Balls of Steel: Getting Honest Feedback

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I have one rule when it comes to giving or receiving feedback on scripts: Don’t blow smoke up my ass, and I won’t blow it up yours.

If I’m asking for feedback, I want you to tell me what I need to hear, not what you think I want to hear. And if I’m giving feedback, I’m not going to pat you on the head and tell you what a pretty little script you’ve got there. I’m going to tell it like it is.

I warn people of this policy ahead of time, but they’re never quite prepared for me to call their baby ugly. And before you jump all over me, I assure you, I do point out what works in a script, too.

The goal is to be constructive, not to placate.

I recently had a conversation with screenwriter Doug Richardson (Die Hard 2, Bad Boys, Hostage) about feedback and how he gets readers to be brutally honest.

You have to let people know it’s safe to tell you the truth. Start by giving them permission.”

Our nature is to protect a friend’s feelings, to step back from criticism, or to simply validate a writer’s efforts. While that’s all warm and fuzzy, that reaction is not going to help you tell a moving story.

Richardson shared some tips on how he gets his select group of readers to feel safe:

When you have your first conversation with them after their read, start off by pointing out something in your script you already know isn’t quite right and ask their opinion. This starts an honest discussion.

Then when you thank them for their honesty, it gives them permission to criticize. Now they know you truly want an open dialogue. If you can’t get them to that place of honesty, you won’t be able to trust a word out of their mouths.”

Another important part of feedback is to understand the kind of critique you’re looking for and to find the right reader to provide it. Sometimes you need a non-writer to give you a gut reaction to the story. Other times you need someone who understands structure. Be clear in your own mind what your script needs and seek out the appropriate reader to help.

The purpose of criticism isn’t to change your voice or your work, it’s to help you clarify your ability to communicate.”

Richardson uses a helpful analogy:

If my story is an orange, I want you to be able to see, feel, peel, and taste it. If I send it to you and you don’t get that sensation, I’ve failed to communicate what I intended.

There’s also a matter of weighing your readers’ feedback. If nine out of 10 understood the “orange,” and one thinks it’s an “apple,” then you’ve probably done an excellent job in meeting your goal; but if only five see an “orange,” you might want to revisit how you’ve executed the tale.

The challenge is not to over-think the input you receive or be too eager to please. If you do either, you run the danger of changing your own story into one you no longer recognize.

It’s all about interpreting the feedback, sifting through it, and deciding which criticisms you find valid and which are only presented based on a reader’s own filter. Everyone reads a story and brings his or her own life perspectives to it. Only you can determine whose viewpoint aids your story best.

The only way to determine the intent of the feedback is to get your reader engaged in a dialogue.

I’m a big believer in the analysis of my work and the work of my friends. When I read their scripts, I always print hard copies out and scribble all over the pages. I comment on authenticity of dialogue and plot, but my main focus is to jot my emotional reactions in the margins. I want to show another writer what I’m feeling while I’m reading it … what I’d be feeling if I were sitting in that theater seat.

For me, that’s the sole reason to tell a story – to make the reader/viewer feel something.

Last year I had a screenwriter ask me for feedback on his very first screenplay. I gave him my standard warning, “I have no filter.” He agreed to let me come at him with both barrels.

I did.

He cried.

Then, a month later, he emailed me, thanking me for my brutal honesty. In the time between my initial feedback email and his email, he had received my hard copy of his script with a bloodbath of red scribbles. Seeing my emotional reaction to his words helped him understand my intent. He enthusiastically dove back into rewrites.

One of the biggest reasons to get used to honest feedback early in your career is to prepare yourself for the moment you’re in a studio executive’s office and get your first set of real notes.

If you think I can make a writer cry, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Let’s continue with Richardson’s orange/apple analogy:

You finally sold that spec script you’ve been working on for years. It’s the tastiest, juiciest “orange” of your career. You stroll into the executive’s office, confident he already loves it as is.

Wrong.

He now wants you to turn your “orange” into an “apple.”

Your job is to figure out if he really wants an ‘apple’ or if he wants a better, tastier ‘orange.’ If you can’t determine the true intent of his feedback, you’ll either get fired, or you’ll unintentionally fire yourself.”

You need to be smart, think quickly, and pull ideas out your ass faster than the Road Runner. In short, you need to turn those dung notes into golden nuggets right before his eyes.

This is what separates a successful screenwriter from an amateur.

As you sit in your office, rehashing feedback and organizing notes, Richardson suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • What do I want to communicate in this story?
  • How am I failing to do so?
  • How can I communicate it better without changing what I’m trying to convey?

Your job is to make your readers confident enough to engage in an open and honest discussion, giving you clues to help you solve the puzzle.

One last tip: Join Scriptchat on Twitter. It’s one-stop shopping for not only screenwriters who trade scripts for feedback, but also an amazing community of support and industry information. While you’re there, follow Doug Richardson at @byDougRich. Most professionals on Twitter are generous and approachable. Richardson is no exception.

I practice what I preach: Twitter is where I’ve met many of the writers I trust to bitchslap my scripts into shape.

Bottom-line: Don’t be afraid of honest feedback. It’s the one thing that will bring your work to the level it needs to be, as well as prepare you for that big Hollywood meeting you’ve been working toward.

Be honest. Be ready.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you handle feedback and find readers. Share them below; and as always, you can find me on Twitter at @jeannevb. I don’t bite, but I do talk back.

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30 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: Getting Honest Feedback

  1. Leona Heraty

    Thanks Jeanne and Doug for your honesty about how important feedback truly is to screenwriters. Also, thanks, Jeanne, for the referral to Scriptchat. I will check it out. 🙂

  2. doug richardson

    Kathryn. Honest feedback clearly isn’t for you. Or maybe you’re not ready to hear it and learn from it. As for playwrights and novelists, those who are successful would most likely disagree with you. Most have learned their craft through hardscrabble rejections, savage reviews, and market failures, not to mention those they’ve trusted with telling the truth when asked to read their early drafts. Those who haven’t, generally remain unnoticed and toiling in the dustbin of obscurity. So until you’re prepared to grasp the reality of your words and wrestle with the emotions they summon in you, I highly recommend you continue asking your mother or lover or convenient liar to read your work.

  3. Kathryn

    I don’t know what depressed me more about this article – that it delights in endorsing a work culture in which savaging someone’s work is just dandy, nay compulsory, if they’re going to make it better. Or all the enthusiastic thumbs up from masochists who seem to think having their work shredded and being made to feel like crap is some kind of badge of honour. How the hell does making someone want to curl up in a ball for two days count as constructive criticism? C’mon! There are ways a consultant can deliver blunt, honest, difficult to hear feedback without it being vicious. I couldn’t agree more that writers generally need to harden up when it comes to receiving feedback and that it isn’t a consult’s job to make them feel nice but brutal = good? Really? Can we note that plenty of playwrights and novelists seem to do a pretty awesome job of stortelling without being savaged?

  4. Robin

    I was pointed to this article by Doug R in a stage32 comment…glad he did that. I have read a ton of scripts, some giving coverage for a producer in Sherman Oaks (years ago, intern -no-pay) Most of the spec scripts i read for him were awful, and you could tell just a few pages in really… only about a handful stood out and i still recall them, the basic plot, the theme, lead characters. In writing I try to tell myself to keep in mind why those few stood out, and the majority were PASS, However, you write, and to know if what you wrote WORKS for others, you need other to say so — yes, no, whatever…Love the article, will have my friends, family read it before i hand then the next spec script i write — it will clue them into what i;d like, and why honest feedback is key. I’d also like the contact info to a script consultant is it ok to email you as well, you posted the addy, but I like to ask…
    best
    Rob

  5. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Gail, I’ve used a few consultants who helped push me. Bill Pace, Nevada Grey, Dimitri Davis… if you want their contact info, feel free to email me jeanne@jeannevb.com. Happy to discuss.

    A general note about consultants: I never hired one expecting them to give me leads or open doors for me. I only expected notes to get my script to a higher level. It’s also good practice for taking studio notes. Perhaps when hiring one, you need to think about what your expectations are and what your work needs. A great writing sample was my goal. I’m pretty good at knocking doors down on my own 🙂

  6. Gail

    Excellent article, Jeanne. I would give my eyeteeth for good feedback – it’s extremely hard to find. One problem not yet mentioned here is the plethora (tsunami?) of people selling their services as consultants –
    so-called ‘industry insiders’ – milking all the wannabes for all they’re worth and who have, not only none of the connections they claim, but little competence in analyzing scripts. I can’t tell you how much time and money I’ve wasted, hoping for some real help, and just getting generalities or clichés cut and pasted from scriptwriting books I’ve already read.

    Enjoyed Doug’s blog very much too, so maybe I’ll try that Twitter page you mentioned. Thanks.

  7. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Some really great points here, specifically to take those brutal notes, but still trust your gut on what to implement and what to toss up as “bad advice”.

    Another place to find readers is by taking screenwriting courses. Offer to swap scripts with fellow students. It might take a few tries to find someone whose opinion you respect, but it’s worth the effort.

  8. R J Halstead

    In my twelve years of writing I’ve had mixture of the good and bad with regards to notes. The good have overwhelmingly been tough to deal with at first, but lead to the writing becoming stronger and easier.

    Only on one occasion was there nothing within the notes that was useful. It was a friend who was being hard and honest, and, taking that in mind, I contemplated his half hour diatribe for a good three months before deciding conclusively to write it off as a bad day at the office.

    I kept expecting that moment where your ego releases your preconceptions and you fully understand what the person was talking about; it never came.

    So, the moral? Honest, brutal notes are usually more helpful, but don’t fall into the trap of considering something valuable just cause it hurt.

  9. Juan

    What kind of fucking ass-burning advise this is. Is it, honest criticism or slam at its purest level? What’s happened to the writ from your soul? …or is all about selling your realistic fantasy to the first wink of some structure-illiterate kong sitting on his ass and enjoying how witful he is by transforming oranges to apples.
    Tinsel Town has its own quirky ways to filter out the banal unmarketable scribe… but if! and only if, sees your work, you are in heaven.

  10. Ian

    @Kim I think you have to trust your instincts the most. Regardless what others say, it is your screenplay and you have to trust the story you are writing. It’s important to digest feedback but at the end of the day, you have to decide what is best.

  11. Kim Wheeler

    Thank you for the above article full of good sound advice.

    Only trouble is, I’ve been dabbling with my first screenplay for years and have received two sets of feedback from two professionals. What do you do if you think you have written about an orange and the first feedback says that it is more like an apple and you need to do this, this and this, to make it into an orange, so you do. The second one then says, it is a good basic orange but it doesn’t really work as an orange and would work much better still if you made it into an apple. Argh! Two years on and I am still trying to work out what to do…I’m thinking ‘pear’? Lol.

  12. Christine O'Neal

    I’m working on my first script and planning on coughing up a couple hundred bucks for a professional analysis of my work. It will save time on edits by knowing where to focus edits. I will also ask for feedback from other free sources but will use information from the pro the most. My co-writer and I are ready for any criticism they throw at us. Great article.

  13. Ian

    I think it’s also important to find people that give you helpful feedback. Sometimes, they may give you notes you don’t understand and when you ask them more questions, they still don’t really explain themselves. I’d rather have notes I understand.

  14. Asheley

    This was a great piece. Thanks for sharing. I just barely started script writing and had to submit an assignment to my peers for review. Quite a few just made a pass at it, which was the least helpful thing ever. However, two brave people shredded it for me. Granted, it was my first go at a script, so my initial reaction was less than happy… but once I got over feeling wounded, I was able to take a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th look at their comments and make the changes they recommended.

    As a student writer, we get feedback right away from our peers because our grades depend on it and I love it. Even though they aren’t professionals either, at least I know if what I have in my head is being translated on paper.

  15. ruth a

    great piece!! thanks for sharing your thoughts. as a consultant my goal is always to address the writer’s intentions. as doug says if the writer wants to write an orange then my job is to help them do that by showing them where they may be missing the mark and offering suggestions for getting back on track. i think the challenge is finding a way to give feedback that is brutally honest and direct but also supportive and encouraging. Staying focused on the writer’s intentions helps me find this balance.

  16. Joe Smith

    Apple/Orange=Great analogy.
    I would love to have someone shred my work so it could be better than the toilet paper it currently is.
    I recently had feedback on something that pinpointed exactly what was wrong. At that point, I was ready to give up on it. Once I ‘got it’ it flowed. Sending it to the right person was the key as the article states.
    Early on, I would cringe when someone said anything bad about my work but now, I could care less.

  17. Megan

    I used to struggle when it came to receiving criticisms. Instead of taking it as someone trying to help me improve I saw it as someone trying to tear me down. FORTUNATELY in the last two to three years this has changed dramatically. I now absolutely love sending my work to the people who are no holds barred because I’ve never seen my work improve more than when it’s been torn to shreds. I come up holding mountains of shit but the tiny bit of gold in the middle makes it all worthwhile. Absolutely nothing beats the truth. Great article Jeanne!

  18. Charles G

    Beware Ingrid – in the UK when someone uses a green pen, it’s a sign that they are usually an escapee from the local lunatic asylum!

    I’m a script consultant for tv situation comedy, and all the above applies equally to my experience. Nice to know I’m not the only one who risks a fatois or hate mail in the cause of better writing.

    Thanks for an excellent article.

  19. Ingrid Elkner

    I’ve learned not to use red pen on people’s scripts. We see red pen, we go back into those negative feelings from when we were in school. Red says WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.
    I use green. It still stands out and prevents the writer picking up their marked up script in dread. Green means GO!
    It can be hard enough reading notes; I like to make it a little less painful for my victims.
    Err, I mean, writer friends. Yes. That’s what I meant…

  20. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Vincent, I’ve never learned anything from someone patting me on the back and telling me my pages were perfect. But the feedback that has made me want to curl in a ball for two days has always made my work better. Bravo for keeping at it.

    Unk, this is truly the best comment ever. One thing you fail to mention is you may call it as you see it, but you also raise the bar for a writer… you did for me. But the truth is, the bar is only raised for a writer brave enough to eat her own shit, digest it, and start with a fresh, clean page. I thank you for all the brutally honest feedback you’ve given me. I eat it, happily.

  21. Unknown ScreenwriterUnk

    And then of course, there’s shit that no matter what the screenwriter does, can’t polish it enough to get it to smell any better.

    I only mention this because I’ve read a lot of shit and I have no shit filter so no matter how gently I break it to the individual in question, they walk away holding shit in their hands.

    The good news of course, is most of these people never ask me to read anything else they’ve written…

    For at least a year or so. Yeah, one day they wake up to the fact that they’ve been trying to pound shit into something that shit just can’t be and so they call or write me and ask what it is I think they can do to save the beast.

    Slit its throat.

    Unk

  22. Vincent Considine

    Great article…Honesty to a writer, especially a rook(like me)is like when someone is about to cross over train tracks. The person looks left then right, then left again, ok the coast is clear. The virgin writer takes one step forward splat the honesty express. My group loved my first couple pages a few months back. Then I submitted two more – they told me flat out this sucks and I let the air out of their tires, ah that felt so good. Kidding. Their honesty helped me some much… If your skin is thin find something else to do. Great piece Jeanne

  23. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Thanks, Eric. I completely agree about hiring script consultants. I’ve tried several, and it’s especially helpful to get a pro’s advice if you haven’t built up a community of writers to share your work with yet. But even though I have a great community, I do still have a pro look my work over before submitting it to producers. Advice from a pro takes learning to the next level. Glad you chimed in!

  24. Script Doctor Eric

    Good piece, Jeanne.

    It’s important to get honest advice on your screenplays. I have a group of friends who don’t ever pull punches…in fact, sometimes it feels like they’re just waiting to lace up their gloves when I hand them a script! 🙂

    Sometimes though, it’s good to get advice from people who know screenwriting and have NO connection with you. Someone like a script consultant.

    (Yes, I AM a script consultant, so I can’t say there isn’t a conflict of interest here…however…)

    I ALWAYS use a script consultant (yes, someone else!) on my scripts before I send them to agents or producers. Spending one or two hundred bucks on a stranger with screenwriting and industry experience is well worth it. I mean, I just spent how many hours writing this thing? I want to make sure it passes the “experienced stranger” test.

    Also, when you pay someone, you know it’ll get read, and read well. When it’s your friends, well, sometimes that takes a little badgering… 🙂

    Again, good article. I always look forward to them. 🙂

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