Five Tips for a Killer Rewrite

Photo credit: Jonno Witts via Flickr

Writers can often be heard grumbling about the drudgery of rewriting. Those of us who make a living from “the rewrite” are no exception. But I’m here to tell you, there are great joys to be found within those looming pages. Really.

Rewriting is the work you do on a manuscript or screenplay (or anything else) once that first tremulous blush of committing fresh words to the world has passed. It can be a general pass to see what crops up or a focused pass solely on, say, diction. It may be a combination of both. Everyone’s process is different.

The one constant is that rewriting is what makes good work, brilliant (okay, at least much, much better). Five tips to make your rewrite shine, after the jump.

Rewriting offers the rush of creativity and the satisfaction of nurturing a project ever closer to a shared vision. I take equal pleasure in working on my own stories and with those I’m paid to change because rewriting allows me to step back, accept the work that’s in front of me, and juggle its entire world at once, constantly weighing options and outcomes until the right combination is found.

I take extra care when I’ve been hired to alter another writer’s work — work that’s been bought, approved, and greenlit yet needs to be “improved”. I have yet to find a writer who likes the thought of a total stranger rummaging around in their perfectly good story. With that in mind, I tread as lightly as possible, seeking only to enhance and knowing that “good” is a relative concept.

There is joy in the detective work. I get to read the story and reconstruct the behind-the-scenes efforts the writer made to create the piece. Using that reconstruction, I can fill in gaps, change the scope of the film, and make changes requested by the production company, all while maintaining as much of the original vision as possible.

It’s not easy. And less so when you think about how long it took the writer to create that story to begin with as compared to how much time has been allowed for the rewrite. When working on a script sent from a production house, it’s par for the course to never speak with the writer. If only production companies bought writers’ notebooks along with the end product. We all know there will be rewrites and we all know the original writer is often left out of the loop. If the writer were able to package their character sketches and timelines along with their scripts, then maybe there would be less damage done to the many rewritten stories out there. Then again, maybe purchasing stories that fit the production criteria in the first place might save everyone some unpleasantness. But I digress…

How about a few rewriting tips? Here are my:

Five Tips for a Killer Rewrite

  1. Set a goal for each pass.
    Make a list of the characteristics that you would like to work with then tackle one per pass. For example, you might do a full pass simply for spelling. That’s an easy first one and allows you to skim the whole piece, more firmly establishing the entire work in your mind.

  2. Keep a notebook handy.
    You will find a thousand other things that need your attention while you work on, say, the main character’s growth curve. Rather than falling down the rabbit hole (lovely though that is), jot down that thought on a separate page or in a separate file. You may find, upon review of your list, that some items are so low in priority that you may choose to leave them as-is so you may spend your time on more pressing items. I keep a Textedit doc open at all times for this, one per project. Then you may devote your full attention to the task at hand and free your mind from holding on to that thing you found on page sixteen that really needs to be resolved. See Tip #1.
  3. Do a pass for clarity.
    Does everything in the story actually make sense or are there vestigial tails left by you or another writer? Snip them or transform them into the glorious plumage they were meant to be. Are the characters’ wants and abilities clear, consistent, and relevant to the story? Is the geography and timeline clear? What about the intentionally unclear story points? Is the subtext too obscure? Is the mystery too mysterious?
  4. Do a pass for consistency.
    This is a personal favorite. If there’s a seed planted in the second chapter where the love interest covertly plans an elaborate surprise for her lover, be sure that somewhere before the end, that surprise either happens or is called off. Too often setups are left dangling in favor or “more interesting” action. Fulfill or axe. That’s it. This goes for characters’ dialogue quirks, behavioural affectations, and the like (unless something is part of their transformation, of course!)
  5. Do a pass for character efficiency.
    See that there are as few characters as absolutely needed. If one shop clerk can do the work of three in a scene, then make it so. If two torrid affairs may be combined into one even more passionate one, then why not? The obvious bend to this one is where multiple characters are needed for comedic effect.

Those five should keep you on your toes when rewriting and lead you to the wealth of rewriting joy awaiting you. I mean for these thoughts to apply to the majority of stories written for entertainment. Not that they don’t apply to the more artful end of the story spectrum but part of the joy is knowing when to hold back and let something that just feels right fly.

Sometimes the sheer volume of work ahead stops us in our tracks. Just take it slowly, one thing at a time, and you will get through…and perhaps have a little fun along the way. We’d love to hear what your process is so give us a shout.

Photo credit: Jonno Witts via Flickr

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