How to Give NotesComplications Ensue
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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

McGrath reposts his fine essay on how to give notes. The key: rather than telling the writer what to do, challenge his or her assumptions. Why did they do it that way? What were they trying to achieve? Is that what you, the buyer, wanted to achieve?

The best division of labor is for the buyer to decide what he wants the result to look like, and to ask the writer to figure out how to get there.

In the US Army, the commanding officer decides what he wants: take that hill, relieve that battalion, stop that enemy assault. He leaves it to the guy or gal leading the troops to decide how to take the hill, how to relieve the battalion, how to stop the enemy. They are going to have to do it, after all. They will spend ten times as long pondering the how as the CO has available. They are closer to the material: the soldiers, the terrain, the equipment.

Micromanaging from the top can lead to spectacular failures. The Spanish Armada failed because King Philip of Spain, a landlubber, insisted that his admiral follow his orders precisely -- orders written several months before the battle. The Iraq invasion of 2003 turned into a debacle because the Secretary of Defense, who had never been in combat, was micromanaging troop deployments.

The best notes say: "we want a wham-bang opening," for example; not, "when Nick gets to the bridge there should be snipers and they should be shooting tracer bullets at him." The best notes come from being a great audience member who understands his own reactions: "I want to be pulled into the story viscerally before I even understand what's going on."

The most challenging notes are those which don't make clear what exactly the note-giver is looking for. The more prescriptive the note is, the harder it is to parse. Why does he want snipers? Is the opening not scary enough? Does he want the opening to take longer? Did the note-giver see a movie with cool snipers and he wants something like that? Are we appealilng to the Halo crowd?

It takes a lot of restraint to avoid giving writers unnecessarily specific notes. Everyone in this industry wants to be creative. The writers are having all the fun. Execs want to share that fun. But execs: you will look like a genius if you simply make clear what results you want, and let the writer get there by his own path. The results will be much fresher, and more coherent, too.

Writers: you need to address notes, but you don't always have to take them. Don't be afraid to ask, "what are you looking for, here, exactly, because I may have another way to do this."

Obviously when you're writing for a director or an animator or a real creative producer -- a Zanuck, a Spielberg, someone who is truly taking part in the creation of the project -- then the situation changes. If Spielberg wants snipers, give him snipers. On BON COP BAD COP, the director had entire action sequences he had mapped out in his head; my job was to happily write them down and marvel at how fun they were. But even in this case, don't be afraid to ask what your creative collaborator really wants when he asks for certain details. You may be able to come up with something better, and most creative people are open to a better solution most of the time.

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