Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Dave commented a few days ago with this link about how NOT to succeed as a writer. I finally had the chance to click, and I found it to be very interesting and true. Although it's geared toward novelists, he's right: the advice works across the board. You can't make excuses. You can't act like you know everything. You need to listen.

So I thought I would write a post about giving and receiving notes on your work. It's a delicate art, and an absolute necessity for a career in writing. Writing is rewriting. If you ever get to the point of writing for TV professionally, you'll be dealing with notes from agents, managers, actors, other writers, producers, studios execs, network execs. Everyone will have an opinion. Sometimes you will be forced to adjust your script accordingly...but for the purposes of those readers who are Aspiring Writers - I though I might discuss what I've learned about receiving and giving notes from your class, writers group, friends, etc.

Rules for Receiving Notes:

1. LISTEN. Even if someone gives you a ridiculous, terrible note, just listen and nod and say okay. Don't be defensive. It's best to stay quiet while receiving notes (unless something is unclear, or you'd like to delve deeper into a topic). It's a waste of time to defend or explain everything about your script. If you had done a really good job, you wouldn't need to do either.

2. Don't take notes personally. Sometimes notes can be crushing. We all have those times where you think you've written the best scene of your life only to find out that it wasn't funny and nobody understood it and it was way too long. But it happens. Remember that there's a reason why you were passionate about this idea to write it down - it's just going to take work to make it the best it can be. Also, people often only make mention of the bad things, the things they think you should change. Negative notes don't mean that your script is crappy.

3. You don't have to take everyone's notes. Sometimes people give crappy ones. Sometimes notes conflict with one another. Think of every comment as a suggestion you may or may not take into account, a jumping-off place for your story to evolve how YOU want it to evolve. Keep in mind, though, that if several people give you the same negative note, you should probably rework something to remedy the problem.

4. Ask questions. Find out if your intentions came through across the page, if things were confused, if there are people or plots or scenes that readers particularly like. Sometimes the parts that you struggle with may not actually be the parts that readers had problems with - find out.

5. Get a few different perspectives. Don't drastically change your story based on notes from one person - you will only know what definitely needs work and what doesn't by comparing the notes you receive.

Rules for Giving Notes

1. Always include positive notes. I guess one might argue that if a script is 100% awful, you'd be doing the writer a favor by telling them so. But I'm too nice for that, and it's fair to say that nobody's opinion will be exactly the same. It's hard to receive criticism for something you worked so hard on...so set the writer at ease. Tell them what you liked.

2. Be thorough and helpful. Don't just say that something didn't work; try to tell the writer WHY it didn't work - or, on the other hand, why it did. Go ahead and suggest fixes, but be sure to phrase them as ideas and not orders. Sometimes these suggestions might be horrible, but cause the writer to think of a great idea in response. Yay!

3. Give general notes as well as specific ones. People want to know about specific jokes that were funny, lines that didn't make sense, etc. - but it's also good to evaluate the story in a bigger sense. Comment on character development and arcs, plot, storyline, theme, tone, etc. - these are all things the writer should be thinking about.

Kind of a dry post, I'm sorry. Perhaps in my next post I will talk about Gossip (OMFG!) Girl and Greek - my two Monday staples - and how I'm probably the only one who loves the latter more.


Brian Fredriksen said...

Hey Amanda,

First off thanks for your blog, it's a fun read.

Secondly, I think your suggestions are right on and would like to offer one more in the receiving notes category. If you have multiple people giving you notes, take them all out to dinner or get them all in a room together and have a dialogue. Some people are uncomfortable giving notes one on one for fear of making you uncomfortable, thus making them uncomfortable. My writing partner and I recently tried this and it worked out great. All we did was facilitate the discussion and ask questions and we got the tremendous feedback which led us to ideas we didn't think of in the first place. I guess this is kind of the same thing as a writers group, but for those who don't have one, it helped us a ton.

Lastly, I have a question for you. My writing partner and I are preparing for the big move (eventually) to LA from Boston and we're more focused on feature scripts. Through your experience or people you've met and stories you've heard, are there any tips or pointers you could offer that someone trying to break into feature writing should know as opposed to tv writing? Are there different jobs/avenues not available to tv writers that are available feature writers and vice versa? I hope that makes sense, it's worded kinda funky.

Thanks for your time and keep writing!

Randall Bobbitt said...

This is not a dry post. This is probably one of your best ones. Most people don't know how to give and receive notes. Thank you for posting!

i write with pictures said...

Solid advice. I remember my first workshop class for short stories and poetry and the professor telling us that when we were receiving notes, we were not supposed to talk. I was in a screenwriting class this past semester where we frequently workshopped pages, and though sometimes the note givers asked questions of the writer, I felt that note giving time was so much more productive when the writer wasn't spending a lot of the time talking, explaining, dialoguing (which was sometimes necessary because we only workshopped excerpts and no one ever knew the whole story for anyone's script).

Asking questions is great, especially if you can't sit down with the person after they read your work. I'm in email correspondence with two readers right now, and instead of just sending them my script, I also sent them a list of questions about what works and doesn't work, specifically and generally. I think they both appreciated this as a way to guide them in their note giving, and I will probably get more detailed and more helpful notes because of it because I will get what they noticed and then what I asked them to notice. Most of my questions were based off of feedback I had received from submitting the script to a contest, which exposed problem areas I didn't even know I had in the script. So it's good to build feedback off of other feedback to see if people notice the same problems.

Thanks, Amanda!


Screenwriter Shep said...

On the project I'm currently on I'm fortunate enough to work with a talented director who knows what he's doing.

I think the key to getting notes is to be able to take your ego out of the process.

Also, make sure the people who give you notes are qualified to give notes. From a TV writer's perspective, it doesn't make a lot of sense to get someone who's never seen the show you're specing to give you notes. If you're into features like me, try to find people somewhat interested in the type of stuff you're writing.

Remember that although it's not easy to take notes, it's not easy to give them either.

Carolyn said...

Great post and advice!

As for your last comment...you're not alone...I love Greek more than Gossip Girl, too.