Rewriting your screenplays can be a challenging venture, but if you master the art of revising and editing — and know the differences between the two — it can be a rather simple and straightforward process to get to that fantastic polished final draft.
It’s more than just figuring out your story and characters — revising and editing plays a huge part in getting your screenplay from an early draft to a final draft that is ready to be unleashed upon Hollywood. But what’s the difference between revising and editing?
Defiance College discussed an excellent breakdown of the differences, specifically in regards to rewriting college essays. Here we apply those ideas directly to screenwriting and how you can best get that final draft to where it needs to be.
Revising is a process that is ongoing as you write your script. It’s not a simple one-stop activity where you go from cover to cover of your screenplay in one sitting and fix certain elements. And it has nothing to do with spelling, grammar, or punctuation.
Depending upon your own writing process, habits, and tendencies, revision is an organic undertaking that can be a day-to-day or a draft-to-draft task — often both.
It’s different from editing or proofreading (see below) because the choices that are being made and the things that you are trying to figure out affect the big picture of your feature film or television series pilot script — the structure, the story, and the characters.
Some screenwriters blaze through that first draft as quickly as possible and are caught in a web as they try to figure out a way to make everything come together into a cohesive and cathartic cinematic story.
Other screenwriters practice the “rewrite as you go” process where they read back previous pages written during their last writing sessions, revise them to ensure that they connect seamlessly with the writing session pages before that, and then write on under the same style, tone, pacing, and atmosphere.
Whether you’re revising draft to draft or writing session to writing session (we recommend the latter), it’s important to know what revisions entail. You don’t want to be caught in the details of editing and proofreading because you will lose your focus on what the revision is really about — the structure, story arcs, and character arcs. You can also include pacing, theme, tone, atmosphere, and catharsis to that equation as well.
To understand revising you can use the ARMS acronym to ensure that you are staying on that revision course throughout your writing process.
Add — Adding sentences and words to your scene description and dialogue to tell your story better.
Remove — Removing sentences and words from your scene description and dialogue to better embrace the “less is more” mantra of screenwriting.
Move — Moving sentences and words from your scene description and dialogue to create better pacing, structure, and flow.
Substitute — Substituting words and sentences for new ones to create better syntax, articulation, and style.
Once you’ve managed to revise your screenplay through writing sessions and multiple drafts, it’s time to polish that script by eliminating those inescapable and annoying spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes that still linger within your pages.
You accomplish this through proofreading your story with your eyes specifically scanning for those types of errors. During this process, you need to avoid having revision in mind because you will surely miss multiple technical mistakes if your mind keeps wandering to the revising of structure, story, and character.
To stay in the proper frame of mind, remember to use the CUPS acronym to keep you focused.
Capitalize — Capitalizing names, places, titles, months, and other elements. Example: If you’re writing a military script, lieutenant should be Lieutenant (titles).
Usage — Making sure that the usage of nouns and verbs is correct. Example: “Have you packed your luggages?” is incorrect. The correct version would be “Have you packed your luggage?” While this example may seem extreme and silly, you’d be surprised how many mistakes like this are found in submitted screenplays.
Punctuation — Making sure punctuation is correct by checking periods, quotes, commas, semicolons, apostrophes, etc.
Spelling — Spellchecking all words and looking for homophone mistakes. Homophone Examples: Your and You’re. New and Knew. To and Too. There, Their, and They’re. Its and It’s. Then and Than. Effect and Affect. Cache and Cachet. Break and Brake. Principle and Principal. Breath and Breathe. Rain, reign, and rein. By, buy, and bye.
Rewrite As You Go
As mentioned before, the “rewriting as you go” process is often the best way to ensure that your script is consistent in pacing, tone, theme, atmosphere, catharsis, story, structure, and character.
Writing the first draft in a blind blaze can often make the revising and overall rewriting of your script very difficult. Each day that you write, you’ll find yourself in a different mindset and mood with different inspirations and tendencies. If you just keep writing without rereading what you read the previous writing session, your script is going to be very inconsistent and it’s going to lead to multiple drafts.
If you rewrite as you go, you’ll find yourself dealing with fewer drafts between your first and final — and the writing as a whole will be much more consistent and fluid.
Let’s say you write ten pages during your first writing session. When it’s time to write again, you sit down and reread those first ten pages. As you do that, you can revise (using the ARMS process) and then write on in consistent fashion knowing the pacing, tone, atmosphere, as well as the story and character arcs, plants, payoffs, foreshadowing, etc.
When you return for that third writing session, you can read the first twenty pages of your script (sticking with the ten pages per session goal or variations thereof) and revise as you read.
Rinse and repeat until you’re done with your script, and you’ll often find that your first draft reads more like a third draft.
Take Time Away from Each Draft
When you finish that first draft, it’s important to step away from it for two weeks to a month. This disengages your subjective mind to the material a bit, giving you the necessary vacation from obsessing about those story and character arcs and all of the other obsessive details that go into writing a screenplay.
When you return, you’ll find that you’ll be able to look at your own script through more objective eyes. You’ll find those plot holes, inconsistencies, redundancies, unnecessary scenes, unnecessary characters, unnecessary dialogue, etc.
Proofreading is an exhausting process. It’s proven science that for whatever reason, some writers cannot easily see general grammar, spelling, or punctuation mistakes in their own writing while they can easily edit someone else’s.
Get Someone to Proofread Your Script
While having someone read your screenplay for general feedback for future revising is necessary to get an outside opinion, that opinion is often very subjective. So you just take what they say about your story and characters and apply it if you think they have a point or dismiss it if it doesn’t jive with what you’re trying to do.
But with editing, it’s completely objective. That’s what you want when you ask someone to proofread your script. Make sure they know that you don’t want or need any comments or feedback on structure, story, concept, dialogue, or character. You just need someone to point out the capitalization, usage, punctuation, spelling, and grammar. That’s it. And be prepared because, despite the proofing you’ve done, there are going to be many mistakes they find.
Don’t Visualize the Story as You Edit It
That’s not what editing is for. Revising is where you add, remove, or move dialogue, scenes, and sequences. Editing is all about the CUPS process.
So when you read through your script while proofreading it for editing purposes, read each and every word, sentence, and paragraph carefully. It’s easy to skim and lose focus as you try to envision your story. Avoid that at all costs. This is about finding those technical errors in your script — the aesthetics.
When you’ve mastered revising and editing your screenplays, you’ve mastered the rewriting process of screenwriting.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies