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Script Notes: Feedback For The Faint-Hearted

By Julie Gray

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We've all been burned by bad feedback. Rude, insensitive, bossy, arrogant, wrong-headed, cruel even. Oh, I have some bad memories of that. I gave my very, very first script to a demi-friend and he said he thought it was "pablum". I'll save you the Google look up: Trite, insipid, or simplistic writing, speech, or conceptualization.

He was probably right – it was my first script – ever. I was lucky to have slug lines and page numbers, actually. But he went straight for the jugular. That comment hurt me deeply and really took the wind out of my sails for some time. That hasn't been my only bad experience but obviously the story has stuck with me.

Put yourself in the other person's shoes. You put your heart and soul into the script, for months and weeks. And now somebody is going to pass judgment. Writers awaiting feedback are in a very vulnerable position. Yes, yes, we have to have thick skin but writers are sensitive, let's face it. This is not a new toilet we have installed; our stories are our hearts.

We don't give feedback to be right or superior or better. We do it to be constructive and productive. Given, I do this every single day; it's my day job. So I'm pretty good at it. But if this is not normal for you, reading a script and giving notes, just remember to give feedback in the same way you'd want to receive it. Most people upon hearing that will say – well, I want the honest truth. But let me tell ya - most people can't handle the truth. That doesn't mean you should obfuscate – it just means you should always deliver your opinion with kindness and professionalism.

The Good Karma Feedback Check List:

  • Do it often; develop a support system with peers you respect
  • Don't promise to read a script and give feedback if you really don't have time
  • Do read it promptly once you have it
  • Do ask your friend what they want out of this read. You'd be surprised at the different answers. Tailor your notes to the needs and wants of the writer.
  • Do start on a positive note. If you can only think of one thing – stress it
  • Do frame concerns in a "what if" question. (What if you tried this? What if you tried that? I wonder what would happen if this?)
  • Do understand what the writer is going for or trying to achieve
  • Don't chide the writer for failing to execute the idea well; that's why you're reading it, ding-dong. If they thought it was perfect, they wouldn't ask
  • Do limit your comments to things like: logic, characters, stakes, ticking clock, and pacing; don't go all McKee/Campbell on your friend. I feel the subplot doesn't connect to the inner need of the protagonist and this is not reflected thematically in the arc of the dynamic character who has reached statis but must find Euclydian balance before the elixir can motivate the shapeshifter. Very annoying.
  • Do write your notes down and summarize them.
  • Don't do page edits and correct typos unless requested. This is also very annoying.
NEVER read a script so you can put it down and then feel better about yourself. Say it with me. NEVER read a script with that attitude. Why? It's bad karma and it will come back to you like a boomerang and whack you upside the head. And at least as importantly, reading with a superior or authoritative attitude deprives you of the learning experience built in to giving feedback.

Good feedback is kind, thorough and timely. It is professional and focused. It leaves the writer feeling challenged to do better but great about their strengths. Even if that just means the location they chose was cool. Give your feedback relative to the skill set of the writer. Never lie or obfuscate. Just serve it up gently. An upset writer isn't going to hear your points anyway. But an encouraged one will. Trust me on this.

Ask questions of the material rather than dictating your own concepts. Giving the writer your own ideas only derails or co-opts the writer's creative process – and in my view, this is a huge trespass. It isn't your script. If the writer wants brainstorming they'll ask for it. Even then lead the writer toward realizations or ideas. Part of the process of becoming a better writer is revving up your brain with all those juices and problem solving yourself. Writing by committee is the fast track to obsolescence. Even if you think you're helping by making very specific suggestions (unless requested, I can't stress that enough - it happens) you are hijacking someone else's material and it's just not cool.

About Julie Gray

Julie Gray authors the award-winning screenwriting blog Just Effing Entertain Me and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. Julie consults privately with a wide variety of writers and teaches classes at Warner Bros., The Great American PitchFest, The Creative Screenwriting Expo and has taught at San Francisco University in Quito, Ecuador, Columbia College in Chicago, West England University in Bristol and The Oxford Union at Oxford University. Julie lives in Los Angeles, California; her book Just Entertain Me: How to Be the Writer Everyone Wants to Read is slated for release by Michael Wiese Publishing in June, 2011.
Screenwriting Article by Julie Gray

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