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The art of dealing effectively with notes on your screenplay

The Five Stages of Notes and Feedback

The art of dealing effectively with notes on your screenplay

Accepting notes is perhaps the most punishing part of this screenwriting journey. This is true for all of us, but especially painful to new writers. We’re artists, after all. We’re a sensitive lot. And our first instinct when we receive a note about our ‘baby’ is usually far from receptive.

It doesn’t have to be a particularly negative note for us to react defensively. We even react to suggestions for a change in formatting.

The truth is, no matter what we say we want when we share our work with others —be it for paid coverage, a competition, or for feedback from other writers— what we really seek is praise. We truly hope for over-the-top accolades and immediate intros to managers and agents. When that doesn’t happen, we’re crushed.

Fight or flight reaction is normal

Whether our script doesn’t advance to even the first cut in a contest, or when the feedback is less than glowing or pokes holes in our premise, we hurdle into fight-or-flight mode. This is true even among more experienced writers, although the reaction is shorter-lived the longer you’ve been at this.

I was luckier than many a budding screenwriter when I started part-time on the path in 2015. My first career was as a print journalist, both reporter and editor. And I worked for many years in the world of international development as a communications specialist and director, punctuated by a stint as a speechwriter for C-Suite executives. All those roles required a quietening of my writer’s ego and I eventually learned that feedback —even from the most challenging clients— ultimately results in a higher quality final product.

It gets easier every time

In a meeting, when asked, “What else do you have?” I’m reasonably comfortable with the batch of screenplays tucked under my belt. Even if none are (yet) produced, and some are in less than sterling condition, I can whip out five features including an animation, three shorts, two pilots, laurels showing advancements at both Austin and Nicholl, and one commissioned rewrite currently in negotiation with Netflix. Not repped/produced yet, but I’m in the game. (At least that’s what I tell myself.)

Still, even though I’m moving forward, when I get notes, I’ve noticed I definitely experience a similar response cycle to the now-classic five stages of death and dying identified more than half a century ago by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross. Yes, my reactions have mellowed, reduced to a momentary turbo-cycle before I tuck into the notes with genuine interest. But the ego’s immediate reflex is the same.

In my experience with giving notes, most screenwriters tend to follow the same pattern of knee-jerk responses. Just like the stages of dying, writers will flip back and forth through the circuit, occasionally settling and permanently stuck somewhere between Stages 1 and 4.

I’ve outlined the typical reaction categories below. (The ‘death and dying’ equivalent is italicized in parentheses.)

STAGE 1: DISMISSAL/RESISTANCE (Denial)

It’s normal to respond dismissively at first blush. But smart writers will walk away for as long as it takes, then return to the note objectively and ask themselves why the reader saw it that way.

You can do whatever you want if your name is Quentin Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin. For the rest of us plebians, dismissing notes outright is not likely a strategy that will lead to success.

Choosing to willfully ignore the same note from several people is a solid clue you’re stubbornly stuck in Stage 1.

STAGE 2: ANNOYANCE (Anger)

Sometimes the annoyance is self-directed, for example when an eagle-eyed reader catches you on something you know is wrong, whether it’s an errant apostrophe or widow, or a glaring plot hole you missed. But more often than not, the initial reaction to another person’s note is irritation, even if fleeting. We often see the note as trite, ridiculous, nit-picky, or just plain stupid.

Before you react to any notes on your script, keep in mind that every single person who reads your story will see new things you’ve likely never considered. It’s easy to blanket-assess these comments as unworthy. But don’t.

Every note deserves your attention in some way. All of them.

STAGE 3: ARGUING (Bargaining)

New writers will often outright reject feedback by explaining themselves. I see it in the forums frequently where a writer will post a logline or the first five pages and request comments. Yet they become hyper-defensive —even combative— when people take the time to read their work and do exactly what they asked. They publicly attack intelligent comments by seasoned professionals, and praise non-specific “that’s great!” type compliments from neophytes.

“You’re wrong.” “You don’t understand my genius.” “You’re so stupid you can’t see what I’m doing with this.” While they won’t actually use those words, in the subtext of their responses, their attitude blares in neon-colored cacophony.

Bottom line, if you have to explain your decisions to a reader, you haven’t done your job as a writer. End of story. Everything you write should be crystal clear.

Yes, some readers will skim and may overlook a key reveal as a result. Go back to the manuscript and figure out why they weren’t so glued to your pages that missing it would have been impossible. What about your script didn’t manage to hook them?

The art of both receiving notes graciously and responding to them appropriately is key to your screenwriting success. Unless you have the funds to produce your own film, your ability to collaborate starts here.

STAGE 4: DISCOURAGEMENT (Depression)

Whether you’re writing specs or for hire, screenwriting can define the word frustration. It truly feels like a Sisyphean task sometimes. For one of my early scripts, I stopped numbering the revisions after 17 and dated them instead, simply because I didn’t want to see the file name numbers creep a single digit higher.

Somehow it helps that only you know how many times you’ve made major revisions. Every spec script you submit is the First Draft. Always. No matter how much you’ve tinkered with it. It’s a lengthy polishing process that takes patience, mental hygiene, and self-love. And if you’re lucky enough to attain the holy grail of experiencing your screenplay in production, daily notes and rewrites are constant. Becoming nimble in your notes-management is a skill worth mastering early in your career.

The best way to deal with devastating notes, even those that —heaven forbid— suggest a Page 1 rewrite, is to respond to them one-by-one and welcome them as a learning opportunity.

STAGE 5: EMBRACEMENT/ACTION (Acceptance)

Once you’re able to approach the notes with a measure of objectivity, you can assess them. Even if the note is “wrong” —and yes, many are essentially misplaced. But there is always a reason the note shows up. You need to find that reason, examine it, and fix the root of the problem. Find the path that led the reader to pen that particular comment.

Take on each note individually, pivot your perspective, and figure out how to alter your subsequent readers’ experiences. When you approach notes holistically, your revision will always result in improvement.

You can pay for feedback and be disappointed in the quality. You can get free feedback from contests, fellow writers in online and offline groups, or from among your personal connections. Listen to everything. Take action to remedy a confusing scene or clarify an opaque one. It will always help refine your story.

Final Words

One last suggestion, while it’s a fabulous exercise to swap scripts with folks you meet in screenwriting forums, do be careful what advice you listen to. Take into account the note-giver’s experience. Study the vast variety of quality educational material available. Especially note the wisdom in The Screenwriters Bible by Dave Trottier and books on structure like Syd Field’s offerings or Snyder’s Save the Cat. Take a class or two. Watch YouTube channels.

And read loads of scripts. Especially if you can get your hands on specs by experienced screenwriters, as opposed to final shooting scripts. Those bear faint resemblance in format to the spec you’re writing. (Tip: Nicholl winning scripts, in spec format, are available for download.)

One of the most useful activities you can engage in to improve your writing skills is to join a writers’ group, through MeetUp for example. There you can learn to provide constructive, actionable notes to others.

Remember to thank your reader

In the end, remember that someone took time to read and comment on your script, whether you paid them or they read it as a professional favor. You’re free to ditch anything you disagree with. It’s your story, after all. But if you examine those apparently stupid notes, you’re likely to find more than a handful of hidden gems. And these which will ultimately help separate your magnificent story from the commoner garden chaff.

– Penelope Poole, Co-founder Badass Beat Boards

Related: How to Give Notes

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