Why most first drafts of new plays are overwritten.

We get a lot of new plays submitted to us through our open submission program (we’re proud to be one of the few offices that take unsolicited submissions – even though, admittedly, it can take us a while to get to all of ’em, but if you saw our inbox, you’d understand) as well as through our script coverage service.

And if there’s one commonality between all of the new plays, especially the ones by new-er writers, it’s that most of them are overwritten.

By overwritten, I don’t mean that they’re just long.  Because I bet if you polled the most successful playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, speechwriters, etc. about the first drafts of their best work, they’d all say the final draft was shorter (or, as I like to say, more efficient) than their first.  So all of us start out with too much, and that’s not necessarily bad. (I often describe the rewriting process like sculpting a statue – you start with a glob of clay . . . you take a little off, then a little more, and then a little more . . . )

So it’s not long I’m talking about.  What I’m talking about is different . . . and it’s specific to writing for the stage or any performance art, as opposed to fiction, poetry, etc.

See, the text you type into your little word processor, or Final Draft if you want to be really cool (I swear by it), wasn’t meant to be read.  It was meant to be said.

And I find that one of the simplest mistakes that all writers make is that they forget that great actors don’t need a ton of text to get a certain emotion across.  Or, simply said, the words don’t have to do all the work.  The inflection, the body language, the movement, and so on can sometimes do so much more than a paragraph of words that try to do the same thing.

Overwriting is an easy trap to fall into, because as Terrence McNally told me in his podcast, writing is the ultimate activity for control freaks.  And if you’re a control freak, then you might find yourself writing too much “to make sure that the audience gets it.”

But that’s not necessary.  Make sure the director gets it.  He or she will make sure the actor gets it.  And the audience will not only get it, but they’ll enjoy it that much more.

(This blog-tip was inspired by my Director of Creative Development, Eric Webb, who is the guy who reads all those script submissions.  Eric and I are cookin’ up a cool program with more writer tips like this, but we’re not ready to talk about it yet.  But if you want to be the first to know, sign up below.  It won’t be announced on this blog, so the email below is the only way to get the scoop.)



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  • Jeff Jackson says:

    I have shelves full of books on playwriting and screenwriting, but rarely have I come across such a brilliantly succinct insight as “the words don’t have to do all the work.” That has immediately rocketed onto my list of all-time top writing tips. Thanks, Ken.

  • Eleanor T. says:

    See your point from your perspective but…from the perspective of a playwright looking to get my play produced, I(we) need feedback from the producers/theatres et al, once a play is submitted. Frequently, we never hear back again as to whether a play is over-written or whatever else is wrong. It’s always a case of living in hope.

    • Jeff Jackson says:

      @Eleanor: Ken is better positioned to answer this, but IMHO, writers like you and I should understand that producers/theaters/etc. do not exist to help us develop as writers, but to present the best productions they can. The trick is to make our work the best that it can be right out of the gate, and I think Ken’s post offers a great insight for accomplishing that.

  • Jed says:

    “Make sure the director gets it.”

    That’s why god made italics. To make sure that the director ‘does’ get it.

  • Joe McDonald says:

    A great bit about overwriting. I started writing plays back in 1981 (after three years of writing short stories and not selling one!) My first produced play was performed at the Rockland Center for the Arts in NYS. A One Act piece, I had audiences of 60 to 80 people seeing my work for three nights. That’s when I said the hell with short stories. My early stages of being a playwright, I fell into the very trap you discussed in your blog. The word “redundant” infiltrated my work. I was sure that audiences were missing what i was trying to say, so I beat them over the head with repetition. I’ve since learned quite a bit about my craft but still, I occasionally find myself guilty of slippage. That’s where being in a Play Development workshop comes in handy. Since my beginning back then, I’ve written some 45 plays, most of them being performed as Equity Showcases in NYC. Sorry about being so long-winded in connecting your blog and my learning curve, but hey, what the hell, I’m a writer! Love the Producer’s Perspective. Keep it going for you’re doing God’s work!

  • W. Howard Pritchartt III says:

    How does an aspiring creative writer keep from getting screwed and someone taking his storyline concept changing enough to claim without obvious plagiarizing the writer’s manuscript?

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