Saturday, 18 October 2008


And lo, it came to pass that, after trying to exterminate them for many years, white people realised it might be interesting to study the native tribes of America.

And anthropologists and field-workers went amongst the indigenous peoples and did talk to the elders of those tribes, and whatever the wise folk told them they did write down in their notebooks.

And the redskins did say unto them, 'Why do you write things down when we are talking to you?' And they asked of them, 'How can you be listening to what we are saying when you are so busy writing in your little books?'

And lo, that was a good question.

I was once working on a BBC drama series and, as part of my research, I spent a week on a police van, following the cops and observing what they did. One of the police officers told me that, only a week or two before, they'd had another writer on the van with them. This guy wrote down everything they said. Every little witticism. Every turn of phrase.

I read this other writer's script and it didn't ring true. It sounded wrong. But how could this be? Surely every line of dialogue came straight from the horse's mouth, as it were.

I think he was so busy writing things down that he forgot to listen. He had captured their words, but not the context, the thoughts or feelings behind them. Most of all, he had not caught the atmosphere on the police van. He'd got the details, but missed the bigger picture.

A lot of notes are written in this business. Perhaps the worst offenders are script editors. They go through scripts, making notes. And then they go through those notes with the writers. And the writer goes away with page after page of notes on what needs doing to the script.

What if the script editor had just read the script, thought about it, and then made some observations?

Script editors who obsessively make notes as they go through a script are like those anthropologists talking to the native American chiefs. They're not listening because they're too busy writing notes.

They're not listening to the script. Every time they stop to jot down a thought, a query, a comment they are interrupting the flow of the script. The result is that they haven't actually READ the script. They've gone through it, looking for things to make notes about. On the one hand, they've succeeded - look: hundreds of notes on the script! But on the other, they've failed miserably. Because most of those notes were unnecessary. They should have just read the script.

I've conducted many interviews in the course of my screenwriting career, and several have been interrupted by the subject asking, 'Are you recording this?' Fortunately, the answer was no, so they carried on talking.

And I listened. I let them say things that they wouldn't have said if I'd be writing everything down. And I came away with an impression of that person which I would not have got if I'd been making notes throughout the conversation. By not writing everything down I was able to observe the subject, to listen to them, to make my own mental notes.

Too much note-taking and note-making goes on. Which means that too many people in the industry aren't listening. And that's really rather rude, when you think about it.

Let's make a pledge to stop taking notes. Let's learn to listen, to observe, to take information in without disappearing every few seconds to write something down.

Let's give people, and scripts, the attention they deserve.


Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

oh my god. well said, dude.

on that note, I have a fucked up story to tell u. My best mate, who's black, told me about one of his Muslim friends, a South Asian, who was enrolled in an anthropology class at her uni. The professor announced that they were going on a field trip to a hood and see how "poor black people" live, like these students were a bunch of fucking scientists coming to observe microcisms (sp?) or something.

We totally flipped out when she told us that story!!!!

but yeah, i hate getting notes on my scripts from people who are obviously NOT paying attention. it pisses me off, man!!!

script doc said...

That's what I like: a REACTION!

Thanks, S. And thanks for yet another reminder of the appalling society we've created. Going to see how the 'poor black people' live - Christ, what is this? The nineteenth century?