Thank You, May I Have Another: How to Receive Notes as a Screenwriter
September 11, 2020
I’ve been part of the same amazing writers group for five years despite my best attempts at getting kicked out. Our process was to read everyone’s work before our meetings then give notes verbally. For the first year, I did not make this easy. When it was my turn to get feedback, I interrupted everyone’s notes; I poked holes in their critiques; I spiraled into such a deep depression that the rest of the session would be spent talking me off the ledge. People left the group because of my behavior. In short, I was a whiny baby. I was either going to have to learn to take notes, or go find another group from which I would also inevitably be kicked out. I opted for the former. This article is here to teach you the lessons I learned the hard way. Think of these tips as a pacifier to stick in your whiny baby mouth so you can focus on being a tougher, kinder and better writer.
The first step to receiving notes is figuring out why you’re asking for them. On the surface, the answer is obvious: You’re asking for notes because you want to know if your work is good. This is setting you up to get walloped by some unexpected feedback. If you’re just sending your work to someone for the sake of reading it, or — even worse — to show off how good you are, then they give you notes you didn’t expect, that can hurt. When we get hurt, we turn into whiny babies! The trick here is to set up your own expectations and use that to help your reader shape their notes. What do you actually want from the notes? Are you concerned how a certain character is coming off? Is it a vomit draft that you need help shaping? Did you just bleed all over the page and need to hear you did a good job so you can keep going? All of these are valid reasons for asking for notes. Make sure you know what you’re looking for and ask for it. When it comes back that, yes, I think the character you’re worried about is a real asshole, then you’re ready to hear it.
Bad habit: “Just read it!” Or, “I just knocked this out of the park, check it out.”
Good, tough writer habit: “I want to see if Sarah’s character arc tracks, will you please focus on that?” Or, “This is early, so I’ll take whatever feedback you have.” Another option: “I’m in a fragile place with this one, so I’d prefer encouragement over notes right now.”
How to respond to notes
Giving good notes is hard. It takes a long time, and your reader is drawing on years of experience to help you. Even if you’re paying for notes, you’re still receiving an act of generosity. This person wants to help you be better. If they give you that act of love and your response to it is, “Well, actually, I think you misunderstood that plot beat,” you’re not accepting the notes with grace. Responding to notes is simple but like most simple things, it’s tough to master. All you have to do is listen, smile, and thank them. Did they spend the last 10 minutes picking apart every single line of dialogue? Great. “Thank you!” Did they go off on a tangent about the unicorn they saw as a kid, even though you showed them a gritty murder mystery? Suppress the eye roll. “Thank you!” Did they cut into your soul and make you wonder why you were born? Big smile. “Thank you!” No matter how helpful or useless you found the notes, the person giving them offered their time and their experience to try to connect with you. It’s a gift. When we get a gift, we say “thank you.”
Bad habit: Literally any response other than listening and saying “thank you.”
Good, tough writer habit: “Thank you!”
What if the notes are wrong?
Sometimes no matter your reader’s intentions, they will not pick up what you’re putting down. But since they are kind and generous people, they’ll still try their best to help you. Someone who has only written period romances might not vibe with your anime-inspired high school action pilot (true story); the notes they give may not be the right fit for your script. They probably struggled to find anything helpful to say at all. If you tell them it was useless after they do their best to help you, WHINY! BABY! Even if your reader is outside their comfort zone, have faith in them. That period romance writer might have found a storytelling option you never would have thought of. Maybe your reader didn’t ignore the subtext you sprinkled into your feature, but actually it’s too buried to stand out. Sometimes they just had a bad day, or they truly didn’t get it. That’s okay. You’re a good, tough writer; you’ll find a reader who vibes with it next time. If you paid good money for these notes and the reader couldn’t even be bothered to learn the characters’ names, that’s when we contact customer service and ask for a refund. Before you do that, though, reread their bad, wrong notes. Even in the worst notes there’s something you can use.
Bad habit: “Your notes don’t make sense to me since this scene covered your concerns.” Or, “I don’t think you got what I was going for.” There is also, “Did you read the right script?”
Good, tough writer habit: “Thanks for pointing out the problems in the ending, do you think this scene does anything to alleviate that?” Or, “I didn’t think of that perspective, thank you!” My personal favorite: smile and nod.
After you get the notes
You’ve gone through the gauntlet of notes, your script just got ripped up in front of you and you thanked them for it. There’s so much work ahead, and you’re obviously not a good enough writer to do it. It’s too hard for you! Guess what? Writing’s hard! You just got a trove of information and a bunch of kind, generous people are sitting right in front of you. If their notes are inspiring fixes, ask them if the fixes will work. Do you agree with all their notes but you’re stuck on a solution? Repeat the note and ask for help. Or do the hardest thing of all: sit with the awful feelings of being criticized and take the time to accept the feelings before you get back to work.
Bad habit: “Ugh, I suck. I’m never gonna touch this again.” Or, “Well, if you’re so smart, how would you fix it?”
Good, tough writer habit: “I think I need to get the protagonist to this emotional point in order to address your notes, does that make sense?” Or, “I could use some ideas about a better set-piece here.” Another good one: “Thanks for everything. I’ll come back if I have any questions!”
This is all easier said than done. I had to go through every single one of those bad, whiny baby habits before I could learn the good ones. But if you focus on these good habits and kick the bad ones, you’re not only going to become a stronger writer, it will be more fun to work with you. You’ll get to surround yourself with kind, generous people who know that you’re worthy of their love. That’s being a grown-up. Put down the blankie, stick the pacifier in your mouth and get to work.
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.