There is a question I ask from time to time that strikes fear in the heart of my husband. It goes like this: “Would you read something for me?” I only ask it in case of emergency. There’s a reason that I am in two writer’s groups — I need feedback, but I also want a happy marriage.
This isn’t a blog about how to analyze a story for notes. This is about how to deliver said notes. Because the manner in which the notes are delivered has a direct correlation to whether the writer leaps back to the keys or spends three days in her pajamas eating peanut butter from a spoon, listening to Morrissey, and watching John Hughes movies.
Here are a few tips from my own experience that I’d love to pass on to readers of all kinds. Some seem so obvious, you’d be surprised how often they don’t happen.…
1. GIVE NOTES IN PERSON
By “in person,” I mean in the same room, on the phone, by Skype… anything that allows back-and-forth, live communication. This might seem like a given, but I’ve actually gotten notes by email on many occasions, and unless the message says “green light!” it usually involves tears. It’s essential for the writer to be able to hear your tone and ask questions. Otherwise we just read the email and then go off and cry or curse at the sender under our breath until we actually do speak in person. Most of the times when I cried (yes, I admit it), all was perfectly fine and manageable after a genuine human conversation.
Giving notes in person requires the reader to be polite and thorough; email does not. And writers really need polite and thorough.
2. DON’T SKIP THE CIRCLE OF LOVE
Sometimes I go away from my husband’s notes completely convinced that he didn’t like anything about the script. Inevitably the next day I find him chuckling to himself, and he says, “That was really funny when….” Then he describes some part of the story he didn’t even mention the day before. And then, instead of feeling happy that he liked that part, I’m mad because he didn’t mention it yesterday.
So to keep your writer working happily, it’s good to implement something into the process that formalizes what was good. I know you’re in a hurry, and you need to get the notes communicated so you can make fifteen more phone calls, or dinner. But trust me, the few extra minutes is going to save everyone a lot of time and heartache. It’s easy and fun and it’s got a name no one can refuse – Circle of Love.
Both of my writer’s groups use this technique and it’s absolutely essential to not getting your heart and ego squashed like a bug. We go around the circle and everyone says what they loved about what they read. Sometimes all you can say is that the font was nice, but the writer can walk away with at least that, and he has a minute to brace himself for the coming onslaught of page-one rewrite notes.
Circle of Love should include no backhanded compliments. It should be enthusiastic, and it should be thorough. Say everything you loved about it! Go on for five minutes or more… it’s okay. Because for the next thirty minutes to an hour there will be criticism, and the disproportionate time often gives the writer a disproportionate sense of the work. So don’t hold back.
Circle of Love isn’t just about making the writer feel good. When the writer knows what you like about the script — what you think is working — then when he sits down to edit and cut and rewrite, he knows what to keep. And knowing what to keep in the script is equally as important as knowing what to throw away or change. And also know this about the writer’s mind… if you don’t mention it at all, then we don’t assume you liked it, we assume it’s a “shrug” for you. Take it or leave it. It’s disposable and it may get disposed on the next pass. So if there’s something you like, speak up about it!
3. WRITE ON THE PAGES
Going along with saying everything you love, it’s really helpful when you write notes on the pages. Never underestimate the power of a check mark or a happy face in the margin. (What’s that? You read scripts as PDFs on your iPad, you say? Well, get a PDF annotation program and write on the pages!)
For people that read a lot of scripts to give notes, there is usually a shorthand of helpful icons they develop. Checks for good, two checks for great. A smiley face, a laughing face, “LOL” for a big laugh. An exclamation point for a moment where the reader felt surprise. These are the writer’s lifeblood – your play-by-play reactions to the words on the page.
Sometimes you have to write sad faces, question marks, “OTN” (on the nose) or big X marks. But that’s okay. It’s a specific note, on a specific page, and it shows the reader was reading every page and not just skimming it. And when you say, “That scene was too long” or “it feels overwritten,” then those X marks come in handy to show examples of what you mean.
4. CONSIDER THE DEVELOPMENT STAGE
Writers work things out at different stages. If you’re a spouse or roommate that gets recruited to read, this may be helpful to note.
In a treatment (like a story summary), we’re working out the plot and the general cast of characters. Don’t give feedback on any bits of dialogue that might be there, or the fact that you didn’t feel much emotionally. Treatments are hard to write much less make entertaining, so feedback should take that into consideration. Some readers just can’t picture the movie from the treatment and that’s okay. Just don’t get a grave expression on your face like “I am so sorry to break this to you, but it’s not a perfect movie.” It’s not a perfect movie. It’s a treatment.
In the first draft, we’re looking at pacing and character arcs and scenes. Thematic touches and dialogue brush-up usually happen in the second draft. So don’t be overly hard on things that aren’t quite ready yet. It’s like looking at a drying clay pot and saying it’s not a beautiful vase yet. It’s not a vase. It’s the first draft.
Getting a lot of premature criticism is what my writer’s group calls “stomping on seedlings.” If you’re the writer, and you’re presenting something to readers, tell them exactly what stage you’re at and what kind of feedback you need. If you’re the reader, behave accordingly. If it’s an oak tree, hack away. If it’s a seedling, prune carefully.
If you’re a producer hiring a writer and evaluating a draft, you get to say whatever you want at whatever stage you want, and we just deal with it. While we’re depositing your check.
5. USE THE POWER OF SUGGESTION
It’s my belief that most writers would rather hear a really awful suggestion than a generic criticism. Giving suggestions shows that you think the note is addressable – that there’s a way to fix it and you want to fix it.
If, instead of saying “this doesn’t work,” you make a suggestion for how to improve, then I am smart enough to deduct two things: a) that character/plot point/scene isn’t working for you, and b) something like this idea is what you like better or think will fix the problem.
Writers may admit privately that they hate most suggestions given to them, and sometimes we do get really awful suggestions that will never work because of some other set up and payoff in the story. BUT. A suggestion still tells us what the problem is and we can come up with a better solution that fits. And it assuages our insecurities, showing that you’re invested in making the story better.
Sometimes even a bad suggestion can get the creativity going. My writing partner and I often say “not this, but…” before offering our suggestions, in homage to this bit of Mitchell & Webb comedy that proves sometimes I’m totally wrong about suggestions being helpful:
Take a read of your writer as the conversation winds down (because you’re giving the notes in person, remember, or at least by phone). If they look at all shell-shocked, now is the time to recap.
Recap what you loved, and then recap the new ideas you loved and the solutions you believe will take the script to the next level. If my producer or reader doesn’t recap on his own, I always initiate it myself. Then they have the chance to confirm the marching orders, remind you of anything you are forgetting, or opt to re-convene and discuss further when the writer has had the chance to recover from the feeding frenzy (as some writers groups can be).
7. GIVE IT TIME
As hard as I can take my husband’s notes sometimes (because I always take his more personally than anybody else’s), he’s usually right. Often it takes me a day to accept it, and then I find a way to solve it. So sometimes we writers need a little bit of time to nurse our wounds or process new ideas. Even the hardest notes have a nugget of truth in them when you’ve had a chance to consider all sides.
Writers, I’d love to hear your advice on how to receive notes and how to encourage others to help you keep writing!
(Note: My husband read this blog post and offered notes. And I took them.)