Rewriting is 90 percent of the writing process. If you don’t believe me, download The Adventures of Luke Starkilleras Taken from the Journal of the Whills. That’s what a first draft looks like. That’s what your first draft looks like to any reader who’s willing to be honest with you. That script improved a wee bit before all was said and done. You can improve your story that much, too, but you’ve got a lot of work to do. For starters, you need to wade through a number of misconceptions about revising (rewriting), what it means and why you should definitely do it.
Misconception 1: You should revise your first draft.
Au Contraire: You should rewrite your first few drafts.
Let’s face it: Revision is bullshit. You can tinker around the edges all you want, but you won’t really improve your story until you tear it apart and rebuild it. You hope you can just tweak a few plot points or sweeten some dialogue without affecting any other scenes, but that’s not going to get you anywhere. In fact, it’ll just piss everybody off.
If someone reads your entire manuscript and is thoughtful enough to give you a ton of notes as to how you can improve it, then don’t you dare ask them to read it again unless it’s massively rewritten.
There’s nothing more annoying than rereading something that’s only been slightly revised since the first draft. That’s true even when friends read each others’ work, so imagine how infuriating it is when producers or agents devote more time to their reread than you did to your rewrite.
Rather than merely refining scenes or dialogue, your first rewrite should focus on fundamentally transforming the characters’ personalities—and this will then force you to change everything else. You should not attempt line-by-line revisions until you’ve totally reshaped your work according to the overarching feedback you’ve gotten.
Misconception 2: You don’t want to mess it up.
Au Contraire: You do want to mess it up.
If any part of your story is fragile or delicate, then it won’t survive the shipping process. Shake it up and chip away until everything left is rock solid.
Misconception 3: If you disagree with a note, you can just ignore it.
Au Contraire: If you strongly disagree with a note, set it aside for now, but if you get the same note again from someone else, then I’ve got bad news for you: That’s when the Back to the Future rule kicks in.
On the DVD commentary for Back to the Future, co-writer Bob Gale quotes his partner Robert Zemeckis as saying, “If one person says something, that’s their opinion. If two people say the same thing, then there are probably millions of people that’ll agree.”
Indeed, Gale describes years of rewrites on that script, both before and after it sold. Let’s start with the most basic: What does a time machine look like? Well, it’s a big metal booth that you climb into, right? So if you needed to recharge one back in the fifties, what would you do? You’d hoist it up onto the back of a truck, throw a tarp over it, and drive out to New Mexico to steal some nuclear material. And in the first twenty or so versions of this script, that’s exactly what happened.
Finally, after years of beating their heads up against the wall, one of them thought to ask, “Hey, what if we invented a time machine on wheels. Wouldn’t that be more convenient? And what if he could stay in town and re-energize the time machine with lightning? But how would he know the exact moment that a lightning bolt would strike? Wait, that gives me an idea. …”
That’s hardcore, ground-floor rewriting right there. That’s how great stories are painstakingly assembled over the course of many, many drafts.
Misconception 4: The problem with modern storytelling is that writers get too many critique notes.
Au Contraire: That is sometimes the case, but the opposite can also be true. Writers need a lot of great notes to do their best work.
We’ve all felt oppressed by notes. If the process doesn’t go well, they can make you doubt your instincts, get hopelessly lost in unwelcome rewrites, and turn your work into noxious slop concocted by too many cooks. But it’s essential to remember that the alternative is even worse. Even if you self-publish, it’s essential to hire an outside editor. But why, you may ask, would I subject myself to that willingly? Let’s look at an example from the movies.
We all know producers can ruin a movie with too many notes, and without a doubt, the biggest problem in Hollywood right now is that movies take way too long to get made. But Clint Eastwood, to his credit, doesn’t have either of these problems. In fact, he’s gained a reputation as the only director in Hollywood who tends to shoot the first draft he’s given, then brings in a beautiful-looking movie on time and under budget.
Great. So he’s the solution, right? Well, not quite.
I love many of Eastwood’s recent films, but his process has also resulted in some real stink bombs, and J. Edgar was pretty much rock bottom. This was especially disappointing because the writer was Dustin Lance Black, whose previous movie, Milk, was one of the best biopics of recent years.
If you put a great writer and a respectful director together, you should get magic, but the opposite often happens. Here’s Black talking about the sheer terror he felt when he discovered Eastwood was going to shoot his first draft:
When I found out Clint was interested it was both a blessing and bit of “Oh, boy … There are some things I’d like to change still.” I’d heard Peter Morgan say that on [Eastwood’s previous movie] Hereafter, he’d had that feeling … but they were already shooting! … But it is funny because I went to Rob Lorenz and I said, “Hey, we should probably cut a good chunk out of the first act. That’s kind of everything and the kitchen sink.” And he’s like, “Well, we’ll shoot it all and we’ll see what turns out well.”
As loathe as I am to admit it, J. Edgar was made too quickly and with too few notes. We screenwriters love to complain about how directors and producers mess up our work with their notes, and that can certainly happen in a situation where we aren’t all working well together, but if we communicate well and learn to trust each other, then we can get the great notes we need to create a great final product.
Misconception 5: There is one platonic ideal of what your story should be.
Au Contraire: There are a lot of great versions of every scene and sequence. Try them all out and see what you find.
If you keep trying out utterly different versions of each scene, you’ll find surprising new angles that serve your story better. Even after you sell it, the buyers may demand that you spend years rewriting and revising your story. Do so happily and heartily. Make them tear it out of your hands when they think it’s ready to go before an audience.
Misconception 6: You should focus your attention on those sections of your story that people say aren’t working.
Au Contraire: Treat each problem like a polyp of an endemic disease.
If someone says you have “third-act problems” or you just need “a new first chapter,” don’t believe it. Note givers almost always misidentify the source of a problem. The person may be upset that your ending didn’t pay off a false expectation, so instead of adding a payoff to the ending, you should go back to the earlier sections and remove the moment that created the false expectation.
Misconception 7: Once you’ve perfected it, then it’s done.
Au Contraire: It’s not up to you to decide what’s perfect. You need notes to know what you have and how to make it better.
Don’t be precious. Don’t be resistant to change. Don’t defend your work against notes. Your peers, early readers, representatives, and editors and/or producers will hopefully all do a better job than you of determining what the story needs, so listen to them.
Matt Bird has an MFA in screenwriting from Columbia University. He developed these ideas on his popular blog, Cockeyed Caravan. He works as a screenwriter in Chicago, where he and his wife, Betsy, are raising two delightful little kids.