Getting (And Giving) Notes

I'm about to dive into my fourth and final draft of a short script I've been working on. I'm happy with it at least as happy as most writers are with their work. I mean, I've never heard anyone say, "Holy shit! This is amazing. You! Yeah, you with the mustache! Read this and tell me I don't walk on water. Go ahead! Tell me I don't walk on water!" Except for maybe Tarantino, it just doesn't seem to pan out that way for the most of us. That said, I'm happy. The response has been very good and that's what I'm most excited about it. The script has gone out to a small but trusted group of writers whose opinions I hold in high regard. Some fellow filmmakers here in New York and an aspiring TV writer who works for Warner Brothers out in LA. In their own right, they are all talented writers and just as talented at giving notes.

I can't say how crucial I find this part of the process. I'm only speaking for myself but I think it's essential if you want to get better and be taken seriously as a writer. Whether you're selling a spec or making a film from your own screenplay, you need feedback. Charlie Kaufman doesn't show his work to other writers, you say? Well, maybe that's because he spent years doing just that while working in television. Besides, he's Charlie Kaufman. You can't live in a vacuum as a writer. Your work will suffer because you will not only lose perspective, you'll come to realize that what you're not nailing might be right in front of you. I know, there's a SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK  joke in there somewhere.

Getting notes on your work is tricky business. Giving them is just as tricky. This is why it's important to find the right people. Trusted people. Read each others work. Talk about tastes, styles, technique, this film, that show. You should be able to relate to each other on a writer to writer level. You don't have to agree on everything but if someone wants to make experimental films and you want to make action films maybe you're not a good fit.

When getting notes from someone here are a few things to look for:

  • Are they getting it? Just on a basic level. Is the premise of what you're trying to do coming through? If it's not maybe it's time to clarify.
  • Does it sound better when you talk it out? When you vocally describe what you're trying to do, is it richer and more captivating than what you wrote? If so, rethink how you're telling the story.
  • Are these choices they would be making as a writer or are they constructive suggestions I would be making as a writer? There's a difference. Essentially everyone who gives notes is giving you suggestions of what they would do. This is where it gets tricky. Is that in synch with what is going to make it a better story?
  • Are they saying it's great? If all your reader is doing is giving you praise they're either full of shit or they really don't know how to critically assess a screenplay because actually, your screenplay isn't great. At least not at this stage. If you think writers want to hear praise, you're wrong. They want the reader to commit seppuku because they know they will never read anything as beautiful and as deep as what you just wrote. Deep down, that's the truth. Every writer knows that.
  • Is everyone giving me the same notes? If you hear the same note from a handful of people about what's broke, it's probably what's broke.
  • When giving notes:

  • You need to be aware of where you are as a writer when giving notes because you can only really benefit from someone who is a better writer than you are. If your work isn't really up to speed with your fellow writers you'll have a hard time convincing them that you can give them an educated assessment of their work. Everyone has opinions and all opinions are valid but that doesn't mean they're helpful.
  • Be aware of where they are as a writer. We all have to find our way with no roadmap. We all wrote a lousy first draft of a first screenplay. All of us. Be nice. Don't crush someone's spirit who's just learning the ropes.
  • You don't want to be too prescriptive and that can be very difficult because as a writer you see a problem and you want to fix it, because, of course, you know everything. Tread lightly with suggestions. You're not writing their screenplay for them.
  • Give someone a chance to get out of their own head and their own way. As writers, we're so busy navigating the cinematic landscape we don't always see the big picture. And as writers, we also know the pitfalls of the "life of the mind." It's not charity, it's a chance to help a fellow writer.
  • There's also another approach if you have the stomach for it. Let everyone read it. Everyone. I wouldn't suggest this to anyone just starting out because you don't know what you're doing as a writer. You don't have that confidence yet. You'll be getting a barrage of opinions from writers and non-writers alike. It will get confusing. But if you feel like you have been at this for a while and you're confident in your skillset, then go for it. You'll get some interesting feedback from people who are giving you their gut reaction and that's worth something.

    In the end you take it all with a grain of salt but it's a helpful part of the process. It will not only make you a better storyteller, it will thicken your skin and God knows you'll need that. If you find trusted and talented people to read your work, chain them to your desk. Hold on to them and never let go. You'll thank yourself for it.