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What is Story-Editing? (A Writer’s Coach)

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Full disclosure:  I am not a professional story editor.  I’m someone who’s studied the craft, and had the good fortune of being able to practice it– formally and informally.  But I’m not a professional.  If you need a professional, I highly recommend Elke Town (StoryWorks) – who is one of the top Story Editors in Canada — and one of our brilliant trainers in the WGC-CTV Diverse Screenwriters Program.  You can tell, we’re totally biased for Elke.  Hire her, people!

But what I can write about here, is my own experiences with Story Editing.

What is it?

It’s a lot like having a coach.  If you’re an athlete, you hire a coach to give you feedback, tips, and techniques that help you get better– improve your performance– help you hit that ball just a little bit further.  Because you’re too close to, well, your own stance and posture, it’s impossible to see your flaws and weaknesses.  If a baseball player needs a coach, why not a writer?

My first experience with story-editing– actually, came from theatre– and my first mentors ever, Toronto-based playwright/director Nina Lee Aquino, and Set/Lighting Designer, Camellia Koo.  Ever since then, I’ve likened story-editing to dramaturgy, because that’s the easiest way to explain the process.

In essence, your Story Editor, or Dramaturg(e), takes you through a series of questions, meant to get you, the writer, closer to your truth.  At least, that’s what I believe story-editing is about.

Regardless of the feedback or questions that you get, you still have to remember that, at the end of the day, this is your story.  A good Story Editor or Dramaturg(e) will never tell you what your story should be.  Because that, my friends, is a destructive way to go about the process.

Some of the key questions to ask yourself though…

Why do you want to tell this story? 

What do your characters want and need? 

What do you want us (the audience) to come away with at the end?

Asking questions will always provoke the writer to think about their answer, their truth.  I’ve found that this is the most helpful approach when working with writers (and personally, as a writer too, I prefer this).

But remember, be specific.  Be clear.  There’s nothing worse than leading a writer astray with unclear notes.  Giving feedback is as much a skill and talent as anything else.  Also, just because you can write, doesn’t mean you can give notes.  It takes practice like any craft.  You also need the ability to analyze and critique, which again, is a skill that can be learned and honed, if you’re willing to put the work in.

I studied story-editing at York University in Toronto, as did our resident story editor for LITTLE MISS JIHAD, Consuelo Solar– who is fabulous by the way.  Hire Consuelo too! 🙂

The class was an eye-opening experience.  Our professor, Marie Rickard, actually gave us tangible tools and questions to work with.  Part of our class assignments, was to story-edit the short films of the younger year Production students.  You can tell that went over well… hahaha.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned, you can’t force the process.  You have to let the writer come to you.  And it takes a certain amount of maturity and security for a writer to be ready– ready to let go of their work– ready to listen.

For a Story Editor, part of your job, is judging where a writer is in development, and taking that into account when helping them.  It’s a fine balance.  Story Editing isn’t a science.  We can’t analyze and fix your story for you.  We can open the door, but you must step through it.

After graduating from York, I spent my one of my first internships (yes, one of nine– but I’m nuts) reading scripts and writing coverage for the then Development Executive at Amaze Film + Television – a production company in Toronto.  This was before the success of their show, “Call Me Fitz.”

That summer, I learned a lot.  I got to practice what I had learned back in school.  I did a ton of coverage.

What’s coverage?

Coverage is a report on a script (anywhere from two to five to even eight pages).    The reader basically reads the script, summarizes what they’ve read (usually with a log-line & paragraph summary), and then analyzes major elements of the work:  CHARACTERS, STORY, STRUCTURE, DIALOGUE/TONE, and THEME.

Everyone has their own coverage template, but these are the basics.  For that internship, I was also asked to give number grades for these elements, as well as my recommendation to the Development Exec.

It was incredibly informative, and really helped me to hone my own story abilities.  I can honestly say that reading and critiquing other people’s scripts, has made me a better writer.  By seeing all that is working, or not working, in their scripts, you can apply this to your own work.

Remember what I said about practice?  Practice, practice.

The other thing about story editing… is that it’s time consuming.  You’re subject to the development and progression of the writer that you’re working with.  So you need patience and empathy.  But also the willingness to not pull any punches.  Because you’re not doing your writer any favours by lying to them.

For coverage, it’s still time-consuming.  When you factor in the time to read a script, and not just skim it, because you need to focus all your energy on analyzing all these elements while you’re reading it.  You also need time to write up a report (it’s like a long essay).  When all’s said and done, a feature script can easily take you half a day.  That’s half a day’s work to get the best notes possible for your writer, or in my case, Development Executive.

Believe me, you don’t want to shortchange this process, because not giving it your full attention, can seriously be destructive to a writer’s process.  Surgeons worry about a bad decision, a bad cut.  Story Editors worry about a bad story note!

So that’s what Story Editing and Coverage is in a nut shell.  I wish I could go more in-depth, but this would end up being a novel of a blog post.  And I know y’all have other things to do!

If you have any questions, you’re welcome to contact us.

Just a friendly reminder, if you’re looking for a professional story editor, contact Elke Town!

But if you’re just looking for some informal notes and feedback, from Consuelo or me, please consider us.  Your donations go directly to supporting emerging & diverse talent, artists, and independent filmmakers.  Thanks!

~ Steph

About littlemissjihadfilm

When 10-year-old, Afghani-American, Sally Khan, discovers that the father she never knew disappeared on September 11, 2001, she becomes convinced that he is a terrorist. Now if she could only figure out what that means! LITTLE MISS JIHAD is a dark comedy, yes, comedy, about faith, tolerance, and a child's imagination running away with her.

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