Notes Are Feelings, Not Facts: 4 Tips to Giving Good Script Feedback
September 18, 2020
I believe that being able to give good notes is more important than being a good writer. Before you drag me on Twitter, hear me out. Being a good writer means being able to tell a story well and effectively—which is great. That’s probably why you’re following this blog. But! Being able to give good notes means you’ll be able to make connections more easily and you’ll also unlock any number of career opportunities related to coverage, development and producing. Even if you end up throwing in the towel on your writing career, most aspects of “Being A Person” can be improved by the ability to give good feedback. I think that’s pretty cool to learn!
So let’s unpack some of the tips and tricks that’ll give you all those extra skills.
The most important element of giving notes took me the longest to learn: The purpose of notes. You’re likely giving notes to someone because they know you’re a good writer and want your feedback on their work. Read that again. They want your feedback on their work. What they do not want is for you to take their work and turn it into your work.
The purpose of notes is to help make a project the best version of itself.
For a particularly glib analogy, if a chef is making soup and they ask you to taste it, and your response is, “If it were me, I would actually cook a steak,” that doesn’t help the soup! When you start reading a piece that you’re giving notes on, make sure you know what the writer is hoping the piece to be. Get a logline or a synopsis if they have one, or at the very least ask them what they think the genre could be. Even if you’ve got nothing to go on but the script itself, try to understand what the writer is trying to do, and guide them towards that goal. Don’t dump out the soup and fire up the grill instead—just tell them that the soup needs salt.
Good notes are subjective.
When you’re giving notes, they should be about you and your experience of the piece. “Didn’t you just say don’t make it about me?” I sure did, convenient straw man! But good notes are about your opinion of the work, and it should be clear that your notes are just that: your opinion. Unless you’re correcting typos, your notes aren’t facts—they’re feelings. Own this! The writer you’re helping is trying to generate emotional responses, after all. So give them emotional responses, but also make sure that they’re specific responses.
Dig into why you responded to something enough to actually make a note out of it. What part of your gut is telling you you like something or don’t like something? Why don’t you understand this plot point? What part of your human experience is telling you that the protagonist wouldn’t do that then?
If you have questions while reading, ask them! Get specific, get detailed, get opinionated. The way I tend to give notes is to make line notes or specific observations as I read, and then figure out my more general recommendations at the end of my read. If you've been specific and opinionated enough in your line notes, then finding the patterns of your feelings at the end is simple, and it’ll show both you and the writer how you really felt about the piece. And obviously, good notes should also be constructive, but sometimes we just don’t have a fix.
If you can’t be constructive, then be honest.
There’s going to be plenty of times you go through a script, find an issue, and have some thoughts about how to improve it. There’s also going to be plenty of times where you find an issue and have absolutely no idea what to do about it. That’s okay! You don’t have to have an answer for everything. If you did, you’re probably not reading this article and are instead rolling around on your money pile. Be upfront that you don’t have a fix, but also make it clear why you’re taking issue with something. Get to the root of the problem. Even if you don’t have a solution, if you’re able to be honest and open about how you’re feeling, the writer will know where to start looking for fixes.
Finally, be kind in your notes.
I’ve seen far too many people brag about their ability to tear down scripts and tear apart writers; to shatter psyches with their incredible ability to read a script and share their thoughts. This isn’t Whiplash. Even if your notes are good, constructive and accurate, if you deliver them like you’re a parent scolding a child, odds are that that writer won’t come back to you for notes again (or heed the ones you just gave). The writer is sharing their work because they know it’s weak and needs some TLC.
Come into the process with generosity and kindness. They want help. Don’t make them feel like shit for asking. Find something to love in everything that you read, and make sure the writer hears that, too. If you can deliver feedback and make the writer feel excited about implementing it? That’s what leads to connections, recommendations, and, if you’re lucky, friendships.
In short, when you’re giving feedback, be helpful, be opinionated, be specific, and be kind. Now go help a friend figure out how to make their script better.
Written by: Alex SwitzkyAlex Switzky is an LA-based writer and producer. He has worked as a creative producer for Dream Reach Media, development coordinator for Adam Wingard, and as a freelance story consultant for film, TV, and podcasts.