Editing is a complex process built around story structure, character clarity, pacing, and a host of other elements. But there’s another kind of editing, a micro-focused process that is as much mechanical as it is creative. Editing a story is one thing, but editing a line is a different beast altogether. People rarely talk about it, but they should. Being concise on a line by line basis helps save page real estate that is better spent driving character and story forward. Short and snappy lines keep readers invested. Most importantly, concise and clear lines turn the pages quicker.
Trimming the fat is good advice, but it’s also general advice. “Kill your darlings” is poetic, but it’s broad. The following points are laser focused. To be clear, this list shouldn’t be used to drain character from a script. Don’t worry about compromising your voice with edits like these. Consider how sharpening a blade reveals a keener edge. These editing techniques should help readers discover your voice, not flatten it.
1. Cut handles.
Handles are any remnant of conventional speech that don’t help reveal character or develop story. Names are a commonly overused handle. We don’t use them that often in real life, so don’t begin half your lines with a direct address from one character to another. Other types of handles include linguistic filler words that we use to stall for time. We develop writing habits where we overuse certain words, and the best thing to do is figure out yours, then use the “Find” function on your word processor to eliminate them. Common filler words include: So, um, uh, also, like, actually, basically, well.
2. Cut gerunds from action lines.
Gerunds are words ending in “ing”, like ending, that often function as nouns. Essentially, gerunds denote ongoing processes, and they’re not useful in screenwriting because we want you to tell us the active situation, not a process. For example, “Sarah Connor shoots” instead of “Sarah Connor is shooting”. Write the present action in an engaging way, rather than communicating a process. A commonly overused gerund is “starting to X”. Instead of a character getting ready to do something, have your character actually do it.
3. Double check – do I need this?
This is a broad editing technique, but here it should be narrow. As you read, ask if something is essential. Do this not just line by line, but word by word. If a word can be deleted without altering the meaning of a sentence, delete that word. This seems obvious, but too often writers will passively read their work while wondering about the broad impact of a scene, rather than actively looking for errant words to eliminate.
4. For action lines, find the focus of the image, not the specifics.
If your script and your style involve step by step directions and that works for you, feel free to ignore this. Chances are that readers are more interested in a compelling visual moment than the specifics of how a character loads a gun or gets into a car. Unless the action line *is* the moment, why is it there? If its preamble or setup, then it’s not necessary. If it feels like you must write several sentences to communicate an idea, take a step back and consider what emotion or revealing activity you’re explaining. Is there a more concise image that does the same thing?
5. If your line barely runs into the next, consider shorter synonyms for your words.
We’ve all felt the pain of a line running over onto another page. The same thing happening from one line to the next is just as frustrating. If you can save an entire line of a page by using a shorter synonym, do it. It really adds up.
6. Combine sentences to cut down on punctuation.
As above, this kind of editing can really help cut down on space. Best of all, if two sentences are communicating the same idea, completely eliminate one of them. Amalgamating sentences (without creating any confusing run-on lines) is an underused tool in the screenwriters’ handbook.
7. Remove unhelpful ornament.
Adjectives are fun, varied, evocative, and overused. If an adjective isn’t absolutely necessary, delete it. This goes for every word, but adjectives tend to crop up in scripts. Instead of adding adverbs, try and think of a more specific verb that will get your meaning across without needing an extra word to describe it.
8. Avoid via negativa.
Say what something is instead of saying what it is not. Don’t describe what someone doesn’t do. Instead write their action as clearly as possible. This can help change “X doesn’t do Y” into “X hesitates” or “X backs down”. Not only is this more concise, it’s also more engaging.
These tips should help you cut down on line length, which helps reduce your page count, which helps your script. Concision is key, especially when every page makes a script seem more expensive. The quicker your writing reads, the more likely people will want to read it. So cut everything you can to clarify what’s left.
Shaun Leonard is an experienced writer, editor, and assistant. He is available for story consultation and script editing. Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaun_leonard