Thursday, March 21, 2013

You don't have to take every note

I recently had the experience of giving my latest script - a thriller - to my writing group. I've talked before about writing groups, so I won't waste much space discussing why I find them useful. That said, it's always great to know that I can give these guys a script and have a reaction within a week.

 Notice that word: "reaction."

It's sometimes funny how scared we are as writers of critical opinions. When I worked at one agency, they made certain that none of the readers' names appeared on the comment section of the coverage. This was because they'd had incidents in the past where writers had gotten their hands on negative write-ups of their scripts and then tracked down the writers to confront them directly.

I honestly don't know what they thought they were going to accomplish. You can't argue against someone's opinion. Further, my experience is that if you confront someone about a review like this, they're only more likely to dig in because you've essentially just challenged their credibility.

If someone doesn't like your script, you're never going to argue them out of that reaction. You might be able to have a debate about what led them to that conclusion. It might even be valuable to understand why they didn't like it, but that's where it ends. You will never turn a PASS into a Consider by debating it - because it isn't a debate.

Subjectivity is just something that you have to accept if you're going to work in the creative arts. The truth is that no matter how brilliant a writer you are, SOME PEOPLE WILL NOT LIKE YOUR WORK. If you're a hack, you'll meet a lot of those people. If you're brilliant, they'll probably be in the minority.

This doesn't change the fact that the law of averages says that at some point, you're going to run across someone who isn't in love with your writing. This is the most liberating thing to remember when you're getting notes from a non-fan: You don't have to take every note.

I'm not saying you should ignore anything critical. There's nothing to be gained by closing your ears entirely to negative reaction. I always assume that if this one person comes to me with these issues, some other readers (and eventually filmgoers) will have the same bones of contention. So why not try to understand the negative reaction?

When I'm getting notes from someone, the most important thing I remember is to listen. If I'm talking more than they are, I'm doing something wrong. I also make it a point to speak less to defend the work and more to provoke the reader into discussing their response. I might jump in and explain what my intent was, for then they might be able to assess where I was and was not successful with that.

The people who give me notes often attach a lot of suggestions to them. Some are helpful, some are not, and some would turn the script into an entirely different story from what I want to tell. I cherry-pick the notes that make sense to me and reinforce my vision of the story, and I discard the rest.

So the note that pisses you off because it takes the edge out of one of your characters? You don't have to take it. The suggestion that you cut a particular joke because one reader finds it offensive? You don't have to take it.

 By the way, this isn't a license to be a jerk about it. You asked someone for their opinion, so be polite when they give it to you. Even when you know you plan on disregarding their suggestions, thank them. In fact, it should be easy to be polite because if you know it's not a direction you want to explore, why get all worked up over a hypothetical.

The more comfortable you are in the face of criticism, the more you grow not just as a writer, but as a person.


  1. Also, even if readers point out a problem, their idea of how to fix it isn't necessarily the best way. Several people suggested I cut a scene. It was necessary for the plot, but what the criticism said to me was that it hadn't yet earned its place. Cutting it would have created more problems.

  2. The scriptwriting community I run is full of both sides of this discussion - recently we admins had to figure out our approach to feedback and notes, because we have writers of all levels of ability and experience on there and we were noticing some alarming trends.

    Applying professional level critique to a first-timer's script was crushing souls left right and centre, whereas experienced writers would get pissy if they didn't get that in-depth analysis of their magnum opus.

    Trying to teach writers new and old about how to take good feedback is something we're still trying to figure out, because there isn't a hard and fast rule for it, but I've just posted links to this article in a few places across the forums to get people reading it, because it sums up a lot of what we're trying to say :)

    You can show one script to ten people and get ten different opinions on it. Which is 'right'? None of them are. YOUR opinion is right, and it's your job to take the critique and do something with it based on what you're trying to say. If two or more people say the same thing, chances are it's a legitimate issue. If everybody says the same thing, well, maybe you need to take another look at that scene...

  3. Bitter,

    This blog entry is dynamic and exceptional writing. As Mike Tyson once said "I take my hands off to you."

  4. I agree whole-heartedly with this. I've received all kinds of notes, some good, some not so much. In the end, I just go with the ones I think make the script better.

  5. I just want to add that even if you don't like a note, if you keep getting the same note over and over again, from different sources, you should give that note some serious consideration.

  6. I've often said that the difference between a beginner writer and an advanced writer is the ability to take notes.

    #1 - you don't get to talk back when getting notes. There's no arguing or explaining. You're not going to get that chance with an executive.

    #2 - you don't have to take every note at face value. Like Dsmoen said, you don't necessarily have to cut whatever tripped up the writer. Sometimes you just have to change the things that came before to make it work.

    #3 - no matter what you think of the notes you get, thank the person who gave them to you. They took the time to read your script. Don't be a douche.

  7. Great suggestions above. The most important thing I learned about notes is to pay attention to recurring items that are brought out. If 2/3 people say something about a plot point/character/scene, I'd look to edit that immediately. I like getting a range of opinions from "amateurs" to professional coverage.

  8. My writing group works by requiring the writer sit out of the circle when her work comes up for discussion. The discussion then zips between the other writers. The writer is allowed to step back into the discussion with questions / requests for clarifications / their own laundry-list of problems at the end.

    The requirement to NOT speak really forces you to listen, and the discursive form of the analysis -- as opposed to reading a list of major notes to the writer -- really helps you identify where the 'hot spots' for revisions will be. It also helps the writer feel like it's the script being discussed, not them personally, and they're there to almost eavesdrop.