By Michael Schilf · January 15, 2010

A few years ago, Richard Stayton, the editor in chief of Written By magazine, and I had a screening of A History of Violence for our students at Glendale College, and the screenwriter, Josh Olson, came in for a Q&A after the film. The questions were the standard “Who inspires you?”, “How do you research?”, “Do you write for specific actors?”, and of course the always expected, “How do I get an agent?” Olson’s answers were for the most part standard and forgettable. To be honest, I couldn’t even begin to tell any details of what was discussed, expect for one thing, and maybe the most important lesson learned.

A particularly eager student presented this: “Say I finish my screenplay, and now it’s ready to go out. What do I do?” Olson paused, picking his words carefully. “Your first script?” he asked. The student nodded. Olson smiled, one of those deep inner smiles as if he was privy to some special information that only a select few had access to. Then he said this: “Get in your car, script in hand, and drive down to Santa Monica Pier. Walk to the end of the pier, hold up the script, and throw it in the Pacific.”

“Throw it in the Pacific,” he said. The poor student was shocked. It was silent for an awkward moment, people not sure if it was a joke or what. But fortunately, Olson clarified, and it turned out that the student had a good sense of humor. No harm done. But the point couldn’t have been stated more notably. What Olson was really saying was that all writing is rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting some more.  

Sure, a first time writer can put together a quality script. Jon Favreau did it when he penned Swingers and Diablo Cody did it with Juno. But they are the exception. To put it a different way, Lance Armstrong didn’t win the Tour de France the first time he got on a bike.

So if you’re willing to write and rewrite, and you’re gifted with a lot of fortitude, keep reading and learn or relearn some helpful hints in writing for the screen.