Marie Cooper talks about editing after playwriting

Editing the Script

Reading Time: 5 minutes

How does a Playwright Edit the Script?

A playwright does the editing, writing, rewriting, a little more research, editing and rewriting again. You check your typos. Make sure your program hasn’t changed your dialogue into stage directions – I don’t even know how or why that happens. Then suddenly there seems to be a million and one other things to add, remove, look up. In fact, the edit is likely to never end unless you decide that what’s done is done, put it down and run far, far away. Or maybe that’s just me?

How Long Does it Take to Edit a Script?

How long is a piece of string? An infinite string is infinite. The short play I am working on at the moment, I had never intended to ever look at again. I hadn’t touched it since I wrote the first draft during 28 Plays Later in February 2021.

When I first wrote it, I thought the premise was even a little bit silly. But, when I re-read the shitty draft recently, the characters not only grew on me, but a couple of lines even made me laugh out loud. I thought it might be worth working on it a bit more. Just to tidy it up a bit. Check for typos and suchlike.

So, there’s an important lesson there. Even if something you’ve written initially seems like a big steaming pile of disappointment, don’t throw it away. You never know when it’s going to start wriggling about in your head, wanting to be finished. You can’t finish something if you’ve given it the ultimate bin edit.

How do you Know When the End of your Script is Nigh?

Version 1. Version 2. Version 3? Version 3.2? Version… 7? In my naivety, I thought I had almost finished editing my short play. Just a bit of fun playwriting. Two historical characters, who could never have met, find themselves inexplicably thrown together. I was just reading through it one last time to ensure everything would make sense audibly. Yes, by this point I had not only decided that I wanted to use this play, but I also wanted to now use it as an audio rather than a stage play.

Then, I read a line that jarred. I have no idea how I didn’t notice it before. This shadowy line of nonsense. I wrote it because I thought it was funny. But, reading it back, it made no sense.

A character mentions something that she could not possibly have any knowledge of. I also felt that there were still things missing. Something that was there, in my head, when I wrote the play initially, yet was not there in front of me, on the page. This feeling has happened often in the past and makes far more sense to me now. I will explain why that is when I get to “Shadow Scenes”.

I took a snapshot in Scrivener, just in case I wrecked the dialogue, could not recall what I had written, and might need to backtrack to the original. I changed the line, but then realised I needed to check something to make sure it was historically correct before I added it. Before I knew it, I was tumbling down the research rabbit hole.

Could they have printed pictures back then? When was the printing press invented anyway? That early? Really? I wonder what year other things happened. Ooooh, that fact is so relevant. Going to have to add that. But if I add this, then it would make sense to tie the characters together with that.

Changing one, short line set off a whole cascade of further additions, questions and research rabbit holes that now means I have lots more I need to write. Oops! I think it will make it a much better play though.

Life Gets in the Way

I am still writing, I mean re-writing the damned play, almost three weeks later. Life gets in the way. Well, it does for me and likely does for you. Other work, family things, blog posts about editing, shinier projects. The good thing is, that unless there is a guillotine of a deadline waiting to chop off your intentions, you can fix the typos you found, add your characters’ new shenanigans, and add your masterful, new, shiny researched dialogue.

Let your Script Go

Finally, you can put it aside. Like a good chilli, left overnight, to taste a million times better the next morning, or next week or next month. Okay, you probably don’t want to leave an actual chilli that long. But your script will read the better for it.

Tadaaaa. It is done. Or is it? Do you notice another line that’s off? Another thing to add or lookup? Aaaand the cycle continues. But perfection is not our friend. There comes a day when you just have to let your precious script go. Mark a date in your diary. Decide that day, beyond which there will be no more edits. Like Leonardo (supposedly) said ‘”Art is never finished, only abandoned”. And after it is done, just like even the best chilli in the world, you have to let it go.

If Writing is Rewriting, How Does a Playwright do it?’ with The Indiana Playwrights Circle

I was in a brilliant group session earlier this month, ‘If Writing is Rewriting, How Does a Playwright do it?’, run by the Indiana Playwrights Circle, including an expert panel with Andrew Kramer, Latrice Young, Audrey Cefaly and Sheri Wilner.

It was gold dust. Not a word was wasted. Everything they spoke about was useful, valuable, motivating and uplifting. I was scribbling notes so frantically throughout, trying to get down every word.

Finding your Shadow Scenes

Here is the juicy stuff that I mentioned earlier, that had my playwright senses all a quiver. During the session, Andrew Kramer spoke about something that struck me like a lover’s betrayal. He talked about the shadow scenes in your play. The scenes that are hidden. The ones the audience never sees and only the playwright knows. He said that we can shine a light back into these shadows and see if there is anything else hidden there that needs to be lit.

This was such an ‘OMG’ moment for me. How did I not see this before? Am I the last to know? Why did no one tell me this? Not in any writing/editing workshop. Not in any book. I loved this imagery. It resonated so hard. Especially as I was editing this short play. Something that had been grinding and grating on my brain cogs suddenly just clicked into place.

The whole meeting was an over-packed suitcase, stuffed to bursting with brilliant advice and tips. It has all illuminated (intentional pun) my editing and my writing. I had been to one or few editing workshops previously, but this one was the gamechanger. I have only been to one of their meetups. But, based on the standard of that one, I would highly recommend their sessions.

Right! Back to the work. This play isn’t going to edit itself. There are still one or two things I am not happy with. But I do now see the throughline peeking defiantly out from behind those shadowy places. Thank you to Indiana Playwrights Circle for handing me a torch.

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