The art of giving effective notes to other screenwriters
So many writers hop onto the various online screenwriting forums pleading on their knees for readers and honest notes. They need to learn to give notes also.
Once or twice a month I offer to do just that, usually with the caveat that we swap. What I’ve realized over the years is that new screenwriters are not accustomed to receiving notes. Except those they may have paid for or through a contest. And they’re even less accustomed to giving them.
But they’re missing out on a great secret. Giving and receiving notes is one of the easiest and fastest ways to improve your craft. And script swaps are free.
Reading other people’s work is fascinating. Everyone approaches ‘the rules’ differently. It’s so interesting to see what works in a script, even though you might personally never use that particular approach. Read on.
This is a philosophy worth embracing wherever you swap scripts. Whether in a FB group, on Reddit or LinkedIn, or in a small writers’ group face-to-face.
The importance of practicing Ayni
Ayni is the Quechuan practice of energy exchange. The closest English translation to this Andean highlands practice is probably quid pro quo. It means something given in exchange for something else. If you’re brave enough to request that a stranger from a massive online group read your 120-page screenplay, the least you can do is offer to swap.
I try to regularly read and give notes to new writers who request honest feedback. But I’ve become a little weary of the never-ending stream of writers begging to be read, without offering anything in exchange.
Think about it. It’s a huge ask. Simply reading and skimming through a feature properly takes an hour, minimum. Prepping written notes with an annotated pdf takes me at least three hours and frequently as long as five.
I do my best to coerce new writers to read my WIPs and give me notes in exchange for mine on theirs. Not because I think their notes will be useful. They may be. They may not. But just because it’s a fabulous educational exercise for them to do it. Occasionally, I’ve been delighted to experience a brilliant exchange and shrewd observations on their part.
More often than not, though, the newer writer is too scared to say what they really think of my work. One poor fellow recently told me he’d read my 35-page pilot three times and couldn’t find a single thing to comment on. (And since I published this, half a dozen screenwriters have confessed to being certain I’m talking about them.)
As you’ve no doubt gleaned, I feel pretty strongly about the epic value of script exchanges.
I’m crippled by my decades as a writer and editor and publications manager in the world of international finance and development. It’s incredibly difficult for me to read a script riddled with errors. I’m hampered by my attachment to perfection. And haven’t been able to figure out yet how to approach scripts without wearing my editor’s hat.
I’ve tried to remove the sombrero, but apparently it’s glued on. Sometimes I think there’s a red pencil grafted to my hand. I know it’s hard for writers to see their annotated pdfs with all my red underlines, scribbles, and comments. Given that my sincere objective is to help, most serious writers appreciate my exacting approach to language. But it can take some writers many years before they value a good editor.
Read like a kind-hearted gatekeeper
Remember, especially with new writers, they’re hoping for over-the-top accolades. Be gentle, but at the same time be clear and direct.
My approach to giving notes is to try to read like a gatekeeper, so I can help a writer bulletproof their formatting and their language. If a writer can get past me on those issues, and they have a solid, well-structured, and intriguing story, they’re in solid shape for contests and industry readers.
You might be surprised at what I notice. I try to start reading without prejudice, but if I see five ‘looks’ on one page, I start counting. I watch for overused and uninteresting verbs like ‘sits’ and ‘goes’ and note passive voice and incorrect tense. I’ll mark widows and orphans and ‘wrylies,’ which I’m as allergic to as an A-List actor.
All those tiny little bumps will remove any reader from the story. Especially a jaded reader like me, even if merely for a nanosecond. More bumps equal more reader distraction from the story.
Your goal as the writer is to make everything invisible except the story. A well-written, perfectly formatted, error-free screenplay makes for a delightful read.
I do my best to deliver respectful feedback on a palatable plate. My goal is to encourage while also pointing to areas for improvement.
It helps when a writer is also respectful. They’re always grateful at the start when I offer to read their work. How they respond depends on my reaction to the quality of their initial submission.
Yes, spelling, grammar, and formatting matter
In my view, the only scripts offered to a reader should be as ‘finished’ and competition-ready as possible. Yes, even when it’s through an informal channel like an online discussion group. That means spellchecked, proofread, and properly formatted.
Yes, of course I know it’s a WIP, but that doesn’t mean you share it without a cosmetic polish. This is your calling card, no matter what stage it’s at. And you really have no idea who the person reading your script might be. Just because you can’t find them on IMDb doesn’t mean they don’t have connections.
It’s impolite, unprofessional, and unfair for a writer to send you a script to read when they know there are serious spelling, grammar, and formatting issues. Don’t be afraid to flag them and return the script unread.
Once I sent back a script after reading five pages, with dense annotations on all. I explained how difficult it was to get through it with so many errors. And I offered to read the whole thing once the writer had fixed the endemic format and language issues.
The response: “Wow, this is great! Thank you! I’ll revise according to your suggestions. But would you mind reading the rest please and comment on the story?”
The “please” doesn’t make this response any less rude.
Short answer? No. I’m going to give you notes as if I were a contest reader or studio gatekeeper. And you should consider me both, so give me the best you’ve got. Don’t expect me to work even harder (for free!) to read what you’re not willing to work hard to prepare.
I’ve returned scripts after reading a single page, so littered with errors that a smooth read would be impossible. Again, I’ve offered to read them once the writer did the basic revisions. And almost invariably, those writers never come back, adopting a “once bitten, twice shy” attitude. Or perhaps they just dug in their heels because they don’t believe that writing well actually matters.
Great way to build a network
Mostly though, I’ve developed fantastic relationships with writers I’ve swapped scripts with. One guy I met in a Facebook forum gave me extraordinary notes on a script that had been deeply workshopped and revised more than 17 times and advanced in competitions. He still found repeated words and even a grammatical error. I was deeply grateful for his eagle editor’s eye. It’s not easy to see our own mistakes.
If a writer sends me a script, as has happened more than once, and tells me: “Everyone who’s read it loves it,” I know from the get-go they won’t be open to suggestions.
More than one such writer has ghosted me after I sent them the actionable notes they requested. Once, in anticipation of a young writer disappearing into the mist, I wrote: “Believe it or not, you’ll thank me one day.” Never received even a cursory acknowledgment.
The best notes I’ve received on my work are those that initially angered me. There’s one reader I keep going back to because a.) She notices things that others either don’t see or choose not to mention and b.) She says exactly what she thinks.
Case in point, in one of my early scripts about page 15 she wrote about my MC: “I don’t like her.” Then at the end of Act 2, she wrote: “I still don’t like her.”
It seriously annoyed me at the time. Partly because no one else had responded that way. But her brutal honesty forced me to examine my portrayal of my MC and add just a few lines to reveal the ‘whys’ of her behavior. And to plump up an early not quite ‘save the cat’ scene to demonstrate her softer side.
At the time I was part of a brilliant DC writers’ group of eight professional women. We met every two weeks to break down one of our scripts. Everyone had a few days to review prior to the face-to-face meeting.
When my pages took their turn on the hot seat, that same “I don’t like her” reader was the only one who complained about a particular word I’d used in an action line. Already irritated by her notes, her comment on my word choice ticked me off even more.
Slightly fuming, I drove to the biweekly meeting and picked up another member en route, whose notes hadn’t mentioned the word. During the drive, I brought it up in conversation (probably bitchily) and asked specifically about that one word.
She sheepishly admitted that she’d “had to look it up.”
Become a ‘twig flagger’
Later at the meeting, I asked the rest. All of them, i.e. seven highly educated American women admitted they didn’t know the word. Most had looked it up. Two hadn’t bothered to. But only one mentioned it in her notes.
The word, I know you’re dying to know, was “twigs.”
The word shows up when my main character is enjoying a food truck lunch with her love interest for their first not-quite date. She laughs at his poor Spanish. He retorts that she probably knows how to ask the price of peanuts in Wolof. She’s taken aback for a moment that he clearly knows about her Peace Corps background in Senegal. I think the line was: “Genie glances at him, puzzled. Then twigs.” Followed by a snippet of dialogue acknowledging that he’s read her corporate bio.
I’ve lived all over the world and most of my overseas community were American, who assumed I was too. But as a Canadian, I keep discovering new words that are commonly used in my world are not universally understood. When those words are in dialogue, the rules are different. But my action writing is drawn from a vocabulary that, as it turns out, amounts to a regional language. I need an honest reader to tell me what doesn’t work.
“Twig,” as all the Brits and Ozzies here know, is a fantastic little word that’s been around since the mid-1700s. A small word that packs a punch, it means to comprehend, to grasp, to get it. I think the only close equivalent would be the much younger word grok. But it’s not quite the same. And I wouldn’t use ‘grok’ in most of my scripts. But it turns out ‘twig’ is not in the common American lexicon.
While I’m loathe to jettison ‘twig’ from my screenwriting vocab, unfortunately, I must. And I have that one pull-no-punches reader to thank for my enlightenment. I rewrote the line because I know too well how a single word that isn’t understood universally or intuitively can bump a reader out of the story.
My point? I never would have known that four-letter word was a problem had that one reader out of seven chosen to withhold the fact that she didn’t understand it.
So, please, say exactly what you think about another writer’s work. They’ll likely appreciate it. If not always immediately.
Use a grading chart and make a Kiss Sandwich
But do package it nicely.
If the script is in reasonable shape, make a simple table to grade it on a one to ten scale for: Story, Characters, Premise, Voice, Structure, Pace, Language.
But why do this only if the work is already solid? Turn it around and imagine you as the recipient. You don’t want to discourage a writer with a table showing scores of 3s and 4s. That would make anyone weep. If you can’t write down a 5 as your lowest score, don’t use the table. Send notes instead.
Include an additional row for “Other” and use it to highlight something unique about the script. You don’t need to grade this, but you might find it a useful reference when you send your feedback. For example, you could cite emotional responses to certain scenes.
People tend to respond well when they see you’ve made a genuine effort.
Something I learned from Toastmasters International about giving feedback was that people are far more open to notes when they’re delivered in a loving sandwich. Here’s the recipe:
Assemble all ingredients and group them according to a.) compliments and b.) notes to improve. Important: deliver notes in this order.
First Kiss – bottom slice (positive comment)
Gentle Kicks – filling
Second Kiss – top slice (encouragement).
Make sure to open the conversation with praise and close it with encouragement.
Unless I’m reading for a contest, when I read a script to provide notes, I annotate the pdf as I go. While I work, I compose an email with top-level overview notes on language, structure, characters including their intros and arcs, formatting, pace etc., and of course, story. I pull out things that both delight and bother me.
I open with some nice things, first how sincerely pleased I am that they trusted me with their precious baby. Which is the absolute truth. I’m always honored to read someone’s work.
If they write well, I lead with that. When the writing is nothing special, but the main character’s intro is brilliant, that’s the opening. If the story is so fantastic I’m gob-smacked, wishing I had the right contacts to usher it into development-land immediately, that’s of course what the writer hears first. The first kiss is easy to find. Even if it’s just the writer’s enthusiasm.
Then I summarize in a list what they’ll find in the annotated pdf: Gentle kicks, organized by habits of language, format, characters, and pace, yada yada.
Then I tell them how the story and specific scenes make me feel, what message I think they want to convey and whether they succeeded.
Finally, I close with some enthusiastic encouragement (top slice kiss) but only if the script warrants it and I can be genuine. I often share useful resources and for new writers especially, I send them to my article about how hard it is to receive notes.
The truth will set them free
It’s both unkind and unfair to hold back truth from a challenged writer. There’s too much personal cost to push someone who clearly doesn’t have a basic enough grasp of the language to get further than the end of the driveway.
If the writer struggles with English as a second language, I’ll usually recommend they write in their own language and explore production options in their home country. Better to redirect a dream than to behave like a sham self-publishing company.
Note: Quite often, if I don’t know the writer, I’ll offer to read up to 10 pages, more if the pages intrigue me. Occasionally, I’ve had to return a particularly problematic script after scribbling on a single page. On the opposite end, I’ve sometimes read an entire script in one sitting without making a single note.
I love working with responsive, open-minded writers. It’s a dream relationship on both sides. I enjoy helping and they’re open to honing their craft.
So, next time you request feedback on your WIP, make sure you offer to swap scripts.
And don’t be afraid to sharpen your pencils and provide honest notes.
One more point, if you solicit notes and receive them, it’s polite to give your reader specific feedback about their notes and ask for the same on yours.
That doesn’t mean arguing or justifying or complaining. Objectivity is your best friend. Most writers will do this naturally, and respond with comments on your notes. But even if your notes bruise their ego initially, they should acknowledge your time and effort as a reader. If you don’t hear anything after a few days, follow up with a friendly message to ask if they found the notes useful and mention at least one positive thing about their notes on your work.
Finally, unless you’re working with a collaborator, don’t give notes on a Google doc or any other online shared document. Just don’t. You won’t be able to couch your comments in any kind of sandwich, palatable or otherwise. All the writer will see are the edits and your comments… even if you’re not finished with the task. Download the pdf and work with the document at your leisure.
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