Monday, February 11, 2008


The one class no one wants to take is actually the secret formula to kicking your writing into overdrive.

By Jim Cirile

1,500 words. That’s how long my Agent’s Hot Sheet columns for “Creative Screenwriting” must be. No longer, no shorter. May not sound like much, and indeed, it isn’t. The industry bigwigs on my panel are all characters with colorful stories. And so the first draft of each column always comes in around 2,500 words. Inevitably I am faced with a conundrum—how to crunch all this agenty goodness so it will fit—and here’s the key—*without actually losing any of the content?*

It used to be much harder to do than it is now. Because I took a copy editing class at UCLA.

A few years back, when I found myself doing more and more magazine and internet articles, I enrolled in UCLA’s certificate in journalism program. I had never actually learned to write in proper newspaper and magazine style, how to source stories, how to write copy for broadcast, etc. All useful stuff and surprisingly all useful for screenwriting, too.

But then came Karre Jacobs’ copy editing class.

My first reaction: yecch. It was all about grammar and punctuation and proofreading and “AP Style Guide” rules. But it was Required. So somewhat painfully, I bought the dry-as-Gobi textbooks and dragged myself to class. Little did I know I was entering a chrysalis, soon to emerge a lean, mean editing machine.

We started out by proofreading old news stories written by former students. This was pretty easy. It’s always easier to spot excess verbosity on others’ work (streamlining your own work is something else.) Then we learned the Associated Press style rules. These are important for newspaper and magazine stories, since most publications go by AP style. AP governs things like whether to capitalize President or not, whether you should write out “twenty three” or use the digits, when to use a comma and when to use an em-dash, and on and on. Borrrring. But I came to realize — heck, these same rules apply to a well-formatted screenplay. And screenplays became a lot less confusing when people actually did follow the direct address rule (always use a comma before and after any direct address—right, bub?)

But most importantly, we learned to be concise — get the point across in the *fewest possible words.* I became aghast as I looked back on my scripts. They were all clunky, overwritten wordathons. Agh! So much of my writing was just filler.

Light bulb now ablaze and grafted to my skull, I changed things like Paco yawns, still half asleep, gets out of bed, covers spilling to the floor, reaches over to turn off the lights and sleepily heads into the bathroom to... Paco yawns, jumps out of bed, trudges to the bathroom. All the other action is either implied (something the actor will likely add automatically, therefore, no need to write it) or just unnecessary. An overwritten 27-word sentence becomes a tight 10-word one without losing anything. Amazing! Scripts that I’d thought were tight enough to bounce quarters off of dropped 5 pages of dead weight without losing a single scene or line of dialogue. It was as if my scripts had all undergone the most amazing and painless diet ever, with no risk of the weight ever coming back!

So here I am with this 2,472-word column, two hours till deadline and almost 1,000 words to cut. I always allow my first drafts to go long to make sure I get everything in. And then—it’s copy editing time. EVERY sentence, every word gets scrutinized. 10-word sentences are reduced to five. First to go? Unnecessary asides like, “Yeah, well, it’s like I always say,” and “In my mind, generally speaking, I would say...” All that verbal chaff we tack on in our day-to-day speech—out the window. Next I take a hard look at the quotes. Inevitably the panelists reiterate themselves. They state their premise, make their point, then reiterate the premise. We all do it when we speak. But in an article—out. (Hint: watch for this in your dialogue, too.)

Now down to about 2,000 words. In the zone. This is where it gets tricky. Everything gets scrutinized again. Adjectives—generally not needed. Out they go. My snide commentary (sniff, sniff) gets cut to the bone. I cut and cut, but—and here’s the thing—never excise substance. The key points must remain. Suddenly and miraculously, that column will hit the magic 1,500-word mark, and it will be much tighter than if it had run in its original form.

Do the same thing with your scripts.

If I had to identify one thing that writers in general need to work on, it’s not structure or characterization, although obviously those things are important. But most everyone who’s written a script has read a few books or taken a class or two and has a decent idea. But many of us forget the importance of the presentation. If the writing is tight, lean, punchy, it will grab the reader by the throat from page one. It will tell the reader, “you’re in good hands, this guy’s a pro.” And they will read on. But if the script is overwritten, your script will soon be on the pass pile.

So if you only take one class this year, pause for a second. Enrolling in a good screenwriting program WILL help. But what you might REALLY need is to learn how to ruthlessly edit your own writing. And one inexpensive, seemingly tedious copy editing class at your local university might be the weight loss plan that will turn it into a decathlete.

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