One of the best things I’ve found about being a writer is the sense of community – the ‘we’re all in this together’ spirit. Even if we are one of those aforementioned Lone Wolves, it is extremely useful to get other writers to read our work.
As an impoverished student, I quite often run a ‘favours for favours’ script reading service. I’ll read yours if you read mine. It’s mostly good, but sometimes it’s not. Why? Because some people are absolutely dreadful at giving feedback.
Here are the rules I set myself to make sure I’m not one of those people.
1. Know when to be personal. Pretend you’re writing an essay, because the fastest way to make an essay sound significantly more professional is to remove all references to the self. If you start saying what you think about a subject, it’s so much easier for the reader to become incredulous. If you make a point in the first person that the reader completely disagrees with, then they’ll wonder why they should care what this person thinks at all.
‘I don’t think this really works’ can illicit the unconscious response ‘I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.’
Feeding back is a very personal thing – it’s like telling someone that their baby is ugly – so try and remove yourself from the equation.
HOWEVER, I do use ‘I’ in my feedback to people. When I’m telling someone what ‘I enjoyed’. If your compliments come in the first person, then the reader stands a better chance of appreciating you and listen to that passive voice telling them how to improve their work.
2. Be concise. Right. Okay. I get it. Character X seems too erratic, or the ending doesn’t feel right. Tell me once, or if you must, make the point twice in very, very different ways.
If I get 2500 words of script notes and they’re all about one thing it makes me feel like that element of the script is irretrievably broken. If that’s an important element of the script, then I’ll feel like the whole script is broken.
To use a metaphor, if you’re going to chop off someone’s head, make sure the point of your axe is honed enough to succeed in one blow. Otherwise, you’re just going to hurt them a lot and create a horrible mess.
3. Ask, don’t tell. Why not try this?’ is so much better than ‘Do this.’ Firstly, it sounds so much nicer. Secondly, it’s more likely to provoke the writer to reach their own conclusions about what they should do to fix the problem. Asking a writer questions about something reaffirms that there are no ‘right answers’ in writing, especially when the question is so open ended. It will make them think about the problem and try and find a new way around it.
Finally, they may actually address the problem, rather than completely ignoring everything you say, because they didn’t see you way up there, on your high horse.
4. Get your priorities straight. There is absolutely no point in telling me about a certain line of dialogue feeling a little too heavy on the exposition, or a joke being a bit too clumsy, if you suggested a page 1 rewrite of the character that delivers it.
There’s every chance a script is full of problems – like flat dialogue and dodgy formatting – but if the entire story is flawed, the pacing is messed up or the characters are broken, there’s very little point in suggesting how to fix more minor issues.
If you throw a gigantic pile of advice at someone, they probably won’t listen to all of it. Make sure the advice they get given concerns all the BIGGEST issues. If it looks like the biggest issue is a dodgy line of dialogue, then it’s either a bloody good script, a bloody short script, or a bloody terrible set of notes.
Talking about small issues is like trying to apply sun cream to a cowboy in the middle of gunfight. It distracts from the real matters at hand.
5. Know when to shut up. Set yourself a word limit. This is good for EVERYONE involved. No one wants to get 40,000 words of notes back, and if you’ve written 40,000 words then you’re wasting a lot of time. I usually aim for between 2,000 and 2,500, but this is a completely personal choice, so do what’s best for you, but know what you’re aiming for.
Having a word limit forces you to adhere more strictly to my 2nd and 4th rule of feeding back, but is generally good practice anyway.
I hope my pointers were useful. Now, do you fancy reading my work?
BIO: Sam Caine is a scriptwriting student at Bournemouth University about to embark on his final year. He enjoys reading, writing and moaning. He doesn’t enjoy mushrooms, spiders or talking about himself in the third person. You can follow him on his slightly bizarre Twitter, on his blog of writing-related miscellanea, or subscribe to him on Facebook, if you’re into that kind of stuff. He tries to refrain from judgement.