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How to Become a Script Doctor

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A script doctor is an interesting mix of screenwriter and script editor who plays a very special role in making films by doing last-minute editing of scripts. Although they don't usually get listed on the credits for a movie, script doctors get very well paid for short, intensive bursts of editing that make good scripts into great ones. If you want to become a script doctor, you'll need to start as a screenwriter and/or editor and be brimming over with both talent and the bravado to sell yourself.

A Script Doctor's Job

A script doctor is two parts experienced screenwriter and one part script editor, with a dash of emergency room doctor and salesman sprinkled into the mix. It's a high-pressure job since a script doctor is expected to solve late-breaking script problems and fix them quickly.

When it's script development time in a movie, each party has its own role. The screenwriter is the one who actually pens the initial script, but script editors also play big roles. The script editor works every step of the way with the screenwriter, supervising the writing project, keeping the screenwriter on track with the narrative, and proposing changes. Together, they produce a final draft and give it to the producer.

Script doctors come in at the end, just as the script is turning into a movie. These super-screenwriters do surgical editing and rewriting to fix problems with the script. The script doctor does not rewrite the entire movie, but instead focuses on the last-minute problems that come up. Script doctors work for a very short period of time, but they work very intensely under high stress. They can earn a big salary for this service.

Experience as a Screenwriter

A script doctor must, first and foremost, be an exceptional screenwriter. There are no formal qualifications for becoming a screenwriter or a script doctor, but creativity, writing talent and determination are all important.

Screenwriters for movies or television have to "tell" the stories in detail, working in the physical environment as well as the looks and moods of the characters. A script for filming will include camera and lighting instructions. While having a specific degree is not mandatory, it may be hard to break in to the field without some type of college education.

A bachelor's degree in creative writing or film production teaches basic writing skills to someone aspiring to any of these roles. You might take it up a notch and get a master's degree or MFA in creative writing too. College courses in writing screenplays will also help you network with others and meet people involved in moviemaking. The more contacts you make, the better.

A screenwriter's job is to write a script for a movie, television program or similar show. Sometimes, they develop a story idea themselves. At other times, screenwriters adapt a novel for the screen or work with a producer's idea.

Screenwriter Earnings

Screenwriters can do very well for themselves, so it's rewarding to spend time in this field before making the leap to script doctor. Writers, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, can earn good money as screenwriters when their literary stories are no longer in great demand. Most script doctors first get years of experience as screenwriters and often get paid well for it.

Screenwriters are not typical employees, so you aren't likely to find statistics like "screenwriter salary 2018." Like other creative professions, most screenwriters do not work for someone and earn a set salary. Rather, they are paid on a freelance, ad-hoc basis. According to the Writers Guild of America, a screenwriter in 2014/2015 who sells an original screenplay might be paid anywhere from about $67,804 to a high of $127,295. Adapted screenplays written in that period might earn between $59,331 and $110,337. Television stories running about a half-hour could bring in around $8,264 each.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for writers and authors working in performing arts and related industries was $69,430 as of May 2018. The term "median" means that half the workers in that field earned more than that amount, and half earned less.

Experience as a Script Editor

Script doctors also need an editor's frame of mind, since their job is to jump into a script and take care of problems and issues. Perhaps the best way to develop this skill is hands-on experience editing scripts.

While script doctors are called in to serve as writers/editors at the last moment before a movie or television show is shot, editors work with screenwriters over the longer term. Their job is to help the writer make the script as compelling or commercial as possible, depending on the screenwriter's marching orders. Editors review, give feedback and propose changes. They also clean up any errors in the script.

A script editor can get experience by earning a bachelor’s degree in creative writing or film production. Editors may begin work as screenwriters, but they often progress up the ladder from a script-reading job. Script reading involves reading multiple submitted scripts and assessing their value. If a script reader's recommendations about scripts turn out to be accurate and helpful to a production company, the script reader might get offered an editing job. Both experience as a script reader and as a script editor can give you a leg up in finding work as a script doctor.

Editors may make more or less than screenwriters. The median annual wage for editors was $59,480 in May 2018, with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $31,500, and the highest 10 percent earning more than $117,810.

Becoming a Script Doctor

Very few people actually describe their jobs using the term "script doctor." The few you see flashing that term around on the internet are usually trying to sell their advisory services to budding screenwriters. Rather, script doctors think of themselves as screenwriters, experienced screenwriters who have earned excellent reputations and have many films to their credit. They have become so renowned in their field that they are trusted to do the final touches on a film script.

The term "script doctor" may have been hatched in the press, but it's easy to see where it comes from. Script doctor services involve fixing very specific issues with a script, changing just what's not working and leaving the rest of the script intact. This editing work can accurately be described as “surgical.”

In order to know just where to cut the script and how to repair it, a script doctor has to have extensive experience in and knowledge of film structure. It's also critical that they have a firm grasp on how film storytelling works.

If you want to become a script doctor, immerse yourself in film. See movies, watch television shows and read reviews of both. Jobs as a script reader give you familiarity with the genre, and editorial jobs teach you how to make changes. But, most of all, you need to put in your time writing scripts, lots of scripts, and trying to sell them.

This is not a job for the timid and self-deprecating. Screenwriting, like other high-paying, glamorous jobs, is highly competitive, and you'll have to break into the industry by freelancing. You'll also need to have the personality to promote yourself and your work to rise above other screenwriters into the coveted position of script doctor.

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About the Author

Teo Spengler has worked as a trial lawyer, a teacher and a writer at various times in her life, which is one of the reasons she likes to write about career paths. Spengler has published thousands of articles in the past decade including articles providing tips for starting a job or changing careers. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, and Working Mother websites. She holds a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley, an M.A. in English and an M.F.A. in fiction.