Wednesday, July 8, 2009


You’ve probably heard the old cliché “writing is rewriting.” Screenwriting is no different. I’m often asked how many drafts I do of my scripts. It’s a tricky question with no exact answer. The fewest I’ve done to feel a script is “professional” and up to my personal standards is three. But I’ve also done over twenty. Seven or eight would be common.

Some writers rewrite as they go along, but I don’t. I prefer to keep moving forward on the first draft (and most subsequent drafts) until it’s done. I keep a piece of paper to make notes of changes I know I’m going to want in the next draft – for example if I have an idea in Act Three that I know I’ll need to go back and set up in Act One, I jot that down rather than jumping back to revise previous material and losing momentum. The exception would be if I realize I’ve gone horribly off track and there’s no point in moving forward from where I am. But since I outline extensively that rarely happens.

After I finish the first draft I will undoubtedly have a long list of desired changes. Some structural, some character based, a lot of things to plant, etc. So the first one to three rewrites are mostly just reshaping the material I have into something coherent.

At that point I’m probably ready to get some feedback.

Let me digress for a moment on feedback. It’s extremely valuable. Nobody knows your story as well as you do, but at the same time you lose perspective when you’re in the trenches week after week. When you think you’re getting close to a decent draft it’s time to get that outside perspective.

Pick your readers carefully. You want people who are smart and will be honest with you. It’s nice to hear how wonderful your screenplay is, but if it’s not actually wonderful yet those comments can do more harm than good. Ideally most of your readers have some experience in film because those people are going to be most useful at suggesting solutions to the problems. But it never hurts to throw in one or two “civilians” who can give you a pure audience perspective – if they’ll be honest with you.

When someone gives you notes make sure to tell them to be as brutal as they can. You want to hear about any problems now, not leave them for when you’re submitting to a producer or agent where your reputation is on the line. It’s time to grow a thick skin for the good of your work.

Listen to the notes. Don’t respond – except to ask for clarification if you don’t understand. Most important, don’t defend your work! It’s hard, but you aren’t going to be able to go around to the theaters when the movie comes out and explain what you were going for. The point of feedback is for the reader to do the talking. I write everything down without prejudice. That allows you to go back and analyze the notes later when your emotional reaction isn’t as sharp.

Just because you write everything down doesn’t mean you have to do everything they say. You know your story best. But if several people are having a problem with something you better address it. Also, your reader may give you a bad suggestion but the problem that prompted it may be valid. Try to figure out the source of the note.

Most importantly if you want to be a good writer you have to be willing to seriously revise your work. Very few people are too open to suggestions. The usual response is to feel wounded that somebody didn’t like something about your creation and try to defend what you did, even if just to yourself. Fight that urge! The goal is to make it better and that’s often a painful process. You will have to cut things you love.

Mostly that’s what rewriting is. Taking an objective look at what you have and trying to make it better. However, there are a few specific things you can do once you have a draft you feel good about.

One thing I like to do are character passes. I read through the entire script only looking at a single character’s dialogue and action. I’m looking for anything inconsistent or anything the character wouldn’t say the way I wrote it. It’s easier to get into a character’s voice if you’re only focusing on their dialogue. I do that for every major character.

The final thing is the polish pass. I’ll discuss polishing in greater detail in another post, but what you’re doing is tightening up the pacing. You cut any unnecessary dialogue and look for ways to more efficiently convey the action. You’re trying to take out everything that doesn’t advance story and character.

One last tip on getting feedback: at least once on every script I like to gather a group of friends in my living room to read it out loud. I mix in some actors, writers and maybe a director. Everyone takes a part, we read, and then the group gives me feedback. But the most useful part is hearing it out loud. You discover things that way that you just don’t notice reading to yourself.

Remember, you don’t have to write a great first draft… you just have to be great by the last draft.

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