So a writer hires me to do some notes on their screenplay. I send their notes off and about thirty seconds later I get one of the following messages:
OMG! These notes are AMAZING, I’m going to put ALL OF THEM in the new draft!! You’re AWESOME, I LOVE YOU, can you read the new version for me next week, gonna spend ALL WEEKEND rewriting it!!!!!!!
Really, really upset. I thought this new draft was the one I could send off/film but now I realise I have to REWRITE EVERYTHING, my brain is EXPLODING, maybe I shouldn’t even BE a writer – I think I will go and live in Tibet IN SHAME scratching a living off the Earth. But before that, can you read it again if I rewrite it next week?
WTF is wrong with you, YOU DIDN’T GET IT AT ALL. I’m going to go through EVERY SINGLE POINT of your notes, one by one, just to re-explain why YOU’RE SO WRONG — and then I’m gonna rewrite it and send to ANOTHER READER next week because you’re so wrong!!! And btw, you’re wrong. I HATE YOU.
OK, so I’ve exaggerated a little… on each one of them (though scarily not that much, sometimes).
But which response is the *right* response… Answer? When it comes to rewriting, NONE OF THEM.
That’s right — not even the first one. Much as I like being told how great I am or how fab my notes are, a good rewrite NEEDS TIME. Too many writers believe getting feedback means that WHAMMO — they have their answer, their draft is good OR bad and they have to do *whatever* to fix it and hey presto! It’s done.
Just ten years ago, there were a lot more first-first drafts in the pile and by jiminy it showed!! So it’s good that these days, writers realise the power of feedback — whether it’s paying for reads or sharing drafts amongst their friends and colleagues.
However, this *new* way of working has its own problems. Writers are too often completely reliant on others’ opinions, they don’t PROCESS the feedback they get correctly, instead they ACCEPT or REJECT it *like that*, working on this basis:
“I’ve had feedback. My script is not a first-first draft. Therefore it must be good/okay/better than most of them out there.”
If only it worked this way! Much as I believe ALL writers should get feedback from *wherever*, just because you’ve had feedback does not mean your script is great or that you will finish “quicker”. Sometimes, by getting feedback from the RIGHT place, it will mean EVEN MORE rewrites — as that reader/script editor encourages said writer NOT to take the quick route (ie. “FINISH THE DRAFT NO MATTER WHAT”) and to really invest in the issues they have with actual STORYTELLING before looking at the actual story on the page.
I’ve encouraged many writers to do this, myself; those that have taken my advice, I’ve seen thrive and make considerable progress in what I consider a relatively short amount of time (usually roughly a year). They’ve done this by taking a single script to learn their craft and really practice on. “Practice” usually means getting reports and notes from a number of paid-for readers and making a proper comparison between each set; watching movies and TV, working out what they WANT to do and what they HAVEN’T got in their own scripts; paying for short weekend courses; reading books, blogs, articles; talking to other writers; paying for page-by-page consultations with script doctors. In short, they spend their hard earned cash and time on what I call their “foundation script”, the one that unlocks their potential as a writer. That script will be rewritten over and over again, maybe twenty or even thirty times in the course of that year. It’s their sole purpose and their sole goal — and it’s only over when it’s over.
I learnt this way. I might have done a BA (Hons) in Scriptwriting, but a year or so after the degree, though I had been paid for my work, I was not making the kind of progress I wanted. So I did what I just described above and really invested in my craft. And it worked. Everything I did that year impacts on my writing on a daily basis.
In contrast, others who have declined my advice and said they DO want to “finish the draft no matter what” have come back to me time and time again with the same issues with storytelling — they’ve quite literally held themselves back and ironically slowed themselves down by trying to be quick… In short, they don’t know how to process good feedback — and perhaps more crucially, they don’t know how to recognise BAD feedback.
Yes, rewrites in the professional world that are being produced need to be quick. That’s just the way it is.
But your spec? It takes as long as it takes — to make it as good as it possibly can be, to stand its best possible chance.
Rewriting a spec is not quick — whether you’re a newbie, a seasoned writer or a pro. You do get quicker at rewriting however — what once took me thirty drafts, now takes about ten to get a script in reasonable shape to show people.
That’s right — TEN DRAFTS. My recent thriller was on its tenth or eleventh before someone expressed an interest in it. Since that moment, I’ve rewritten it a further four times. If it gets produced and I’m lucky enough to stay on it, I’m willing to bet I’ll have to rewrite it at least another four.
I started this spec when I was seven months’ pregnant with my daughter… She starts school this September.
Don’t rely on others’ opinions to tell you what you’re doing wrong OR right. Really KNOW yourself where you’re going with a spec – process the feedback you get and give yourself plenty of time for the rewrite. Don’t knee-jerk in your bid to finish.
It might not feel like it, but you have all the time in the world to make this the best you can. Don’t blow it.
ON THIS BLOG BEFORE:
Approaching Rewrites – a blog from 2008 about my thoughts on rewriting
Scriptchat: Focus on Feedback – unhelpful feedback versus helpful feedback
You Are not Wasting Your Time – returning to page one/rewriting
The Feedback Exchange – a free, no-registration-required list of writers looking for people to do peer review with
Wow! This is probably one of the best posts I have ever read! Well done!
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Really useful article. I’m starting to feel like a writer as I started to think I was the only one who is rewriting my scripts a thousand times over. It’s articles like these that keep you motivated to carry on
Glad it was of use, Mike! Good luck 😀