I had a great coffee-chat conversation with another writer earlier this week. Among the many topics we discussed was the fine art of giving and receiving notes.
When you give notes, you want to be equally helpful and critical (without being mean or condescending about it). A lot of the time, the person seeking notes is a peer or someone with pretty much a level of experience more or less equal to yours, so they know how to interpret the notes, and don’t take anything personally.
They also realize the only way to improve is to learn what mistakes they made, make the proper adjustments, and make a mental note to not do it again from here on in. This is an essential skill that takes time to get the hang of.
But what about the writer who asks you to read their just-finished first script? “Don’t worry. Be as brutally honest as you need to be. I can take it.”
Are you sure about that?
If you’ve been doing this for a while, you’re quick to recognize what works and what doesn’t in their script, and you make the appropriate notes and suggestions.
I’ve encountered almost the entire spectrum of reactions from newer writers, ranging from “These notes are fantastic! Thank you so much!” to “Hmph. You obviously don’t recognize my genius” (I’m paraphrasing that one). You’ve probably heard similar things, but hey, at least you tried to help.
Then there’s being on the receiving end. It’s not easy to hand your baby over to somebody so they can find fault with it, but again, it’s a necessary part of the process. Many’s the time I have felt my pulse quicken in the moments just before the comments were unleashed.
As stated above, if the notes are from someone on an equal level to me, I appreciate the positive things they have to say, but am more interested in their critical comments (which doesn’t automatically mean they’re negative). I may be having trouble with how to fix a particular problem, so outside suggestions are definitely appreciated. Sometimes it’s an “Of course!” moment, sometimes it’s a “Huh?” I may not always agree with what they say, but it may spark the thought of a new approach. Anything helps.
On the other side of the coin is getting comments from writers with less experience than you. You’ve written ten scripts, and they’ve written one, maybe two. How much value can you place on what they have to say? They don’t have the benefit of experience, so their comments may come across as uninformed or focusing on the wrong things. The best you can do is take what you think might be useful and discard/ignore the rest, reminding yourself that they’ll learn over time.
The whole point of notes is to help make the script better, and both note-giver and receiver need to approach this from that viewpoint. It’s not the time for the note-giver to say “This is how I would do it,” and the receiver can’t get ultra-defensive and overly possessive of their work.
Once the notes are given, the responsibility falls on the writer to interpret and use them as they see fit.