. For those, lyrics are placed in uppercase along the left margin. You can see examples of the format in the templates for Final Draft or Screenwriter.

Write-up of my recent WGA Foundation Q&A

Screenblogger Devon DeLapp was generous enough to type up his notes of my recent Q&A at the Writers Guild Foundation. He did a good job keeping up with a rambling conversation. I only have a few real corrections/clarificatons:

  • Go really didn’t change that much from the first draft.
  • Charlie’s Angels was a positive experience, but not “a total love fest.” [clears throat]
  • My dad died several years before I read Big Fish.
  • For Thief of Always, I was fired for a very specific reason: the director and novelist hated my script.
  • Drew Barrymore’s relative star power wasn’t the deciding factor on Barbarella; there were complicated studio politics at work.
  • “I can beat myself with the best of them.” Well, I probably said that, but it sounds kind of naughty out of context.
  • Although I write longhand (a scribble version, followed by a readable one), what my assistant types up is exactly the script, not notes. I’ll try to scan some of these scenes so people can see what I mean.
  • “Get job as a writer on TV” — as if it’s that easy. But I really do think that every screenwriter should look at TV as just another screen, and pursue it if at all interested.

You can read the whole shebang here. Thanks again to Devon for putting it up.

Does the editor even read the script?

Does the editor read the script and use it as a framework when the screenwriter is not involved in editing? How else does she make sense of all the footage the director has shot to cut into a cohesive whole? Also, do you see the editor’s role as bringing to screen the vision of the screenwriter?

– dabba
via imdb

The editor almost certainly reads the script at least once, before she signs on for the job. After that, it’s hard to say.

Pretty much everyone who’s ever taken an editing class has had some variation of this common assignment: given a bag of random footage (or a folder, in the digital age), you’re told to assemble it into a meaningful sequence.

And the thing is, you can. So even if editors never cracked the script open, they could still do their job. Every scene has a scene number associated with it, which comes from the script, so there’s not even a question of, “Does the car chase come first, or the bank robbery?”

Is it the editor’s job to bring the screenwriter’s vision to the screen? Nope. The editor’s job is to make the best movie possible given the footage shot, which is often a source of potential conflict between the screenwriter and editor. The screenwriter says, “This scene is about Kyle forgiving Mary!” The editor replies, “No, it’s about Mary looking for her keys. That’s what was shot. I can’t make it something it’s not.”

While I’ve had good relationships with most of the editors on the films I’ve written, there’s no question that the editor works primarily for the director. To the degree I’ve been able to help out in post-production, it’s been providing thoughtful notes that not only point out problems but offer solutions.

I always write up my notes so the whole team can read them, and agree or disagree. On a first cut, that might mean 12 pages of notes. But so far, at least, it’s proved to be a help. Editors, like screenwriters, are generally bombarded by the opinions of people who think they know best. So I make sure the tone is respectful.

For example, from the first Charlie’s Angels:

The outside tables
We should flop the order of business in this scene, starting with Vivian Wood looking though the file and trying to get them to hand over full access to the computer. Only after she’s denied does Knox ask them to go out.

Here’s the big change: the subtitled Finnish is completely different. The angels are still in work mode, talking about how Knox could still be in danger, this may not all be over, et cetera. We exit on a look between Dylan and Knox, setting up that there may be potential ahead.

My notes are always addressed to the director, but they’re ultimately for the use of the editor, who can implement whatever seems workable.

When the editor and screenwriter respect each other, I think it can be a very fruitful relationship. The screenwriter generally has more distance from the production, and can look with fresher eyes than the editor, who know where all the bodies (and bad takes) are buried.

If a trade paper has a blog, is it still a trade?

Question: Would The Hollywood Reporter sneak into Sony Pictures late at night, grab the director’s rough cut of a new movie, then publish a review of it the next morning?

No. They’d lose all credibility and respect of the filmmakers and studio folks who constitute their readership. There would be outrage.

Instead, The Hollywood Reporter (like its fellow “trade” newspaper, Variety) waits to review movies in their finished form — or at least, in a public screening, such as a film festival. The reviews aren’t always positive, but the circumstances surrounding the review are fair.

Would The Hollywood Reporter run a review of a script in production?

Highly doubtful. To my knowledge, they’ve never done so. Likely, that’s because they recognize what a disservice that is to the filmmakers. Movies change significantly over the course of production. Reviewing the screenplay while the movie’s in production would be (in my opinion) worse than reviewing a rough cut, because it’s not acknowledging the role the director, actors and other departments play.

So I was concerned to see this entry in the Hollywood Reporter’s blog:

Thanks to Stax, IGN FilmForce’s resident Bond maven, for this link to a description of the new James Bond script. If you don’t want to read the spoilers, don’t go there!

If you followed the link to IGN, you’d see it’s actually another link to Latino Review, which has the actual article. To be clear: The Hollywood Reporter blog didn’t publish a review of the script. They published a link, which in turn led to another link.

Still, this seemed pretty unusual for The Hollywood Reporter. So I called Anne Thompson, the deputy editor whose picture runs alongside the text on the blog. We had a good conversation about her decision to include the piece, and the challenging distinction between capital-J journalism and what happens on the internet. She was thoughtful and forthright, and ultimately revised the piece to remove the link — one of the real benefits of the digital age.

I consider that specific issue resolved, and thank Anne for attending to it so quickly.

Part of the reason the issue resonated for me is that I’m in the middle (okay, beginning) of writing a public lecture that I’m giving in a few weeks as Trinity University. I had to announce my lecture title months ago, so I picked: “Professional Writing and the Rise of the Amateur.” And this is certainly a good example.

It is easy to empathize with the frustrations of a professional journalist who gets “scooped” by film geeks still in high school. Writing under a pseudonym at Ain’t It Cool News, YoMamasBeeeotch can spill all the dirt on an upcoming James Cameron project, without the burdens of truth, accuracy or grammar. When criticized, these writers generally fall back on the defense of, “I’m not a professional journalist! I’m just a fan who wants great movies!”

The central question of my lecture — for which I don’t currently have a meaningful answer — is what does it mean to be a professional writer? It can’t just be getting paid, because in the age of AdSense, the blogger can out-earn the reporter. It’s not the size of the readership, because many blogs attract more eyeballs than traditional papers do.

My hunch is that the distinction between professional and amateur lies in the implied contract between writer and reader. The professional writer is promising a certain level of accuracy, consistency and forthrightness.

That’s why I chafed at seeing that link in The Hollywood Reporter, when I wouldn’t have blinked an eye if it were in CHUD. But these are murky times.

In which I attend the Grammy Awards

As I might have mentioned, I got nominated for a Grammy Award (along with Danny Elfman) in the Best Song TV/Movie/Visual Media category for “Wonka’s Welcome Song” from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The nomination came as a surprise, in that (a) I didn’t realize the Grammys were coming up, (b) I didn’t know the song was eligible, and (c) it’s an absurd choice for Best Song. It’s a fun ditty, sure, kind of a riff on “It’s a Small World” from the eponymous Disney theme park ride. But there it was, on the list.

I promptly called Danny Elfman. After making plans for a play-date for our respective offspring, I asked if he planned on attending the awards. He was horrified at the prospect, which I guess makes sense for a professional musician with a shelf full of awards.

But me, hell. When am I going to get nominated for a Grammy again?

So I went.

Here’s my first-hand account.

To begin with, “Music’s Biggest Night” is actually “music’s longest afternoon.” They give out awards in 108 categories. Of those, only 11 are televised. The other 97 are passed out during the pre-telecast ceremony, which begins at 1:30 p.m. We left the house at noon to get there in time.

The pre-telecast was held in the West Hall of the convention center, next door to Staples Center, where the main awards would be held. It was friendly and low-key. Anoushka Shankar and Michael Bublé performed (separately), and most award-recipients were quick to get on and off stage.

My category was #31 on the list. The whole time, I was thinking about what I would say in the (admittedly unlikely) event that my name was in the envelope. I settled on:

Hi, wow. [Stare at trophy in disbelief] I’d like to thank the Grammy academy. Of course, Danny Elfman, for writing really catchy music. And especially Tim Burton for saying, “Sure, yeah, melting puppets. Singing. Great!” Anyway, this means a lot. Thanks. [Hold up trophy]

And then I’d start to go off stage in the wrong direction, only to be corrected by a pretty young woman who would take my elbow and lead me the right way.

As it turned out, it ended up being a lot simpler. I clapped politely while Glen Ballard accepted the award for the song he wrote for The Polar Express. He was gracious, so I certainly can’t begrudge him. And I’m happy I lost to someone who at least showed up.

We ducked out of the pre-telecast awards during the gospel section (sorry, Jesus), in the hopes of getting properly liquored before the grown-up Grammys, which started at 5 p.m. The instructions on the so-you’ve-been-nominated-for-a-Grammy sheet noted that alcohol would be not be served after 4:30 p.m. While this was technically true, the more accurate description of the situation could be found on signs at all of the food stations:


No, really. There was a kind of sad, strange comedy in eavesdropping:

  • Could I get a vodka tonic?
  • Sorry, there’s no alcohol.
  • How about wine?
  • No, there’s no alcohol.
  • Just beer, then.
  • There’s no alcohol at all.
  • Anywhere?
  • No, sir.

Now, in reality, if Kanye West had wanted a mojito, someone, somewhere would have found some mint leaves to muddle. But for the hoi polloi, the event was drier than a Kansas wedding. I was left with Diet Pepsi and rage to wash down my nachos.

Fortunately, the Grammys themselves were fun.

Having been to quite a few premieres and fancy shindigs, I can say that the Grammys were the most consistently entertaining. The musical performances were good, the groan factor was low, and every celebrity had to walk by my seat at least once.

Our seats were on the floor, next to the aisle. Whenever a performer and/or presenter needed to go from their seat to backstage, they were walked by us. Even better, running across the aisle next to our seats were thick cables covered with a floor mat. Although marked with white tape, this hazzard was very easy to trip over. Many celebrities did.

Celebrities who tripped and/or wobbled included:

  • Sting
  • Sir Paul McCartney
  • Teri Hatcher (meta-alert!)
  • Jennifer Love Hewitt
  • The woman in Destiny’s Child who is not Beyonce or Kelly

In general, I’m not star-struck. But the combination of mild danger and celebrity almost made up for the lack of alcohol. The guy sitting next to me won a Grammy for mixing the Green Day album. So that’s cool.

The official after party was back at the West Hall. Everyone knows that the official party sucks and that all the cool people go to their own secret after parties. However, we were not invited to any of the secret after parties. So we went to the normal one.

It took forever to get in, but the food was fairly tasty. And the drinks? Free-flowing. On the whole, it felt like a big Hollywood premiere party, with good production design and some questionable entertainment choices. (Interpretative dancers, for a start.)

We were home by midnight. There’s no Grammy to set on the mantelpiece, but on the whole, it was a fun 12 hours. I haven’t watched the show on the TiVo yet, but I doubt I’ll see myself. The closest call probably came when Chris Martin of Coldplay galloped down the aisle.

God, I wish he’d tripped.