AN OVERVIEW OF THE SCRIPT DEPARTMENT
The Script Department act as a liaison between scriptwriters and the production team. They collaborate with producers and directors, to achieve the best possible editorial outcome and deliver scripts on time, in the specified format, and to the agreed length. They brief, critique and assist writers from script commission to delivery - all the time ensuring that the script can be produced on budget and to the specifications of the original brief.
The Script Department can be quite small (on a single 1 hour tv drama, all the editing may be done by one person), medium sized – (up to 2 or 3 script editors on a tv drama series of 6-8 episodes) or big (say on a long running soap like EastEnders) - which can have a multi-structured team of assistant editors, script editors, researchers, storyliners and story editors, resulting in a department of around 20 people. The Script Department are on board during development, and are usually present in one capacity or another until the script has been shot and even after the edit. The ultimate aim of the Script Department is to produce the best quality script in the allotted time, ensuring it is editorially accurate and achieves everything required from it by the storylines, as well as being financially viable to shoot.
Once commissioned, the team research aspects of a script for factual accuracy, making sure all reasonable action has been taken to avoid copyright infringement, libel and defamation and check continuity of characters/situations if the script is part of a series or soap. They ensure the script adheres to scheduling guidelines in terms of location/studio and character allocation, as well as being the right length. The Script Department tread a delicate balance between the writer and the production, representing both interests and trying to achieve the best balance and agreement in the finished product between writer, producer and director. It is their responsibility to ensure that the scriptwriter consents to major script changes requested by the producers and directors and to convey the scriptwriter’s point of view if something should be contested in their absence. Script editors are also required to be good, accurate proofreaders and will need to have a good grasp of spelling and grammar, as they check all scripts for errors.
The Script Department work under the executive producer of a show. On long runners, the Script and Story Department can be split into two under the leadership of a Head of Scripts (script producer, editorial producer or series script editor) and a Head of Story (story producer, chief storyliner, series story editor) both working under the guidance of the executive producer. On other shows, the roles of story and script editor can be combined.
The editorial team need to be dynamic and astute: they need to present feedback (in writing and verbally) to the producer in a succinct, clear way. It is advantageous to have a background in sub-editing. Sub-editing is a vital skill, as script editors spend much of their time removing extraneous material and condensing scripts down to the most punchy, economical writing. It helps if the junior members of the script team have read a wide and varied amount of scripts (eg. theatre, radio, film, factual commentary) and have experience of writing analytical reports before they enter the department. All the better if they’ve had first-hand experience of working with and critiquing writers’ work.
WHAT ARE THE ENTRY LEVEL POSITIONS IN THE SCRIPT DEPARTMENT?
In stark contrast to most other departments in TV, those starting out in the Script Department don’t usually start as runners. Entry level positions are usually: script reader, assistant script editor, script secretary or researcher. The BBC runs a graduate trainee scheme which is a fantastic way in (though highly competitive), with trainees regularly spending a few months on EastEnders in the first instance.
If you get your foot in the door of an independent production company that produces drama and has a development department, express your interest in scriptwriting/reading and offer to read scripts (they always have a never-ending pile to sort through and decide if any are worthy of commissioning) and write a few reports in your own time. If you impress with your waffle-free, succinct script notes and analytical prowess, this could lead to you being offered a position as a researcher or a script reader.
Researchers support the story and script personnel by ensuring stories, scripts and dialogue are factually accurate - or accurate to the original source material. They develop story ideas in conjunction with the story producer so that research based stories start accurately and reflect real life from the very beginning. Researchers check facts and brief the script editor on their findings. This will involve reading through a lot of different source materials. It will also include interviewing or talking to people on the phone/in person, similar to a journalist. There is not much difference in the role between high end and lower budget production. In terms of entry into this role a general degree can be as good if not better than a media degree - for example, a degree in criminology could really help working on a police procedural TV series, as you’ll know where to find information and have access to experts to help verify facts in the script.
Some smaller shows don’t (or can’t afford to) employ a researcher, in which case, the script editor will conduct a lot of their own research. An assistant script editor could be working alongside one script editor, or as part of a team, for example, on a continuing drama, where a bigger team is employed. You may assist with script delivery and amendments, reading the unsolicited script pile and writing script reports, proof-reading and checking legal notes such as name clearances that have been assimilated into the scripts. Duties and responsibilities will vary from production to production, and whether you’re working in-house for a broadcaster (eg. BBC Drama Production) or for an independent production company (eg. Red Planetor Tiger Aspect).
Either way, assistant script editor is seen very much as a training role, which will lead on to a script editing job. An element of training is normally offered with an assistant role, eg., shadowing editors on certain scripts and delivering briefings to writers under supervision from the editors or series editors
WHAT AREAS OF THE TV INDUSTRY CAN ASSISTANT SCRIPT EDITORS BE FOUND?
If there is room in the budget, the role of the assistant script editor can be found on the following productions - any production that has a scripted element:
Comedy programmes, including sitcoms, sketch shows, etc
Docu-dramas (eg. historical reconstructions)
WHAT ARE THE OTHER ROLES IN THE SCRIPT DEPARTMENT?
It depends on the production budget and if the production is a long running series/soap, series or a one off. Script Departments in TV production usually consists of the following roles working alongside researchers:
Script readers. Read tons of scripts, score them and provide written reports (usually three pages of notes) assessing: premise, characters, dialogue, format, structure, plot, descriptions, pace, originality and theme.
Assistant/Junior script editor. Reports to exec producer, and works closely with producer, scriptwriter and script editor to provide editorial and research support.
Script editor. Key liaison between writer and production, collaborating with producers and directors, to achieve best possible editorial outcome and deliver scripts on time, in the specified format, and to the agreed length. Script editors may also, in extreme circumstances, be asked to do very quick rewrites on a script if the writer is not available.
Series script editor (also referred to as script producer or script executive). Maintains continuity between writers on series or serials. Where there is more than one script editor, or a team of script editors, the series script editor ensures communication between them is thorough to assist continuity. They engage with the whole series and not just individual episodes. Series script editors tend to edit fewer scripts with writers but instead deliver their notes to script editors across the entire series, normally at least on two drafts of each script. They are responsible for episode continuity in terms of story and character arcs. Often responsible for finding new writers and maintaining the stable of writers contracted to the show, including liaising with agents and contracts department over contracts for writers. Can also be the line manager for the script editors.
Storyliner. Report to the story editors. They generate, develop and write story strands for long running series. May be responsible for a number of different storylines or episodes and assist in writing up the story document which will be issued to all writers and editors, as well as keeping series bibles up to date.
Story editors. Works to the story producer. They write the story documents forming the story arcs across episodes, following planning meetings where the broad brushstrokes of the story are decided by writers and story producers. Story editors will also need to liaise with schedulers over character and set availability when writing the storylines.
Story producer (can also be known as series story editor or story executive). Responsible for developing and maintaining story across episodes - providing a framework and then overseeing the production of a story document which is given to individual writers and editors, usually detailing a month’s episodes on a long runner. On a long running drama or soap, they may run the entire editorial team. Can sometimes be titled editorial producer story producers and script producers (tend to be roles on larger productions), or in development and they usually work directly to the executive producer, on the same level as producers.
Entirely separate from the Script Department, but with a misleading job title is the Script Supervisor (also know as Continuity). Not part of the script team, but still script focused, the script supervisor works on set/location. They are usually employed by Production (sometimes moving up from the position of production assistant), and work closely with the director and Camera Department to ensure TV programmes, shot out of script sequence, end up making continuous verbal and visual sense throughout. The role of Script Supervisor can be very demanding and suits individuals who understand the grammar of drama and posses a meticulous attention to detail. Their marked up scripts, where they add camera angles and detail such as good takes and bad (information offered by the director) are passed to the editor and synced with the meta data in the rushes.
WHAT IS THE CAREER PATH IN THE SCRIPT DEPARTMENT?
There are no set paths in the TV industry. Many TV professionals have to diversify to keep a steady flow of work, which means adding more skills to their portfolio. When you start out, there are a considerable number of choices open to you. You may decide drama isn’t for you - so you could switch to factual or documentary research, working your way up to assistant producer, then producer/director then series producer/edit producer. You may decide that after reading thousands of scripts: you want to peruse a career as a scriptwriter or diversify your knowledge to the role of script supervisor. These roles are highly sort after, and will take a good number of years of production experience to reach. It does vary of course – it usually takes 2 or 3 years of working as a script editor before you are running a department – at the very least. For most, you’d expect to be a story producer or series script editor as a third or fourth job – say on a 4 year trajectory.
WHAT ARE THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE ASSISTANT SCRIPT EDITOR?
As an assistant script editor in the script team, you are there to help senior team members. Core responsibilities include:
Assist the department, with particular importance given to supporting the script editor
Assist with script delivery and amendments
Attend to episode continuity
Check script for errors
Research dialogue, story viability, fact-checks
Generate and contribute story ideas/offer solutions to story problems
Compile and distribute accurate transmission synopsis and prepare billings for TV listings magazines
May be asked to write copy for the broadcaster’s/production company’s website
Script reading, managing the unsolicited script pile or reading submissions from agents and feeding back to script editors
Training – shadowing script editors on scripts and starting to brief writers
In order to progress your career, and step-up to script editor, it is best to ask lots of questions while you’re a junior - being inquisitive is one of the best attributes of someone working in an editorial environment. Share your programme/story ideas too - you never know, your idea could end up in development!
TOP 10 PERSONAL ATTRIBUTES OF THE ASSISTANT SCRIPT EDITOR
Editorial Judgement. Demonstrate sound understanding of editorial guidelines, target audience, department objectives.
Imagination and creative thinking. Generate and transform creative ideas into practical reality. Look at problems and come up with innovative solutions.
Analytical. Evaluate ideas, assess quality/accuracy of information in scripts.
Organisation and planning. Think ahead, plan in relation to tight deadlines.
Communication. Get your message across clearly, no matter what audience you’re addressing.
Decision Making. Use your own initiative, adapt to changes/problems and take responsibility for actions.
Results driven. Motivated and enthusiastic to carry out lots of research and always produce the highest quality work.
Team player. Built and maintain solid relationships with a wide range of people, in a co-operative manner.
Resilience. Manage emotions, set-backs or negative situations in the face of pressure.
Flexibility. Adaptable and effective in a range of situations and able to understand/be sympathetic to different and opposing perspectives.
WHAT IS THE SCRIPT DEPARTMENT DEPARTMENT LIKE TO WORK IN?
The department is fast-paced and exciting. It is a creative environment, where you are rewarded for using your initiative and given the unique opportunity to witness the whole script process and help craft a script that could go on to win TV awards and industry accolades. You need to be tenacious and prepared to spend a lot of time on the phone to find the correct information that will answer queries in the scripts. Perseverance is key. You have to be a people-person, and editorial-driven. You want to make TV gold, and you know the best way to help scriptwriters construct an epic script that will not only please audiences of millions, but also meet targets set by financial backers, the broadcaster and senior script department staff.
You need high levels of diplomacy as you may be asked to persuade the writer to make changes to a script that are purely financially or practically driven and not necessarily for the best artistically. You may also be passing on notes that you, or the writer, personally do not agree with, for example, if the producer has made it clear they will not compromise on something in a script, without damaging the delicate relationship between writer or producer. You need to be loyal to everyone – while having the best interests of the script at heart. It can be quite a juggling act. Sensitivity goes hand-in-hand with diplomacy - you are working with creative people, who are often understandably sensitive about the creative process and their own part in it, and thus need to be handled with empathy and sensitivity.
You need to have a good visual sense and imagination and a love of the written word, because you’ve got to envisage how the script might translate on screen. You should enjoy working to tight deadlines and within tight guidelines and enjoy the challenge of making a script tick all the boxes practically as well as artistically. A love of story is essential, you should be a storyteller and a custodian of characters. You should be the sort of person who ‘knows’ why a character would act in a certain way, and care enough to be prepared to argue about the inclusion of a specific piece of dialogue.
DO I NEED ANY QUALIFICATIONS?
You won’t need a specific qualification to become a TV assistant script editor. However, a degree in journalism or scriptwriting will help you understand the fundamentals of story construction. If you are keen to get a better understanding of the Script Department and Editorial as creative mediums - consider taking a TV production course or attend some workshops. The following short courses and workshops could help you prepare you for a TV career:
You will need to have wide experience in and knowledge of the pre-production and production processes, so any work experience or training in radio, theatre, TV or film production, will give you a helpful taster of how all the processes and departments work together. The BBC Production Trainee Scheme would be another way to work your way into an in-house Script Department from a trainee position. And the BBC Writersroom is an excellent supportive community for new entrants to the Script Department. There are a few world-renowned writers on story and screenwriting who should be on your radar and sometimes put on workshops/seminars in the UK - it’s also possible to subscribe to their online courses: Robert McKee, John Yorke, and Laurie Hutzler. They have also published books on story writing, which are listed on the Essentials section of the website.
10 ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR NEW ENTRANTS WITHIN THE SCRIPT DEPARTMENT
Establish a friendly, assertive rapport with the script team. Show your resourcefulness, and you will be given more responsibilities.
Keep a database of the fact finding resources you use during a project. There will be lots of sources, so log where (eg. book, website) and who (expert) gave you fact verification. Keep the database tidy, (similar to referencing an essay).
Watch TV. Sounds simple, but if you want to work in TV, you need to know the schedules, what works in which slots, and have a good understanding of why certain characters fit within certain programmes.
Become knowledgeable about copyright law, Writers Guild agreements, contracts and the legal and ethical implications of the scripting process.
Have an awareness of the financial consequences of editorial decisions.
Hone your verbal and written communication skills: pitch story ideas to your friends and family, and practice writing ideas down quickly, keeping them condensed to one page.
Be a culture vulture - absorb as many formats, story structures, types of dialogue and story themes as possible, and read as many scripts as you can in your spare time.
Don’t disclose any confidential information you over-hear in the Script Department to your friends and family or post anything of a contentious nature on social media. Editorial trust is built on confidentiality.
Be exceptionally careful with paper copies of scripts, meeting minutes and script notes. If you lose any paperwork it can have serious legal implications.
- Be analytical - have an opinion about TV content, whether it’s good or bad. Editorial teams are passionate about topical stories so you should be up-to-date too
PHRASES EVERY ENTRANT TO THE SCRIPT DEPARTMENT SHOULD KNOW
Beat sheet. An abbreviated description of the main events in a screenplay or story.
B/g. Abbreviation for background eg. the kids were fighting in the b/g.
Jump Cut. Where the action follows a character from one location immediately to another location, without cutting away to something else in between.
Character arc. The emotional progress of the characters during the story.
Development. The process a script goes through in preparation for production.
Development Hell. The purgatory (prolonged) period some scripts go through before finally making it into production.
Exposition. The explanation bits where a writer tries to get across key information without it becoming an essay.
EXT. Exterior/Outdoor scene.
INT. An interior scene.
Green Lit. Official confirmation that the script can go into production.
Backstory. Producers and directors need backstory for every character in order to gain an insight into their history, so they can understand certain motivations for their actions.
Hook. Clever ploy used by a screenwriter to drawer in the viewers either just before an ad break, or at the end of the episode to make viewers come back for more.
Spec Script. A script written without first being commissioned, speculatively sent in the hope it will get green lit.
Neg Check. Neg checking is what the Script Department asks either a researcher or the legal department to do – check that a business name or a character name or address doesn’t really exist in real life. It’s the same as ‘clearing’ something. Script editors will often have to do their own neg checks on shows which don’t have researchers, for example a show which isn’t a long runner.
Montage. A series of short establishers often without dialogue to set the scene.
Story Document. Document produced after a storyline meeting by the story editors which is then circulated to the writing team and script editors – acts as the first stage in the script process.
Series Bible. Given to all new writers by the script department, this document details the character synopses, available sets, story so far, and house style of the show.
Scene Breakdown. Often done by the writer before their first draft, working from the story document (also known as a beat sheet). Many shows will encourage a writer to do one of these detailing each scene and get the script editor to sign off on it before going to first draft.
Briefing. Used as a noun, ‘I’ve got two briefings this week’ – a session, either over phone or face-to-face, with a writer, where the script editor delivers their notes
Drafts/Shooting or production script. The script may go through a number of drafts before the producer eventually signs it over to the director as a production or shooting script. It is the script editor’s role to get the shooting script out to the production team on time, on budget, editorially strong and shootable.
Stage directions. The description of the action in the script, as opposed to the dialogue.
Reshoot/remount. When a scene has already been shot but has been required to be shot again, either due to something practical on set not being right, something not being right with the performance, or a scripting concern. Sometimes script rewrites may need to be issued mid-shoot, in order to add or cut time from a script, or to fix any continuity issues with the story, or to cut a character out due to illness
What hours does an assistant script editor work?
Your day can range from 8 to 12 hours, depending on deadlines. The Script Department are office-based, and 9.30am to 6.00pm is fairly average, though in the lead up to deadlines, late finishes will be inevitable. If you’re working long hours: make sure to take care of yourself as well as the rest of the Department. When you are tired it is easy to forget what has been asked of you, so make lists and prioritise your tasks.
You may well be asked to work weekends or bank holidays, depending on the schedule. Often when the script is actually filming, you may be expected to cover those filming hours so you can be on hand for any script or story queries. You may also be expected to liaise with actors over the script.
What are the industry bodies for the Script Department?
- Writers Guild of Great Britain
How much do TV script sssistants earn?
Most productions adhere to Bectu (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union) rates, and BECTU have their recommended Freelance Rate Cards, which list most department roles. A factual Researcher (drama equivalent isn’t available on the site) working on a 48-hour week (inc holiday pay) should expect to make £729.
What can I do to speed up my progress?
Getting a few weeks’ work experience at a literary agency (they handle scripts from new writers, or writers who’ve adapted books for the screen) or in a production company’s development department and ask for access to their mountain of scripts, it's a great way to get started.
This is a really tough department to crack though as the world of work experience has changed significantly. Though university students are exempt, interns need paying by law. In some circumstances, this means opportunities (especially at small companies), have diminished in recent years.
And in turn, this then has the knock-on effect with work experience opportunities at the bigger companies as their small raft of opportunities become exceedingly competitive.
Working on the development side of short films and friends’ projects are definitely good ways to bolster your competence with scripts. It’s worth remembering that you meet many people on short films, and creating a good working relationship on a freebie can lead to paid work.
Another approach is to volunteer at Film and TV Festivals including London Screenwriters Festival or Edinburgh International TV Festival, where you’ll get to meet writers, script editors and a whole host of industry talent in a supportive environment. Some of the festivals need script readers to assess scripts submitted for competition, so you could try to get on the Reader List - this will look great on your CV.
Could I cross over into a non-fiction Editorial Department?
Yes. The roles do vary, so you need to be very careful deciding if you’re qualified and have the correct skillset to apply for certain jobs. A casting researcher’s primary role is to find people to take part in programmes. This could mean ‘real’ people (contributors), or it could mean a mix of real people, experts (eg. a scientist or specialist medical consultant), or talent (eg. presenters, celebrities).
If you’re applying for a researcher job at a production company that just makes programmes about lions - make sure natural history is your specialist subject, or you at least have a Zoology degree. It also helps if you know lots of people in a certain sector. For example, if you applied for a job on a programme about extreme pet grooming and you had excellent contacts at some pet parlours - a producer may pick you over other researchers, as you could potentially gain access using your contacts. A self-shooting researcher will be expected to have good shooting skills, as their rushes may be included for broadcast. You could be filming interviews, GVs, VTs or act as second camera on a bigger crew shoot. So unless you can competently use industry-standard cameras, sound equipment and have some lighting experience: don’t apply for self-shooting roles.
Archive researchers will be expected to have copyright and legal knowledge - knowing what’s legal to broadcast on TV, and how to obtain permission to use stills, video clips and music. The production manager has to submit a massive amount of ‘Deliverables’ once a programme has been delivered to a broadcaster, and Deliverables include all the paperwork that comes with sourcing archive rights. If something hasn’t been signed - it’ll be your responsibility to chase up. It also helps if you know the going rates for the price of sourcing different types of archive, otherwise your PM might get annoyed if you’re constantly asking if such and such is ‘in the budget’. A word of warning: don’t use YouTube to source clips unless you actually gain permission from the original owner of the work. It could land you (and the production company) in a lot of legal trouble. Be prepared to do lots of leg work to dig out good archive from less obvious sources.
There are so many types of researcher role, in so many subject areas and genres that you are spoilt for choice. However, you need to be realistic and think about your knowledge base and long term goals when deciding which job to apply for. If you’re really passionate about character-led, human-interest stories - documentary/factual is probably the right genre for you. If you love dance and the glitz and glamour of entertainment programmes, then look out for researcher roles on big studio shows such as Strictly - where you’re more likely to be coming up with VT ideas, or helping to cast the celebrity contestants.
Thank you's ...
My First Job in TV would like to thank Catherine Cooke, script writer/script editor, for her input into the guide.