Professional formatting = Professional layout = Professional grammar, spelling & punctuation = Professional writing. It’s not rocket science.
Yet as anyone who spends any time reading writers’ submissions knows, this too often so NOT the case! Look, the odd mistake or typo will always slip through. NO reader, agent, producer or assistant worth their salt will ever care about that. What we’re talking about are the CONSISTENT CLANGERS that can get you marked down, or worse, thrown in the dreaded OUT tray!
So here’s a list of those little, niggly things that can mean so much to your spec screenplay or unpublished novel when you’re sending it out:
Believe it or not, screenwriters STILL submit spec scripts in fonts other than courier. Make no mistake: this is a non-negotiable. This includes short films, feature screenplays and YES, spec TV Pilots as well! No one cares if there’s a template for whatever *type* of show you’ve written, just write it in courier. By the way, Courier New is a horrible version, it’s much lighter than Courier Final Draft or Courier Prime and will give manual formatting via MS Word away in seconds. Download software!!!
MORE: The B2W Format One Stop Shop – A complete rundown of all the format issues I see most often in spec screenplays, plus what to do about them.
If you’re making submissions to agents, or even if you’re not and publishing straight to the Kindle, the preferred font is Times New Roman.
MORE: 29 Ways NOT To Submit To An Agent by Carole Blake from the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency. Read these horror stories and weep!
Remember, scene description is scene ACTION. Make sure you revitalise your scene description, avoiding camera angles and other niggly things, like “widows” (aka “orphans”), which are single words that occupy a line all by themselves. Too many of these little blighters and you can end up with a false reading re: your script’s page count, plus it just looks scrappy.
As it says below, novels need to be double-spaced. That’s just the way it’s done. So do it.
MORE: Struggling with your prose? Then check out 8 Ways To Jump Start Your Novel’s Description.
3) Apostrophe Confusion
This error is probably Numero Uno in the spec pile, whether I’m reading screenplays, pitch material or novels. This is a real shame, because it’s actually easy to get a handle on this, if you’re disciplined (that’s the bad news). The good news is, there are plenty of strategies to deal with apostrophe confusion and even cure yourself altogether.
It’s NOT difficult to see why apostrophes cause so much confusion. There are three main ways these slippery little sods can cause headaches for writers: contractions, plurals and possessives.
Contractions are basically two words squished together, as below.
Contractions are easy to check, because all you need to do is think about what you’re REALLY writing, such as the below:
“You are the one for me”:
MORE: 5 Killer Grammar & Punctuation Errors That Will Sink Your Reputation … And Ways You Can Fix Them! By Michelle Goode AKA @SoFluid
ii) Apostrophes vs. Plurals and Contractions
Sometimes people will put an apostrophe in a word that’s actually a plural. It’s rare you need to do this. Other times, people will think it’s a word is a contraction, when it isn’t. Check these out:
Other times, you need an apostrophe to indicate something belongs to someone / something else. This is admittedly quite weird and theories abound for how it happened, but my favourite is the one that stuck in my mind and helped me remember:The notion behind the above is that the English Language is SEXIST as the apostrophe formation is always derived from the word “his”, whether the subject is male OR female. Who knows if it’s true and frankly who cares (How’d we even say, “Lucy‘r writing”, rather than “Lucy‘s writing”??), but it is a handy way of remembering the possessive!!
There are obviously loads of ways of expressing yourself with language and if you’re a non-native speaker or an EFL/ESL teacher, you’ll know there’s loads of tense formations in English. But for the sake of clarity, let’s go with these ones:
Screenwriters should write in the PRESENT SIMPLE. Lots of scribes write in present continuous, which can be very “flabby” at worst and at best, take up extra space. Present simple, that all-important /s/ format is the tense of choice. That’s not to say you can’t EVER use the continuous (aka “progressive”), just use it in addition to, NOT instead of, present simple. It’s rare screenwriters ever need to use the perfective aspect. MORE: Improve Your Writing
Novelists and non fiction writers, bloggers etc can obviously use whatever they want, include the PAST versions of the above tenses. However, it’s really important to remember CONSISTENCY IS KEY. I see a lot of seemingly random mixing and it rarely works. MORE: Exercises on tense consistency
5) Mixed Tenses
The ones below are probably variations of those I read most often. In screenplays, in scene description, it’s nearly always a massive error to include them (not so much in dialogue though, as it could be argued it’s the character, not the writer, using the mixed tenses!).
In terms of novels, I think it depends on HOW you’re writing your book. If writing in the first person or using a narrator, it could be argued mixed tenses are okay because it’s *how* “normal” people speak. I’d venture using mixed tenses in the third person however looks like a mistake, rather than a deliberate style choice.
So you know: mixed tenses *can* be a massive pet peeve of script readers, though the tide of public opinion appears to be turning in their favour. That said, if you are going to use them, I think it’s wise to ensure readers KNOW it’s a considered choice and not just a mistake!
6) Mistaken words
Put simply, you HAVE to know the tools of your trade – words. So know which ones you need to use, plus the differences between them and why they have them, as below:
Remember, you need to know the differences between contractions, plurals, possessives and don’t forget homophones either! (see point 9) MORE: 7 Big Mistakes In Unpublished Novels
7) Common Misspellings
Interestingly, whether reading a spec screenplay or unpublished novel, I can often identify the words the writer has trouble with quite easily. What’s more, from my wealth of reading experience, I have identified four words that seemingly get misspelled ALL THE TIME and weirdly, none of them are actually difficult. Check them out:
But this is the thing. YOU can do the same and identify your own weaknesses. Go through your work and ACTIVELY FIND OUT which words you spell incorrectly a lot. Record the instances in a notebook, with the correct spelling at the top and the wrong versions underneath. Through doing this work, you WILL get on top of your issue, because in the very least you will create a library of your own common misspellings, which you can cross reference. So what are you waiting for?? MORE: Writing Rules: The Least You Can Do
8) Silent letters
Yeah, yeah I know: who thought silent letters was a good idea?? English is a bitch. But check out the words below – without their silent letter, they mean something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!
Yes, even “reck” which means “to pay heed to something“. So get vocabularly building, it’s the only way forward. CLICK HERE for 7 easy ways to learn lots of new words and their definitions, fast and sign up for sites like Vocabularly.com.
Funny story. I once told a Bang2writer, an American producer, that he had a “homophone problem” in the screenplay he’d sent me. He said, “Say what??? My cell is gay now?”
But no, a homophone is basically a word that SOUNDS the same as another one, but has a DIFFERENT meaning. These are the most commonly confused I see in spec screenplays and unpublished novels:
Again, it’s all about vocabularly building to get on top of this. That’s no great hardship: we’re writers, we LOVE words, right?? MORE: 3 Killer Typos That Blow Writers Out The Water by @StartYourNovel
10) Compound words
A compound word is basically a word made up of two other words. Here are four common compound words which writers frequently carve in two incorrectly in their work:
Do note compound words DON’T need hyphens. Which words need hyphens and which don’t can be rather hit-or-miss (arf), but generally speaking I think it’s useful to remember that it is a piece of punctuation that is gradually DYING OUT. Lots of writers use the hyphen seemingly every other paragraph and it’s rare you’ll need it that much. Here’s more info and you can take some tests on hyphenated words HERE.
One thing a compound word definitely IS NOT, is a “blend” or “portmanteau word”. These are words that literally blend two words together. Here’s a list of 25 great portmanteaus if you’re interested.
– It’s not “rules”, just best practices
– You need to present your work professionally, the expected way
– The odd typo or mistake will always get through, everyone agrees that’s fine
– YOU need to identify your own weaknesses, grammar, spelling and punctuation-wise
– Vocabularly building is a GREAT way for writers to keep learning
– Taking online tests, ten minutes a day, can improve our progress
– Knowing the specifics of language can only help us, we’re writers!
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