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The Differences Between a Rewrite and a Polish

May 21, 2024
5 min read time

Rewriting your script or another writer’s script is one of the primary jobs of a professional screenwriter.

No one working in the film industry views a screenplay—regardless of its quality—as a finished work. It’s a blueprint for a film and should be thought of as “a fluid document.” I’ve stressed this before in previous articles: how skilled and comfortable you are in the rewriting process will be a major factor in whether or not you sustain a long-term screenwriting career. This skill set can also lead to various job opportunities.

When you option or sell a screenplay to a production company or studio, most contracts include a guaranteed rewrite and polish, showing how integral rewriting is to the development process. Most contracts also include an optional rewrite and polish, which the producer or studio will implement if they’re happy with your work.

Similarly, if you are hired to rewrite another writer’s script, the contract will break up the rewrite into different steps (two steps being the most common) and include a polish.

But what exactly are the differences between a rewrite and a polish?

A Rewrite

Most writers are probably familiar with the basic idea of a rewrite: revising or changing a script to make it stronger. It’s unlikely that the first draft of a script will become a produced motion picture (unless it’s an independent film and the writer is also directing and financing it). Quality is subjective, but usually, in the film industry, what constitutes “stronger” is making the script more marketable or shootable.

Read More: How to Rewrite Your Screenplay

Often, I’ve heard industry professionals ask the following question about a spec script: “Is it a movie?” In other words, is the script likely to get greenlit and become a produced motion picture? Several factors can determine how much of “a movie” industry professionals consider your script.

Even if your spec script doesn’t check all the boxes, if the concept and writing are strong enough, its potential will be recognized. This will lead you into the rewriting process, with the goal of turning your spec script into something that has a better chance of becoming a movie.

Writing on a laptop; The Differences Between a Rewrite and a Polish

Ideally, whoever optioned or purchased your script will try to maximize its strengths and minimize its weaknesses when giving you rewrite notes. What they focus on will depend on your writing and their vision of the project.

Perhaps you’re great at writing action set pieces, but your characters are stock or unrelatable; in this case, you might be asked to revise your characters. Perhaps there are various plot holes in your script, and you’re asked to revise story beats or character motivations. Sometimes, there can be entirely new subplots or characters you’re asked to add to your script, and you’ll have to omit certain scenes and characters to make room.

These are just a few examples of notes a screenwriter is likely to receive during the rewriting process. Many writers have a knee-jerk reaction when told to change major elements of their script, but, as stated earlier, rewriting is a big part of film development, and it’ll be expected of you as a screenwriter.

Moreover, if your script has been optioned or purchased, you’ll be contractually obligated to revise it within a certain time frame.

Ultimately, rewriting is what separates a professional screenwriter from an aspiring one.

Read More: Weekend Writing Inspiration: 6 Steps to Tackling a Major Script Revision

Screenwriting at a cafe; The Differences Between a Rewrite and a Polish

A Polish

A polish is a minor rewrite, typically the last stage of the rewriting process (unless you are contracted to do more work on the script). Often, a polish is used to address specific page notes, which can include fixing typos, punching up dialogue, tightening scenes, or tweaking any element. Sometimes, a production company will utilize a polish to address logistical issues (e.g., changing a location if necessary or scaling back on action or special effects due to budgetary restrictions). In this scenario, you might be writing a “production draft” (i.e., a script that’s being specifically revised to meet production needs).

Naturally, since a polish involves less work than a full rewrite, you’ll be paid less and expected to turn it in sooner. This is an exciting time for a screenwriter because, as noted, it could mean your script is closer to production.

If not, as written above, you can be optioned to do more work on your script, which not only means more money, but also indicates that the production company or studio is happy with your work and is willing to invest more in your script.

Usually, a polish is included as a step in an option or purchase agreement and doesn’t require its own contract. However, an established screenwriter is often hired late in the development process to do a polish with a specific focus. For example, a screenwriter known for writing great dialogue might be employed to do a quick dialogue punch-up.

Think of a polish as a fine-tuning of your script: the final tightening of bolts and hatches.

A person with a green long sleeve shirt typing on a computer; The Differences Between a Rewrite and a Polish

It’s All Writing in the End

Whether you’re writing a rough first draft or rewriting a script based on a producer’s notes, it’s all writing in the end, and every stage is equally important.

When writing your first draft, you should write with abandonment and not be too focused on the future of your script. It’s with your second, third, or even fourth draft that you should start thinking about industry realities and the screenwriting marketplace.

After your script has been optioned or purchased, you should do your best to address the notes you’ve been given and seize the opportunity to take your career to the next level.

When you’re in the middle of a rewrite or polish, embrace and enjoy the process. The more you enjoy it, the better your writing will be!

Read More: The Big Picture: How to Navigate Every Element of Your Script

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