Redrafting- by Royal Exchange Dramaturg Suzanne Bell

What works for you? 

I want to start this document by stating, categorically, that there is no right way or wrong way to re-drafting, there is only what works for you.  Every writer’s process is different and the process of writing each play can be different.  American playwright and director Moss Hart said that one never learns how to be a playwright, only how to write one particular play.  The next play, no matter how “experienced” the playwright, is something about which he/she knows nothing.  He/she cannot know how to write it, has no guidelines, because, before it is written, it has never existed.


Recognising, understanding and communicating your process can be difficult – identifying what helps you and what doesn’t can be hard to articulate, particularly when you are starting to discover your writing.  But for people to support you in the development of your work, it is vital that you carefully consider and endeavour to communicate what is useful to you as an individual on your journey with this particular play.


The old adage “95% of writing is re-writing” can be daunting but it can also be exciting, satisfying, exercising, exorcising and surprising.  It is interesting that the title “playwright” is not spelt “playwrite” – it derives from the verb “to wrought” – to craft and shape something.  So this is your opportunity to craft and shape your work.


Each writer approaches a first draft and subsequent drafts differently.  Some writers start writing and let the characters lead the way, taking the twists and turns and not knowing where this may lead them or how the play might end.  Their first drafts may be 250 pages – a large block of marble from which they can begin to chip away and find the shape and carve out the play they want to write.  Other writers might spend months thinking about their play, shaping it in their heads, asking themselves and their characters questions, focusing on the story and envisaging it on a stage before they even sit down to put pen to paper.  Other writers might plan meticulously, creating charts and mood boards, outlining a structure, doing a scene breakdown or beat bullet points, writing back stories for their characters and drawing the audience’s perspective of the opening image so that when they come to write what may be termed the “first draft” really it is something which has already gone through a considered process of shaping and crafting.


So, you see, there is no right way or wrong way.  There is only what works for you.  What follows are suggestions and thoughts.  They are hopefully useful food for thought.  Some suggestions might work for you, others might not, but I hope they help to galvanise you into crafting the play that you want to create.  Be rigorous, take your work seriously, craft it and strive for it to be the best that it can be.  And listen to people and take advice.  But, crucially, don’t lose sight of what you are striving to achieve in your work.  Because at the end of the day, it is your name on the play, not anyone who may have read and offered their thoughts.  You are the author of your work.  With that power also comes a great deal of responsibility.


What is it that you are trying to write?


It is important for you to try and pin down why you are writing this play and what you want this play to be so that you can drive its development.  If you aren’t clear about this or don’t communicate this, you risk just responding to everyone’s thoughts and notes and taking the play in conflicting directions and consequently ending up with a hybrid mess that will probably satisfy no one, least of all you.  If you can be clear about what the aim of your play is, what you are striving to achieve through your play, the goal posts are clear and everyone can work together to help you achieve that goal, rather than taking you in a myriad of different directions.  Subsequently any thoughts or comments you receive are aimed and focused on you achieving that goal rather than writing the play they want you to write – after all, the play has your name on it.


So, what is the play about for you?  What is your goal in writing this play?  What do you want the audience to experience in their journey through your play?


Try to address the following in a focused way that is no longer than one sentence –


  • “To write a play one must passionately believe in something that one wants to communicate.” (Willy Russell)  What is the play about for you?  This is in terms of themes, ideas, what is driving you to write this play.
  • “A play produces ideas, ideas do not produce a play.” (Sam Shepard) What is the central question that you are asking the audience, exploring with the audience?  You don’t have to answer that question, you don’t have to have all the answers, after all your audience aren’t there for a lecture but to explore the questions of human existence together in a communal experience.
  • “Theatre is a place where you come to hear stories that help you make sense of things.” (Philip Ridley) What is the story of your play?  Arthur Miller started each play with “this is the story of a person who…” – finish that sentence and see if you know precisely the story you wish to tell your audience.


This can also be about finding what some people refer to as the “deep thread or groove” of your play – the DNA of your play, the very core of your play.  It might take a few drafts before you can really visualise and articulate this deep thread but it can make re-drafting joyful and empowering.


Distance Yourself From It


There may come a point in your writing of this play when you feel “blinded” by your play – you can’t see the wood for the trees.  You have been so immersed in it for so long, you don’t know whether it works or not and quite frankly you’re sick of the sight of it.  Don’t panic!  I think everyone goes through this at some point in the development of a script.  So now is the time to ignore it.  Give yourself time to think about other things in order to achieve more objectivity from your play.  The play probably still exists in your mind, you can’t help but think about it as you go about other tasks (both mundane and absorbing) but don’t put pressure on yourself to immediately find and implement all the answers.


Read, Read and Read again


Print your script off and bind it.  See it as a separate object.  As a text that exists outside of your computer and away from the ease of quickly deleting one line or changing one word on the screen.  Then take the time to sit down and read it.


Read your play five times.


The first time you read it, you are the audience.  Don’t put the play down.  Think about how the audience would experience your play if they were sat watching it.  Read it from start to finish without interruption.  If there is an interval, take a 15 minute break.  Don’t make any notes, don’t write anything down, just be the audience.


Then read it again, making rough notes.  Think about questions that arise in your mind – ask questions rather than offering solutions at this stage.  Think about broad scenes you feel aren’t quite right but you’re not necessarily sure why.  Go back to your points about what your aims are for the play and ask yourself whether you are achieving them dramatically, theatrically, economically and emotionally truthfully.


When you read it the third time, read it out loud.  Record the reading of your play.  This might sound excruciating, but your play does not exist to be read in silence.  It exists to be performed in the mouths of actors.  So what is the rhythm of the language of your play?  Play all the characters as you hear their voices in your head.  Are you capturing their voices on the page?


Read it a fourth time.  This time make more specific notes, more detailed thoughts, more miniscule observations.  Again, ask yourself questions about your play rather than always trying to initially find the answers.  As you read the play, try listening to the recording you made of the speaking of your play so it now exists even further outside of yourself and your mind.


Finally read it a fifth time.  Again try to read it as the audience.  From start to finish without interruption.  And if there is an interval, what will bring the audience back?  Think about all the notes and questions you have made as you have read it and how you might answer some of those questions and how those questions might change the audience’s journey through the play.  Don’t worry if you don’t know the answers or how you might address the issues and questions at this stage.


A Trusted Pair of Eyes


Is there someone you know who you trust who could read your play and offer some feedback or just have a discussion about your play with you at an early stage in its development?  Someone who can be honest without being brutal.  Someone who gets you.  This can be invaluable in helping you not only get some objectivity about your work but also to try to clarify what it is that you are striving to write.  But if they read the play, they have to be clear about why they are reading your play and what you need from them in the reading of the play.  You need to drive that discussion so that it can be useful to you.  Prepare questions about your work.  Ask them what questions they have (rather than opinions).  They can’t (and maybe shouldn’t) always offer solutions but they can perhaps ask the right questions which highlight a problem in your work which you can go away and think about how to solve.


When Making Notes –


  • Initially try writing notes on the script.
  • Try using different colours of pens to highlight different objectives in terms of things you need to address in the writing of your script – character, structure, narrative, story, theatricality
  • Look for what ISN’T there.  Which moments aren’t dramatic?  Does the play include all the emotional and intellectual material you intended?
  • It can be easy to focus on the negative, to focus on what isn’t working.  But that can become disheartening.  So also make a note of the positive – what moments really work and come alive in the piece?  Where is the play achieving what you aspire for it to be?
  • Look at the play from each character’s perspective – can you tell the story of the play from each character’s perspective?  Does each character have a defined journey in which their off-stage life impacts on the on-stage drama?  How does each character’s perception of themselves, each other and the world around them fundamentally change through the play?  How are they different from when we first encounter them to when they finally leave the play?
  • Is there a combination of characters you haven’t tried out?
  • Do the metaphors and imagery you use suit the character, question and theme?
  • Add to your own notes, any thoughts you might have been given by other people.  But put these into your own wording so that you own these thoughts.  But don’t take these external notes unthinkingly.  Consider how the notes from anyone else fit with your own vision of the play.
  • Now transfer your notes to a separate piece of paper.  Some of these notes might go.  Some notes might be combined or amalgamated – what might initially appear, from page to page, like 30 notes, might actually be 4 or 5 larger problems to be addressed through the whole piece.  You might identify some notes as priorities over others.
  • Your play has an intricate web of structure so you need to consider how changing one element might have an impact elsewhere in your play.
  • Can you justify everything you have put on the page?  Do you know why it is there?  Why that character says that thing at that point in the play?  Why that line of dialogue is a question rather than a statement?  How that action will impact on the rest of the play?  Is there anything superfluous?  Are you repeating the same intention in different ways?  It can sometimes feel a bit brutal – a line might be beautifully written but it may be in the wrong play (don’t delete it, save it for the right play), or a moment of action you thought was character-defining is too obvious.  You need to be tough on yourself and take responsibility for your decisions and actions in your work.
  • If your play involves research, is there any new information that you might need to gather before you can continue or is it time to put the research away and see the play as a fictional piece of drama that now needs to be shaped dramatically and stand independently from your research?


Chart It


This can sound a bit strange but I know can prove incredibly helpful to some writers.  Think about the craft of your play not only as artistic but as something scientific.  Can you chart the journey of the shifting power dynamics of the play?  Can you chart the emotional journey of each character?  What is the driving or predominant characteristic of each character?  Can you chart the beats of the audience’s journey through the play – their emotional journey, their intellectual journey, their psychological journey and their perception of what they are watching?  How do you want them to read or understand your play?  How do you want to leave them as they emerge from the experience of watching your play?


Just as a DJ thinks very carefully about the experience he/she wishes to give clubbers and how that affects the set he/she will put together – building the dancefloor up, breaking it down, building it up again into a frenzy etc – don’t forget you are writing your play for a live audience and you are in control of the experience you are giving that audience.


Plan It


You have now been rigorous in delving into your work and asking yourself what you want to achieve with your play and whether you are achieving it.  Now think about defining what your plan is for the next draft, scene by scene, from start to finish, in as much detail as you find helpful.  You may only want to note the changes that are needed.  You may want to think about the objective of each scene?  You may want to write a full summary of the action in each scene?  Are you clear about what your intention is behind each scene, what you are trying to achieve in that scene and how it fits into the play as a whole?  Take your time but think about it all the time.




“It is a mistake to ever write a play without giving your whole life to it.” David Hare


Now start writing.  It can be tempting to start writing straight away in re-drafting.  To just immediately respond to notes.  To do the first thing that comes into your head to solve any problems that might arise.  But your play is a delicate, carefully structured, rigorously considered, living organism that needs time, deep thought and emotional investment.  It can feel a daunting task and you may just want to stop and say “enough”.  Alternatively you may want to write draft after draft in an attempt to “get it right”.  But think about writing the right draft for you.  As I said at the beginning, there isn’t a right way or wrong way, there is only your way.


“With each new set of notes I wondered how I was going to achieve what was needed.  Where was it all going to come from?  I knew it could be better but wasn’t sure how to make it work.  I’d be frightened of beginning a new draft and put it off.  But once I got going it always improved.  Without feedback and re-drafting, I wouldn’t have the play I have now, which I am proud of and believe to be a strong play.  Sometimes you just have to move on.  Or let things go.  Or find something new within the writing.  You have to challenge yourself and really work at it.  Think about the next draft all the time, in the bath, in bed, in the morning, on the bus, the train.  Become the play, become the characters and squeeze the imagination of every last drop of juice because it will be worth it in the end.” Laurence Wilson


I hope all this has helped to empower you to find what works for you, to own your work and take responsibility for it, to discover further your own individual process of writing this particular play and ultimately to write the play you want to write.


Published on:
26 Aug 2020


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  1. What a fabulous array of suggestions to find. Thank you so much!

    by Louise Haines
    8:48 pm, 11 Apr 2023