I’ve found myself over the last few years editing quite a few scripts, and have gradually built up a process for systematically working through the task. And as there is no Audio Drama without a script, I thought it important to share my own process for editing. Naturally not everyone will have the same flow or priorities for this work, but hopefully, this will serve as a helpful guide to newer editors.
Step 1. Will I edit it?
Well if I wrote it then I guess I had better edit it, such is the art of writing. But before I will edit a script for anyone else I need to know a few things.
1. Does the client want it edited, or just proofread?
Some people aren’t always looking for a full edit. They may want a basic grammar and syntax check, or just be after a Beta Reader to test the story on. If you want to focus on work as an editor, it’s important to weed out which people actually need the services you offer.
2. Is the client looking for constructive feedback, or are they just looking for an editor to sign off on it?
Sad to say, some writers just hire an editor to check a box on their list, and don’t want anything beyond a pat on the back and maybe a couple of grammar corrections on their script. You’ll still have to deal with this type of writer occasionally, but avoiding this client where possible would be in your best interest.
3. What impact could this make on our professional or personal relationships?
Pretty straightforward, and related to the previous question. If your criticism could have a serious negative impact on your business, or your professional/personal relationship with the client, it might be best to bow out of the job, no matter who they are or what the pay is.
Step 2. Check for simple errors.
We all make them, in spite of the fantastic technologies that make us not even need to open a dictionary anymore. Sometimes the bright red underline escapes our notice, or we can’t decide whether or not to use the Oxford Comma. Sometimes our brain moves faster than our hands and we clip a sentence or phrase something wrong. These basic mistakes can happen to anyone, and they’re simple enough to get out of the way first.
2. Common misspellings or misuse of words. Their, They’re, or There?
3. And other minor grammar and structure errors that we all miss in our typing frenzy.
Step 3. Look for redundancies, passive voice, unnecessary adverbs, and vagaries.
Common parlance doesn’t always make very good writing. It makes good characters, but not good writing. Why? Because if you actually listen to a conversation (not participate in one) you will notice that we speak in passive voice, or clip words, we have different dialects, we have pet phrases or make up hyperbolic adjectives, we interrupt each other, we don’t finish our sentences or use punctuation and the majority of what we are communicating is not even verbal. While all of that makes for a decent conversation, it doesn’t play out well in a script…unless you’re Anthony Burgess.
Step 4. Dig into the plot and structure of the story.
Here are the things I look for as an editor, in no particular order.
1. How strong is the opening, does it capture my attention?
The beginning of the script needs to grab my attention, I need to know where and when I am, what’s going on, and who I am going on this journey with. It’s like the pilot of a television show or the first few scenes of a movie. If the beginning doesn’t grab your audience’s attention, you’ll be hard-pressed to maintain it through to the end.
2. Does it start with a dream sequence, flashback or other abstract scenario?
This may be a personal aversion, but starting your listeners out in some murky abstract world is tiresome and breaks more than one of Kurt Vonnegut’s “8 Basics of Creative Writing”.
3. What’s the hook?
Relating back to the first point, knowing the driving force behind the story within the first few chapters is important. I need to know pretty quickly what choices the protagonist is presented with and what decisions will propel us through the story arc.
4. Do I care about the protagonist?
If I don’t care about your main character, I won’t really care about their struggles or conflicts. This doesn’t mean they have to be likable necessarily, but they do at least have to be engaging.
5. Is there enough of a reason for the characters to proceed? What is at stake?
No hero does anything just because they’re told to. No villain does things just because they’re “evil”. Is it clear why the characters are doing the things necessary to sustain your plot; are they motivated?
6. When does the inciting incident occur? Is it too soon or too late?
This is all about pace, in order for your listeners to connect with your protagonist we need to know who they were and what happened to them to form the basic structure of your story. If you take too long to introduce the incident, you risk losing your audience. But don’t forget to introduce us to your setting, so we can identify where and when we are and what is going on. There are at least two dynamics – who the protagonist was before the inciting incident and who they are becoming as a result.
7. Can a scene, description or sequence be heard in an aural medium or is it too visual?
This is a common mistake that we audio drama writers tend to make, usually because we didn’t start out as audio drama writers. Every writer has their own quirks and common errors; it’s the job of the editor to catch them and save the writer from potential embarrassment and rejection.
8. Is there unnecessary voice-over or narration?
Now I’m not saying that there can be NO voiceovers, inner monologues, narration or disembodied voice-type exposition.
Moses: The Lord, the Lord Jehovah has given unto you these fifteen…– Mel Brooks History of the World Part 1
[drops one of the tablets]
Moses: Oy! Ten! Ten commandments for all to obey!
What I am saying is go easy with it. If you’re stopping the action in the middle of a nicely tense scene to have someone suddenly pop in and tell me what’s going on, it kind of annoys me. It’s too distracting. Let your characters do the explaining through dialog whenever possible. Remember, the key rule to writing any form of story is Show, don’t Tell.
9. What is the point of view? Is it consistent?
Many shows have multiple points of view; a well-crafted story has multiple subplots and therefore multiple points of view. Just make sure it’s clear who is guiding us through the scene and from what perspective. This is especially important for the future sound designer of your script.
10. Do the characters grow over the span of the story? Do they have depth? Are they necessary?
The main character has to discover, learn, adapt and grow. If they don’t you may as well be playing with action figures. The green army man with the bazooka can only do two things; shoot a bazooka and/or die. Don’t let your main character be a green army man. And if you have characters whose main purpose in your story is to shoot a bazooka and/or die, then you may want to consider whether you actually need them. If you have walk-on characters don’t give them names. Just kill them and get on with the story.
11. Is the dialogue natural or is it stiff and awkward?
Give some consideration to the background of your characters, how do they speak? No two characters should sound alike. And unless your character actually is an Eastern European-aristocratic-fiend-of- the-night, don’t make them sound like one.
12. Is there any conflict outside of the main conflict? How do the characters interact?
As the reader, can I follow the subplots and tensions? A story has a plot. A good story has subplots. Are they clear and do they follow the main arc of the story? To be a good editor you first have to make sure that the writer believes in doing what is best for the story, and then you must be merciless – to the story, not the writer. It is a difficult balance to maintain.
As a writer, I have spent so much time working on a particular scene, character or subplot. I can be very clever, and be in love with my creations. But if they ultimately don’t work – don’t progress the plot, don’t move your characters towards their goals – then they have to be cut. My advice is to save them somewhere where they can grow into their own stories.