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Monday, November 24, 2008

Giving Good Feedback

Well it's the Monday before Thanksgiving and many of you may already be packing your bags to visit Ye Olde Relatives. I'm not going anywhere but things are definitely very quiet here in Los Angeles - we are about to enter a period of hibernation - the holidays. On the one hand, yes, business slows, but on the other hand, this is the time when many jr. execs and assistants are manning the phone since they are lowest on the totem pole and guess what - these are the people you want to befriend. Things are less hectic and this could be a time when you can get your script read by some hungry assistants with time on their hands. Things are never slow for me - if I'm not busy doing one thing I'm busy doing another. The Rouge Wave is approaching its second anniversary and there are literally hundreds of posts in the archive. So this week, unless I get terribly, terribly inspired, I will be trotting out some oldies but goodies. Here is a post from March, 2007:


Giving feedback is not only good karma, it is paying it forward. When you next need feedback, you’ll have someone to ask. Giving constructive feedback is an art. And it is an art that will serve you well as a writer.

We’ve all been burned by bad feedback. Rude, insensitive, bossy, arrogant, wrong-headed, cruel even. Oh, I have some bad memories of that. I gave my very, very first script to a demi-friend and he said he thought it was “pablum”. I’ll save you the Google look up: Trite, insipid, or simplistic writing, speech, or conceptualization.

He was probably right – it was my first script – ever. I was lucky to have slug lines and page numbers, actually. But he went straight for the jugular. That comment hurt me deeply and really took the wind out of my sails for some time. That hasn’t been my only bad experience but obviously the story has stuck with me.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You put your heart and soul into the script, for months and weeks. And now somebody is going to pass judgment. Writers awaiting feedback are in a very vulnerable position. Yes, yes, we have to have thick skin but writers are sensitive, let’s face it. This is not a new toilet we have installed – our stories are our hearts.

We don’t give feedback to be right or superior or better. We do it to be constructive and productive. Given, I do this every single day; it’s my day job. So I’m pretty good at it. But if this is not normal for you, reading a script and giving notes, just remember to give feedback in the same way you’d want to receive it. Most people upon hearing that will say – well, I want the honest truth. Rouge Wavers – most people can’t handle the truth. That doesn’t mean you should obfuscate – it just means you should always deliver your opinion with kindness and professionalism.

Tips for feedback:

Do it often; develop a support system with peers you respect

Don’t promise to read a script and give feedback if you really don’t have time

Do read it promptly once you have it

Do ask your friend what they want out of this read. You’d be surprised at the different answers. Tailor your notes to the needs and wants of the writer.

Do start on a positive note. If you can only think of one thing – stress it

Don’t throw out your own suggestions – this is not your script; you’ll derail the creative process

Do frame concerns in a “what if” question. (What if you tried this? What if you tried that? I wonder what would happen if this?)

Do understand what the writing is going for or trying to achieve

Don’t chide the writer for failing to execute the idea well; that’s why you’re reading it, ding-dong. If they thought it was perfect, they wouldn’t ask

Do limit your comments to things like: logic, characters, stakes, ticking clock, and pacing; don’t go all McKee/Campbell on your friend. I feel the subplot doesn't connect to the inner need of the protagonist and this is not reflected thematically in the arc of the dynamic character who has reached statis but must find Euclydian balance before the elixir can motivate the shapeshifter. Very annoying.

Do write your notes down and summarize them.

Don’t do page edits and correct typos unless requested. This is also muy annoying.

I hate to repeat it but my friends: never read a script so you can put it down and then feel better about yourself. Say it with me. NEVER read a script with that attitude. Why? It’s bad karma and it will come back to you like a boomerang and whack you upside the head. And at least as importantly, reading with a superior or authoritative attitude deprives you of the learning experience built in to giving feedback.

Good feedback is kind, thorough and timely. It is professional and focused. It leaves the writer feeling challenged to do better but great about their strengths. Even if that just means the location they chose was cool. Give your feedback relative to the skill set of the writer. Never lie or obfuscate. Just serve it up gently.

Ask questions of the material rather than dictating your own concepts. Giving the writer your own ideas only derails or co-opts the writer’s creative process – and in my view, this is a huge trespass. It isn’t your script. If the writer wants brainstorming they’ll ask for it. Even then lead the writer toward realizations or ideas. Part of the process of becoming a better writer is revving up your brain with all those juices and problem solving yourself. Writing by committee is the fast track to obsolescence. Even if you think you're helping by making very specific suggestions (unless requested, I can't stress that enough - it happens) really you are hijacking someone else's material and it's just not cool.

Go forth now, Rouge Wavers – go forth and give feedback. Make me proud.

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Anonymous said...


I know there are lots of frustrated angry unethical writers out there.

Why do they insult writers who are starting up and working hard to make it?

True leadership in writing starts when the professional writer respects everyone and shares his or her wisdom with the world.

How do you screen those bad apples out?

You ever hired a Reader and then fired him/her because their notes/coverage reports were too mean and rude and unprofessional?

Thanks Julie for being a leader and taking care of business. Somebody got to do it and straighten things out.


Julie Gray said...

No, I have never worked with a reader who was mean or unprofessional. These snarky rude feedback comments are actually not uncommon when they come from your peers - people in your writing group or whatever. This post is actually not about mean READERS but people who might read for you as a favor. That's when their ego tends to get involved. Readers are professionals; they don't know you and it's not personal. Beware of getting feedback from "well-meaning" friends.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Julie.

I have lost some friends (actually I kept track - 3 friends) who gave me painful notes for one of my script.

Notes from freinds can be crude and so painful that I spend days thinking about it.

I believe that friends who give notes like these, are themselves jealous.

This one friend is a bus driver and I know he wanted to write a movie.

And I did see some of his so called hidden writing samples.

God awful.

Hey if he was respectful to me, I would help him.

And I have won a screenwriting award (first place).

There you have it.

LS said...

It amazes me how much I learn each time I visit your blog, Julie. Thank you for taking time sharing your wisdom with others.

E.C. Henry said...

I've only given feedback on a script ONCE and it was on exchange basis. My experience doing this was really eye opening. I was shocked at how poorly worked out the script I was reading was.

I felt like the writer was expecting me to fix everything in his mess. This person had bits and pieces from varrious genres, and nothing mixed well. Ever had to deal with that Julie? If so howdoya deal with that?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Emily Blake said...

Excellent advice.

A member of my writers group once looked at me after everybody else had given notes and said "I hated it," and then proceeded to tell me all the reasons he hated it.

When the feedback is that negative off the bat, it's difficult to take anything else from that person as good criticism.

He called later and apologized.

Julie Gray said...

@LS - gosh, thank you!!

@EC - I deal with that on a fairly regular basis. But it's my job, I'm not doing a favor. So how I handle that is I give the writer lessons on screenwriting and help them take their understanding and abilities to the next level.

Lee said...

Great post Julie! I always try to give constructive feedback - to offer a suggestion that may remedy the problem and these tips will help me the next time I provide feedback.

I have had some damning feedback from self-appointed critics that couldn't even tell me why "I was such a bad writer"... funny how I just got festival feedback from trained writers who owe me no favours and soft-blows who actually told me I was a good writer and knew what I was doing when I placed in the Semis.

It was years after my first drubbing before I realised I could critique the critique...