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What Constitutes "Good" Feedback?

Many thanks to Elly-Jane who asks this question:

“You talk alot on your blog about coverage and feedback and taking on board what Readers, Producers, Execs, etc say: that they’re not out to “get” new writers and they want to help… But what if you get feedback like this?

“(This script) has no subtext. Not one single character has anything interesting to say, they’re just going through the motions, so The Reader is treated to what amounts to a series of day-to-day conversations… yet not amounting to a real, holistic story.”

I feel hurt and confused. This is so negative… I tried really hard. How should I respond to this? Just move on? I know you say we shouldn’t write back to Readers explaining stuff, but I just can’t get this out of my head.”

It’s never pleasant to get rejections: it’s not easy in real life, so it comes as no surprise that it hurts when writing. This script is your “baby”: when someone attacks it then, you feel as Elly-Jane describes, hurt and confused. I have too. Only recently a close associate barked at me, “Not up to standard… Go back to page one.” about one of my scripts. When I objected, saying it would be more helpful to say WHY it wasn’t “up to standard”, s/he softened considerably, even apologising, saying they FELT it wasn’t up to my usual standard since I had missed various opportunities in the story, perhaps I had rushed it? They were right; I had. And I did need to go back to page 1.

But there’s a way of saying it.

It’s this that is crucial in giving feedback or coverage in my view. I’ve not read Elly-Jane’s script and nor have I read the rest of The Reader’s thoughts or know who it was. However, in my opinion the comments above are not only very negative as Elly-Jane complains, they are incredibly solipsistic – rather, it says the script is a particular way, for no other reason than the Reader says it is. They are using their own feelings as justification for what they say: “This script has no subtext”: who says? They say. Perhaps it doesn’t have a definable subtext to this particular Reader, but does that mean Elly-Jane did not include any or more crucially in the case of the newer writer, try to include any. And we all know that one man’s meat is another’s poison: I’ve had one script derided as “incomprehensible” on one end of the scale right through to “overly simplistic” on the other… This is the same draft. Just different Readers.

When we read other people’s work, whether we’re professionals or amateurs or students or whatever, I believe we should not only appreciate it takes guts to get one’s work “out there”, we need to realise our view is just that – ours and therefore fallible. Sure, I’ve read scripts and groaned; others I’ve rejoiced. Which is the better opinion? Neither. As I’ve said before, I have my own prejudices and my own influences. I’m fallible, like everyone else.

However, by adding phrases like “In my view…”, “in my eyes…”, “it did/n’t work for me…”, you’re showing the person whose work you’ve read not only your opinion about the material, but the notion that you know you’re fallible as well. This immediately takes the sting out of a bad report or keeps people’s feet on the ground when you say their script is good. One view is just that: one. But perhaps yours is the one that makes or breaks another’s dream. You don’t have to be a big wig producer either to do that: a friend of mine hasn’t written a word since she was nineteen, because her sister derided a single line in a poem of hers. She’d said the rest was great. Yet all my friend heard was the ridicule of that one line.

So: to Elly-Jane, do move on. Don’t explain yourself or your script to this Reader, that won’t help, but if it will make you feel better, perhaps send a politely worded email about their use of language like I did regarding my “standard” and my associate. However, like mothers tell their daughters that “being happy” is the biggest revenge when they’re dumped by some spotty oik of a boyfriend, the biggest revenge is keeping writing, keeping your work out there. And proving those solipsistic Readers wrong, even if that takes twenty years.

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12 thoughts on “What Constitutes "Good" Feedback?”

  1. Cor that is such dire feedback – it leaves me bemused…

    First laugh at it.

    ‘Not one single character has anything interesting to say’ – is quite an achievement!

    Then put it away.

    I agree with Lucy here – you have to develop a thick skin and move on quickly and learn…

    This is possibly an unfortunate combination of a new writer and a new reader….

  2. I agree Far Away: new Readers CAN be very vocal and opinionated. Not all, obviously, but I have definitely mellowed over the years.

  3. I’m reminded of Adrian Mead’s suggestions for how to structure and phrase your feedback, when being someone’s Power Of Three reader: the idea of mainly asking questions about aspects of what the writer was trying to achieve. If you’re having to ask who the writer saw as their main character, for instance, then that says a lot, without you having to shriek, “You’ve got five protagonists. Pick ONE, doofus!”

    I personally like fairly direct – but constructive – criticism. While praise is great to hear, I can’t help but feel it’s pretty pointless without suggestions for improvement or at least the identification of weak areas. A pro-writer friend of mine really laid into a script I had her read, a few months ago. It did hurt, I must admit… but she was totally right, and I’m now about to start a major re-write.

    Loving the word ‘solipsistic’, by the way, Lucy. I learn a new word, every time I swing by your cyber-gaff…

  4. I had to look solipsistic up in a dictionary – I still don’t understand what it means, but I’ve found if you just replace it with a swear word the sentences still make sense.

  5. sol·ip·sism (sŏl’ĭp-sĭz’əm,
    n. Philosophy.
    The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified.
    The theory or view that the self is the only reality.

    Phill, when I call some Readers “solipsistic” I mean they only see what they see, so to assert their way is THE way is somewhat foolhardy. In my view. ; )

    Jase – I prefer straightforward constructive criticism too, I freaked out recently with Adrian Mead’s method of Q’s since I thought the Reader was asking Questions ‘cos my script “asked more questions than it answers” before I remembered the technique. But then I’m a direct kind of person. You may have noticed!!!

  6. i disagree. being of a different perspective than elly-jane (if not objective), i didn’t find this feedback that vitriolic. the subtext statement isn’t very illuminating, but the rest of the statement is specific – the characters aren’t saying or doing anything that amounts to much.

    could they have elaborated more? sure. but at some point it’s not the readers job to tell you how to do something, but to point out it wasn’t done.

    and as long as we’re saying one has to be understanding – what about the readers situation? readers don’t have the best life either and often spend most of their days reading dreck. lets presume just for exercise that the reader is right: perhaps then this is the third terrible script that reader has read today. in that light these comments might be considered admirable restraint. (can you tell i just read one of lucy’s links from yesterday?)

    as to phrases like “in my opinion…” i always hate those. it’s obvious this is their opinion, why do they have to go out of their way to say so? when i get an opinion – i don’t treat it as fact. i treat it as opinion. it doesn’t end my world. there’s no reason for elly-jane to be taking this critique of her work personally and being hurt.

    disappointed, either in herself for not writing interesting characters and dialog, or in the reader for not knowing a good script when he or she read it, yes. but hurt? by what? there’s no intention to hurt here. the reader was just being very clear about how the script doesn’t work. in their opinion of course, because it would be seriously weird to think they were channeling someone else’s!

  7. There’s quite a lot of assumption there that people can tell, just like that, the difference between a personal attack and what the Reader just thinks – “in their view”. A new writer is much less likely again to be able to tell the difference – I know, when I first started, I was much more likely to get hurt by comments like those the Reader made of Elly-Jane’s. For the record, I don’t think this was constructive criticism and I’m not surprised Elly-Jane felt hurt.

  8. Very interesting debate. On the one hand I recognise how disappointing those comments could be but on the other hand it tells me exactly what I need to consider for a re-write.

    I am hyper sensitive in normal life but know that in this business called show, I have to toughen up.

    We spend lots of time on a script and are personally invested but readers and viewers aren’t personally invested. They just want a good story and in the vast majority of scripts, and I include myself in this, the stories just aren’t good enough.

    Sometimes it is just a reader’s opinion that you can dismiss but that tends to be around whether or not it is an appealing story, very rarely is a reader completely wrong about craft issues.

  9. Have to say, I agree with what Christopher has to say. Okay, the feedback isn’t great but it may not be a great script. It may be that the Reader got to it at the end of the day and just had enough.

  10. For me, the issue here is not whether Elly-Jane deserves to be hurt or even whether her script was poor or not, but why the Reader felt the need to be negative. If she had sent the script to a coverage service like BANG2WRITE, then she has paid good money for advice – she deserves advice then, not negativity in my opinion. If she has sent it to an agent or prodco, granted, they don’t need to give advice, they just need to say “yes” or “no” – so why not say either, instead of being dispiriting? New writers generally want encouragement and does it hurt those more experienced to give it? I’m not saying they should offer false hope, far from it, but I would venture all of us has had one person encourage us – for a good reason – which has contributed to our journey as writers, just as we’ve had someone rubbish us like this too. It’s all too easy to forget what it’s like as a new writer.

  11. I think that’s quite harsh feedback Elly-Jane received. It’s hard to hear that and if I had paid for a script report I wouldn’t be happy with a blunt tone like that. On the other hand, when I’ve been on the receiving end of harsh feedback, tough though it was to hear, it was true. It took me a while to be able to accept that though and if it had been phrased more tactfully I’m sure I would have been able digest it and move on a lot quicker. But part of our development as writers is learning how to deal with feedback and criticism.

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