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Screen & Stage
The Joys of Rewriting: Part I
By Jonathan Dorf
June, 2006, 17:30

It's much easier to consider a script's artistic merits if all of the elements are clear.
henever I finish a first draft of a play, I take a deep breath and may even wander to another project for a while, but sooner or later, I plunge back in. There's an old saying that most writing is rewriting. It's true.

The first thing I do with my first draft is read through it completely for typographical errors. Sure, there's spell-check, but we all know that spell-check is imperfect: it doesn't pick up words that are misspelled into other words (for example, if you mean to type "hint" but type "tint" instead, it usually takes a human with good editing skills to catch it), and not all programs excel at catching poor grammar.

While I make my proofreading pass, I also make a tightening pass. It's still largely mechanical rather than creative, but this time I'm looking for stage directions (the same applies for action in screenplays) that are overwritten. For example, a character doesn't "sit down." He "sits." I make sure that, with the occasional exception, all directions are in the active present tense (for example, "Mike runs" rather than "Mike is running"). The goal is always to describe the action as succinctly as possible.

I make sure that each character gets a proper introduction (with age assignment and a phrase of spin that allows a producer some sense of that character). I also ensure that no two characters have similar sounding names in practical terms, that usually means avoiding names that begin with the same letter unless I've made that choice on purpose.

While all of these steps may seem relatively unimportant, they're not. It's so much easier to consider a script's artistic merits if all of the elements surrounding the art are clear. For me, once the initial inspiration is out of my system and onto the page, each draft, no matter how flawed the content may be, should look absolutely tight and professional.

At this point, rewriting divides into two categories:

1. Fixing things
2. Making the script better

Here, we concentrate on Category 1, and we'll save Category 2 for Part II of this article series.

Once I have a script that's presentable, I take two steps that can sometimes be combined. In any case, since they're just two different ways to get feedback, they can be pursued simultaneously.

Step 1
I send my script to my go-to people. These are the people who know my work, who get my work, and whose opinions I trust. They read my work regularly and are responsive with reactions and questions.

Step 2
I get a group of actors/readers together privately, and we read the script out loud. Tip: it's always a good idea to provide snacks and drinks. For me, this initial out-loud reading often happens in the writing group to which I belong. If your trusted Step 1 friends live nearby, you can invite them and combine Step 1 and Step 2. I think it's always good to have a few of the go-to people in the audience, but remember that this is not meant to be a public reading. It is purely for your benefit.

Be specific about what kind of feedback are you looking for. Try asking some of these questions:

  • What moments stood out for you?
  • What moments did you not understand? (This is a big one chances are that in an early draft, there will be a few plot holes, and this your opportunity to find them.)
  • Where did the play seem long to you? What moments passed too quickly?
  • Were any lines of dialogue difficult to say? (This is for the actors/readers.)
  • Did any lines of dialogue strike you as not fitting the character?
  • Did any of the lines of dialogue reveal too much? (One danger is writing characters that say too much, spewing the subtext.)
  • Are any characters underdeveloped or inconsistent?

These are just a few of the questions you can ask yourself and others about your draft. At this point, what you want most is their reactions, not their advice on what you should do.

Now go set yourself up to get feedback on your draft and then join us here again next time for a discussion of how to use the feedback without ending up with someone else's play.

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Jonathan Dorf's plays have been produced throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, Europe, and Asia. Published by Brooklyn Publishers, Eldridge, Meriwether, Playscripts, and Smith & Kraus, he is the author of Young Playwrights 101, an e-book for young writers and those who teach them. He created Final Draft's "Ask the Expert" playwriting and is the resident playwriting expert for The Writers Store, for whom he teaches "Introduction to Playwriting" as part of Writers University. Co-Chair of the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights, he holds a BA in Dramatic Writing and Literature from Harvard University and an MFA in Playwriting from UCLA. He is available to playwrights and screenwriters as a script consultant, and can be reached via email at or through his website,

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