Indievelopment: Taking Feedback Notes

If you’re going to be a writer, you’re going to get feedback notes. And if you’re going to be a professional writer, you’re going to get some savage notes along the way which you’ll have to listen to and use to make your writing better. And it takes about the first three sentences of your first set of notes to realize one fundamental truth of being a writer.

Photo by Christian Gidlöf

Photo by Christian Gidlöf

Notes suck. Like, gargling-chainsaws-lemon-juice-on-flayed-skin-Donald-Trump-as-President suck.

So how to handle notes properly? You should always read them multiple times. I read them fast first, to get all the hurt feelings out of the way before I get a chance to cement my pseudo-justifications/resistance. Then I walk away, come back to them again, and consider each note. But before you even start, you have to remember this.

You Are Not The Work

This is a script. It may be a write-for-hire, no-budget outside of any genre you’ve ever liked. It may be the baby you have worked and slaved over for a decade. But whatever it is… it’s just a stack of pages with words on them. You’re a human being, with decades of life experience (hopefully; I mean, I know it SEEMS like Hollywood has hired eight-year-olds to write summer blockbusters, but they haven’t… have they?). You’re not that stack of pages, and judgement on it is not judgement on you.

Also, notes are one person’s opinion. And also, they are a GIFT. They’re an opportunity for you to take this particular script and make it better and learn a bit about your craft along the way. Yes, they sting like intravenous battery acid. Yes, some notes are written by someone who understands screenwriting as well as a shrub understands flatpack furniture, but they’re all fuel for you as an artist and as a writing technician. And no one has written a perfect script. No one. Ever. There are very good ones, there are brilliant ones, but no one wrote a perfect one. Heck, there are people getting paid millions of dollars and writing terrible scripts. (Ahem. Prometheus. *cough*) So accept “imperfect.” Which reminds me…

Feedback Makes Scripts Better

And that makes you look great. At the end of the day, it will be your name on the screen/poster/YouTube channel/holographic storage matrix, so why not take the feedback and make the script better? Here’s someone saying, “I had some issues here, so why not improve it before it gets immortalized?” That’s not bad. That’s gold! They point out things you can improve, you get all the credit. Seems like a good deal for writers, no?

Okay, so we’re not going to take notes personally (well, we absolutely are, but we’ll try not to), and we understand notes make things better (notheydontnonononotheyjustdontgetmygenius!) Okay, mostly make things better. So, let’s assume you’ve got over your pride and you’re genuinely looking  at the note, whether it’s a general note about your structure or a very specific note about a particular beat in the scene. What do you do? Well, it depends on how accurate the note is.

It’s Inaccurate

Check again. And again. Now, pretend you didn’t write the script and check again. Are you SURE it’s inaccurate? Okay, fine. If it is, try to see why the person wrote it. Maybe that note in and of itself isn’t right, but what about the script made them think it? For example, if the note is “The protagonist is acting too passive in this scene” and you can see plainly the protagonist is active, maybe the person is so frustrated by previous passivity on your protagonist’s part that they chose to write it now. That’s not a well-delivered note, but just because it isn’t, doesn’t mean it isn’t useful to you. It’s still information.

Okay, let’s say it isn’t accurate AND it isn’t based on anything else you can see. Ask them why they wrote that particular note. This is where your knowledge of the screenwriting craft really comes into play. When they start rattling off reasons why it didn’t work for them, you can explain why it did from a theoretical place. “The reason the protagonist isn’t taking an active role in this scene is because his morality is preventing him, and he later realizes this is a mistake, which is why he…” Sometimes, the person giving the notes will say “Oh, I get it now” and move on.

They might move on. You shouldn’t. Why didn’t they get it the first time? Make sure it wasn’t just because someone texted them and they lost the flow. Make SURE it isn’t a flaw in the script; find out if others miss it too. If they do, fix it.

Sometimes, it isn’t an “I get it now,” but rather a “Hmm… well, if that’s the case, wouldn’t they-” And that is when notes can become pure gold. You can have your eyes opened to whole new possibilities in your script. Sometimes, they entail a lot of work, which brings us to…

It Is Accurate

Okay, you’ve looked at the note, and it’s legit. If it’s minor, fine, you do the fix and move on. After all, a fair number of notes are based on things that you, the writer, have in your head but that you didn’t put on the page effectively enough for the reader to follow. Sci-fi and other world-building genres have this happen a lot, as do tightly-plotted thrillers/whodunnits, and these tend to be relatively easy to fix.

But what if it’s not an easy fix?

Let me tell you a story. Quite a long time ago, there was a project I had been playing with for months. Wrote a treatment. Sent it for notes. And the notes I got? They basically boiled down to one note.

“Your backstory is more interesting.”

What the bloody hell do you do with that note? The setup for my story is more interesting than my story. You think it’s bad if someone tells you your second act needs fixing, or your climax needs to be totally redone? Well, how about being told you are telling THE WRONG STORY. That entails just a wee bit of work, as in “throw out everything you’ve done and start again” work.

You will note that this is under the “It Is Accurate” heading. So what did I do? I threw out everything I had and told the backstory as the story. And that lead to five figures of development financing and a seven-figure production deal. And you better believe I became a better writer because of it. Throwing out months of work will teach you valuable lessons.

So, if the note is accurate, you fix it. No matter how much work it takes. Just suck it up and do it because you’re a pro, and pros are the ones who do the things they don’t want to because it’s their job.

And that’s pretty much the deal with notes. They are an opinion of the writing, not of you. They are a great insight into what might not work for someone who came to the project cold, and they are sometimes a way to learn very hard lessons and grow as a writer.

Oh, wait. There’s one other case we didn’t talk to.

It’s Inaccurate And It Came From The Producer

If you’ve explained your reasons, and the producer still wants it changed… then you change it. They signed the paycheque.

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2 thoughts on “Indievelopment: Taking Feedback Notes

  1. Steve P

    Jeff, great article! For my day job, I’m fortunate to be in corporate communications. Not sexy in the least, but pays the bills. I say fortunate because it’s the type of writing I’d recommend for anyone wanting to be a screenwriter. Everything gets vetted, reviewed and edited by others. Sometimes your first draft is dead on, most of the time there are at least some changes, other times it’s ripped to shreds. And sometimes the project or initiative is simply axed after you’ve put in weeks of work. Or you’re writing a speech for an executive who doesn’t have a clue about what they want to say; they only know it when they see it. You get a thick skin real quick. Priceless!

    1. Jeff RichardsJeff Richards Post author

      Thanks, Steve! Glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, taking notes well is a definite learned skill, as is the ability to separate your ego from an external process that often has nothing to do with the calibre of your work itself. Sounds like you’re well prepped!

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