How Do I Take Feedback?Complications Ensue
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Friday, February 13, 2009

Questioning and Aspiring writes:
Q. I'm an aspiring writer moving toward my first spec screenplay (after having already written a spec pilot) for which I've work shopped my very detailed step outline in my Feature Writing class and also handed it out to some friends. My fellow film-aspiring though non-writing friends are the ones with the harshest notes, and they happen to be the friends whose story sense I trust most. I've received great feedback on the large strokes, and the originality and inventiveness of my story but have gotten notes on my execution, logic issues inherent, and/or character/story motivations. I react defensively and usually argue my approach. How do I decide what I should change, whose opinion I should trust, and how do I implement said feedback without feeling like I have lost everything I enjoyed and that it is no longer a work of my authorship, but rather a compilation of problems other people had with what I wrote or others' suggestions that I implemented? It's scary to have worked on research and an outline for the better half of a year to then have readers suggest changes that would invariably alter my entire story and make it unrecognizable. I'm sure you can relate this to getting notes from execs, producers, etc. and because I know this is a large part of the business of being a professional writer-- I want to figure out how to deal with this now. How do I become a writer that accepts, understands, and acknowledges good feedback (versus being defensive) and possibly even a writer who realizes the faults in his scripts before they reach the hands of someone else?
My rule of thumb is: readers are usually right that there's something wrong. They're often right about what's wrong. They're usually wrong about how to fix it.

a. Readers are usually right that there's something wrong. If they find the story predictable, something is definitely wrong. If they don't like the main character, there's something wrong.

The only case where you could safely ignore feedback would be when you obviously asked the wrong person. Lisa might not be the right reader for your STARGATE spin-off. My dad wouldn't be the right reader for your Will Ferrell picture. If you're writing torture porn, I might not be your ideal reader, though as a professional I could probably give you good notes on structure and dialog. So be careful who you're asking for feedback.

b. Readers are often right about what's wrong. If they say "I don't like the main character," the problem might not be likability. If you think your main character is perfectly likable, that comment might mean that you haven't given the main character a compelling opportunity, problem or goal. He might dither too much. He might seem to introverted, or dull. Very few readers are capable of identifying what is structurally wrong with the elements of your story. Most will identify the symptoms rather than the cause. They are right that there is something wrong, but they may be wrong about what is wrong.

c. Readers are usually wrong about how to fix it. Nine out of ten suggestions from civilians will either not work at all, or work, but derail another section of your story, or make it a different story. Sometimes the different story might be a better one, which is why you have to listen to all ideas. But you're not obliged to take them.

d. It is your script. It is your vision. Don't write anything you don't believe in. Try something if you're not sure, but if it doesn't work, go back to your previous draft. If you don't like what you've done, it's unlikely anyone else will.

My advice is NOT to argue. It discourages people from giving you negative feedback in the future. But more importantly, it prevents you from hearing the criticism. What you are allowed to do is ask follow-up questions to clarify the criticism -- "do you not like him, or do you not care about him?" You are allowed to say, "What I was trying to do with that scene is this." And if the criticism seems completely off base, you can cut it short by saying, "Thanks, I'll take a look at that."

"I'll take a look at that" is writer-ese for "I think that's a dumb suggestion. But I might be wrong, and once I get it home and work with it, it might turn out to be a great suggestion. So I'm going to shut up and listen." Fairly often, suggestions I thought were horrible, in the depths of my resistance, turned out to be great, or result in something great once I'd worked on them some.

And you can always come back, even when you're getting paid, and say, "You know, I tried that, and it just didn't work." If you honestly tried it, and it truly didn't work in any way, shape or form, then nine times out of ten you won't have to pursue it further.

Remember, feedback is a gift. Even when you're paying for it, it's a gift. It allows you to see your work through other people's perspective. To get perspective on your own work by yourself requires vast amounts of time. Readers have the advantage of not being in your head and not knowing what you intend, but only what you've done.

And, bear in mind, you are writing your screenplay for other readers who are not your friend. If your friends are beating you up about something, what are the odds that a gatekeeper at a production company or agency is going to have the same problem? Only they won't give you feedback, they'll just ditch your script.

"I'll take a look at that." Practice it in front of a mirror if you have to. And try to listen as carefully, and as whole-heartedly, as possible. And then do what feels right to you.




That sounds like some great advice. I tend to take everything on board but do sometimes have a 'well what do you know?' attitude with some people. One person in particular who claimed to be my friend, read the first thing I ever wrote and said "It's shit!" I asked him why. The responce - "don't know, but it's got to be for some reason."

We're not friends anymore but it told me something- people can spot when something is wrong, but as Alex says, they rarely know why. Sometimes they just may n ot like you :(

RE: who to send questions to - I ask my friends and family, then work my way up the ranks. Alex is usually the last person I ask.

Happy writing all.

By Blogger Neil, at 11:53 AM  

Try not to be as precious as you're sounding here. It's only screenwriting.

By Blogger blogward, at 1:26 PM  

"My rule of thumb is: readers are usually right that there's something wrong. They're often right about what's wrong. They're usually wrong about how to fix it."

Very well put, excellent advice.

By Blogger taylor, at 2:24 PM  

When I'm seeking feedback, I try to make it clear that it's ok for the reader to tell me they didn't like the piece, especially if they're a friend. It's been my experience that many people asking you to read their stuff are just fishing for compliments. What I what is their candid reaction, absent inclinations to flatter or disparage me. So I never talk my piece up. I've seen a lot of writers do that, campaign for the writing they just put in your hand, definitely prejudicing the jury.

By Blogger David, at 10:12 PM  

I've never understood people getting upset about criticism. I simply look at it as a way to improve my script. The more brutal the criticism, the more improvements you can make. To me, the most frustrating thing someone can say about my script is "I liked it". Unless you're a producer or agent, that is.

And Neil, I hope you didn't lose a friend because he said your script was shit. That says more about you than your friend. Would you rather your friend lied? How would that have helped you? If you want praise, let your mother read your script.

By Blogger Tim W., at 3:47 AM  

Tim - oh no, don't worry. I'm no longer his friend for various other reasons.

I do appreciate criticism but it just aanoys me when people "hate it" for the sake of hating it.

Anyway, hate criticism but love it at the same time. What doesn't destroy us...

By Blogger Neil, at 5:49 AM  

"My advice is NOT to argue."

This is where I usually fail. I'm pretty proud, and I find it difficult not to say "listen, you don't understand a thing". Obviously if they don't understand it's my fault.

Thank you for pointing this out, it will help me on my own personal arc.

By Blogger Salva Rubio, at 9:11 AM  

Thank you for a great article.

I had just addressed the issue of listening to wrong feedback in my own blog and your article sure made a superb compliment.

By Blogger Unknown, at 3:09 AM  

My philosophy was always "Listen to everyone's criticism and ignore most of them." The idea there was that most people don't really know what they're saying, but if you're truly listening you'll identify the things that need to be identified.

I like yours better.

By Blogger dkfwriting, at 2:37 PM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:19 PM  

@blogward - Only screenwriting? That's like saying, "It's only the blueprint of the skyscraper, why are you getting so serious?"

Another great post. When a friend of mine was asked what one thing he learned in film school, he replied, "Take the note."

By Blogger Eric M, at 3:50 PM  

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