Guest Post: On Writing Scripts for TV in Australia and the UK

In the comments on Writers and Editors, Sarah Dollard delivered a fascinating treatise on how TV scripts are produced and what a script doctor does. I could not let be lost in the comments so here it has its own post. Take it away, Sarah:

As requested, here’s a rundown of how the process differs in television.

The job of the TV script editor can vary wildly from show to show, genre to genre, country to country. I can only speak about working on soap in Australia, and on numerous dramas here in the UK, as both writer and a script editor. From my limited understanding of the system in the US, things seem very different there; they don’t strictly have ‘script editors’ at all.

In Australia, I’ve found that the script editor job is openly acknowledged as one of re-writing; an editor will literally write whole new drafts of the work after the hired writer has finished on the episode. Next, a supervising script editor will do a polish and, after that, if any changes need to be made for production reasons, it is once again the job of the script editor to step in. This is the norm on high-output shows like soaps, where the writer only has one chance to get it right, and from then on the script is taken into the script department to be fostered through to the shooting script stage.

As far as I know, this type of script editor does not exist in an official capacity in the UK; here, a script editor would not change a writer’s work unless that writer was trapped under something very large and heavy, and even then you’d have to get their permission first. But that’s not to say that re-writing doesn’t happen. For whatever reason, on some shows it does fall to script editor to step in and re-write; maybe the writer hired for the job can’t get the script up to scratch and the head writer isn’t available to take over; perhaps a writer dropped out and couldn’t be replaced; perhaps the script is already being shot and changes need to be made on the hoof. However, when this does happen in the UK, it’s done very much on the quiet. Personally, I’ve never heard of a script editor getting credited for their writing, even if the shooting script contains little of the original writer’s work. Whatever the reality of the situation, script editors are not supposed to re-write in the UK; it’s not the ‘done thing’, and they’re certainly not paid for it.

If anyone is interested, what follows is a rundown of the *usual* experience of a script editor working on drama in the UK. I’ve been inspired to write all this down because I was having a drink with my current script editor the other night and when someone heard what she did for a living, they asked, “So, what, you like correct the writer’s spelling and stuff?”. To her credit, she did not punch this person. She just calmly replied, “It’s a bit more than that, actually.” And then I bought her a large drink.

While it does vary, usually a script editor’s job starts early, before a freelance writer is even brought on board to write an episode. Working with a small team (usually the head writer and the producer, maybe a script producer if there is one), the script editor will help to storyline the overall arc of the series and create a basic plan for each of the individual episodes. Sometimes he/she might have a say in which writers are hired, and which episode each is best suited to.

Once a writer is on board, the script editor will help brief him/her on the overall arc for the series and – along with the head writer/producers – talk through the basic plan for his/her episode. The writer goes away and writes up an outline (anything from five to ten pages, describing the story in full but without dialogue). The writer then meets with the script team again to talk through any problems with that outline. The script editor will write up notes based on the meeting. Sometimes the script editor’s *only* job is to write up those notes, but more often he/she will be fully involved in the meeting on a creative level, giving their own feedback and helping to find solutions.

The writer then does another draft of the outline, and another, and possibly another, and each time the script editor gives written notes, sometimes with a face to face meeting first, sometimes without, until the outline is considered solid and workable and ready to ‘go to script’. These notes are probably very much like those an author gets on a manuscript; there will be feedback on character, structure, tone and style. The big difference is that with TV, the writer doesn’t ‘own’ the story and the characters; they must pour their heart into the work, of course, but ultimately their vision must comply with an already established world; their episode must fit in with the continuity of the episodes that come before and after.

This cycle (writer writes draft –> feedback meeting –> notes from script editor –> writer writes new draft) works in much the same way once the writer has gone to script, only now there will also be notes on dialogue and action, as well as character and structure. There can be any number of script drafts completed before anyone outside the script team looks at the writer’s work. But once the script team is happy with the script, it will be shown to an executive-producer, or similar, to get a fresh perspective. Then the cycle of notes/meeting/new draft continues!

The whole way through this process, the script editor needs to be available to the writer to answer questions via phone or email, to help chat through any problems, and to communicate any new issues that might arise due to changes in other episodes.

The next stage happens when the production team gets a hold of the script for planning purposes. Necessary changes to the script might arise due to restrictions (or exciting new possibilities!) with locations, costumes, casting, stunts, etc. The script editor will communicate any necessary changes to the writer, and the writer puts them on the page.

Sometimes changes must be made due to notes from the network/broadcaster. These notes can be regarding creative issues, or to do with the classification of the program – usually because the swearing, violence, gore or sex needs to be toned down. Personally, I’ve never had a broadcaster ask for more nudity, cursing or carnage, but I’m sure it does happen! Oh, and it’s also the script editor’s job to liaise with the nearest legal-boffin-type-person and make sure that any names or products mentioned in the script are ‘cleared’.

Once the script is actually being shot, the script editor works with the writer to make any necessary day-to-day changes to the script. Perhaps a scene will need to be tweaked because it’s raining on the day of the shoot, and the scene had to be moved inside. Or perhaps the episode has turned out a little short, and the writer will have to write new material.

I hope all of that was of interest to someone! Perhaps I will direct my parents here and they will finally understand what I’ve been doing for the past eight years.

As discussed in the previous post this could not be more different than the process of writing a novel, which is far, far, far, far less collaborative. I do not think I could work on TV show.

Does anyone have experience of working on TV shows in the USA or any other countries? Would love to hear about the differences.


  1. Justine on #

    Does it ever happen, Sarah, that what you consider to be the best parts of a script winds up being deleted? How do you deal with that? Have you ever tried to write a novel? Did you find it weird compared to scripts? What were the main differences?

  2. Peter on #

    Hi Justine and Sarah and everyone.

    Coming over here to give my thoughts because it seems more appropriate.

    Obviously Sarah has described it perfectly. Though for a soap in the UK, it’s even more restrictive. The writer will be presented with a story document. Usually a couple of pages for their ep outlining the stories to be told. How you tell them is up to you – you don’t have to follow the story doc slavishly – but of course you’re part of a much bigger machine. There’s no real opportunity for a stand alone ep in a soap – each episode has to follow on from the last one and lead into the next one. So the role of the editor there is often to help you smooth out the joins between the eps.

    The editor on telly is also your link to The Powers That Be. It’s not your show. It’s not really anyone’s show other than the audience’s. A big soap like EastEnders, and this sounds cheesy, really belongs to Britain. Each production team is really just the custodian of it for a while. And the editor is your link to those custodians, letting you know how you’re going fitting into how they want the show to be.

    A bad editor, in my opinion, will just present you with a list of instructions each draft: do this, do that, lose this. A good one will present you with a coherent vision for what they want the script to do, so that every note fits into that vision. They will also be artful in the way they do it. I am happiest when I feel that me and the editor are a team, united to produce the best script possible. I tend to feel isolated when it feels like the editor is my boss – telling me what to do. It’s a real skill for an editor. A lot of it is personality management: knowing when to give the carrot or the stick, knowing when to pump a writer up, knowing when to bond together in an “us against the world” mentality.

    In Australia, the role is far more dictatorial. The show belongs to the production team, the editor is your link, and you do what you’re told. I have bridled a little, actually, writing a script for an Oz TV show recently, where it at times has felt as if I am submitting my script for approval, for them to go “yes to that, no to that”. I have missed the conversation and the collaboration a little. I’m adjusting to that. But from a production point of view, the Australian system is much cheaper. You need fewer drafts, you can do more in-house, and it’s a lot quicker. The trade-off we choose to make in Oz is to deprioritise the voice of the writer a little. It’s one they would never countenance in the UK, but there you have it. They’re a writing country over there.

    So in theory, the role of the TV script editor, in the UK at least, is closer to the role of a book editor. If I was writing a show wholly of my own invention, it would closer still – it’s my show and I’ll write it how I want. However that situation is rare. Writers generally come into a world that is in some way established, with characters that exist, and thus need someone to help them fit their writing to that world. Not to mention that just because you write it in a script doesn’t mean it can be on the telly – they actually have to make it and that requires input from other people as well. You write a house falling down, Justine, and it falls down. Telly people have to actually make a house fall down and that is a real-world challenge that often requires adjustments in your fake-world script.

    In conclusion, I love my editors. In the UK they are like my best friend, saying the things that other people won’t say (“this is not as funny as you think it is”, for eg). In Australia I understand that I am part of a bigger machine and while at the start that was tough, sometimes now I’m finding I really enjoy sharing some of the decision making on my script. Takes the pressure off.

    Hope that helps people understand a bit more about the telly system.

  3. Peter on #

    Oh, and Justine, to answer your question to Sarah from my POV – yes. Loads of my favourite stuff has ended up cut. Because it wasn’t quite right tonally, because they decided after a draft or two to take the story in a different direction (very frustrating), or because maybe I didn’t quite pull it off.

    I tend to tuck it in my back pocket for use when the opportunity next arises. But it hurts when it goes. Particularly if you feel they haven’t quite grasped what you were trying to do. And once they haven’t, it’s hard to bring them round. Often those decisions are made in a meeting on your script that you’re not party to – so you’re not there to explain things. Which is sensible – the writers can’t be in every meeting – but it can be frustrating.

  4. Justine on #

    Peter: Thanks! That makes a lot of sense. Especially like the idea of EastEnders being communal property. It would be very disastrous on such a long running show to have someone coming in thinking more with their ego than thinking about what’s good for the show.

    I think all writers have to deal with rejection. What you describe is more specific: this part of the script must go. But we novelists frequently have the entire novel rejected. It all hurts.

  5. Sarah on #

    Re killing your darlings, Pete is absolutely right. It happens all the time, pretty much at every draft! You fight for the darlings if you can, and sometimes you win. But eventually (usually) you can see the rationale, and embrace whatever you need to write to replace it.

    As for your second question, I have tried (not very hard) to write a novel and found it to be ridiculously tricky and exhausting. I suspect that’s because I’m so used to writing dialogue that coming up with prose page after page felt like wading through molasses (mmmm…molasses). What, you mean I have to describe all that stuff? And it has to sound good? Can’t I just hire an art director and a kickarse DOP? I’ve spent the past decade trying (emphasise trying) to write in a sparse, simple way, putting my trust in the director and the actors to help tell the story and impart the subtext beneath the dialogue. All that trying has meant that now, to me at least, my prose just reads as clumsy and laboured. Sigh.

    To be honest though, I think it’s about more than just missing the immediacy of jump cuts and looks between characters to get a story cracking. I’d miss the collaboration of working in TV. I like hearing other people’s ideas and bouncing off them, I love talking about characters and coming up with unexpected ideas in a group setting that you might never have hit upon alone. And I’m addicted to the thrill of seeing talented people direct/shoot/perform a scene I’ve written. Television still feels like magic to me, despite the grubbiness I’ve sometimes had to witness behind the scenes. Writing a novel can mean working alone for years at a time without showing your work to anyone and I honestly don’t think I’m self-possessed or patient enough for that. I need regular feedback. I am a sucker for an immediate audience. Give me attention! Laugh at my jokes! Tell me where I screwed up now so that I don’t embarrass myself later!

    So, yeah. Maybe when I properly grow-up I’ll be calm and confident enough to write a novel… Justine, you have my undying respect.

  6. Justine on #

    Sarah: Ha! See, I admire you. I feel my propensity for writing novels is a sign that I haven’t grown up, haven’t learnt to work well with others, am still a tanting two year old saying, “Don’t touch it! It’s mine!”

    But thank you so much for your thoughtful answer you have almost made me want to work on a tv show. Well, except that when they changed the lead, relocated the show to the US from Australia and cut the cast in half I would cry and cry and cry and cry and never recover.

  7. Annie Macarthur on #

    I wanted to let you know about the 2012 Television Writers Studio, a three day event in Melbourne and Sydney this September. The Studio will have four US instructors who are all working writers, producers and network executives past and present, who will introduce the US show runner system of creating, developing and producing television to Australian writers.

    Shane Brennan, Australian showrunner (head writer/exec producer) of NCIS said on Radio National in June, “In the US, writers are God. In Australia, they’re treated with disdain.”

    The TV Writers Studio aims to introduce a way of developing television in Australia that empowers the writers to take creative control.

    Thought you might be interested.

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