The DO’S and DON’TS of Taking Notes
The other day, I had a call with a new coaching client, who had sent me his original screenplay prior to his initial session with me. The script had some good things going for it, but me being me, I had thoughts, some conceptual, some technical. The guy on the other end had never before been through a notes call. He himself admitted that this was his first time to the rodeo. But as we climbed further and further down the notes rabbit hole, the guy impressed me more and more.
What was so impressive about him, might you ask? Considering that the guy had never done this, somehow he managed to find a way to take notes, listen and internalize while we were talking, and never expressed any resistance to my thoughts. This is not about the merit of my notes – quietly, and following our call, he could have decided that he didn’t agree with a single one of them and therefore had no desire to apply them or make any adjustment to his original work. But to me, the note giver, he appeared respectful, thoughtful, and inquisitive, all of which translated to a quiet appreciation for my point of view.
Before I go any further, let’s establish this one simple fact: Not all the notes a writer receives on his original work, be it a TV pilot or spec screenplay, will be constructive. Some might be good notes, but ones that may take the work in a wholly different direction, while others may completely miss the mark. Sometimes, the person reading the script will miss something that the writer feels is obvious, while other times the notes will aim to transform the material to something entirely different than what the writer set out to write. Some notes will infuriate. Others will hit the mark. But no matter the note, it’s the writer’s job to take them in and process them like a professional.
Getting notes on the writer’s original work, one that she sees clearly and feels passionate about, is not always easy. Often times, it can be difficult, if not outright frustrating. It can challenge and confound. As one who provides verbal notes often, I’ve had every shade of note-giving experience. Many have been amazing: I’ve been really impressed by many writers’ abilities to take tough notes, listen to and internalize them, only to come up with fantastic fixes. But giving notes can also become quite testy: A feature writer getting my feedback on a script that I felt lacked an active protagonist railed back at me, telling me in uncertain terms that he knows that someone somewhere will think, just like he does, that his script is amazing. Another told me to F-off when I told him his script was polarizing. And yet another told me that all of her non-industry family and friends, who have no experience in screenwriting, development or analysis, told her that her story is soooo good, so it really doesn’t matter what I think.
Don’t get me wrong: after you get notes, once you have some time to sit with them, you can choose to disregard them. To disagree with them. To get mad. But when receiving notes on your professional work, it is the writer’s job to receive them with some level of grace.
With that in mind, remember the below guidelines:
- DO keep in mind that, first and foremost, you requested, if not outright paid for, the feedback. Therefore, you want to treat the note-giver’s opinion with respect, even if their feedback isn’t as positive as you were hoping for.
- DON’T disregard the reader’s feedback right off the bat. Show respect for the time they took to read your work and give it thought by listening to what they have to say, no matter how uncomfortable for you.
- DO send material when it’s truly ready for feedback, and not a minute before. If there are already elements in the material you know you want to adjust, do so before you send it out for a read. It’s incredibly frustrating to think about how to effectively and constructively communication a note only to hear that the writer has already made just those changes to the script, and therefore doesn’t need to hear your notes.
- DO ask for specific notes, on specific areas you are struggling with.
- DON’T ask for feedback from people whose opinions you don’t respect and/or who don’t share your taste, unless you are asking for their feedback to assess what some of the contrarians will say.
- DO feel free to ask questions. If the feedback is amorphous or vague, ask clarifying questions about characters, plot points, thematic choices, etc., in order to get the most from the feedback.
- DO explore fixes, if the reader is open to it. Where there is a dialogue, it never hurts to explore “what if I tried this…” as part of the discussion.
- DON’T respond with immediate fixes if they are not thought through. More than once, a writer responded to what I felt was a major structural note with a suggestion of a dialogue fix in a particular scene. Eventually, some of the fixes may be in the dialogue, but suggesting to fix a big note with a line or two may suggest to the reader that you’re not really hearing them.
- If you paid for notes but, based on the feedback, feel that the reader didn’t give the work his full undivided attention, DO take it up with the reader, consultant or coverage organizer in a respectful fashion, providing substantive examples of why it is you feel this.
- DON’T tell the reader that a problem they identified in the script is not something you think is a problem. You may not think their note is relevant, but give them the respect of hearing them out.
- When developing original work (original pilot, original feature written on spec) DON’T feel like you have to take every note given to you as you try to make the script better. It’s up to you to identify which notes help you tell the story you wanted to tell, and which can be disregarded. At the end of the day, it’s going to be you, and not the person giving you notes, who will have to stand by the final product.
- DO remember that notes, specifically those given on original work, not done on assignment or for a particular buyer or producer, are really just suggestions. It’s the execution on the page that is going to make or break them.
- DO thank the person giving you notes. Even if you don’t love what they have to say, they are sharing with you their time, their knowledge and their experience.
- DO remember that for most people giving notes, it’s not always a fun thing. I’ve lamented over notes I knew I was going to give; lost sleep over the knowledge that I was going to share unfavorable feedback with someone I respected, and tossed and turned over what I knew would be, to the writer, a disappointing verdict. So keep in mind that oftentimes giving notes is just as challenging.
- If you’re in a writer’s group, DO communicate how you prefer to get notes (written? verbal?) and what sort of notes you’re looking for (conceptual? line notes? overall plot? characters), but be prepared to give the same back.
- DON’T, ever, under any circumstance, disregard the intelligence, credibility or worth of the person giving you notes. Statements like “well, you don’t get that because you are (female? male? too young? too old? of a certain race?)“ make it very easy for the reader not to want to read for you again.
- DO take notes. Copious notes if you need to. Or, better yet, record the note session so that you are able to really participate in the discussion rather than worry about whether you got it all on a piece of paper.
- DON’T take a note and apply it to the material literally. Try to give it your own spin, your own take, so that it feels organic to the work. Anything else would feel – to the reader, should he read the material for you again – lazy.
- DO try to find the note behind the note. If a suggested fix doesn’t work for you, consider what the fix is trying to solve, and address it in a way that works more organically for you and for the work.
As mentioned earlier, most of the writers I have given notes to have been gracious, appreciative and thoughtful when hearing my thoughts on their work, often reacting to difficult or perplexing notes with more grace than I could muster were I in their place. Taking notes is not always an easy experience. More often than not, especially earlier in your writing journey, notes will have the capacity to drive you mad. But taking notes, for those writers seeking to work within the industry, is part of the job. Therefore, strive towards embracing them, and making them part of your productive experience.