The Chaos and Order of Rewriting Your Work

Currently, I’m working on the rewrite of a screenplay about an order of supernatural new-age knights that strive to keep the world in balance by policing the energies of chaos and order. I like it a lot and I’m very proud of it, but of course the rewriting process (as any writer will tell you) is a total bitch. It’s much easier to write a first draft of something, whether it be a short story, novel, screenplay, and so on than it is to do a rewrite of it. With a first draft, you have the freedom of the blank page. You can write anything. Because in a first draft you’re focusing on just getting the words on the paper, to tell the story. The second draft is refining. And the third draft, and the fourth, and the fifth, and the… well you get the point.

So with that in mind, I thought I would share some insight in rewriting, why it’s important, how you should do it and other information. To be fair, I didn’t know a lot of the following information before this year, when I learned a lot more about the rewriting process from established writers. One in particular was kind enough to sit down with me and a few other fellow writers to share his techniques and writing process as well as how he was able to break into the business of screen writing. I don’t like name dropping, but suffice it to say that being able to talk to him was a privilege.

After you write your first draft, you feel accomplished. You think, “Wow! I just wrote a full-length screenplay!” It’s a feeling akin to finishing a marathon, or finishing a novel, or finally getting your college or high school after four years of grueling work. And you feel done. You’re not done, but you feel done. So you start thinking about how awesome your script is and start asking yourself questions like, “Well this is it! I can jump on IMDbPro and look up people to send my script to, right?” Wrong. Now the real work begins.

While it’s perfectly fine for you to hop onto IMDbPro anytime you like within your writing process (and I highly recommend getting a subscription if you can afford it), you should never even think about picking up the phone and dialing any of the phone numbers you’ve gotten until you’ve finished at least three drafts of your screenplay. Yes, you read that right. THREE. Not two, and certainly not one. Why? Because your first draft is shit.

Yes you read that right. Your first draft is shit. I don’t care if you’re the greatest writer who ever lived, your first draft is shit. Now don’t mistake me. I’m not trying to give out some blanket insult to writers everywhere, after all I would be insulting myself along with everybody else. What I am saying, however, is that your first draft is full of mistakes, too much action, too much description, bad dialogue, so on and so forth. And why is this? It’s because for your first draft, you focused on getting the story out there. You didn’t focus on making the dialogue pitch-perfect, you didn’t focus on getting your format perfect while also making it fun to read, and you certainly didn’t focus upon making it work perfectly in a three-act structure that doesn’t feel like a formula everyone has seen before. That is why your first draft is shit. And that is why you need to rewrite.

Now when some writers think of doing a new draft, they simply open the old file, make a lot of corrections, and then print it out and shout “Draft two! Hooray!” They’re wrong. I guarantee you any writer who has done such a thing has never gotten that screenplays sold. The people who are going to read your screenplay have read hundreds, perhaps even over a thousand screenplays. They’ve probably read ten to twenty screenplays just today. They’re going to notice if your precious third draft is really just your first draft with a lot of copy editing and corrections. And they’re going to throw it in the trash.

“But what if my story is awesome? They won’t throw it away!” Yes, they will. Screenplay readers have no time for bullshit. They don’t care if your story is awesome, because they’ve probably already read five other ‘awesome’ stories since breakfast. They don’t have time to call you up and say “Hey, I love your story, but your screenplay is written very badly with bad dialogue and bad action and so on. Want to come in and talk about it?” No. That’s your job. Don’t expect a reader, producer, etc, to do your job.

So how do we begin this second draft? Well firstly, this is a rewrite. Think for a moment on that word. That means you start over from page one. This doesn’t mean that you act like you’re writing a brand new screenplay. Then you’ll just get another shitty first draft. You will need to use your first draft as reference, so print it out and do whatever it is that works for you to keep it organized in a way that will allow you to glance back and forth while writing your second draft.

Now the first thing you need to do after all that, is decide on one major issue from your first draft that you will fix. Maybe choose one or two minor issues as well. You won’t be able to fix every issue in one draft. That’s impossible, so don’t even try. On this first rewrite, you want to focus on the issue you have just chosen and do your best to fix them. On my current rewrite I’m focusing on taking away as much exposition from the dialogue as I can (I have a lot of it), and to use the action to acquaint the reader and viewer to the world rather than having characters come out and say “This happens because blah blah.” I’m also focusing on tidying up the screenplay, but only on minor issues. As I said, you can really only focus on one major issue per draft. So if you have a lot of major issues in your first draft, you’re going to have a lot of rewrites.

So how do you know when you’re done with your draft? Simple. You reach ‘the end.’ Now it’s time to read your draft over, note any simple copy errors and fix them. Next, read over your draft comprehensively and make sure that you’ve succeeded in your goal of fixing whatever issue you decided to focus on. If there are just simple mistakes associated with the issue, go in and correct those. If you didn’t succeed in your ultimate goal of fixing the issues, you have to do another draft on those issues alone.

Once you’ve made sure that you’ve succeeded in fixing the issues you were focusing upon, it’s time to choose another main issue from your first draft and do ANOTHER draft to fix that issue. Wash, rinse and repeat until all the major issues in your first draft are fixed. Now you will have a final draft that has fixed all the issues. It should read well, not be predictable, and be a beautiful piece of screenwriting. Now it’s time to start calling those numbers you got from IMDbPro, but that’s the subject of an entirely different post altogether.

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