Professors, agents, producers, and managers drum into our heads, “writing is rewriting.” We accept that fact and rewrite over and over until the mere sight of our script makes us cringe.
But when is a script “done”?
By “done” I’m referring to when it’s ready to be read by industry insiders. After all, even after a script is optioned, it’s never truly finished until the picture is locked.
I wrote a post a few months ago called Rewrite from the Gut. I discussed Slavery by Another Name being a Creative Screenwriting Expo finalist, but how despite the honor, we chose to rewrite it. Since that post, I’ve received many emails asking how to determine when a script is truly finished.
If only scripts had Butterball® pop-up timers.
Looking back on my writing career, I can say without hesitation, the number one mistake I made was submitting my work prematurely. I’m appalled I wasted producers’ time reading a pile of amateur word vomit.
I’d email an apology, but they probably have my address blocked and labeled “horrid writer.”
Yes, if you submit bad writing, labeled you will become. Unfortunately when I started my career I had no idea production companies kept files on a writer’s talent. I naively assumed they considered work on a script-by-script basis.
Live and learn, albeit the hard way.
In the years between then and now, I’ve embraced the benefits of rewriting. In fact, I consider myself a rewrite junkie. The trick is to find the balance between improving your work with each rewrite and avoiding the dangers of overwriting.
For me, feedback is my guide.
Find a handful of respected writers to trade scripts with. Better to hear the problems from a friend than to hear a “pass” from a producer.
Getting Honest Feedback is a post I wrote with the consult of screenwriter Doug Richardson (Die Hard 2, Bad Boys, and Hostage). We discussed the value of analyzing feedback to enhance your story, not change it into something you don’t recognize. I refer more writers to that post than any other I’ve written.
Back to the question of how to feel confident your script is “done.”
For me, that happens when the feedback stops.
I have a few writers who ruthlessly rip my words apart. Those are always the final eyes on my script. If they read it and offer praise instead of notes, I know it’s ready.
Since I’m not as seasoned as Richardson, I gave him a call and posed the same question to him. His response was similar.
Richardson gets his scripts to the point he’s ready for a second set of eyes, knowing it isn’t finished but needing distance and feedback. While his reader is making notes, he’s digesting and answering his own questions, ready to dive back in.
Once he’s rewritten to the point where he’s answered not only all his own questions, but also those of his readers, he’s ready to submit.
“I never turn in anything I have questions about. The only way it’s going to be right is if you work on the feedback and clarify your intentions, making them strong… bulletproof.”
Let me warn you, it takes a lot of rewrites to get to that point, but when it happens, it’s magic. There’s no feeling in the world like confidently handing your script to a producer, knowing it’s going to knock their socks off. Whether it’s a fit for their company is a whole other question.
But your job is to write, and write well – and know when to stick a fork in it.”
Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.