I do a lot of coverage of screenplays these days. I see a lot of common mistakes.
The following are a series of concise screenwriting tips.
#8 SYNTAX AND SPELLING
If there's one MAIN thing that separates the amateurs from the professionals it's spelling and syntax.
When I read a new script and I see spelling and syntax errors in the first paragraph I know right away that this writer hasn't put in the time and effort to spell-check their script.
It really seems like a no-brainer, but the amount of spelling and syntax errors I see in non-professional scripts is astounding.
The thing with spelling and syntax is that, unlike the creativity of writing, it's the one aspect of a screenplay that EVERYONE - no matter their creative abilities - should be able to do well.
Here're some tips to reduce the spelling and syntax errors in your script.
SPECIALISE YOUR PASSES.
What do I mean by that?
When you have 'finished' your script and you read it through looking for ‘errors’, you're not focusing on ONE particular aspect of your script.
If anything should pop up, be it a structure error, or a character error, or dialogue, or any of the myriad aspects that comprise a script, you make the change.
This means that you're focusing on EVERYTHING at once.
This is a sure-fire way to overlook many mistakes.
When your script is 'finished' and you're about ready to send it out to people, I highly recommend you do a series of about 10 passes of your script focusing on ONE ASPECT ONLY in each pass.
10 passes? That's a lot!
Actually - no - it's not. If you're really serious about screenwriting, I'd suggest you do a pass of your script focusing on EVERY SINGLE INDIVIDUAL ASPECT you can think of.
One of those passes needs to be a spelling pass.
Read through your script and ONLY focus on spelling.
You'll find that it means reading your script in a very different way.
Read it slower.
Focus on each word. Did you spell each word correctly?
The spell-check in Final Draft is appallingly bad.
I recommend you copy and paste your script into WORD and use the spell check there.
It will pick up far more errors than Final Draft.
Next, once you have made those changes, copy and paste the document into grammarly.com
It's free to create an account - you don't need to register or pay anything.
You'll find that grammarly.com will pick up and point out a whole bunch of different errors.
But be careful - both these programs will suggest you make changes that are incorrect.
Ultimately you have to look at the errors Word and grammarly.com detect and decide if the changes fit your script.
There are some really common mistakes that you can go through and check yourself. Do a pass for each one of the following…
Use the find/replace function in WORD to search for these words.
Why use Word? Why not use Final Draft?
Because - for some strange reason - Final Draft likes to ignore some words.
It's just a bug in FD.
FD 10 may be better - but it still misses words.
WORD (or a similar word processing program) is far less likely to just randomly skip words.
Now that you've done these spelling passes, here's another tip for spelling...
START HALF WAY THROUGH and do a spelling pass.
Huh? Why do that?
Invariably, the first 50 pages of your script are read almost twice as much as the latter half.
Because the human attention span finds it hard to deal with a two/three-hour pass, which is what it should roughly take you to read a script.
How many times have you opened your script and started reading from page 1, only to find yourself running out of steam around page 50?
You get distracted, do something else, then you come back the next day, and just to get context you read from page 1 again.
Trust me - the majority of spelling mistakes I see come after page 50.
GIVE THE SECOND HALF OF YOUR SCRIPT AS MUCH LOVE AS THE FIRST HALF!
Another spelling check that I highly recommend is to go to fiverr.com and look for a highly rated copy-editor. You can find some reasonably priced ones on there.
Pay the fee, have your script copy-edited.
Now the great thing about this is you don't have to do this with every script.
If you do it just once or twice, then you will learn what your common mistakes are.
Perhaps you tend to over-use commas (like I do).
Perhaps you have a tendency to always write 'towards' - with an 's' - when you should be writing toward - without an 's'.
There's likely a dozen common mistakes that you're making without being aware of them.
Once you have these mistakes pointed out to you, you can improve your writing on a technical level manifold.
Syntax is the way you structure your sentence.
The word order of your sentence.
Foreign language writers struggle the most with this for obvious reasons, but I see a lot of native English speaking writers struggling with it.
Rather than go into ALL the syntax rules of the English language - of which there are many - here's a simple principle to apply to your script that will improve your syntax.
KEEP YOUR SENTENCES SHORT AND SIMPLE.
If you have multiple things going on in a sentence - break them up into smaller chunks.
John scrambles for the gun, picks it up, turns, aims, but Michelle already has the drop on him, she lunges at him, driving the knife deep into his stomach before he has the chance to pull the trigger.
There's a lot going on there.
Let's break it up...
John scrambles for the gun. Picks it up. Turns. Aims.
Michelle lunges. Drives the knife deep into his stomach.
John collapses. He hasn't even fired a bullet.
THE EXACT SAME THING has been described here - but the second one is much cleaner and simpler to read.
If you're not sure about all the syntax rules of the English language - break your long sentences up into smaller chunks - you're far less likely to make mistakes if each sentence is six words or less.