Script Room latest: and now for the science part

Thursday 4 July 2013, 12:23

Paul Ashton Paul Ashton


If you submitted to Script Room and haven’t checked your inbox, then there should be an email winging its way to you with our longlist decision – ie whether or not your script is being given a full read and feedback. It’s taken longer than we hoped, simply due to the sheer numbers of submissions, and our need to be as thorough and rigorous as we can when dealing with so many scripts. We had a team of 16 readers working across 6 solid weeks to get from the full set of submissions to a longlist of scripts getting feedback.

So here are some stats about where submissions got to in the process – and a few thoughts about the process as extrapolated from the stats.

First sift

At the first 10-page sift, 83% of all submissions were given a NO verdict, which means they didn’t progress beyond that first sift stage. Proportionally, that’s more or less the same as the last two Script Rooms - which means that since we had more scripts submitted, more scripts progressed through and there was physically more work still to do. What we have noticed is that at this stage, the proportion of scripts in particular genres that were given a NO were more or less the same as those received overall – so no marked difference in how genres progressed at this stage.

At the first sift, 5% of submissions were given a MAYBE verdict – which means the reader wasn’t sure and wanted another reader to take a look at the next sift stage, at which point it was given another 10-page look by another reader and either became a NO or was put through for a full second stage sift. Which means the remaining 12% were put through to the second sift as a straight YES.

I’ve blogged before about why script didn’t progress so I shan’t repeat myself here, other than to say the key thing at this stage was identifying the spark of something interesting enough to make the reader want to read on.

Second sift

At the second stage, we asked the readers to do a 20-30 page sift of all scripts – making sure that a new reader looked at each given script, ie one reader didn’t sift the same script twice across the two stages. First, we looked at the MAYBEs to decide which would progress to the second sift. And then we began looking again at everything that had progressed from the first sift. Some felt confident after 20 pages of making a verdict, some read further, and sometimes readers read beyond 30 pages if they felt they needed to in order to make a final decision about the longlist. It was at this stage that the decisions in some senses became more difficult, less immediately clear, less clear cut, and therefore harder work. As such, what was a little different at this stage was seeing if and how that spark of something interesting managed to develop and grow as the script progressed. At this stage, having a fantastic first 10 pages wasn’t enough – the script needed to keep on being effective and engaging.

At the second sift, over half of the 12% we started with was given a NO verdict – which left us with a remaining 5%.

Full reads

So, the percentage of scripts going to a full read this time is 5%. That’s exactly the same percentage as last time round, and slightly less than the time before (though we did receive far more scripts this time, so it’s actually more scripts). We don’t work to a quota – so it’s interesting how close those stats are. These scripts will get a full read, feedback, and then we’ll sit down with the readers and decide which of those scripts they are recommending for a look by someone like me in the writersroom team. (Again, no quotas on that – but previously between 30-40% have then been recommended on.)

A few comparative stats for you:

Total Submissions                          vs                                 Full Reads

TV/Radio Comedy 33%                                                  TV/Radio Comedy 20%
TV Drama 24%                                                                 TV Drama 27%
Film 23%                                                                            Film 23%
Radio Drama 10%                                                            Radio Drama 8%
Stage 8%                                                                            Stage 16%
Children’s 2%                                                                    Children’s 6%

As you can see, Film stayed the same and TV and Radio Drama changed a little, but the proportion of Comedies progressing dropped a lot, while the proportion of Stage scripts progressing doubled and Children’s scripts trebled. You wouldn’t want to extrapolate anything concrete from this necessarily, other than the fact that at the second sift stage of further deeper assessment, some genres fared better than others. (We’re still collating the stats the readers gave us on the reasons for saying NO at different stages.)

What I hope is clear from this is how intensive the process has been. 2,800 scripts, 16 readers, 6 weeks. If you are one of the people getting a full read, then very well done on getting this far. If you are not – then don’t despair. Which is easier said than done, I know. But when we receive nigh on 3000 scripts in one go, the odds are always going to be stacked heavily against you. And as I think it’s always important to note, just because we are saying no, does not mean we are saying your script wasn’t any good. Our job is to rigorously work our way through everything and find a way to identify what will necessarily be a small proportion of writers that we think we should begin to develop our relationship with. 

Judging by previous times, in the end we may only be able to bring together a final group of around 25 writers – and a quick go at the maths tells you this is less than 1% of the total of submissions. With odds like that, it’s important that you don’t see failing to reach that small number simply as failure. See it as an incentive to send a better script next time. To try something new and do things differently next time. To watch more TV, listen to more radio, read more scripts in our archive, see more interviews with established writers. Whatever it takes to get better, do better, get closer. Because the real danger for that 1% is that they might think they’ve made it and the pressure is off – but they haven’t, and it isn’t. It’s just the first step on a long road – the same one you are all on. And that’s the same one all writers are always on for as long they have the desire to create better work, communicate with audiences, and continue to express their voice.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Anthony Atkin - I'm setting a forum up, it'll be ready by tomorrow. The completely unofficial WR forum. Of course, I won't be allowed to link to it...

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Ref the Lowry - I loved it. I didn't know much about Lowry before I listened, but after, I felt I knew him as a person and could now understand the context in which he painted.

    Thanks to Paul and the team for all the work they have done. I am pleased to have received my email and to have got throught the first sift. It means a lot to know that professional readers, at least two, have considered my first finished piece of work seriously. I will take more time before submitting again, and try to match more of the guidelines rather than expecting raw enthusiasm to carry me forward.

    Ref time-wasting and reading this blog - yes,writing is a very lonely business. Here, one is going to be meeting with others going through the same process. I have felt it to be supportive, and Paul's posts absolutely invaluable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    I didn't submit to the script window so I don't have a stake in this discussion, but I thought I'd comment about script readers and reading. I read for a handful of theatres and competitions and in my personal experience the stats quoted above are consistent with how I have found things. In the work I do I read the whole script, but I would say that the first 10-pages are a good indicator - I've yet to read a whole script that had a bad first 10 pages which then became great. I have read whole scripts that started well and then went on the slide downhill ("the endless wasteland of the second act"). The joy of the work is when you are reading a script and it grabs hold of you and takes you with it, it's a real rush (in the same way as watching/listening to a story being told well), but unfortunately it happens rarely versus the volume of scripts read. Script readers aren't there waiting to say 'No', they're there wanting to be entertained, enthralled and immersed in great scripts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    "How can I fix the script when I don't get feedback?" - good feedback doesn't tell you how to fix your script, it asks questions about the elements of the script and highlight parts that are not clear, or don't work for the reader (as well as talking about what works). You as the writer then have to work out what from the feedback is useful to you and how you use it. However, part of getting better as a writer is also getting better at self-critiquing your own work. The onus should not be on someone else to tell you how to make it better, it should be on you to work out how to make it better. A first draft for me is always fun to write because it's trying things out - seeing where the script takes me, watching themes and patterns come up and characters find their voices. It's the second and third draft where the tough work begins - because out that jumble I have to decide what it's all about and why I'm writing this story about these people, and that can take some time...

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Whilst I accept that the BBC's scrip reading department does not have the resources to give substantial feedback on scripts received any more, I do feel it would massively benefit aspiring writers to write a few sentences. How long does a reader spend reading a script? 30 minutes? 10 minutes? Either way, the time it takes to say why it's a no is negligible compared to everything else.

    I'm lucky - I have built up relationships with actors off my own back, so I can cut out the middle men, show it straight to an audience and see what they think. That way, I get to find out what my mistakes are and learn from them, and it's paying off. But I know other writers who don't have this, and I'm embarrassed that don't get the opportunity to progress the way I have.

    Have said that, the BBC is an improvement on most places, who are at least open with their process. Here's my full thoughts for anyone interested:

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    @FadeIn - I would love to visit your forum. Would a search in Google for something like "writersroom unofficial forum fadein" yield useful results?
    @ Paul Ashton, would a link be permissible in this instance? It would be great to be able to discuss our Writer's Room thoughts and experiences in a forum environment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    Ashles - No that won't make it show up. I have a cunning plan though and it will not involve putting sneaky links on here and getting told off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Ashles has found it, don't know how. If you use Twitter use #writersroom and look for the tweet with a cow's head. Contains the link.

    There are no ads and I'm not affiliated with any of the links to various competitions and services - so it is not a money making exercise, it is purely to provide another supplementary venue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    @ jimmyo - very useful insight/perspective - thanking you

    @ chris neville-smith - in my experience, brief feedback in a couple of sentences can raise more questions than it answers and isn't all that useful in the end - you could tell a writer their characters weren't string enough but unless you give a useful amount of detail then it doesn't actually help very much. The devil is in the detail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    @ chris - that should have said strong, not string - characters not string enough would be quite a weird notes to give/get ... (Curse this tiny keypad)

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Hi Paul,

    Firstly, thanks for replying to my thoughts, and giving a point of view is an improvement on most script readers who don't answer this question.

    However, it is not your experience that counts, it is ours, we the writers. If you know of writers that say that the lack of feedback is useless or worse than useless, fair enough, but my experience is the opposite. I hear a lot of complaints about how difficult it is to get started and this is one of the most common ones.

    From personal experience, I've only received a few-sentence feedback once. I admit that I'm one of these people who will, in the first instance, force you to eat furniture when you make any helpful suggestions about changes - but I had time to think about it, and the lesson I learnt was that you've got to keep developing the story and keep the audience interested in every minute of the play. And with that in mind, my next play turned out to be my most successful one to date. So yes, it did help. A lot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Paul - thanks for all your comments and help in this thread. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I won't be able to offer any specific feedback. I hope you will not be too disappointed or discouraged by this. :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    On a serious note - would you recommend going to a professional script feedback agency? As a first time writer I have genuinely no idea if my script would have even been close to what you were looking for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    @ chris - even a couple of lines for 2,800 would cost a huge amount and add on more time to the whole process - it's not just the reader making a note, it's someone going through every single verdict email to accommodate the feedback and do it accurately. In that sense, it is our experience that counts as we work within limited resources and most allocate them effectively and efficiently. But yes - my own experience is that if only give limited feedback then writers always want more - they always want further clarification and detail and tips and advice. They always want the equivalent of full feedback. I've seen writers damage their work because they've tried to extrapolate more than they should from one brief or vague note - without the clarity and detail, feedback can be dangerous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    @ macca - we aren't allowed to recommend a service, or even recommend going down this route at all - all I can and will say is to make sure you can reassure yourself that anyone you engage has the experience and track-record you need - and remember, that whatever they say won't necessarily chime with what someone like us reading your script will say. It's not relevant to us, for example, if someone tells you they think your script should get developed/made - that's for us to decide when we read it and it's not our role to manage the expectations of writers who have been given that kind of feedback ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Macca75 - I've never tried a professional feedback agency before, but the thing you have to be aware of is that most of them charge. Now, it might be that some or all of them were worthwhile, but I am suspicious of anything that makes it money from aspiring writers, from competitions with "reading fees" to vanity press. The reason why I don't bother with them is that there doesn't seem to be anything to stop them doing any old shoddy service. If you're disappointed, they already have your money.

    You have five options, none of them fully satisfactory:

    1) Ask someone who's used this kind of service what they think (if you know anyone - I don't)
    2) Try it yourself, risk wasting your money if they're bad, but carry on using them if they're good
    3) Use a free service (if there's any left - Live Theatre used to have a good reading service, sadly this is now discontinued)
    4) Rely on friends and family instead; or
    5) Do it yourself and see how well it goes down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Paul, I make my money working in IT in software testing and system design, and I refuse to believe the cost of putting this into the verdict e-mails costs the amount you think it does. Assuming you already have a database with e-mail address is, it's a simple case of adding a "feedback" field, and putting writer name, script title and feedback into an e-mail with a mail merge. That is trivially easy.

    Yes, WritersRoom will be bombarded with questions about what the feedback means, but as long as you have the sense to make it clear that is the end of the correspondence, that shouldn't be a problem. Can brief feedback make a script worse? Maybe, but so can absence of feedback if the writer mistakenly believes it was a perfectly decent aspect of the script at fault. Either way, I credit writers with the intelligence to understand the risks and decide for themselves.

    Sorry if this sound like a grilling, but this is my one opportunity to understand the thinking of the other side.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    @ macca + chris - worth saying that any specialist business worling in a niche market (which script reading services are) rely on satisfied customers coming back to them again and again - but my point is that however good they might be, you mustn't expect them to be able to speak on behalf of the BBC (or anyone else accepting your work)

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    @ chris - don't worry, these are pertinent questions. We're building an e-submissions system right now so this answer is in many ways retrospective. Our system involves a team of readers in a room with hard copy scripts making relevant notes on post-its - so, if we gave everyone feedback it would involve them handwriting notes. We hire in people to do talent search admin (as we don't have anyone inhouse to do it) and they would have to write up that handwritten comment x 2,800, make sure they appear coherent, and then match up the comment with the correct email in a spreadsheet. That is a lot of work that we don't have spare resources for. It took our readers 6 weeks to assess all scripts without having to pause to consider, formulate and articulate a useful, coherent, accurate response. You'd be amazed how much time it takes to work at this scale and feel happy that you are doing it properly. Even with esubmissions, the time taken to pause and articulate is a lot from our pov.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Sigh. Whilst clearing out my desk drawers and removing old redundant paperwork, I found a beautifully typed (on a typewriter) rejection letter from Clive Brill. The letter (dating from the 1980's) was commenting on a sample script I had sent in for "The Archers" after attending a creative writing course locally. To think I got a personal reply! The dear chap went to some lengths to tell me what was wrong with my effort.

    But, you see, I found the feedback so dispiriting that I did not write another word for more than 25 years.

    An impersonal email telling me that I was in a minority of 17% whose script was read past the first 10 pages was actually more encouraging.


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