ANONYMOUS ADVICE TO YOUR YOUNGER SELF: Five Ways to Make Your First Draft Better

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We are excited to introduce the new series – . This column will bring together professionals from different parts of the industry to share advice they wish they had heard along their journey. We reached out to colleagues and asked them to share wisdom and experiences with an eye for advice that might shorten the trajectory of a writer or executive trying to take their to the next level. Why anonymous? We want our contributors to feel they can share openly and honestly, with the best intentions of our readers in mind, rather than with concern over judgement. These are opinions viewed through the lenses of insightful hindsight and do not necessarily represent the Tracking-Board or its partners.

Have some advice, an uplifting or eventful story you’d like to share, or need to vent? Please send ideas and credentials to [email protected]. Paid gig, if accepted and used.

Whether working the mailroom on your first day or a seasoned producer selling their next hit, each of us can look back on our past and find that bit of advice we wish we had starting out. We hope these columns can refresh us on the truisms we’ve heard before, explore the obvious ‘why didn’t I think of that’ moment, or dive deep into the hard-to-swallow words we all need to hear from time to time. None of us get it right the first time, and so these guest writers open up from their personal experiences to help shine a light for the rest of us.

So without further ado, please enjoy the first Anonymous Advice:

Five Ways to Make Your First Draft Better

If you’re like me, then you want your first drafts to be as successful as possible. They’re the drafts you let your friends see, sometimes the ones you tweet about, and the ones that make you feel the most accomplished when you type “Fade Out.”

First drafts can make you excited about the idea and allow you to dream.

But at times, first drafts are the messy, vomit-y, and unwieldy documents. I know that when I open mine to rewrite, I often get discouraged by the mess.

I want to show them to my reps and just get the movie made, but not the way they turn out.

That’s why I started using these five strategies to make sure my first drafts were great and continued my enthusiasm for the idea.

Let’s jump in!

1. Outline

I never used to be an outliner and it showed. I’d open my screenwriting software and type and type until I felt like the story was out there. This was fun and allowed me to make changes on the fly, but it left me with first drafts that were all over the place. I generally write first drafts that are long, but without outlining I’d get like 140 pages on what should be a 90-minute comedy.

That’s when I learned to outline and it saved my life.

You don’t need to Save the Cat or use any other fancy tools. You can just make a list of scenes you want in each act, or write out the important beats.

A lot of times my outlines are just long lists of scenes for the A and B story. I make them separate then weave them together, then I rewrite the outline and add the connective tissue.

Outlines are your tool, so make them work for you.

Organizing your thoughts can help you solve all the problems you run into when writing the first draft. They also can energize the actual writing of the draft.

A great outline will mean you spend time filling in the dialogue and writing the slug-lines, because you already have the story figured out.

That’s incredible.

2. Research

We tend to think about researching screenplays only when doing biopics and period pieces. But you should actually research everything you write. Get to know the people who might inhabit your world and even expand ideas for interesting locations.

Even though I write mostly scripts that would be considered “non-fiction,” I run into a lot of research problems.

It’s not that I can’t research, it’s that sometimes I find facts that disprove my story!

When the methods didn’t sync all the way up with my story…I just made stuff up.

That’s right, I’m suggesting that you do the research and then mold it to what you need. Or use it to help you get a new idea based in reality. Whatever works!

I use research to help inform what I need the world to do at some plot moments, but at other time I use it to help deepen the worlds I am exploring.

If I have a scene with cremation, I try to visit a crematorium in real life. It helps me write effective scenes and also can help inform my characters.

There are times when research matters; historical screenplays should get the right stuff when talking about actual events.

But you should also be able to fib and fudge like a pro.

First Drafts usually just blurt out details and talk about locations and events in the most general way. If you compile your research you’ll be able to write scenes and locations from the most knowledgable place.

Research can also bolster your outline.

And bolster the bullshit you need to make your idea work.

3. Start every day from page one

I got this idea from watching Eric Roth talk on his Academy Awards inspiration video. He says that no matter what page he’s on in his first draft, he begins every day from page one.

Doing this helps turn your first draft into something closer to a third draft.

I remember hearing that and going…”duh!”

As you know, the old adage is “all writing is rewriting.” If you get your rewrite and writing accomplished simultaneously you put yourself and your script in a better position to succeed.

This “polish as you go” philosophy may slow down your writing but it creates the best first drafts. You’ll find that you can accurately assess problems as they go, fix them, and keep going.

Eventually, your first act will be perfect, second act polished, and third act slick, all because you started at page one day after day.

The biggest downside of this is the speed at which you write. I used to be very big into vomit drafts, or spilling out the ideas and refining later.

While I think it does work for some people, that draft often discouraged me. It was a way I’d lose hope in the idea because it didn’t deliver something I was proud to show anyone.

Now, with the “page one” method, I’m way more into what I have when it’s done. I love going back and tweaking because it feels like a much more professional draft.

4. Polish and Spell Check

This is so simple and yet matters so much.

I am really bad at spelling and grammar. I know, I’m a writer! But I have always been more of a “type to finish” and not a “type to be precise.”

Apologies for anything in this article that doesn’t read well.

The most annoying thing about writing is fixing nit-picky things like spelling and grammar. I love tackling ideas, writing new set pieces, expanding the dialogue, planting and paying off things, but I hate working dangling participles and figuring out how many times I misspelled “remember.”

Still, the thing to do to make it feel polished is to…well…polish.

Take a day and make sure the slug-lines all match and your DAY/NIGHT all work out logically.

Go over formatting, tweak action lines, get rid of hanging widows and spacing.

There’s nothing sexy here. It’s all the hard work, but it makes your first draft look professional.

It has to be done, and it’s a great way to let your mind rest by taking care of stuff that’s less creative.

5. Leave it for a week (or two)!

Sometimes not writing is writing.

When you’re done the first draft, wait a week or two. Then reopen it and go through it again. Then you’ll actually be done. After you start at page one again!

First drafts are the time you just want to race to the end and finish. But pump those brakes. You may have typed “Fade Out” but wait a week or two.

Waiting gives you time to rest your mind, rethink your ideas, and reassess what you loved about the story in the first place.

You can get out there, have fun, and distract yourself.

That’s when your best thinking happens because you’re not stressed.

In those two weeks, you’ll find that you accidentally fix a lot of your problems. I know that most writing is active, but passive writing tends to hold the real value.

So right before you post an Instagram of you typing “The End,” wait 10-14 days, then get back into it. Start at page one, go on the journey one more time.

Then upload that fire Instagram.

Wrapping up…

I hope these five tips help energize your next first draft. Screenwriting is an exciting journey. You get to use your imagination to literally make stuff up to keep people entertained.

I love writing. It’s the time I feel most centered and most in tune with what I want to tell the world. Writing is a distillation of my hopes and dreams.

So when my first draft sucks, I feel like all my hopes and dreams are dead!

If you’ve ever felt like that, I hope these five tips help you out. Since I started doing them, they really helped me stay centered and finish first drafts that are sometimes even good enough to turn into producers and reps.

Sometimes.

No matter what, sit down, open your laptop, and write.

Have some advice, an uplifting or eventful story you’d like to share, or need to vent? Please send ideas and credentials to [email protected]. Paid gig, if accepted and used.

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