I get asked to critique screenplays all the time. I get them from production companies to read for my notes for possible rewrite jobs, from my manager for the same reasons (got one from him just five minutes ago), from friends who want me to read their latest and greatest, from strangers who think I’m going to read their script and give it to my good friend Steven Spielberg. (He’s not my friend, by the way. When I worked on Jurassic Park 2 he wasn’t even there, just the ILM effects guys who were fun as hell. We laughed the entire two days they shot me running and getting smashed by a T-Rex.)
Sometimes it’s fun, reading those scripts. When I read a bad one with a great premise and I can instantly see what needs to be done to fix it and know the notes will resonate and will probably get me a good crack the job. Sometimes it’s not fun. I’ve had to ask a producer (who I knew well enough to ask) after reading a script, “What would have possessed you to buy this piece of crap?” It can be fun when one of my friends writes a great one. And horrible when I get one from somebody that's irredeemable.
People who have asked me to read their scripts will tell you I do not pull punches. That doesn’t mean I’m nasty or make fun of the writing or subject matter, I just tell the truth as I see it, good or bad.
But you know who I am hardest on? Me. You should be too. No, not hard on me, on yourself.
Great writers I know are the ones who can say to themselves, after reading their own scripts, “This doesn’t work.”
Self-editing is essential to being a good writer. I’m not talking about fixing a typo or polishing dialogue. I’m talking about looking at whole scenes, whole sections, whole acts, and blowing them up if you have to.
Too often I meet and talk to writers who are convinced that their scripts are perfect as they are. If they were filmed as they wrote them, they’d win any award they can dream about. This is NOT TRUE, of course, but they believe it. I know I did when I first started writing, but then I was lucky enough to work around some pros who set me straight pretty quickly.
There is nothing in a script that can’t be improved or changed. I’m not talking about notes you get from others on occasion that make you throw up in your mouth a little, I’m talking about notes you get from YOU. You, as a writer, need to believe that there is nothing in your own scripts you can’t change to make your story improve. You need to view your own work with the same eyes you read other people's scripts. You need to be that critical. It will improve what you’re working on. It will improve your old work.
Got some time? Go back and read your old unsold scripts. Read them like you didn’t write them. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll find you need to rewrite. How much you hate.
I have an old script that all of a sudden is gaining a lot of interest. Wrote it at least 8 years ago. Because of this renewed interest, I read it again and was appalled at what I saw. So I immediately embarked on a rewrite to fix the glaring weaknesses, overwritten dialogue, and a clichéd last page to beat all clichéd last pages. A 1980’s bad TV series episode last page. And this was after it had started gaining interest again. I’ve sent the new version out to the interested parties saying, “This is the version I want you to have, please.” So far, everyone agrees it’s a LOT better.
Now it has me looking back at everything I’ve written and making the changes I once thought none of my old scripts would ever need.
You, as a writer, have to be able to do the same thing. Be the hardest critic of your own work. Your stories need to be living, growing, ever changing things. Take them out and do a test drive every once in a while. Change the technology in them to reflect today. Fix the stupid dialogue. Blow up your bad second act if you have to. Get rid of characters that don’t work. Kill subplots that don’t move the story forward or fix them so they do. Be bold. Use your improved ability as a writer to bring all your work up to your standards today. You’ll discover all kinds of things and maybe resurrect an old script, making it new and exciting.