Good Writers, Bad Rewrites

Why do bad rewrites happen to good screenwriters? Learn the four most common reasons why your newest draft can end up being worse than the first, and make sure this doesn't happen to you!
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How do bad rewrites happen to good screenwriters? Ah, let me count the ways! Have you ever rewritten your script on the advice of a professional reader, only to find that the report on your revision-- from the same reader!-- is even more discouraging than the one for your previous draft?

Or maybe, after getting conflicting advice from everyone from your best friend to your dry cleaner, you’re writing draft number 3,237 of your spec script, and are getting more mixed up than a chicken at a motorcycle rally. You just don’t know which advice makes sense anymore!

Make sure “a bad rewrite” doesn’t happen to you. Learn the four most common reasons why good writers’ revisions go bad:

IF IT AIN’T BROKE…
Often, I’ll read a good screenplay, which needs only a little tweaking to make it even better and ready for the marketplace. So I write up my report for the writer, praising his work, and make just a few, specific suggestions for how to turn his good script into a great one. I warn him that these delicate revisions need to be made with a scalpel and not a macheté. I ask him to be very careful to follow my recommendations exactly and not to do anything more.

And what happens? You guessed it. The second draft comes back to me, and I barely recognize it. The writer has made so many changes-- ones that I never suggested-- that he’s ruined what was good about his script. He’s added flashbacks to the main character’s traumatic childhood in Act III; the protagonist has metamorphosed from a young man into a middle-aged woman; and the setting has changed from Cleveland in 1950 to Alpha Centauri in 3050. Sadly, I have to report back to the writer that his first draft was much better, and that he should have left well enough alone.

What happened? Only the writer knows for sure. Maybe he figured that if a little change was good, a lot of change would be even better. Maybe he got a sudden impulse to seek the advice of his writer’s group or spouse, and their advice contradicted mine. Perhaps he wanted to assert his independence from so-called “experts." Or maybe he just had a sudden, overwhelming and uncontrollable desire to sabotage himself. Who knows?

But here’s what you should know: If a professional reader’s report on your script doesn’t mention something as being a problem in your screenplay, then it is not a problem. Don’t assume that those great new plot twists or new characters or settings that suddenly occur to you while you’re working on your rewrite are things that you should try out right away. You can always experiment later, if you want. But don’t mess up your new draft while you’re in the middle of revising it according to a story analyst’s comments by suddenly veering off into unexplored territory. Don’t try to fix what ain’t broken.

TOO MANY COOKS
When working on their screenplays, many writers seek advice from their friends who also write scripts, their second cousin, plus several screenwriting gurus and story analysis services simultaneously. This can be a recipe for disaster. Do all these people have valuable ideas and comments to contribute to your script? Probably. But not all at once, please! Getting the input of too many people at once when you’re working on your first or second draft can drive you bonkers, and rarely results in a great script. Find a professional script analyst, and if what they say makes sense to you, stick with them.

DON’T POTCHKY WITH IT!
Some people are addicted to Dancing with the Stars or plastic surgery. Others are addicted to rewriting their screenplay. Unless you are under the supervision of a story analyst or film producer who is guiding you through revisions, don’t keep rewriting your script over and over again. Chances are, if you keep rewriting your script without competent professional advice, you don’t really know what the problem is, and will start screwing up what’s good about it. There’s a relevant Yiddish expression my mother often uses, that warns against the dangers of endless, excessive, and pointless tinkering in hopes of “improving” something: “Don’t potchky with it!”

“THE SCRIPT ANALYST GAVE ME ROTTEN ADVICE.”
Does this ever happen? Well, maybe once in a blue moon. But there’s a reason why I placed this possibility last on this list, even though it may be the first one you think of when your rewrite gets a “pass” from the same reader. It truly does not happen very often that a professional reader is an incompetent boob. I will leave it to others to decide what they think of me and my advice, and I can't vouch for companies I've never worked for or story analysts I don't know. But when it comes to all my colleagues at Script/Final Draft, Inc., I’m always impressed by their excellent judgment and insights, and their long list of stellar credentials as script analysts and as writers. They're all great readers. I know some other professional script readers, as well, and have yet to meet anyone who is incompetent.

Throughout the industry, most professional readers have been carefully vetted, and have years of film industry experience, evaluating thousands of scripts for movie producers, contests, and writers. Most are also successful writers in their own right. Story analysts are remarkably consistent in their assessment of what makes a great screenplay. That’s why the same script that wins one screenwriting contest, often has won several others with different readers/judges-- and most scripts are read “blind” (the readers have no idea who wrote it or what their accomplishments may be).

Still, it goes without saying that if you are going to hire a script analyst to evaluate your screenplay, check out their reputation-- or that of the company that hired them first.

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So, the next time you rewrite your script, if you take care to avoid the four pitfalls I've described here, chances are your new draft will be a major improvement over your previous one.

Keep pitching. See you next month.

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