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Get what You Give (Or Why Learning To Give Feedback Will Make You A Better Writer)

|t’s oft heard that reading scripts makes one’s own writing better. Seeing what works on the page can provide an invaluable insight no “how to write” book or course can.

Most writers will agree feedback is key to improving one’s work, but like most things there’s at least two ways of looking at it. No writer worth their salt is going to disagree GETTING feedback is anything but a help to a work, but not all of them believe learning to GIVE feedback has the same value. They might argue that unlike learning how to structure a work, about character, dialogue, etc not everyone needs to learn how to GIVE feedback; they’ll say whilst learning to receive feedback (and what to do with it) is important, giving it AS WELL is not necessary and could well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, especially when so many writers have day jobs, kids, other commitments etc to juggle too.

I find the above an odd POV, primarily because many actual script readers – myself included – cite script reading as the single best way of improving one’s writing skills. When I think of all I have learned about writing, I would venture 90% has come from not only reading said scripts, but actually having to find the words to tell someone not only their script might not work, but WHY it might not work, WHAT they might want to do about about it and HOW they might implement this change – without (and this is the most important bit) isolating said writer. (Of course, there will always be writers who get the hump from even the most measured of notes, just as there will always be readers who ride roughshod over people’s dreams).

But of course not every writer can become a professional script reader, so the obvious answer here is peer review. Reading your peers’ work and giving them constructive feedback is time consuming, hard to do and sometimes even stressful or dull, but it can pay dividends. Here’s why I think learning how to GIVE feedback to your peers too has the same value as getting it:

It helps your own writing. Reading those produced scripts might help us realise *why* certain films are a hit or did well on the basis of a specific *element*, but seeing an UNproduced script and the mistakes people make in NOT getting the reader on board is also really important. Writers who have never read a spec might wonder why the ten page test for example is implemented – but see with absolute clarity WHY when they read a script where we don’t know who the protagonist is or what situation they’ve found themselves in by pages 10, 20 or 30. It’s ILLUMINATING. What’s more, having to describe to said writer WHY we need this information *up front* can really TEST a writer’s skill in writing said notes for their peer. Writing merely stuff like “I don’t like this sort of story” or “you should try again” is not going to cut it (as I’ve written about before). You have to face up to them and find a way to communicate – and communication is a huuuuuuuuge part of writing, so how giving feedback is not going to help in this case is beyond me.

It builds contacts. People often reject this idea as untrue: “I’ve got some IT specialist who’s written one spec reading my work, the feedback I get won’t be that good”. First up, who knows where that IT specialist will be in five years? Everyone has to start somewhere. What’s more, the more people you get to know and how they work, the more people you will end up “connected” to. Some of my best opportunities have come from someone passing me or my work on to someone else via peer review.

It builds confidence. The more people who have seen your script, the more confident in its worth you will be: end of. Asking a paid-for script reader to read your work might give you good, mediocre or contradictory results. Sharing said script out amongst as MANY of your peers as possible (and of course reading their scripts and giving them feedback in return) will give you the kind of perspective you just can’t buy. This will then feed into your actual writing, because you *know* a script or even your own writing STYLE has legs, you’re not wasting your time. What’s more, if that work that gets optioned – and you have problems with the director or producer on the basis of something within the script – you KNOW it’s not personal (a mindset sooooo easy to fall into), because you’ve already been over its various elements before and justified them. This can then aid your decision on whether you will push on through with said producer (and concede defeat) or part company with them. Also: let’s look at the NON philanthropic view – *knowing* you’re the *best* writer [or the most informed or intuitive] of all your peers? It’s gotta help ; ) Seriously though, seeing what people are doing WRONG and knowing you’re NOT and that you can help them really does help YOU.

It saves money. People are often surprised I advocate peer review so strongly: “You’re a script reader, peer review must hurt your business?” they’ll say. No: it makes it BETTER. In very new drafts, there will always be *obvious* mistakes and opportunities missed – why pay for me or my colleagues to find those, when we can offer a more in-depth look at things like structure, charcaterisation or plot, based not even on the fact we are supposedly *BETTER*, but on the fact professional script readers do this sort of thing every single day, hundreds (if not thousands of times) every year?

It’s part of the journey. Analysing scripts and breaking them down is a skill; but so is giving feedback. Some people are naturally intuitive and just really good at it; others will struggle – like with all elements of scriptwriting. But make no mistake ALL aspects of getting, receiving and GIVING feedback are important AND all of those elements can LEARNT. Yes, your early peer review may well be pants. But guess what, your first ever script was. So what’s the difference? it didn’t stop you there, why let it stop you here.

It’s part of the process. Some writers say they don’t have *time* for peer review. I have every sympathy. When I’m not working, looking after my family and that goes with that (especially ironing – GRR), visiting relatives, seeing friends, other miscellaneous life stuff etc, the LAST thing I want to do is some peer review. Talk about a busman’s holiday! But guess what, I always do: I HAVE to. There are people within my feedback circle whose work I always read and they always read mine [and not just one or two either, we’re talking 5 or 6 dedicated people]; occasionally I will manage to fit an extra person or two in here and there. I will read drafts as favours and I will ask others for the same – it’s what’s done, it’s fair and honest and helps all concerned. Not all of my feedback circle are professional script readers either, by the way – I think two are in fact – so if those *other* writers couldn’t GIVE feedback too, they would be at a disadvantage.

It is all part of the same circle. If you want to GET peer review, you need to be able to GIVE it – who is going to want to read for you, if you’re not prepared to return the favour? But maybe you don’t want to get peer review – that doesn’t actually mean you shouldn’t do it. Sometimes the things of most worth to us in terms of professional development are those things we want to do the least. It can make you feel VULNERABLE, sending your script out to your peers. Of course you don’t want to do it. SO DO IT.

So there we have it: why I think learning how to give feedback to your peers is every bit as important as getting it from whatever source. I’m thinking of setting up a “Feedback Exchange” for peer review via the blog in fact. If you’d be interested in this, let me know in the comments, on Facebook or tweet me.

Previously about Feedback and Peer Review on this blog:

Focus on Feedback – a breakdown on the pros and cons of feedback

How to do Power of Three: A Feedback Method – Adiran Mead’s handout with guidelines on how to do peer review successfully

I’ve Written A Script – Now What? – a list of places with links to find free feedback (amongst others, scroll down for it)

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13 thoughts on “Get what You Give (Or Why Learning To Give Feedback Will Make You A Better Writer)”

  1. excellent post lucy. couldn't agree more. have said many times on my blog that joining a writers feedback group, where of course you'd have to give as well as receive feedback, is the best way to improve your work.

    of course if that's not possible, for whatever reason, don't slit your wrists thinking you are at a disadvantage to those that do. just reading scripts and receiving feedback is more important 🙂

  2. Wow, there's an echo in here…. AGAIN! : P

    And if it's "not possible, for whatever reason" to give feedback?! Trying to imagine what that case scenario would be… A blind writer? Nope, they can still read scripts and give feedback. One of my trusted inner circle of Po3ers actually can't move a single muscle, but she still gives great notes and writes fab scripts.

    So really, no excuses. So you are at a disadvantage if you don't learn to give feedback. Yes it's a big responsibility, daunting, takes a lot of time, etc, but it's gotta be done. Don't listen to the evil script reader people!!! (that's Jez, not me, lol).

  3. wait wasn't that the point – bringing the debate over from Twelvepoint to here?

    But you did catch me out this time. Instead of "not possible" I shoulda said "if you don't want to or feel that you haven't got time cos we aren't all superheroes who are already running ourselves into the ground but don't want to also run through a brick wall too just for kicks and giggles…"

    cos sorry luv, it don't gotta be done. it's a choice. it will be beneficial of course. but not doing it does not place you at a disadvantage. think about it logically. how we operate now (courses coming out of our ears, power of 3, even just email swapping scripts) is relatively modern. are we saying jimmy mcgovern, paul abbot, tony jordan, ashley pharoah, matthew graham, toby whithouse, danny brocklehurst… should i go on… 'learnt' to give feedback. I can't prove it but i doubt it. that's not to say that they don't now give very good feedback. that's experience. but when they were learning their trade? i imagine of greater significance was receiving feedback on their work and reading as many scripts as possible.

    just to finally clarify my position once and for all. i am not, not, not saying don't give feedback!! if you can and want to it will help. go on lucy's course. i'm sure it's great cos she gives great feedback. but if you don't want to, that's okay too!

  4. "Sorry luv"??? – Oooh Jez, perhaps you'd like to pat me on the head like a good girl, too?!! : /

    But more importantly, if – as you admit – there's no way of proving all our writing heroes DIDN'T do learn to give feedback – then how can we think about it "logically"??? It's just your supposition.Of course we could always just ask them. Facebook anyone interesting lately?!!!

    But let's not waste any more time. You reckon giving feedback is important, that's good enough for me. It's okay, I forgive you (just stop crying, it's embarrassing)… ; )

  5. i think you just caved, didn't you luv?

    and i think you've facebooked quite enough today already young lady, what with your single handed attempt to bring back the word beaver!

  6. Good grief… Crowing victory when you've presented an argument you can't prove, on behalf of people you don't know AND you've not only agreed with the post, you follow its advice??? Thank goodness you're not a politician, Jez.

  7. The poor boy's delirious. Someone be kind and put Jez out of his misery ASAP, yeah? It's the kindest thing. Don't let his violent tics, flood-like urination and and high pitched squealing/pleading put you off.

  8. I agree with everything 100%. It doesn't just apply with scriptwriting of course. I find constructive criticism with all writing extremely helpful. It takes some getting used to but when you do, your writing certainly improves. It's good to have an honest opinion. I'd rather that than people just saying 'yeah it's good.' I want to know where it's bad. Great post. 🙂

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