Tips for rewriting

Writing tips
Jessica Huang

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Ok first of all, rewriting is hard. Are you rewriting right now? I feel ya. I’m rewriting this article and like every other time I revise, it’s definitely hard work. There are times I’m great at it, and there are more times where I realize I have a lot to learn. But over the years I’ve acquired some rewriting tools that have served me well, and I’m very happy to share.

The tips below are the things I remind myself when I’m feeling stuck. They are by no means exhaustive, and I encourage you to use what works and throw out the rest. But above all remember – you have a play that wants you, and that’s special and worth working hard for.

1. File it and start over.

Usually when I read articles about rewriting, this part comes up sooner or later. I stand by it so wholeheartedly that we’re going to start right there. There is no shame, no loss, no downside whatsoever in beginning anew.

Every time I begin a revision process, I save my last draft, file it away and open a new document. If I want to keep a moment, some language, a rad stage direction, I paste it into the new draft, but for the most part I script from scratch. If you’re anything like me, your new version will come out cohesive and flow faster; your characters will speak clearly and all those fussy explain-y boring bits will stay right where they belong (trapped in the closed file of your first script).

My theory on why this works: a first draft is your brain working hard to figure out the rules of the play, get to know the characters and learn what happens. And, of course receive the intangible cosmic broadcasts that infuse your play with energy and light. But those transmissions get buried under the very human task of laying out what’s going on in a way that’s not only understandable to an audience, it’s understandable to the writer. By the time you start your next draft, you’ve internalized those rules and can write freely the world you now know. Is it time consuming? Of course. But very, very worth it.  

2. Doubt yourself. Trust your play.

I truly believe that inside any unfinished draft there are two things:

  1. The play that found you
  2. Your ego

Rewriting is when you figure out which is which and take anything from your ego and dump it in the trash. We all have the tendency to become attached to the little scraps of floral description we pen, the pieces of plot we manage to work back in, the cool vocab words we still remember from 5th grade. The thing is, as descriptive, smart and sesquipedalian as we might be, the play doesn’t care. And the play is always right.

3. Nuts and bolts to keep in mind:

  1. Do not trust adjectives or adverbs. There is a verb for that. Always.
  2. Characters have a unique way of speaking, and in general, no two characters sound the same.
  3. The answer – to questions like should I bring in this thing, or should I make he a she, or should I set the play on the planet Mars – is always try it and see.
  4. Don’t be afraid to keep cutting. Only keep what’s essential. Nobody wants to be stuck in moments that ended already.

4. Collaborate!

There’s one last thing I want to mention – about the way I wished rewriting happened more often. For most of us, there is an emphasis on playwriting as a solitary act. We write alone. We read alone. We revise alone. When everything is finished and the play is perfect, we hand it off and it might get produced.

But people! There is another way! Actors are these amazing humans who have the capacity to bring another person’s whole essence into their bodies. Directors can envision and track stories from start to finish. Designers see in color, costumes, sound and set. And these people are all around us. Whenever I’ve been gifted the opportunity to work through revisions in collaboration, my work is always richer. Does it sound like I’m saying theater companies, creators and patrons need to continue to seek out and support diverse and varied development opportunities? See #3 section C.



About the author

Jessica Huang

Jessica Huang is a Playwrights’ Center Affiliated Writer. She is a Minneapolis-based professional playwright and freelance grant writer, co-founder, producer and core writer of the Unit Collective, and a 2012 recipient of a Many Voices Fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center. Recently, her play Purple Cloud was nominated as one of the best plays written by female playwrights in the past year by LA-based group The Kilroys. It will have its world premiere with Mu Performing Arts in December 2015. More: