Posted by: steveonfilm | December 28, 2011

Learning to Re-Write

The biggest hurdle that most new writer’s face is finishing that first draft. Until we type “FADE OUT” that first time, we’re not a screenwriter (hobbyist, amateur, or professional). You’ve got to actually FINISH a script to be a screenwriter.

But what happens after you type FADE OUT? You learn how to re-write.

Writing a first draft and a second draft are entirely different. First drafts are fun. They’re an experiment. They’re the pay off of weeks and months, or in some cases years, or preparation and planning. And in the end they’re usually satisfying. When we first start writing our first drafts are terrible. The results of inexperience with both the craft of screenwriting and the understanding of story and characters. As we get better, our first drafts get better, but they’ll still always be first drafts. Second drafts can be fun, but they can just as easily be painful. Writing a second draft is a remodeling. A revision. A metamorphosis. It’s taking something and changing it, and learning to let go at the same time.

After you type FADE OUT on that first draft, you’re left with a decision: is this script good enough to continue on with. Maybe the idea that you had sort of fell apart when you actually wrote it. Maybe you’ve lost interest in the subject matter. There are a plethora of reasons why you might not want to come back to a first draft and improve it. But if you can get past that, and you decide this script is something you want to make better, you begin the re-writing process.

I think the ability to re-write that second (and third, and fourth, etc) draft is what separates good writers from average writers (notice I didn’t say great, that’s a whole other category and set of qualifications). All things considered, I’m in the camp that believes that first drafts for most writers (amateur and professional) are mechanically equal. Dialog is a little flat. Scene descriptions are kinda bland. There are scenes that don’t need to be there. Some scenes drag on. Some subplots don’t need to be there. But when you look at them, the first draft has a solid foundation and structure that can be improved upon. Whether or not that improvement actually happens is the difference.

Everyone’s process for re-writing is different. Some people go through and evaluate each scene, jot down notes, and then begin their second draft. Some people simply go back to page one and go over the script line by line, re-writing as they go along. Others let the script sit for a few weeks, thinking things over in their head, and then come back gangbusters and make all the changes they were thinking off. There are literally an infinite amount of ways to re-write. All that matters is the end result, to improve the script.

I typically will go over a script line by line, re-writing as I go along. I usually have rewritten about 75% of what I originally typed. What gets cut or changes can vary by the story. Sometimes I cut a lot. Other times I only cut a little bit. My first drafts usually come in pretty long. And by my second draft I’ve cut out about 10 pages. This isn’t because I’m consciously trying to cut. It’s just the natural progression of making dialog sharper, more concise, and doing the same with description. I’ll wait for a third draft before I do any serious cutting. For a good article on tips to cut (and edit in general), John August’s blog has a really fun write up on some suggestions and methods.

During the re-writing process many people, but not all, will send a draft of a script out for notes. The notes could come from friends, a manager (if you’re at that stage of your career), family, a writing group, whomever. It’s feedback, plain and simple. You take what you get, think about it, and make the appropriate changes. But getting notes is what you make of it, and it helps if you’re conscious of what you’re trying to get out of them going in.

When I send out a script for notes, I typically will lead with a few questions, otherwise in my experience what I get back can be rambling and unfocused. This might change as I get better, and the people I send my scripts to get better, or I get a manager, or whatever, but for me, this is the way it is right now. My questions usually follow something like this:

1. Is the story interesting.
2. Do the characters feel real, if not, why?
3. Is there enough tension?
4. Where did you find yourself getting bored?
5. What did you dislike most about the script?
6. If you were writing this, what is the one thing you’d change about it?

These aren’t always the exact questions I ask, but it’ll give you a general idea of what I do. My questions typically vary based on who I’m sending it to. If it’s a more experienced writer, I’ll have more focus to my questions. If it’s a less experienced writer, or a friend, I’ll ask more general theme based questions. Some people I can just send it to without any questions because their notes always hit on the things I’m looking for anyway. But regardless of the notes I get back, ultimately it’s my responsibility as a writer to determine how to make a draft better than the last.

The bottom line, the only way to learn how to get better at re-writing is by doing it. It’s pure experience and practice. There can be methods to help. There can be exercises to help. Just like with writing that first draft, there are various theories on how to properly re-write. But the only “method” that matters, is the one that helps you get better.

Keep writing,
-Steve

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