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 101.

    Jane Saunte - so true. Not all feedback is of the helping you to progress variety.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Paul - this is an interesting insight to how the WritersRoom system works, but I would be concerned about doing it that way myself.

    I write and direct, and sometimes I read unsolicited scripts. (Now, I'm not setting a terribly good example because I promised to always give feedback and don't always get round to it, but I have the excuse that I don't get paid to read scripts.I will probably have to add a caveat that I'll need prodding, but anyway ...) So far, it's always been a no. Sometimes, it's because it was awful. Sometimes, it was promising but not an area that interests me.

    But I'd like to think that if someone asked me why not, I could articulate an honest response on the spot. It might have to be a blunt and dispiriting response, but it would be honest. I would be seriously concerned with my own decisions if I found I was unable to justify them succinctly.

    It might be just me, but I consider justifying decisions to yourself and others an important check and balance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Cheers for the advice Paul - and Chris. Maybe even something as crude as a 'mark out of ten' might be of use for the writer who is struggling to know if they were on the right track. I would like to think everybody is adult enough to realise that a bad score wouldn't necessarily mean that they have a bad script - just gives them an idea of how close the reader was to putting their work in the 'yes' pile.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    @ jane + fadein (+ chris) - there is no single universal way that will work for everybody. Good feedback is very difficult to give properly - and often difficult to take well

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    @ chris - it's not that they can't justify them, but making comments honest, articulate and constructive is difficult - and as soon as something comes from the BBC there is a reasonable expectation of professionalism and not being too harsh, and I wouldn't ask the readers, in the midst of a pressurised intensive full day sifting scripts, to offer snap judgements and feedback. We are expected to offer a considered response, and I think writers and readers deserve for that to be accommodated. Rather that than any rushed judgements and comments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    If 2 and 1/2 thousand people got a sentence or two each, I imagine a lot of them would pursue and complain that the system isn't adequate and that the BBC should offer a full page of feedback. WR would be making a rod for it's own back, as it were. I think that's the phrase :)

    I also imagine that a sentence telling the writer that their script didn't grab the reader's attention wouldn't be that helpful anyway. Yeah, we know it didn't grab the reader's attention 'cos they didn't pass it on. The BBC also have to keep in mind that they don't want to pick holes in a script written by a newbie, they want to encourage rather than scare away (just like what happened to Jane)

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    My point still stands. I would expect myself to justify a rejection in an honest, articulate, constructive and professional manner, and if I could not do that in matter of minutes, I'd have to ask myself how reliable my decision was in the first place.

    Harshness is a different matter. If I was asked for a response, and the only honest response I could give is that the entire thing is fundamentally flawed and unfixable, I would have no choice but to be brutally honest. That is less bad than the writer making the same mistakes all over again.

    An expectation for a considered response is all well and good, but that 80%+ of writers who don't get past the first sift, they don't get that no matter what. It's either no response, as is the case now, or a less-than-considered-response. Given the choice, I'll take the latter, and I think most of the writers I know would choose the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Wow, how is my last comment from the 4th of July still awaiting approval, Paul? I didn't break any house rules and just spoke my opinion just like everyone else on this forum. It's not because the BBC are so scared of a little comment on a blog that they don't want to print it, is it? I'm thinking that you can't decide on a valid reason not to, so you're waiting until there's hundreds more comments and it will be so far back that it'll go unnoticed. It's only my own personal observation of the BBC's underwhelming support of new writers considering how much of our money you have. I doubt it'll cause a revolution or anything...

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    107. "I also imagine that a sentence telling the writer that their script didn't grab the reader's attention wouldn't be that helpful anyway."

    Actually, I would find it useful. From my experience of watching 80+ plays a year, the things that can go wrong in the beginning include:

    1) Implausible characters,
    2) Clumsy dialogue,
    3) An inability to understand the medium of the stage; or
    4) Plausible characters, competent dialogue, a good understanding of a stage but a not very interesting beginning that didn't grab my attention.

    If it's 4, I'd want to know, before I mistakenly decide it was 1, 2, or 3 and break something that didn't need fixing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    @ backlashcomix - the blogs are managed separately and not by us so, sorry but I really don't know. As you can see from these blogs, there's plenty of explicit opinion and criticism so we're not avoiding/censoring it. Writersroom obviously works very hard with limited resources to do what we can with writers, it's bound to feel like it's never enough - from both sides of looking at it - but a lot goes on behind the scenes. Here's some successes:

    @ chris - ok, but my point is that we don't have the resources to do the less-than-considered response - it would be a choice between doing that and dropping some of the extremely important and successful development and production schemes that we run. If we have no outlet for people at the other end, then the whole system is redundant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    My opinion, on the other hand, is that people who do script reading substantially overestimate the workload and underestimate the value of even the briefest feedback.

    I think this debate is exhausted here, as I suspect everyone reading this has made up their mind one way or the other. As you've provided some insight into the reasoning of reading departments, I think I'll update my blog on this, but I've got quite a lot of stuff about the Buxton Fringe to do before then so it won't happen just yet.

    When it does, I will try to represent your views as fairly and accurately as possible. Feel free to contact me privately if you think I haven't and I'll correct it. I don't censor right of reply so you or anyone else will be welcome to comment there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    @ chris - there's the same BBC wide moderating system for all blogs, one which the blog-writers themselves have no connection with, so I'd just like to reassure everyone that nothing is being censored here by me. A glance through any of my blog comment trails will show you that. I don't think we undervalue feedback - far from it, it's why we take such care over it. Until you've worked somewhere like writersroom and had the actual task of assessing thousands of scripts for various media/genres in one go, it's perhaps easy to underestimate just how much concerted effort it takes to do it properly, rigorously, carefully, consistently, sensitively, all at the same time - and much credit should go to those who toil behind the scenes (not me - the writersroom team and readers). Never ceases to amaze me how they persist doggedly yet never lose sight of the reason for doing it - which is to find the best writers and writing in there so that we can do something with/for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    112. Just to clarify, I mean the value of brief feedback to writers. Writersroom might take the position that there's no point in giving feedback if it's not thorough, but my experience is precisely the opposite so I cannot agree with that.

    Anyway, as I said, I think the argument is exhaused on this thread. I've no concerns about censorship (believe me, I am sick to death of the rubbish spewed out in the comments section of BBC news stories to believe that) - just that giving my full throughts on this will need a lot more than 1,000 characters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    So, after a long wait I get the message - your screenplay did not make it past the first sift. Translation - a reader skimmed the first ten pages, and tossed it back to the heap.
    Well, I've got to say, this knocked me back. My script has been read and acted out in a number of forums, including competitions, and I have had a lot of very positive comment on it. It is a First World War drama, but not set in upper-crust Belgravia, rather in working-class Glasgow and the Front. It has twin protagonists, one female, and her part is at least equal to that of her twin brother. It doesn't just show Tommy Atkins being brave, it also shows him being brutal. And the opening scene sets up a life or death decision between the male protagonist and his fierce and vicious antagonist.
    If the checkboxes are - originality, vivid characters, and an arresting opening scene, then I think I ticked them all. So what went wrong?

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    My fear is that the Writers Room process is like recruiters assessing candidates for a hot job. You may think that you are just right for it, you craft your CV to fit the job description, and send it off. Then a software search agent touches your CV, has a quick sniff, doesn't smell the keywords it wants, and darts off, leaving your work story to sink into the pile.
    If a reader has 200-300 scripts to read there must come a point where their eyes are bouncing across the white space, with the reader thinking "Keep going, only a hundred to go ..."
    It might be that this window of submission method, with its avalanche of entries, is not serving the writers, the readers, or the BBC very well.
    As for me, I won't be falsely modest about my script - I know it is good, and original, with compelling characters. So I carry on, hoping that the right pair(s) of eyes will see it one day...

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    I'm no mathematician (So feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, I just tallied it up quickly out of interest), but if 16 people are reading the first 10 pages of 2800 scripts in 6 weeks (5 days for each), then doesn't that amount to about 5.8 scripts a day? Assuming that each script is a minute a page to get through, then that equals about an hour. About an hour of reading for each reader a day. Okay, there may be the later stages of another few hours reading to take into the equation, but if that is indeed correct then it's a complete joke about having no time to send any feedback isn't it? And imagine if there were 20 readers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    I could be wrong but I don't think the readers are only occupied with reading scripts submitted to the Scriptroom, they read the scripts in addition to their other activities within the BBC.

    Plus, it actually states in the T's&C's that the SR submission process is not a reading service.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    @ teedee - we appreciate that fear and if thinking so makes you feel better then fine, but it's not at all an accurate picture of what happens. The readers spend no less time assessing scripts in the window system - but they do it with a greater sense of purpose. Some may think their script had more chance in the old system - but the proportions that do/don't progress are much the same as ever. And as I've always said, saying no doesn't mean we're saying your script is no good - only that there were others that captured our imagination more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    @oldbirdee. Definitely persevere. I have been scrolling the blogs to get to yours, you're very funny. Also being in our nearly/fifties, we're tough and can take the knocks. I love writing and will carry on regardless.

    @linkedin or was it fade in? - oh sorry how rude!! I have no desire to own a mobile. I'm not eccentric either, just very ordinary really. I loath and detest them, like Kathy Burke on 'Room 101'. I did own a mobile once, about ten years ago, but never used it and it is currently being used as a door stop. I'm very pleased you salute me, I'm glad somebody does. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    @ backlashcomix - no that's 6 weeks to do all the 10 page sifts of 2,800 scripts, then resifting maybes, then 20-30 page sifts of the yes's, and inbetween numerous catch-ups where we talked about the scripts they liked, obvious trends etc. Plus sometimes readers read further than 10 if they felt they needed to to make a verdict. Plus an opportunities for readers to pass scripts amongst themselves for a second opinion. (Plus a bank holiday or two I think) It certainly takes more than 10 minutes to properly read and decide on 10 pages. There would be time to give feedback if we spent more money on it and took longer to process them - but that would mean taking time/money from other very very important activities. Script Room is not the only thing we do.


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