Back on Thursday I posted some comments about script writers made by a trio of esteemed British TV writers. That prompted English Dave into revealing some interesting experiences he's had with script editors. All of that raises a question: what exactly is the role of script editors in British TV these days? [Regular readers of this blog will know I'm especially interested in this field: I took part in the TAPS script editing workshop last December, and later this month I'm back down to That Fancy London for the Script Factory's two-day Storylining for Soaps workshop.]
The impression I get is script editors on most UK TV drama are a go-between, the conduit between freelance writers and the production team. The script editor's job is communicating in-house notes on each successive draft to the writer, and acting as a sounding board for the scribe. Script editors may also be involved with developing or initiating future stories. On soaps, there's a story department for that part of the job, so it really is all about the scripts. Put simply, storyliners deal with story and script editors deal with dialogue.
I've yet to professionally edit a script for TV, but I edited at least 10,000 pages of script for comics 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine. Not quite the same thing, but there were some analogies. I was dealing with freelance writers, creative types who require care and sensitivity. I was under extreme time pressure to nail down final versions of scripts, so everybody else down the production line [artists, colourists, letterers, designers] wouldn't be kept waiting for their next piece of work. I needed to communicate problems and required changes quickly, clearly and persuasively: the writers needed to buy into what I wanted, otherwise the results were never close to what was sought.
Be it script editing for comics or TV drama, I suspect the best kind of training is found on the job. There are no courses for becoming a comics editor, and they're all too few for TV. Besides the TAPS workshop, there's two BBC-run courses on TV script editing. The introductory version is two days for £700, while advanced is another two days and costs £1200. Even then, going to those courses doesn't qualify you as a script editor. I suspect it's one of those jobs people either pursue with doggedly determination, or else fall into while planning to become something else [a writer, a producer, or an executive producer].
When I was learning to be a comics editor my mentor was Steve MacManus, a man in no small part responsible for the golden age of weekly coming 2000 AD. He taught me pretty much everything I know about editing. Among his many lessons was don't rewrite scripts unless there's no other alternative. You'll piss off the writer and why should your effort be any better than the original? You're employing a professional writer, so why not let them do their job? If you need rewrites, work with the scribe to achieve those changes - but do it in a way that doesn't permanently damage your working relationship with them.
On the few occasions when I ignored Steve's sage advice, the consequences were never pretty. The scripts were often better than they would have been, but the fallout from my summary rewrites was all too ugly. Sometimes deadline pressure was such I simply didn't have the option of handholding a writer through the necessary changes. Sometimes I felt it was necessary to pull the trigger myself. But the results were almost always bloody and rarely worth the injuries inflicted to writer's egos. Alas, I can't take those moments back. Sometimes, you just have to live and learn.