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Sunday, January 16, 2022

“If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”
— Aaron Sorkin

A little while ago I wrote about how to give notes well. This here is about how to take notes well – that is, how to address criticisms without messing up your work. This is pitched to writers, but applicable to any creative notes.

Games, films and TV are all industries where are constantly giving and being given notes on how to revise the work – by bosses, by co-workers, if we’re smart by subordinates.

From time to time, you get notes you disagree with. There is always the option to simply blindly execute them, especially if they come from your boss. This post assumes that you want other options.

I’m not going to distinguish between notes you get from your boss and notes you get from other people with less power over you Your boss will give you good notes more often, hopefully, and you may have less of a choice about what to do with them. But the problems are the same no matter who you’re dealing with.

My goal here is to give you information I wish I’d given myself about twenty years ago. If some of this seems obvious, you’re smarter than I was. Am.

I will say that most of this seems obvious to me, too, when I am neither giving nor taking notes. Then it can fly out the window when I’m in the thick of it, only returning after some damage has been done.

Let’s stipulate two contradictory things:

  • Giving and taking notes should be two coworkers trying to find a vision for the work that both of them can love. Neither of them should have their ego involved; the work is the important thing.
  • No one comes to creativity without an ego.

Therefore, simply ignoring the other person’s feedback, even if they are wrong, is not best practices.

Here are some thoughts.

  1. All feedback is legitimate.
  2. It’s important, but difficult, to remember that if someone says they don’t like something, then they don’t like it. You can’t tell them they should like it. That’s like telling someone they should have laughed at a joke.

  3. Never take feedback personally.
  4. This is almost impossible to do. Someone is criticizing your baby! It will feel like an attack.

    But when you take feedback personally, it’s hard to hear all the feedback. After the first bad thing, I start to think about why that bad thing isn’t so bad, and I have trouble absorbing the second bad thing.

    It helps never to refer to the work as “my” thing. Call it “the” thing. Or “the current thing.” It’s not yours any more, it’s just a thing that’s out there, that might be good or bad.

    That will also make you seem less defensive if you’re talking about “the” work, and enables you to criticize it yourself, which is often helpful.

    Note that the feedback may in real life be meant as a personal attack. Creative businesses are political. You are not making it up, sometimes people do have it in for you. It’s still better not to take things personally. That way, it’s your attacker who will look unprofessional, not you.

  5. What they think is wrong may not be the problem.
  6. Okay, so all feedback is legitimate. It doesn’t mean that your note-giver is right about what the problem is. The problem may lie elsewhere, and they are picking at a symptom, not the cause.

    In narrative, often someone will say a scene is too long, for example, when what is really the problem is that we do not care about the characters in it and their problems. Shortening the scene will not make the scene work better. It will just go by faster. The solution to the problem lies earlier where I was supposed to set up the characters. This particularly often happens when your note-giver is not an expert in what you do. It also happens when your note-giver looked only at your work, not at the work underlying it, or the payoff to your work. Hopefully you gamed that all out when you did your work. They may not.

  7. Find the truth
  8. Assume the person giving you a note is not an idiot.

    This should be obvious, right?

    But we’re all human. If there is a way to interpret a note so that it seems idiotic, most of us will jump there at least some of the time. I have done this lots of times. It is so, so satisfying to be able to dismiss a criticism because it is just plain dumb.

    If the other person is saying something that sounds idiotic, consider that maybe you didn’t understand what’s in their head. Try to figure out what a non-idiotic version of what they’re proposing might be.

    If it sounds like they are asking for a new character model, consider that they may be asking to put a hat on the old one. If it sounds like they are asking for a dozen NPCs, consider that they may only be asking for one NPC. If it sounds like they are asking for a bar scene where everyone’s talking, which will be a nightmare for voice recording, consider that maybe they mean the scene to take place in a back room where you can only hear incoherent hubbub.

    Then ask if the non-idiotic version is what they’re asking for. Even if you’re wrong, it will help them explain what’s bothering them more clearly.

    Note that the person giving you the note may, in fact, be an idiot. There are very few real idiots in games, films or TV. But some people inexorably fail up. But again, it’s going to be more useful to you to assume they are not.

  9. Dig for the truth
  10. Unfortunately, I’m going to ask for something even harder to do than finding the truth.

    Sometimes, people will find something in your work that is glaringly wrong. And (unlike in the previous section) it is indeed wrong.

    But it is not the real problem. There is something bigger that’s bugging them, but they can’t put their criticism in words, so they don’t voice it. Maybe they hint at it, but then move on.

    This is often a much bigger problem than the thing they picked on. And it will require much more work to fix. So the temptation for you is to ignore it.

    Don’t ignore it. Interrogate them. Make sure you understand what the big, vague criticism they had was.

    Why? They will come back with the same criticism in three months or in six months. And later, the players or audience will have the same problem. Don’t wait for someone to point out the problem in a Let’s Play. Dig for it.

    You are a real writer when you seek out criticism. When someone tells you, “Nah, forget it, it’s fine,” and you say, “No, seriously, what didn’t you like?”

  11. What they want you to do about it may be wrong.
  12. All feedback is legitimate, and most criticisms have some truth behind them.

    Most solutions proposed to you will be bad. Especially solutions proposed by co-workers from other disciplines, who do not understand what sort of parameters you’re working under. Even solutions proposed by your brilliant boss may be bad, if you spent a week or a month thinking something through, and they glanced at it over lunch.

    The worst case, and this is very common, is to get solutions without hearing what the actual problem was.

    Naturally, it is very tempting to shoot down these solutions because they break things or don’t work.

    But before you even talk about whether the solution is a good idea or not, it is good to try to find out what problem they are trying to solve.

    If you understand what the problem that provoked the solution was, you can often come up with a much simpler, more surgical way of solving the problem. Then everyone can be happy. (Though I can’t guarantee they will. Some people need it to be their solution.)

    Say they really are asking for a new character model, and you discover they just want the player to be clear that we’re looking at the character many years ago, and sure enough, you can just change their hat.

  13. “We’ll take a look at that.”
  14. So you really worked at understanding the criticism, but you’re still convinced that the person giving you feedback is wrong. They’re honing in on something that’s not the real problem, they want something fixed that isn’t broken, they want a change that will break a lot of things that are working.

    It can happen. What can you do?

    You stall for time.

    Say “We’ll take a look at that.”

    The most important thing is not to object to the proposed changes in the same meeting you get them. This is difficult when you can game out the changes, and you can already see why they won’t work. In fact you may already have considered this solution, and rejected it for excellent reasons.

    It is important not to reveal this, because most people can’t game out the changes. They won’t believe you’ve gamed it out, they’ll think you are just being precious.

    It is important to actually, really, truly take a look at it. That gives you the time to consider that the person who gave you the note is not an idiot, to find the truth, to find the problem beneath the problem, etc., like I just suggested.

    It gives you time to discover that what you thought was a bad note was a great note. It gives you time for your hackles to come down. It also gives you the opportunity to say, “I tried it, and I couldn’t make it work.”

    Because you did try it. Right?

  15. If all else fails
  16. A rabbi was hauled in front of the king. “They say you’re brilliant, rabbi. If you’re so smart, teach my monkey here to talk. You have one year. Then I’ll have you executed.”

    “One year?” said the rabbi. “It takes eight years to teach a monkey to talk.”

    “Fine. Eight years. But then, if it doesn’t talk, I’ll have you executed.”

    So the rabbi left cheerfully. One of his disciples said, “Are you mad? In eight years, the king is going to have you executed.” “A lot can happen in eight years,” said the rabbi. “I could die. The king could die. The monkey could learn to talk.”

    If it does not look like you have an option to come back with “I tried it, and it didn’t work,” there are still some strategies left. These are low odds, but maybe they will make you feel better. •

    Execute the note, and lie in for good reasons to rethink that section of the game or screenplay entirely • Execute the note and lie in wait for good reasons to kill that asset/event/feature/level/scene entirely. • Pray that it is a good note. • 1.

  17. Do NOT:
    • Do NOT execute the note badly to show how dumb it was. That way lies dishonor and sorrow.
    • Do NOT go over the head of the person who hired you. They will resent it forever.

  • The Last Resort
  • I am saving for last the most difficult approach to taking feedback, which is to carefully explain why it is wrong, and hope you don’t offend the other person.

    There are some people who are willing to trust your creative instincts and your craft. To these people you can explain the problem and try to work out a solution. These people are gold. Marry them if your company does not have a policy against it.

    For everyone else, make sure it’s a hill worth dying on.

    It is a good idea to propose another solution, so it doesn’t look like you’re just carping. It is also a good idea to get the other person to riff with you on your proposed solution. The more you can get someone to work on it with you, the more they may feel it is their solution.

    Good luck!

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