Screenwriting : Rewriting by Nick Nichols

Nick Nichols


Curious as to how much time others take for their rewriting. I spent twelve weeks on the first draft, let it rest for a couple of weeks, and now am wanting to finish my rewrites in ten weeks. Any thoughts?

Steven Harris Anzelowitz

When it's done and you're happy it's done.

Eric Smith

Hi Nick. Hope your Sunday is well. I design pass sheets, specifically for each work, that I use in my re-writing process. I'll choose 2-3 pass categories for a pass, tailoring a seven pass goal (six and a final), at minimum. After each pass, I'll revamp my attack, depending on what I find. I may be able to hit the mark before seven, but I find that seven seems to work well, particularly with a schedule that has distance breaks from the work, in order that I can see things clearly. To put this in context, I'm a big believer in outlining and create a master outline and a one sentence scene/beat outline alongside it before starting my first draft. I recently finished my seventh pass on my scene/beat outline. I can "watch" the entire film from start to finish, in simple sentences, using the pass categories as I go, chiseling the rock away on the scene outline first. This saves me a ton of wasted time and energy in the rewriting process. It also gives me a tremendous amount of freedom, because the hours of prep flow out in a more subconscious manner, not stifling my creativity. So, in a sense, that’s fourteen times, at minimum, that I’ve been through. First, in a macro sense with the scene outline, then micro and more detailed with the drafts. That's just me. May not work for someone else. May sound like a lot, but I don’t believe it is. Because I have a mark to hit, I often find myself being more efficient. Saves me time. I'm almost finished with my last piece of research and my first draft on this spec is a couple weeks out. I'm designing my pass sheet now. Some of the categories that I have for this screenplay are:

1) Suspense / Forward Interest

Is the audience wondering what's going to happen next?

2) Emotional Energy Flow / Beat to Beat

How is the transfer of emotional energy from beat to beat?

3) Setting / World in View

Can it be seen, imagined, lived in? Precision in language. I also include costume, sfx, scoring/music that may be pertinent to the screenplay and other like things here that create the world in view.

4) Truth

Have I written truth? Eliminate cliches, overused tropes, choices.

5) Read it aloud

I would encourage doing this alone and/ or with a group if you prefer, and even recording it for playback.

6) Business and blocking

What are my characters doing while doing? Emphasis on naturalism and realism in action.

7) Arcs for all characters

Are they thought out, complete, or deliberately incomplete?

8) Active voice and removing adverbs

This one is very important to me. Am I carefully using descriptive language that is active in its voice and descriptive in language? I will also go over what I call the “psychology of the page.” For me, this is how the layout of the page makes the reader feel by design. I want to ensure that it isn’t busy, is broken where it needs to be, creates pacing and feel, etc..

9) Transitions between scenes

Are they present and what is their purpose?

10) Nuance

I suggest this one towards the end. What I mean here is: Where am I being heavy-handed? This could be with dialogue, character choices, metaphors, punctuation, i.e. the exclamation mark.

11) Interesting details / "Adorning the tree"

I love this one. I'd say this might be the most interesting one on my list. It's like adorning a Christmas tree with decorations- not enough of something, it's bare and lifeless, too much, it's overkill, even gaudy. An example of this is- in the film Creed, there's a quick cut of some shoes that have been tied together, hanging over an electrical wire on a city street. If you've lived in that area, that's a nice touch of detail- you’ve seen that before. May have even done it before and have a good laugh out of it. Engages us further and if we haven’t seen it, it creates interest. I grew up in Pittsburgh and saw that all the time. Go Philly.

12) Perspective

Can this scene be given perspective? Instead of viewing it one way, can I frame it or tell it in a unique way that deepens the perspective? Juxtaposing some other business or action in the background would be an example.

13) Delete Exposition

Snip snip.

14) Character

Are my characters presented in such a way that they seem imbued with their entire lifetime, up to that point?

15) Applicability / Engagement

Have I maximized my information to be as applicable to as many audience members as possible? My goal is to be able to engage as many as possible, as deeply as possible, for the duration of the ride. This and "Interesting details" are family. I also think about the full scope of my audience- age, gender, ethnicity, etc.. and how I might use information to engage them. I spend a lot of time working on characters with this one, that they may be as truthful and interesting as possible.

16) Threading

This is on many levels. I check for inconsistencies from start to finish. On the positive side, I make sure that all my setups, connections, etc.. are clear, have their intended effect, land well, and move the story forward.

17) Beats, Scenes, Movements

I'm a proponent of "directing musically." I've never been a three act kind of guy- instead, I use movements, like a classical piece. This helps me to be very mindful of the "emotional energetic flow" as I call it, and tone. I find this to be extremely helpful when it comes to pacing, particularly in dealing with the "second act." I don't have to deal with it, because I don't have one, per se. I'm not trying to force my structure- instead, I'm composing. My current spec has 12 movements, or groupings of scenes. Some are longer, some shorter. I can clearly see my pacing on my scene/beat outline and it's easier for me to ensure that every grouping is a clearly defined emotional unit. In an indirect way, it also helps me to see what my "beginning, middle, and end" are really made up of.

18) Framing / Writing Cinematically

I'm putting this last, but it's actually the first thing I do. I do this in my scene/ beat outline as the first pass. I want to ensure that I'm writing a screenplay. Not a novel. Not a narrative. My aim is to use the highest level of "sneaky description" that I can, in order to present clear framing/shots, but not slow down the reader at all, hence sneaky. For example, I do my best not to rely on camera direction terminology unless absolutely necessary (which I rarely find I have to), use "We..." as my second plan of attack, and as my primary- careful description. My opinion is that careful description may be a more effective way of creating framing/shots in the text, simply because I believe it has a lesser likelihood of taking the reader out of engaging with the text and story. "We..." can be used effectively too, I believe, but I try to force myself to see if I can come up with it using description first, and that usually results in an interesting choice.

So, if after my first draft, I feel that the predominant issue is that it's bloated- I can feel the weight of too many words, the length shows it, and the general feeling in comparison with my scene/beat outline is that the movements and flow is off- my first pass might consist of the following 3 categories: 5) Read it aloud, 8) Active voice, removing adverbs, unnecessary words, and 13) Delete Exposition. Before I get down to work for the day, I'll take a few minutes to think through these three things, have them in front of me, and get to work. I'll do this until the pass is done, correcting anything else I find necessary, but I try to stay focused on the pass that I've set for myself.

I have a few more, but you may be asleep by now or have run out of coffee, so I'll stop there. Not trying to ramble on or talk at you- I was working on this myself and was hoping I could help in some way. To bring it to a close- if you did 6 passes, you could use 3 categories per pass, and order the passes any way you like, according to what you believe the screenplay requires. I usually take a short break after the third pass- maybe a week or so and then a longer break of two weeks or more before my seventh and final draft. If I haven’t hit the mark by then, I recoup, and try again.

To answer your question succinctly- unless I was working for hire and was nailed to a time frame, my opinion is- work hard every day and do my best to create the highest level work of art I can, even if it takes longer than I expected. We might just hit it out of the park the first time. Or the next.

Hope this is helpful and happy writing.


Chris Courtney Martin

It depends on the story. But my process is usually to complete a first draft then do another pass to fix the things that are obvious to me. Then I send it to a close friend who I call my First Defense-- He gives me the first set of notes. Then I consider his notes and re-write accordingly. I do another pass to make sure it's showable then I send it out for a survey of notes. I get at least one set of professional coverage and send it out to industry friends for their notes. I consider the notes, focus on ones that come up more than once, and apply others that just happen to resonate. Then I do another pass to make sure my adjustments haven't screwed anything up. I then send it to my manager, wait for notes from him and his reader, then when we're both happy with it, it goes out. This process takes me about a month and a half at most. But take all the time you need. 10 weeks sounds reasonable, assuming you have access to a handful of people who can give you good notes.

Pamela Bolinder

How much time is different for each writer. Writing is a creative art; like exercise, you have to find what works for you or you won't do it.

Doug Nelson

Time rewriting: Forever or until I've sold the script - whichever comes first.

Ted Westby

Someone somewhere said it well. The real secret to writing is rewriting. I believe it was Francis Ford Coppola who once famously said, Put your draft in a drawer for six months and forget about it. Then... start rewriting. Or so I heard.

Wal Friman

I normally finish without rewrites, as I write specs that no one reads, but my latest wasn't one so I thought I might get a long list and rewrite for months. To my relief they only wanted three minor changes. The biggest was that they should kiss and not only hug on page 66.

Phillip "Le Raconteur" Hardy

Typically I take three weeks, sometime less for a first draft. But putting in large time blocks at the computer. I normally take a week to a final polish and edit. I don't spend time rewriting work unless I'm working with a producer who asks me to rewrite specific things based on clear, concise notes. And, if I don't agree that the suggested edits are value-added, I don't do them. The longest I've spent working on a first draft is four months. That was for producer Sean Hoessli late last year.

What makes ten weeks of rewriting any better than two weeks? It's all about doing what works for you and ending up with a product that industry people are interested in reading, optioning and making into a film. I do a lot of polishing as I go along for my initial drafts. The key for me is economy of words, clear narrative, compelling characters with objectives, obstacles and an arc.

Check out this interview with Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Junior: This screenwriting duo wrote one polished draft for the classic film Hud in ten weeks. I do more than three pages a day but I review and polish those pages as I go along much like Ravetch and Frank did. Here's the quote and link to the interview.

RAVETCH: I do. I sit at the typewriter, and Hank paces around. We always work in the mornings, nine to one, five days a week. 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.

BAER: How long does a script usually take?

FRANK: About ten weeks.;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive...

Dan Guardino

I normally write a screenplay in 90 days and two to three weeks to do any rewrites.

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