A Review of Highland 2 (vs. Final Draft)

This isn’t meant to be an in-depth review of every single feature. I’m going to share some of the things that I love about Highland 2 (just going to call it Highland from here on out) and a few things that I don’t love.

As background: I’ve been using Final Draft since 2011. Last year, I upgraded from version ~71 to version 10. Final Draft was never a joy to use, but it got the job done and I could ignore all the clutter and work around the idiosyncrasies and get my writing done.

And while I am pretty critical of Final Draft, I should say that it has been a big part of my life and work since I started using it. It helped me write hundreds of pages of scripts, including all of my films, several plays, and many many sketches. I’ve used it for over a thousand hours (maybe a few thousand?) and it has served me very well. I hope they can improve the user interface and modernize the software, because I want there to be multiple great choices in the marketplace.

For the past week, I’ve been using Highland every day, working two-three hours per day on the first draft of a comedy screenplay. I’m using the Pro version but the free version includes most of the features of the Pro version.

The User Interface

My first impression of writing in Highland 2: I feel like someone designed screenwriting software for exactly how I write.

The UI looks great. It’s easy on the eyes. It has everything I want to see and nothing more. It’s not cluttered. It feels light and modern.

And it makes me feel good about writing.

The impression that I get from everything in Highland is that it’s the result of thoughtful consideration by smart people, even when I disagree with the design choices.

^^^ That’s a screenshot of the screenplay tutorial that ships with Highland 2. It’s a great introduction to how to use the program.

It feels good to write a screenplay in Highland. You can’t quantify delight, but it’s delightful to use. And it’s not just aesthetically pleasing — it’s very intuitive and easy to use. I never feel lost in the software.

Compare that to Final Draft, which still has a design aesthetic that reminds me of the early aughts — the icons are dated and the colors are not particularly pleasing.

And Final Draft has been getting progressively more cluttered and cumbersome over the years. Many of the new features are things that I have no interest in — things like beatboards and story maps and ScriptNotes.

I do all of my outlining, beat boarding, story mapping, and script noting outside of Final Draft, usually in Word docs. When I want to actually map something or use notecards, I prefer the physical versions.

The writing experience

So, what about the writing? Does it make it easier to write a screenplay?

My answer is yes. For me, the killer feature is the Editor vs. Preview modes.

The Editor view is the behind-the-scenes view where the writing gets done. The Preview view, which translates what’s written in the Editor view into the screenplay format that you’ll want to export or share.

Here’s what I love about this: in Editor mode, you have three ways of writing text that is hidden in Preview mode:

  • Synopses
  • Notes
  • Omit

Here’s an example of a synopsis, which is enabled by starting a line with an = sign:

Notes work in a similar way, but they are enclosed in double brackets like [[note]]and can be used inline in a dialogue or action block:

Both of these little features have been insanely helpful while writing the first dirty draft of a screenplay where everything is messy and there are so many little things that need to be flagged so they can be dealt with in a later draft.

I use them for things like alternate lines, things that need to be fixed later, or just notes to myself about a scene, character, or beat.

In Final Draft, my way of handling these little notes was to just write a note to myself in bold within an action or dialogue block. Which is fine, I guess. No, it’s not fine. It meant that if I wanted to share an unpolished draft with someone, I had two choices:

  1. Share the entire screenplay with them, notes and all
  2. Remove all of the notes and put them in a separate document

Option 1 sucks because I usually don’t want a producer or a reader reading all of the open questions I have about the script. Even if I want to share those things, I want to share them separately instead of having them distract from the reading experience.

Option 2 is not a real option because it is too annoying.

And even if I’m not sharing the screenplay, I want to be able to find the notes that I’ve written. There’s no real way to do that in Final Draft (well, OK, there’s “ScriptNotes”, but no).

In Highland, these notes show up in a different color, so they are easy to find.

And (!) they show up in the Navigator in the Sidebar. That means that I can easily scan all of the open notes in the screenplay and quickly jump to them.

When rewriting, I can create a little tag for each one and then filter in the Navigator to only show the notes that I want to see — in the feature I directed this summer there were three moments where a variation of a speech was delivered. There was a time when I was working on all three of them and wanted to be able to quickly jump between all three of them, but there was no way to do this from the Navigator in Final Draft.

Highland makes the rewriting process so much better and easier. I can write all of the notes I have on a script inline in the Editor and then just work through any outstanding notes until the draft is complete.

When I’m ready to address the notes, they’re right there in the Navigator — I can just click to jump to a note.

And if I don’t want my Navigator view to be cluttered with all of these little asides, I can just change the Navigator filter so they are hidden.

Oh, and there’s a third way to leave notes in the Editor view. I think it’s called Omit, and it works in the same way as a comment in JavaScript or CSS:

(those are not real beats from a real script).

These omits or comments don’t show up in the Navigator.

All of this makes writing a first draft in Highland an absolute joy. I can leave all kinds of notes throughout the script, knowing that they will be easy to find and address in later drafts and that they won’t clutter the reading experience.

All the little asides and thoughts and ideas that pop up during the first draft can be tucked away in notes, without breaking the writing flow.

The inline notes in [[brackets]] are especially helpful when writing comedy; you can insert as many alternate lines as you want and they won’t interrupt the reading flow in the Preview mode (unless you want to share the alts with the reader).

The Navigator and Sidebar

The sidebar has five tabs:

  • Navigator
  • Bin
  • Statistics
  • Assets
  • Scratchpad

The Navigator in Highland is fixed.

In Final Draft, the Navigator floats around and I found myself constantly moving it around, resizing it, and hiding the pieces that I didn’t need. The first 15 seconds of any writing session were usually spent adjusting the Navigator because Final Draft doesn’t always (ever?) remember how you like your Navigator. It was a pain in the ass.

Not to mention the clutter:

Does anyone use the Scriptnotes feature? Does anyone use the “Character Arc Beat” text box when you click on the Characters tab? Or anything in the Characters tab? Look, I don’t want to hate on anyone’s writing process — if those features help you, then that’s great. For me, they were just more clutter that I wanted to get rid of.

The navigator is a live-updating outline, which is highly customizable. You can choose what gets displayed there: sections, scene headers, synopses, notes, included files, images, inline links, reference links, and markers.

The next pane in the Sidebar is the Bin. You can select any block of text from the script and drag it over to the bin and it will save the block in the bin and remove it from the script.

I really love this feature — in Final Draft when I had alternate dialogue or a scene that I wanted to cut, I would open up a new Final Draft file and drop it in there (using one big document for all the removed scenes or sandbox dialogue).

One thing about the Bin is that I wish I could tag or categorize the snippets, like #dialogue, #scene, etc. I can do this manually by editing an item in the bin and adding “#dialogue” to the beginning and then use the filter option to find everything in the bin that contains “#dialogue,” but it would be nice to be prompted for a tag or label as soon as I dropped a block into the bin.

The last three Sidebar tabs are for Statistics, Assets and Notes. I haven’t really used these features yet.

Assets are any images or other files (I’m not sure what other kinds of files would go in here) that have been added to the document.

The Notes tab is a scratchpad, where you can jot down anything you like. So far, I’ve only been using the Notes, Synopses, and Omits in the Editor, but I could see using the Scratchpad if I wanted to make a little to-do list or write bigger-picture notes that didn’t have to do with a specific scene.

I find the Statistics tab to be helpful, but not really mind-blowing:

The goal feature is fun, but it seems like something that would be more helpful for a novelist. I’ve never really set goals of x pages per day because it doesn’t seem meaningful to me.

When writing a rough draft, it’s easy to spit out five or ten pages in a morning, but most of the writing process is rewriting the first draft, and then page count becomes kind of a meaningless metric.

On the other hand, Highland has another statistics tool called Gender Analysis:

Obviously this won’t tell you if your script is sexist or if your female characters are all MPDGs, but it does give you a nice view of the gender balance in terms of lines and words spoken.

Final Draft also has several reports, which I sometimes found helpful, specifically the Statistics report, which would show me how many lines each character had. Unfortunately, the UI for these reports was always a bit cumbersome.

Other Things I Like about Highland

Sprints

You can start a timer for a writing sprint and try to write as much as possible in that time. My first thought was “why do I need a button to do this, when I can just decide to write for the next 60 minutes on my own?”

But I gave it a try and I have to report that there is some kind of psychological trick that happens when I see the timer ticking down and I’m more likely to ignore distractions and keep writing. I guess there’s something about pre-committing to a 60-minute block of writing.

At the end of the sprint, it tells you how many words you wrote. I find that interesting, but once I move into rewriting mode, I don’t think it will be very helpful. There’s no good way to quantify “I made this scene better by restructuring it and rewriting the dialogue.”

Themes and Dark Mode

The Pro version of Highland 2 comes with ten beautiful visual themes: five light and five dark.

The free version only has one version, which happens to be my favorite.2

Multi-language support out of the box

Want to write some dialogue in another language? You don’t have to turn anything on or download any language dictionaries.

I realized this when I wrote a scene in Spanish and was surprised when not everything had been underlined with the dreaded red squiggly line. Some words were even being auto-corrected (!), like “montanas” auto-correcting to “montañas.”

Compare this with Final Draft, which is constantly throwing squiggly red lines under common English words.

And Highland seems to understand that characters do not speak in perfect English. Spoken phrases like “I dunno” or “gotcha” or “Ummm” are recognized as correct.

Sections

If you start a line with the # sign, a new section will be created. Start a line with a double pound sign (##) and it will create a sub-section.

This is great for outlining, act breaks, and keeping track of sequences or sub-sequences or whatever else you want to use to divide your script into sections.

And of course, these show up automatically in the Navigator.

Things I don’t love or would like to see

Page counts

One thing that I do prefer about Final Draft is that the Navigator shows the page count of every scene. I find that to be very helpful when trying to get a broader view of the script.

Sometimes I write really long scenes and it’s valuable to see that I have three 9-page scenes in a row, because I’ll probably want to break those up into smaller chunks or at least flag them for pacing issues.

Highland seems much less concerned with page counts, which I think is OK when writing a first draft, but will become more of an issue in later drafts.

If there’s one feature that I would be willing to pay more for right now, it would really like the ability to see the page count next to each scene heading in the Navigator.

Page locking and production drafts

This is one area where Final Draft excels.

When you lock the script as you’re going into production, scene and page numbers are preserved. How it works is slightly complicated and I never am quite sure that I am doing it right, but it’s an essential feature when you move from writing to production.

When I directed the feature film in June, there were many many small revisions in the couple of weeks leading up to the production and there were revisions made during production.

It’s really really nice to be able to make those revisions and not screw up the scene and page numbers of the script.

The reason is that the call sheets, shot lists, and other production documents all reference scene and page numbers. When the script is locked, you can make changes to one or more pages and then just print the new versions of those pages and insert those into your script binder.

Without page locking, if you delete a scene or extended a scene beyond its current page, then every change to the script could potentially shift the page number of every other scene. If that happens, then good luck keeping your call sheets synced up.3

Messing this up can lead to some massive headaches and even disasters (if you, for instance, get confused and forget to shoot a scene).

Highland is aware of this and they talk about it in their guide to switching from Final Draft to Highland 2:

Locked pages and colored revisions are specialized production features that are not wellsuited to Highland’s plain text philosophy. While it’s certainly feasible using hard-coded page breaks (===) and and custom headers, you’re generally better off jumping to Fade In or Final Draft for this tedious work, particularly if you’re cycling through multiple colored page revisions.

So it looks like this feature may not be coming. For writers working on production drafts, we’ll have to keep using Final Draft for the, uh, final drafts. Hey! The name is now literal!

Dialogue flow

One thing that I really love about Final Draft is that the flow of writing a scene feels faster, especially when writing 2-handers. The software guesses which character is going to speak next and I can just hit TAB and the character’s name pops up and I hit enter and it accepts the suggested name.

Highland does suggest names once you’re on a new line and you type the first letter(s) of the name in caps, but it’s slightly more cumbersome and requires more keystrokes.

This means that sometimes I’m thinking of dialogue faster than I can type it and I wish that Highland was a little better at anticipating my next move.

Conclusion

I’ve committed to writing my next feature with Highland. It’s a much better writing experience and none of the drawbacks are enough to get me to keep using Final Draft.

Go try Highland or check out the rote a free 39-page booklet on switching from Final Draft to Highland 2.


  1. I honestly can’t remember what version I was using. 

  2. I can’t find a full comparison of the free vs. pro version so I may be wrong about this. 

  3. Maybe fancy productions have software that handles all of this? I don’t know, I use Google Docs. 

Screenwriting as a professional fascination

Screenwriting, as a professional fascination, is built on desires for personal approval that can be as fruitless and full of wish-thinking as gambling-addiction. Screenwriting is not filmmaking, it’s a part of filmmaking, it’s one of the blueprints, but it is not a good litmus test for the quality of a movie, clearly; Studios sign huge checks to great screenplays to then receive the worst Rotten Tomatoes scores in history. The Thunder Road Screenplay received multiple 3/10 ratings on The Blacklist. Yesterday, The Academy’s screenplay library reached out to have it added to their collection. The screenplay for Dunkirk is 70 pages. The only thing (Academy Award Winning Screenwriter) Diablo Cody knew about screenwriting when she wrote Juno was that “the dialogue is in the middle.” It’s ok to suck at writing screenplays if you know what will make a great movie and if you want to understand how people engage with movies in 2018, don’t study the script for Seabiscuit, get a Reddit Account like a normal person.

Jim Cummings

Shout it from the rooftops!

I really like what Jim has to say about independent filmmaking. It’s refreshing and intelligent.

The crap +1 fallacy

Another gem I picked up at Austin Film Festival: the crap +1 fallacy.

The fallacy is that you see a bad movie and think that all you have to do to succeed is write something a little better. 

It’s a fallacy because you can’t see the myriad reasons why the movie didn’t end up well–the missteps, the studio interference, actor problems, mistakes, and concessions that made a bad movie out of a good script. Your screenplay isn’t competing with the crappy final version of a movie — it’s competing with the good script that got mangled after it was purchased.

I get this completely, but I have seen films at festivals where I thought “oh, I can make something better than this” and that has been an effective motivator for me at times. 

The Not Actually Crap corollary: the movie was bad but made a ton of money. Sure, to your refined taste it was an artistic failure, but to the fat cat investors it was a resounding success.

Also known as You Are Not the Audience (YANTA). Hint: the audience is probably teenage boys or Chinese moviegoers.

Everyone is writing TV pilots

One thing I noticed at AFF was that a LOT of people are writing TV pilots. It seems like every aspiring-to-be-professional writer I met had entered a pilot into the screenwriting contest or was working on a pilot or was trying to break into TV with their pilot. 

I had a conversation with a woman who was developing a pilot for a show that was an autobiographical story of how she found love later in life. I liked the story. I think it would be a good rom-com.

I asked her if it wouldn’t be better as a movie. As someone who lives in Austin, she has virtually no chance of that pilot getting made. First it has to be a great concept. I like the idea but it’s not like earth-shattering and the audience is somewhat limited. 

Second, she has to get the idea into the hands of people that can make it a reality, which is basically a few different studios or Netflix or Amazon or Apple. 

She doesn’t really have connections there. And it’s very rare that a first-time writer just gets a show made like that.

I told her that it would be much easier to make as a movie. You just have to find a producer that wants to make it. It’s much easier to find an indie producer than a willing TV executive, especially since there are so many possible budget ranges. You could do her idea for $200k, $500k, $1 million, or $20 million. 

It’s still hard; it’s still a longshot. I just see a better path there. And it’s her story. She wants it to be told. You can make a movie through sheer force of will. You cannot make a TV show that way. There are just too many factors outside of your control.

She could also write a play, a really funny play. All of these strategies hinge on the material being really good, although honestly, the indie feature route has the least reliance on having a good script.

A lot of the people with pilots in Austin were people that lived in not Los Angeles. It’s pretty damn hard to break into TV if you’re not in Los Angeles. I’m not really sure what their career strategy is. Maybe it’s submitting to contests, hoping to win one that gets them a manager? There are many ways in but I know that if my main goal in life was to write for television that I would have moved to L.A. years ago. 

I went to a panel with the director of filmmaker labs at Film Independent. She said that comedy features are very much underrepresented in their submissions for the screenwriting lab.

I think everyone who wants to write comedy went over to the pilot side, which in one way makes sense because there are more writing jobs in TV, but then again, there’s only a loose connection between the jobs and what gets you the job. 

Why not zig when others are zagging?

Two kinds of writing advice

Sometimes I will find myself yelling in my head, in response to some writing advice I read on the internet. 

It goes something like this: “you idiots! you don’t need writing advice! you just need to write! sit down and fucking write! do you really think that reading what Hemingway said about the bullshit detector is going to help you, you lazy fuck, when you’re not even putting in the time!?”

That’s a lot of yelling, but I’m yelling at myself.

The first kind of writing advice is designed to get you to sit down and actually write. To create space in your day or your life to do the work. To get words on the page, no matter how not good they are. This advice often has an inspirational or self-help feel to it, and for good reason. You want to write, but you’re afraid for any number of reasons and you haven’t started to put in the time.

I listened to The War of Art once and that more or less rewired my brain to write every day. It’s a powerful book.

The second kind of writing advice is more practical or technical. It’s for people that are already doing the work, putting in the time, pumping out the words. Advice of this variety has to do with how to write an outline or develop a character or create suspense or write better dialogue.

Type II advice doesn’t really mean anything if you haven’t created a space to work within. 

Rules for work

Reminders for myself as I return to daily work (writing):

  1. Work every day. Compound interest. The Daily.
  2. Work with purpose. Deliberate practice.
  3. Work deeply.
  4. Process over results.
  5. Take risks. Stop playing it safe.
  6. Dream big.
  7. Ship your work.

What am I forgetting?

Do screenwriting contests matter?

The consensus from Austin Film Festival (and honestly, anyone working in Hollywood that I’ve ever talked to or heard on a podcast) was that only two matter: if you’re a finalist for the Nicholl Fellowship or at AFF.

At least 90% of of these contests exist to make money, not to help you. They won’t get you an agent and they won’t impress people.

Please stop throwing your money away.

Skill vs talent (in screenwriting)

I was in Austin last week for the Austin Film Festival. It was a great time. The centerpiece of the festival is the four-day screenwriting conference, which means panels, networking, and parties.

As an aside: some of the panels were great and some were just OK. The panels I didn’t like were mostly because of a moderator that couldn’t or didn’t seem to understand the audience and what we wanted to hear. Moderating is an underrated skill.

On one of the panels, a literary manager spoke of the difference between skill and talent.

Basically he said, you need both to succeed as a screenwriter.

But there are a lot of people that have good careers with lots of skill and not much talent. These are writers who are not necessarily visionaries, but they are skilled in writing in someone else’s voice or in executing a formula. They would tend to work on less innovative shows or movies. They are probably what you would call a hack? I don’t know, I don’t really go around calling people hacks. The manager didn’t use that term.

People with lots of talent and no skill on the other hand, they can’t succeed. You need SOME skill. Actually, you need a fair amount. If you have no skill, then your talent is squandered. It can’t be harnessed. You have things to express but don’t know how to express them skillfully. Great stories, poorly told. Etc.

The high-skill, low-talent person, well, they can tell the hell out of a not great story.

A genius is someone with extraordinary talent (talent encompasses vision and intelligence and creativity and many other traits).

I’m simplifying a bit obviously.

Here’s a 2×2:

Obviously my design skills are low-skill, high-talent.

Can you become more skilled? Yes, definitely, that’s just deliberate practice over a long period of time.

Can you become more talented? ASKING FOR A FRIEND. Just kidding. I don’t know. I imagine that talent is an amalgam of many factors: genetics, upbringing, openness, what you read and who you spend time with and what your influences are and what you see and know about the culture and history and so many other factors with a dose of just general intelligence thrown in.

Content

Content.

I love good content.

I’m a content creator.

This is good content.

Have you watched the show on Netflix? It’s such good content.

It’s hard being a content creator today.

As a content creator, I

I love content.

Mmmm Netflix has so much good content.

Did you see Sorry to Bother You? It was great content!

I saw Eight Grade I thought it was great content.

What the fuck is content?

Content is a commodity.

Stop saying content.

 

Steal a bit from a lot of different places

The secret of theft, which is also called “creativity,” is you have to steal a bit from a lot of different places. You can’t go to the same 7/11 every time because they’ll catch you. So you go to the photo shop, and you go to the gas station, and you go to that little hot dog stand that nobody goes to and by the end you’ve stolen enough stuff from enough places that people think its yours.

— Paul Schrader

Via Austin Kleon.





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