Should I hire a screenwriting consultant?
I've been entering screenplay contests for the last two years but haven't made much headway, although I was named a quarterfinalist in one recent competition. I want to improve my writing but I don't want to get ripped off. Do you think screenwriting consultants are worth the money?
Your Faithful Reader,
It depends. I know a number of professional screenwriters, and none of them hire consultants, or have ever hired consultants, to the best of my knowledge. The reason for this, though, is not that they're too experienced or talented to require feedback, it's because they have a circle of friends - other professional writers - with whom they trade scripts. They need feedback just as much as anyone, but they're in a position to get that feedback from their friends and colleagues in the industry.
You're not in that position, at least not yet, so for you a screenwriting consultant may indeed be a worthwhile investment. Ask around for recommendations, and ask any consultant you're considering for samples of the kind of feedback they offer their clients.
You may also elect to pay for the "feedback" option that many contests now offer. That option will typically be less expensive than a stand-alone consultant, but the feedback you get will usually be considerably less detailed, and may be written anonymously by a less-than-qualified judge. A consultant whose reputation depends on satisfied customers may be a better choice in the long run, particularly if they offer a phone consultation in addition to a written critique. The give-and-take that's possible in a phone call can sometimes be more valuable than written notes.
Finally, take a tip from the pros and cultivate screenwriting friends with whom you can trade scripts. These writers not have all the experience a consultant can offer, but there's something to be said for a soliciting a broad range of opinion to see if the same concerns pop up over and over again. Let your friends know you want polite but honest feedback, and for goodness sake, listen, and don't be defensive. Nobody wants to go to the trouble of reading a screenplay only to have their opinion discounted or explained away. That said, feel free to ask your readers what they liked about the script, too. It's just as important to understand what things are working as it is to understand what things are not.