Screenwriting : Are All First Draft Scripts Dookie? by Phillip E. Hardy, Scénariste

Phillip E. Hardy, Scénariste

Are All First Draft Scripts Dookie?

Ernest Hemingway famously said "The first draft of anything is shit." But he was referring to the art of writing novels. Do you think that's applicable to screenplays? I know many writers that do several rewrites for months before they'll let anyone read their work. 

Perhaps you've heard of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Junior? They wrote a few screenplays including Norma Rae, Hud, The Long Hot Summer and Stanley and Iris. Here's what Irving said about rewrites:

"Usually, we'd get about three pages done each day, and those pages are finished pages. We'd polish them as we go, over and over again, doing our revising as we proceed. So when we're finished, we're really finished. We very seldom do any revising.".

I work faster but very much like Irving and Harriet. I do a lot of polishing as I go along. When I complete a first draft, I read through it several times to remove non-value added dialogue, scenes and narrative. If something doesn't move the story forward or bring value one should consider losing it. If you're interested, this is a fairly decent article on what you should do during the rewrite process, much of which I agree with.

THE CRAFT: Rewriting Tips - Writer Edit Thyself
THE CRAFT: Rewriting Tips - Writer Edit Thyself
Originally published in Script magazine November/December 2009 Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers! Let's lay everything on the line, shall we? Let's have a no-holds-barred, pull…
RJ Smith

I totally agree, as when I write either my SPECS or Manuscripts, I almost never go back for any major rewrite. Once I finish a scene or chapter, that's it... moving forward because I know I write a FINAL DRAFT on the first draft. However, sometimes I shall go back and delete unnessesary dialogue or action. - RJ Smith

Dan MaxXx

Personally, I think screenwriters today write shit-- first drafts or finished drafts. They are not many great stories and storytellers.

The screenwriters, before the era of Film schools (1960s), developed their craft from the Theatre and writing books. Drama with words.

And they used typewriters. Harder physically to go backwards on the page and edit on paper and ink. Them old cats knew story structure before "structure" was even taught by script gurus.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Personally, I don't consider first drafts as sh*t, but rather as works in progress. ;) Thanks for sharing the article. Great tips!

Phillip E. Hardy, Scénariste

Beth: You're welcome and definitely good article.

Dan Guardino

It all depends on the screenwriter.

Martina Cook

Great article, thanks for sharing.

Bill Costantini

I think the greater one's skills are as a dramatist/planner/writer, the less re-writing they have to do.

Dan MaxXx

hey Bill

Ever tried to write with a typewriter? I did. Frustrating. I remember my word processor. Daisy wheel ink. Technology has helped and hurt the craft.

Bill Costantini

Dan: heck yeah, but never a screenplay. I did write short stories, plays, newspaper stories and television ads on my IBM Selectric II - but at least it had the self-correcting tape. I couldn't imagine the days (pre-1973) before the self-correcting typewriter appeared.

If you are ever in Seattle, check out Paul Allen's Computer Museum. It's a few miles away from his Pop Culture Museum. Those are two very cool places. And grab me a few pounds of fresh Alaskan halibut at Pikes Place on your way back, please!

Dan MaxXx


Im applying for a tour guide job at George Lucas' $1-billion+ museum in Inglewood, LA opening 2019.

Tony Cella

I handwrite my work unless the piece is very short or assigned with strict guidelines. My revisions, cuts and editing come during the typing process. By the time I have a script in a condition that could be sent out, it's a second or third draft. Besides proofreading, my main concern at that point is to tweak a few scenes, tighten structure and decide what still has to be cut. That's when I bring in outside help.

Doug Nelson

I think my old Olivetti Lettera is still up in the attic somewhere. It came with Pica 12 point type with no "0" or "1" (used CAP O and I). It has what we called a "shifted letter keyboard" that is a much different layout than today's keyboards - and no, it didn't have whiteout tape. We used an erasure then tried to realign the platen as best we could. So we tried hard not to make many mistakes.

Phillip E. Hardy, Scénariste

We take so much for granted today with the ease of how we're able to use computers to facilitate our work. The though of using typewriters to do scripts is a little daunting. Yet writers banged out beautiful scripts using them. My first foray into scriptwriting was using a MS Word script template I found online that helped me setup all your script elements. It was a really great introduction to familiarize myself with them. And like all new screenwriters, I overused the parenthetical. About three weeks into the process, I purchased Final Draft.

C Harris Lynn

All of mine are.

Robert Rosenbaum

I wrote a few plays on an old Smith Corona, one, in fact, in one play the characters are named Smith and Corona! My first screenplay was written on an early Canon electric typewriter. I think you wrote a line and when you pressed return is was printed. We sent the script off to a typist, after we were done, at a dollar a page. The night we got it back we began cutting and pasting - LITERALLY. I guess I am sloppier now with a first draft, but they are usually pretty close to the final draft. Spit and polish. If the first draft is shit, I usually abandon the story mid way through. On to the next idea.

Dan MaxXx

Terry Rossio has articles about concepts. He says Writers fail out of the gate because the concept is shit from the get-go. So think concept first. Then write the doggy 1st draft.

C Harris Lynn

Not a fan of the "High Concept" model. I also started-out writing on manual (typewriter) but it's a hassle and a crutch, IMO - I only did it because that was all I could afford (I was a teen and bought one at a yard sale so I could stop writing longhand). Screenwriting, in particular, requires constant revision and flexibility, and anything that facilitates that process is a boon, not a hindrance. I use the index cards method, as I develop by scene (dialogue snippets, cool "shot," whatever). That being said, I'm a writer and not... whatever a "screenplay artist" is or whatever ("imagineer," "storyteller," et. al.), so I do my best to type whatever comes to mind, knowing full well 99% of it is shit - random thoughts, thought association, half-remembered shit from a show I saw, song I heard, whatever - just utter, utterly derivative, impersonal shit. Then I go back in and delete, rewrite, or rework everything I can. It's actually a very embarrassing process, since some of the stuff that comes out is the character/story trying to breakthrough and me fighting it, repressed emotional outbursts - general bullshit. It's a cathartic and honest Art form.

In prose, this is not a good method for me, since I tend to edit-out my "Voice" and everything unique or embarrassing or grammatically/structurally incorrect, etc. For screenwriting, it works (for me). A screenplay is more like a journal than a work; I like that it's called a "project" in Development, and also that most of the people with whom you work are oblivious of Art. (Not to diminish, but to qualify.) I like the collaborative aspects of it.

And the fact that it's largely about making money - mostly for other people, I grant you - brings it down to a level of non-artistic value that relieves the pressure of "Meritous Work" which allows me to explore the darkest depths of both myself and society while simultaneously waving my considerable manhood at the stuffed-shirted gatekeepers of the "Arts and Humanities."

C Harris Lynn

Yes, I'm drinking.

Erik Grossman

Most, yes. And by most, I mean 99.9%, so unless you think you're in the top .01% of writers worldwide, then your first draft probably sucks.

Jody Ellis

I don't do extensive outlines so my first draft is always rough looking. I spew it out, have my readers rip it to shreds, ruminate on their notes for a week or two then go back and do my rewrites. Draft two is usually pretty clean and I only go beyond draft two if I am specifically requested to do so by an interested exec.

Michael L. Burris

I got tired of labeling drafts. Drafts can be varying to degree so I really think it comes down to what you truly consider a "first draft" as to any kind of worthiness. Is there a standard for what a first draft is? That's the question I wonder nowadays. Personally I think what a first draft is varies to many that truly doesn't have set or standard parameters.

I consider a first draft the one where you can no longer make excuses for it being a first draft.

It sucks and makes me feel exposed letting that draft out but at least it is a completed, efforted, endeavor at this point and honestly has a minimum of two or three progressive rewrites when I call it a first draft.

I think Hemingway stood as he wrote so perhaps when he finally sat down he contemplated and said: that sucked! Wonder if he meant the effort of standing through the grueling getting it down on paper or the actual draft itself? lol

Dan MaxXx


Do you know the career of Max Perkins? He was the Editor for Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe. There is a movie based on Perkin's life "Genius", starring Colin Firth.

Check it out.

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