Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite

By Ruth Atkinson • April 30, 2020

Working with writers, both new and experienced, my goal is to help them make their script as strong as possible. This process involves on-going conversations about what works and what doesn’t and invariably results in suggestions designed to align the piece with the writer’s overall intentions. Sometimes this leads to suggesting changes a writer may not be inclined to make. Some well thought out resistance is expected from a writer it tells me you know your story. In fact, part of your job as a writer is to take a note, filter it through your intentions, and rewrite (or not) accordingly.

But during this process, I’ve had writers resist further rewriting by saying, “Well isn’t this good enough? Whoever options my script will want to make further changes anyway,” “The concept is there so isn’t it ok if the rest of the script isn’t perfect?” and “All I really need is a strong first act, right?”

Yes, really, I’ve had these conversations.

While no writer wants to languish in the world of rewrites for too long the above excuses are just that – excuses to avoid doing the hard work of rewriting. Sometimes writers I work with get frustrated by how many drafts it takes to get a piece to work successfully. They want to give up and they find ways to validate why they should. I encourage them to hang in there and keep chiseling away at their script. Writing and rewriting is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time to develop characters, fine-tune the structure, and find your theme. Oftentimes it takes several drafts before you discover what your protagonist’s epiphany needs to be or what your story is really about.

But there are other reasons to keep plugging away chief among them: Your career as a screenwriter.

It’s true your piece will be rewritten when it’s optioned. But hopefully, it’s you doing the rewriting. For example, perhaps your script has a very solid, commercial idea at the core. A production company can see the marketing potential but the script itself isn’t as strong as it needs to be. So they’ll option or purchase it and immediately assign a different writer. Ok, great, you say, I need the dollars. And sure there’s always that. But there are two problems with this scenario – you may not end up with a credit and the completed movie may not resemble your vision at all. So while you’ve got a few more dollars in the bank you haven’t moved your career as a writer forward. Your only defense is a really well-written script that shows your talent, voice, and ability so that attaching someone else becomes unthinkable.

Another reason to stay attached to your script is so you have an opportunity to gain the experience of working with producers, directors, and actors to develop your project. If you are cut out of the process at the option stage you don’t get this opportunity. You won’t see how a script changes with the input of the creative team. How the actor will interpret the role or finesse the dialogue. How a director’s vision will take your script to a whole new level. You won’t get to be on set to watch it all come together or screen dailies that will give you insight into your work. Not all writers get the chance to see their project through to filming and yes, in the current landscape this is becoming even harder to attain. But why lessen your chances with a script that’s not your best effort?

By not pushing yourself to go that extra mile and do the rewriting required to make your script the absolute best it can be you are only cheating yourself. No one said it was going to be easy but enough excuses! Write a great script so that you can move your career forward and get a credit you are proud of.

Ruth Atkinson

Ruth is a Los Angeles-based script consultant and story editor who has worked in the film and television business for 20 years. Films Ruth has consulted on have won awards at festivals and been distributed around the world including  My Awkward Sexual Adventure  screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and named one of Canada’s Top Ten best films, acclaimed short  film ‘Lil Tokyo Reporter, The Perfect Family starring Kathleen Turner which was the closing Gala Film at Outfest 2011, released theatrically and aired on...