Category Archives: Rewriting

The WOLVES “3 Reads” Rewriting Rule

When I was rewriting my first script, THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE, I had next to no idea what I was doing. There was the draft, three hole punched, in a three ring binder… and I was struggling to figure out what the hell to do next.

To keep myself out of trouble, I made up a rule… I would read each page out loud, three times, before I could turn to the next page. If I made a single change, even a comma, I would have to start back at the first read.

Often I would get to the last sentence of the third read, make a change and begin all over again.

It was a silly rule and mineblowingly tedious, I admit, but my pages continued and continued to improve. Far beyond my wildest expectations. It took forever, but when I was done, the pages were flawless.

A dumb rule, sure, but the script sold and the movie got made.

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Filed under Details, Editing, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

Isolate Character Scenes

Try anything! Guess what?! It may help. A useful tool is isolating character relationships.

“Why isolate character relationships and what the hey is it, anyway?” you ask.

“Happy I dropped by.” I say.

Look at only the scenes with Oswego and Rosalie. Constance will be in some of those scenes, too. Without the clutter of everybody else’s stories and plot threads screeching like a million seagulls, study just the Oswego and Rosalie relationship. When you only have one relationship to consider, you can calmly reflect on its imperfections.

Do it like this…

Save the draft as Oswego & Rosalie Sept 11 22 and cut every scene they’re not in, inserting ##### between their scenes so you know when one ends and one begins. Make sure you keep slug lines and scene numbers. Next to ####, write the number of pages between the last scene and this one.

I print everything, but it’s not mandated by federal law. Check state and local statutes to see if you are required to print to rewrite.

With the entire relationship spread across a few pages, problems nearly impossible to see while staring at the pile-of-horror that is your entire screenplay will stick out like a s’more in campfire coals, such as the mournful woe that, from pages 32 – 56, Oswego is nowhere to be found! How could he have vanished for 24 pages?! No way it could have been, egads, pilot error. Could it?

Studying characters’ scenes makes their relationship crystal clear. What’s missing leaps out. Are the progressions as smooth as silk? Do Oswego and Rosalie make a giant leap in their relationship that calls for three added scenes halfway through? You can see what’s moving too fast and what’s dragging. If you’ve written (more or less) the same story point three times, pick the best one and cut two.

The more you look, the more you’ll see. Soon you’ll wonder how you wrote without isolating characters’ scene.

When you’ve scribbled all over the “Oswego / Rosalie” pages, print Oswego and Constance’s scenes for the same repair lookyloo. Then print Rosalie and Constance’s! You’ll be amazed what you discover. By solving small, simple-to-find puzzles in your story, the entire tale will be strengthened… without the paralyzing depression of “I have to fix this GIGANTIC 110 page snarl of mess?! Shonda Rhimes couldn’t solve these problems!!”

Isolating character scenes is simple and delightfully effective.

Remember, try anything. What if it helps?

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Filed under Editing, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

The Lego Sandwich: Everything Is Specific

When, for your dining enjoyment, a child hands you a sandwich made of Legos, it’s a superb idea to ask her what every single Lego block is. You’d better remember which is the patty, the Volcano Sauce, the Sea Horseradish, the multiple mustards, and the Jellyfish Jelly. Woe unto you if you assume any one of those Legos isn’t important. Or is not there for a specific and incredibly useful reason. Each Lego in that foot tall sandwich has a function or it absolutely would not be there.

The same is true for a small child’s drawing. What looks like aimlessly scribbled scrawls of pencil lines and infinitesimal dots… to you… has essential and well-thought-out meaning for the artist. Nothing is there without an objective. Their creator can damn well tell you the reason for every hen scratch. Just ’cause it looks like gobbledygook gooey goo to you doesn’t mean it is. All has meaning. Each line adds to the work’s overall goal.

With writing, the opposite is true. Material often clouds the page solely because the writer can type fast.

If we wrote with quill pens we repeatedly dipped in ink, this pernicious word-vomitorium would be less of a thing. As the quill has gone the way of the Dodo, we tend to make our readers suffer.

When constructing a sentence, writers are WAY less diligent than children making art. Grownups are sloppy. When someone writes with next to no deliberation, sentences can have heaps of greasy fat, settling hard on the tum-tum unwanted and unappreciated. A paragraph can contain wasted words, useless phrases, or (gasp!) entire sentences that have no cause for existence.

If you don’t have one caroming around the house, either rent a kid to proofread your work and tear out every single word you don’t need… like getting rid of extra lettuce in a Lego sandwich… OR make the perhaps unfamiliar effort to proofread and rewrite exactingly all by yourself.

When it’s over, be certain nothing is on your page without a raison d’être. Just ’cause it’s there doesn’t mean you gotta keep it, unlike the six Lego mustards.

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Dumped in Love = Rewriting!

Once Upon A Time, did someone break up with you? Hurt like hell, didn’t it? Everything was terrible. Nothing worked. Life would never be the same. As Jon Stewart says, “Food no longer tastes good.”

When writing is not going well, you get more or less that same wretched feeling. It’s all your fault! You’ll never be any good at this! You’re wasting your time! The page will never love you! Everything you’ve ever done or ever will do is wrong! Why did you, for one second, think you could do this?! You’re a bad, bad person!!!

The good news… everybody feels like that!

To some degree, writers are masochists and when it’s not going well, they mangle themselves. Totally normal! Writing is interior stuff, part of your soul, and when your soul is victim of an acid throwing, you feel supremely ghastly. To return to the “Miserable in the Romance Dept.” metaphor, when writing goes on the rocks, it’s heartbreaking.

But… after your ex shreds your heart, someday the painful feeling will fade. It may take a year. It may take five. But, finally, you get back to normal. More experienced. Sadder but wiser. But, able to function and open your heart. Life improves. You feel good again.

I ask my students, “Those of you who’ve been dumped in love, have you ever been dumped more than once?” A few raise their hands. I say, “The second time felt just as horrible didn’t it?” It’s pretty much the same ripped-to-pieces feeling. Every time. When you’re six, when it first happened to me, or when you’re forty. Just like when a piece of writing goes south, it always feels awful.

The second time your heart is broken, it feels as miserable as the first… except… you survived the first one and now, in the middle of the second go-round, you can look back and think, “My life didn’t stay bleak and dark.” You have the wisdom and experience to understand that, while you’re in the middle of the second heartbreak and it’s impossible to breathe… at least you know that one of these days the pain will go away.

Just like writing.

The first time you write yourself into a hole, it’s like you’re thrown in a deep, deep well by the evil witch in SNOW WHITE. When you’re far underground and look up, above you there’s no light. But, if you go back to your desk, dig in, and keep writing, in the end you will figure out a solution. It takes time, but you will get there. Life improves. You feel good again.

It’s like the end of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?. Toontown, all gorgeous, happy, and beautifully lit, is right on the other side of a giant factory brick wall. Frustratingly, try as they might, the heroes cannot find Toontown. Struggle. Struggle. Struggle! Eventually, a gigantic clanking, self-propelled vat of Dip smashes through the wall… And lo and behold: The entire time, in all its colorful glory, Toontown was right there!

That’s like solving a writing problem. When you at long, long last think of the solution, it may seem amazingly simple. “Why didn’t I think of this a week ago?!” You fume. “Why didn’t I think of this yesterday?!” The answer is, “Because you didn’t.” Don’t beat yourself up. Just like Bob Hoskins and Roger Rabbit, you had to go through the steps before you could arrive at your oh-so-elegant solution. As you rewrite, know that the answer is… there… tantalizingly close… and all you have to do is hit the wall over and over and it will come crashing down.

Grokking that it takes time to mend a broken heart allows you to survive Heartbreaks 2 – 12. Hopefully not that many… but after you’ve repeatedly written yourself out of dark and stormy holes, it seeps into your DNA that you can solve every writing problem — no matter how hideously thorny.

Yippee!

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Filed under Uncategorized, Screenwriting, Writing Process, Rewriting, Bad Writing, Good Writing, Editing

Karl’s Writing Method

My children think this is mindblowingly helpful. I’ve never managed to convince anyone else to give it a try, but, as you’re serious about writing, consider it.

Like most all of us, my friend Karl writes the first pass of his screenplay in Final Draft. To rewrite, he prints it and marks it up with a red pen. What is unique about his method is what he does next.

Most people open up Final Draft and enter the changes from the scribbled-on pages into the existing FD file. Not Karl. He sets the script next to his computer, opens a brand new Final Draft file and re-types the entire screenplay. Because we’re all inherently lazy, we will leave out any word we do not have to type. Karl’s method automatically tightens up the writing.

Karl has been the executive producer on 11 television series, writer on 12. His method works for him. You might want to try it.

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Burning Shoe Leather

I see this a lot. In nightmares!

It is difficult to get one’s head around the fact that a movie is not real life, but a reasonable approximation dedicated to giving a reader / audience an emotional experience.

Face it. Real life is boring. Why you think they invented movies?! Showing “real life” in a screenplay is not a good idea. Showing a shortened, heightened, more intense version of real life: drama! is a delightful idea. Anything that slows the drama is to be avoided.

“Shoe Leather” is when a character travels from one place to another. Across a room. From a car to the hospital entrance or a saunter through the hurly burly of a city street. Anytime someone goes from here to there. By foot, normally, but cars, airplanes, intergalactic spaceships also fill the bill.

That’s shoe leather. The burning thereof mostly is a waste of time. So cut it. Mostly.

Just because a guy Ubers up to his house, gets his luggage and wheels it up the sidewalk toward his front door doesn’t mean you have to show it. Even if, during a rewrite you switch it to a carry on…

At the bottom of page 1, here’s the scene.

*Pretend this is in Courier font! I used to be able to change the font. No more.

EXT. RICK & SUZANNE’S HOUSE – SUNRISE

Uber pulls up to a hyper-cool modern house. Mercedes SUV. Range Rover. Underground sprinklers douse lush lawn.

Rick carries his scant luggage into his wonderful home.

INT. RICK & SUZANNE’S BEDROOM – DAY

Luggage barely unpacked. High ceilings. King size bed. Rick, usually easy going, good-under-pressure, sleeps and twists in the sheets.

In a Jets jersey, his wife, SUZANNE PERRARO, 30s, clever, used to winning, sleeps deeply. Clock reads 5:56.

*

After I printed the pages (to rewrite!), I discovered I’d violated a cardinal sin: burning shoe leather.

EXT. RICK & SUZANNE’S HOUSE – SUNRISE

Uber pulls up to a hyper-cool modern house. Mercedes SUV. Range Rover. Underground sprinklers douse lush lawn.

Rick carries his scant luggage into his wonderful home.

INT. RICK & SUZANNE’S BEDROOM – DAY

Luggage barely unpacked. High ceilings. King size bed. Rick, usually easy going, good-under-pressure, sleeps and twists in the sheets.

In a Jets jersey, his wife, SUZANNE PERRARO, 30s, clever, used to winning, sleeps deeply. Clock reads 5:56.

*

I shifted the Uber arrival to the end of the paragraph, ending on action, and cut the “Rick carries” paragraph. Lo and behold, look what slipped up from the top of page 2 to the bottom of page 1?! A character with a problem. Nice work!

EXT. RICK & SUZANNE’S HOUSE – SUNRISE

Hyper-cool modern house. Mercedes SUV. Range Rover. Underground sprinklers douse lush lawn. Uber pulls up.

INT. RICK & SUZANNE’S BEDROOM – DAY

Luggage barely unpacked. High ceilings. King size bed. Rick, usually easy going, good-under-pressure, sleeps and twists in the sheets.

In a Jets jersey, his wife, SUZANNE PERRARO, 30s, clever, used to winning, sleeps deeply. Clock reads 5:56.

Rick wakes stressed.

*

This is a movie! (or television, of course) Not real life. Like Samantha in BEWITCHED, characters can go places in the blink of an eye. You don’t have to show them go there for us to understand that they got there.

I would love to know if this is true: supposedly… until the James Bond films, characters always entered rooms. That editor decided he didn’t need to show someone coming into a room. Because she’s there, the audience will understand that the woman in the living room must have opened the door and walked in… By cutting needless entrances, he gave those films a little snap that hadn’t existed before.

It deftly illustrates my point and it’d be swell were it true.

It’s hard to comprehend how little time a film audience has to waste. Anything you can do to speed up the read or the viewing experience, do. This includes people going places for more or less no reason.

If you mark out a moment of burning shoe leather and it doesn’t affect our understanding of the scene or the following scene, why keep it? Look at the end of every scene. Does the scene end with someone getting up and going somewhere? Driving to a new location? Walking across a room toward another room?

These activities wear out their shoes. Because these days a good shoe repair shop is hard to find, you want to add wear to your characters’ shoes as little as possible. Common courtesy! While you’re looking after your characters’ shoes, you’re also taking care of your reader. Most burning of shoe leather can be cut. Not all, mind you, but muchly much.

Once upon a time, I gave a screenwriting master class in Perpignan, at a film studio in southern France. Nice work if you can get it.

There were 25 students at a conference room table. At my end, the screenwriting students. At the far end, animators. We were discussing rewriting.

One writing student asked about a scene he was about to shoot. “The character leaves their apartment building, goes down the street to the train station. Buys a ticket and gets on a train and goes to the next town. From the station, he goes to the casino.”

I said, “Why does he take a train to the next town?”

“Because that’s where the casino is.”

“Who cares if, in real life, the casino’s not in Perpignan? What if you just have him walk out of the apartment, go down the street, and enter the casino?”

The writer nodded, blown away at the agony I’d just saved him and his crew.

At the end of the table, an ashen animator spoke. “I wish I’d had you as a teacher. We had a scene where a character gets on a train in Paris, rides to the south, gets out of the train in Marseille and leaves the station. In the end, we cut the train ride, so now the character gets on the train in Paris and comes out of the station in Marseille.

Horrified, he added, “The train ride sequence took us a month to animate.”

That is my finest, and most painful, example of burning shoe leather. Would that they had cut it during the rewriting process!

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Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

A Rewrite Does Not Have to be a Mountain of Despair

When surging forward on your first pass, attacking that diabolical blank screen, it’s crucial to feel you’re Wonder Woman or Thor, knocking away bullets of self-doubt with your magic bracelets or Mjölnir, your super duper hammer! Rocket forward so fast that the gremlin of failure is left choking in your dust and Get. That. Draft. Finished. You do that by successfully pretending to be all-powerful, Almighty, all-knowing, and really, really talented.

Only after you write FADE OUT. are you allowed to turn into a runny-mascara puddle of insecurity.

Sadly, stewing on the epic list of disastrous messes in your first pass can turn a rewrite into a Gibraltar of pain and misery. How could anyone ever solve all these horrible problems? How could anyone ever eat this granite mountain one tiny stone at a time? Staring down the double-barrels of an entire rewrite is a daunting assignment.

However, there are pain-free actions to keep you chugging toward the distant goal of: Next Draft! Non-anguish-inducing exercises will move you forward with minimum to zero stress.

Make a list of simple projects that won’t push you to suicidal thoughts.

Fix your slug lines! Check punctuation at the end of each sentence! Go through every line of dialogue, character by character, to see if that dialogue sounds like them… say, Catherine the Great instead of Emo Phillips! See if an action is followed by no reaction! Or, if a reaction is not set up by some kind of action! Simple!! Do any characters say two lines that basically repeat the same thought?! Cut the weak one! Would adding a prop to this scene help?! In each scene, can you raise the conflict, even a little?!

What about research?! Less pressure than rewriting, and now that you’ve got a draft, you’ll waste far less time researching dead ends! Lose starter words in dialogue! Easy peasy! Go through each paragraph of action description and tighten it until it squeaks! Are there words in there that you don’t quite know the meaning of?! Ask that simplest of questions, “Are my character names confusing?!” Read scenes out loud! See if your sentences end with the most powerful word! Check for eighth grade grammar mistakes! Check for fourth grade grammar mistakes!

Solving a small puzzle, Sherlock, does not require higher brain function anything like cracking the Enigma code of “I can’t fix my main character so I’m gonna die in a ditch…”

Find simple tasks that will help.

The great thing about non-depressing mechanical chores is that they effortlessly get your head in the story and, from time to time, grand ideas will shimmer to the surface and easily solve part of that whole giant Gibraltar rewrite agony.

Small steps lead to big bites.

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Cut the Mom’s Head Off with a Sword!

Whatever you do, don’t be too protective of your idea or script. Don’t worry about bad guys in Hollywood stealing your inimitable idea and sailing to the Maldives. The odds of that actually happening are extraordinarily limited, but the odds of a producer thinking you’re paranoid and running like blazes are quite real.

So, quick advice: tell your story to anyone who’ll listen. Saying it out loud will help. A ton.

Once upon a time, I was directing a short film and, the day of the last shoot, was having breakfast with a friend. He asked me what my story was about and, not being paranoid, I told him.

As I described the climactic confrontation between the heroine and her oppressive mother, I realized, to my shock, dismay, consternation, horror and amazement! that I had neglected to include that oh-so-critical final confrontation in the script and, therefore, it was not on the shot list! and was not going to show up in the editing room! ARRGGHHHH!!!

I quickly wrote a titanic battle between daughter and mother on the steps leading to the girl’s bedroom. My image was two Arnold Schwarzenegger types with broadswords hacking their way up and down blood-soaked stairs until finally, the exhausted daughter slices off her mother’s head and is victorious.

It was a useful way to write an argument.

Which brings me to a couple of thoughts…

1.) However you define “mortal combat”, it has to happen at the climax between your hero and opponent. That face off must be as intense as your story’s tone will allow, yet still be believable.

But you have to have it!

We waited the entire movie to get here! Don’t be stupid like I was and forget that, at the end, you gotta have a slugfest.

Happily for me, both actors were superb and the mother cried when her daughter announced she was going to live her life free from her mother’s shackles. That’s not what she said, but you get the point.

2.) Telling my story out loud saved the movie. Because I was speaking, my mind operated in a different way than had I been writing. Jiggling your brain around will work miracles for your story.

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Filed under character, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Short Film

Bugaboo words! Writer beware!!

You have them. I have them. David Mamet has them. Maybe he has fewer than I do, but probably not.

You need to start a list of your own personal Bugaboo words. “How can I do that?” you say… “I don’t know what a Bugaboo word is!” Thank you for mentioning that. I hadn’t realized.

It’s a word you use a lot. A lotty lot. Like, overuse, dude. You’re not aware you do it, because it’s invisible and insidious like the Communist conspiracy to sap our precious bodily fluids. It’s a word that you overuse, like a crutch, a habit, a tic. A word that creeps into your writing naturally, repeatedly, with malice aforethought. And you don’t notice until, in rewriting, you actually look.

It’s important not to worry about Bugaboo words, or anything else, really, while you’re cranking through your first pass, which is between you and nobody. As you chug along on your first pass, don’t worry about anything! Pretend you’re Aaron Sorkin and: Get. The. Words. On. The. Page. Assume they’re genius. Mush on!

When it’s time to rewrite, pull out your list of Bugaboo words… the more you add, the more you can get rid of. I will now plug a book I did not write. Imagine that! The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale is the finest thesaurus I’ve ever seen. I have a hard copy. I use it constantly. It is especially helpful when replacing Bugaboo words.

You can get a copy online for as little as $1.00. Or more.

Me, I have a tendency to start sentences with “And”. See four paragraphs above. This is okay, every now and then. “Every now and then,” only. I don’t want to look like an idiot. Do I?

Here’s my list. Notice how many are on the 7 Deadly Sins of Writing list. Mistakes you make, I make too!

And, appears, become, begin, both, cheap, colossal, completely, comprehend, down, exquisite, face, feel, feeling, flinch, gigantic, hauls, huge, immense, jerk, just, look, marvel, massive, percolate, pleasant, prodigious, pulls, rapid fire, realize, really, revel, seems, sit, some, stand, start, still, tremble, turn, very, walk, yank

One of my Bugaboo words is “immense.”

I search my script for “immense.” First time I find it, I leave it alone. But, after that, I insert other words in its place. Opening my trusty Synonym Finder, I check out “immense.” It gets to be a game. How can I clear out as many “immenses” as possible and the writing still feel like I wrote it?

Immense, adj.

1. vast, extensive, broad, wide, expansive, Archaic. vastly, Archaic. immane; voluminous, bulky, capacious, massive; huge, enormous, large, big, prodigious; great, towering, staggering, great big, stupendous, tremendous, Sl. humongous, Sl. hulking; titanic, cyclopean, Atlantean, Brobdingnagian; colossal, mammoth, gigantic, monstrous, monumental, jumbo; elephantine, hippopotamic, leviathan, behemoth, dinosaurian, metatherian.

2. immeasurable, boundless, illimitable, unlimited, uncircumscribed, unbounded, limitless, shoreless; endless, interminable, infinite, inexhaustible, never-ending; incalculable, measureless, fathomless, unfathomable, undeterminable, indeterminate.

Stephen King sniffs at anyone who uses a thesaurus. He gets to be Stephen King. I don’t. In Mr. Jensen’s “Primal Forces of Nature” speech in NETWORK, Paddy Chayefsky used “immane”. I’m not Chayefsky either. I need all the help I can get. Then again, he may have had Rodale’s book.

If I’m looking for sentences that start with “And,” I click Match Case so I won’t find every “and”, only those at the beginning of a sentence. I search for “And with a space after it” which steers me clear of words like Anderson.

Repeated words… Readers notice this stuff. Other writers notice. Overuse of words is a sign of weak writing, which is fine, but also a sign of pathetic rewriting. Not a resume builder.

Start your Bugaboo list today. Why wait? Like much of rewriting, the Bugaboo search & replace is mechanical. It moves you forward but induces no angst. Unless you mislaid your trusty copy of Rodale’s Synonym Finder. Then, angst galore!

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Physical Writing. Get it right.

Just delivered notes on a client’s script and want to share…

My last three clients totally had their ducks in a row when it came to physical writing. By that I mean the words on the page were succinct, perfectly chosen, and, essentially, invisible.

I was thrilled Your Screenplay Sucks! was named Number One Best Screenwriting Book to Read in 2020 by Script Reader Pro. [see link above!] One thing they mentioned was that I spent time talking about sentences.

Warm my black heart!

I don’t know if screenwriting is the most difficult form of writing. For sure it’s bloody hard. I’ve never tried poetry, but I imagine it’s like cracking rocks on a chain gang. Hell, all writing is tough.

At the beginning of your writing life, and every step of the way until the pen slips from your warm, dead hand, you’re asking your reader to read to the next page. And the next page and all the way to the end. Your only job, continually, page after page after page after page after page, is to never disappoint your esteemed and precious reader. You must make that happen on every single page,otherwise you will have spent all that time gestating a child who dies before ever going through the birth canal.

Use every tool on your workbench to get them to turn the page! All that hooha about plot and story and character and rising action and dénouement matters. To succeed, you better have your game on in all those departments. But, if your prose is mediocre, you don’t have wisp of a prayer.

If your sentences aren’t at “Hollywood level,” you will not get an agent. You will not sell your script. You will not get laid by a super hot actor. If you learn something, the experience will not have been a waste of time. But if you don’t learn and do fail to adjust, all that travail will have been for naught.

The foundation of good writing is good writing. That means: sentences.

Your Screenplay Sucks! is divided into three acts. Act Two, Physical Writing, is the most boring material in the entire book, and because fixing prose is a pain in the ass, I bet people skip it. Before they send their script, I tell every client to massage the prose. I email them examples of what to do. [above, click Handouts, click Physical Writing handout] They often say, “Oh no, don’t worry. I’m ready.” Meaning, “My prose is in tiptop shape.” After they see the bright red line notes on their first 20 pages, which often look like I slit a hog’s throat on ’em, I get chagrined emails saying, “I had no idea…”

Study the middle of my book. Soak up The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Read websites that talk about this stuff. If you find good ones, send them and I’ll put them here to help other writers.

I say this all the time: I only have so much time to deal with your script. I am hardwired to work on physical writing first. If you make me waste time cleaning up your prose, I will have less time to help you with story, structure, and character, which is what I am really good at.

I also say this all the time: “When they pick up your script, after they check the page count, first thing they’re going to do is read page one. They will have no clue if you understand structure or character or storytelling. But, they will know if you can write a clear, clean, concise sentence.”

These people read screenplays all day long. If your physical writing is not top-flight, they’ll decide you don’t care about professional-level attention to detail. If they stop reading, the only person you’ll have made happy is the dude who sells you toner.

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