Sunday, November 14, 2021

How to Give Notes

I have given notes well and I have given notes badly. I like to think the notes themselves are usually pretty good. But when I give notes the right way, people are happier with them, and when they're happier, they are also more likely to do something with them. When I give notes the wrong way, I've got in hot water, sometimes.

Here are a few observations I've made about when I give them well.

1.    Clarify what you're giving notes on

It is not always clear what people want you to comment on. Do they want to hear about structural problems? Or are they pretty convinced their structure is good, and they really just want to see if any of the dialog sounds off? For that matter, are they really asking for notes, or are they really asking for praise? It's important to know why they want your notes. 

When I give notes badly, I have sometimes given notes that are, in principle, really good. There might be a structural flaw in a script, for example, or a scene does not work because the characters don't really want anything from each other, and they're just talking for the sake of talking. 

If a film script is a week from shooting, it is not helpful, usually, to point out structural flaws. There's nothing the writer can do with that information. If a game cinematic has been approved by a slew of brass, then the writer may not dare do a complete overhaul of the scene. Find out how far along whatever it is you're giving notes on. In principle, yes, if a piece is fundamentally broken, then the writer ought to fix it. But there may be production or political reasons why all the writer can do is put lipstick on it. Best to know that before you deliver your trenchant critique.

For that matter, you definitely want to know if they're looking for criticism at all, or just praise. An experienced writer with a professional attitude always wants honest criticism. Friends may not. Professionals who are not writers may not. They may be working in other disciplines; you may be working for them. They may even tell you, jokingly, that they want to hear the worst. The joke is the tip-off that they do not want to hear the worst.

In general, assume other people will take harsh notes as a personal attack, unless you know them well enough to know they for sure will not.

2.  The sandwich

Just as it is easier to eat shit if it is surrounded by bread, it is easier to swallow criticisms if they are preceded and followed by praise. There are always a couple of things you can praise, even in the most broken bit of writing. If you are having trouble finding them, look harder. Hell, you're a writer. Make something up. It will not diminish the value of the notes that come in between the compliments. 

3.  Questions are less painful than statements

Which of the following are going to feel less like a slap in the face?

Is Jojo in love with Elena?
It's not clear if Jojo is in love with Elena or not.

We have nothing to root for in the third act.
What are we rooting for in the third act?

The opening drags.
Could the opening be shorter or snappier?

Each pair of sentences says the same thing. But the questions allow the writer to try to answer them. The writer in the first case can just say "Yes, Jojo is in love with Elena." But if they're at all alert they'll understand that they need to clear that up. But they got to defend their own work, even if only in their own head. So the criticism stings less. 

Likewise, "could the opening be shorter or snappier?" allows the writer to answer, "yeah, sure" without having to feel bad about what they wrote. After all, anything can be shorter or snappier. But it still conveys the need for a shorter, snappier opening. 

If the writer tries to answer "what are we rooting for?" and can't, then they will have to make the question their own. You won't be rubbing them the wrong way if it's their question, will you?

4.  Positive statements are less painful than negative ones. 

Anything can be phrased positively or negatively. Compare:

Glenda is too wordy.
Glenda needs to be more laconic.

The twist at the end of Act 2 is unconvincing. 
The twist at the end of Act 2 could be more convincing.

The scene kind of drifts off at the end.
The scene needs to build tension until the end. 

Again, there is not a lot of sky between the meaning of the negative and positive versions of the statements. They say the same things. But the negatives are static and absolute. They say, "your material sucks." That stings.

The positives are dynamic and relative. "Your material could be better." Well, of course it could be better. Anything can be better. So that doesn't hurt too much. 

You would think that writers would see through the artifice of phrasing everything as a positive. But writers are human. No one likes to hear bad things about their babies. But they are usually willing to hear how their babies could be better.

5.  Personal statements are less painful than general ones; feelings are less painful than facts

When you talk about your own reaction, you are on very solid ground. If you found something confusing, who can say you didn't? But if you say something is objectively confusing, where do you get off saying that? Are you God? 

If you don't like a character, no one can argue that you should have liked them. But if you say a character is not likeable, well, the writer probably likes them, so you're wrong.

Truthfully, you can only speak to how things seem to you. Any general statement has an element of hubris. 

This is not in the "voice" of the game.
This doesn't sound to me like it's in the "voice" of the game.

The scene has no dramatic "push and pull."
I am not feeling the dramatic "push and pull" of the scene.

Johnny isn't lovable.
I don't love Johnny. 

Again, almost identical meanings, but the general statements hurt more than the personal ones. For silly, irrational, human reasons; but then, we are all silly, irrational humans, aren't we?

(Except for you, I mean. You're great.)

6.    Solutions -- should you offer them?

If your critique is "this character needs to be more laconic," then it's obvious what the writer needs to do. If it's "I don't know who I'm rooting for here," then it may not be obvious, and you may want to offer a fix.

This is tricky. If you see a flaw in some writing, odds are you can think of a way to fix it. However, the moment you offer a solution, then the argument is no longer about whether your critique is right or not; it's about whether your solution is good. (There is always an argument when it comes to critiques, usually in the receiving writer's head.)

Ideally, don't offer a solution until you are sure that the writer has absorbed and accepted the critique. Then you can say, "I did have an idea how to resolve this," or, better, "I have a little idea how you can easily fix this surgically," and they can ask for it or not. 

On the other hand there is a danger that if you don't offer a solution, it may feel like you are just trying to insult the work. At a minimum, it might be wise to make clear that you think the issue can be resolved. And one way or another, all issues can be resolved, if people are willing to make enough changes. 

If you can offer multiple solutions, then it feels less like you are telling the writer what to do, and more like you're just throwing out ideas that they're free to pillage or not. 

7.  I thought I was dealing with professionals. Do professionals really need all this handling?

Not always. Once you've been working with someone long enough, you may find they just want you to cut to the chase. I've worked with writers who felt comfortable telling me, "Here's why I hate that," and I thought that was great.

But it's a good idea not to assume that's the protocol. It's a good idea to phrase critiques carefully, as questions, as personal observations, as positive statements. There is very little downside to doing it. You can communicate exactly the same ideas; they just go down smoother. And as Maya Angelou said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." 

8.  Is it any different giving notes to fellow devs, to your staff, or to your boss?

Well, your staff is a whole lot less likely to fire you. But I think the above applies to any situation where you're asked to give notes. You can offend a boss; you can oppress your staff; you can rub fellow devs the wrong way. Anything you can do to make the notes go down smoother will be better for them, better for you, and better for the work you're criticizing. 

Don't you think?

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