Meet the Reader: Critical Thinking

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In addition to covering screenplays for producers and production companies, I also assess scripts for individual writers, both professional and aspiring. Based on the feedback I receive from my clients, most of the folks I work for seem to feel my critiques are pretty fair, but on occasion, some complain my assessments are not balanced – that I spend too much time pointing out a script’s weak points and not enough praising its good parts. And you know what? They’re right – on the whole, when doing private coverage, I probably do spend more time focusing on problems rather than assets. There are several reasons for this:

  • The first is that – while the coverage I do for producers and prodcos is used primarily for assessment – to help the interested parties decide if a project has enough going for it (both creatively and commercially) to make it worth going forward with – the primary use of the coverage I do for individual writers is as a revision tool to help them improve their scripts in order to make them better and more marketable. So if my coverage for these writers is going to be useful, I have to examine the problems in as much depth and detail as possible so the authors can do everything necessary to get them in tip top shape or else I’m wasting their time. I don’t need to focus nearly as much on the good parts, because they work already and so don’t need my help.
  • The second reason is many of the specs I receive from individual writers come from beginners or aspirants and so tend to have a lot more problems than the more polished work that comes to me through the industry’s professional development pipelines. I'm not trying to be mean when I say that – it’s just a fact: when you’re just starting out, you make a lot of mistakes. Fixing them is how you learn and improve.

Of course, when people tell me they feel my coverage is unbalanced, they aren’t really upset that I point out too many problems and not enough good parts. What they are really upset about is that I am pointing out any problems at all.

It’s completely understandable. Like any creative endeavor, screenwriting is very hard. After sweating blood for months and even years on a piece, no one wants to hear the result is flawed and they are going to have to go back and sweat some more. They especially don’t want to hear this when they are counting on these specs to make them some (usually desperately needed) sale money or launch their careers. So it makes sense when one of my clients receives a report from me saying their script isn’t perfect, he/she might want to engage in a little denial: “It’s not my script – it’s that Morton. He’s just mean OR unfair OR incompetent OR insane.”

Like I said, it’s understandable. I’ve been there myself and I know how lousy it feels – so much so I am frequently tempted to temper my coverage; to downplay the problems and spend more time gushing over the good stuff. I know it would make my clients feel better, but as kind as that might be, I don’t think it would be very nice.

This is a really tough business – especially when you’re on the outside trying to get in. For aspiring screenwriters, your script is your way in, and the reality is you’re only going to get one shot with that script – if you are lucky enough to get your spec to a producer or studio executive and they agree to read it, they’ll happily look at it once. If they like it – great, you might be on your way. But if they don’t, that’s it – even if you fix every single thing that’s wrong with it and the script is now perfect, they’ll never look at it again – they simply don’t have the time or energy to spare to revisit a project they have already found wanting. So you really do need to make your script as perfect as you can possibly make it before you submit it to the industry. My job is to help you do that and if I sugarcoat my opinion – if I tell you your work is good when it’s not – then I am setting you up for failure, and there’s nothing nice about that.

The larger point in all this is if you are serious about pursuing a career as a professional screenwriter, then it is absolutely imperative you develop is the ability to receive criticism of your work without taking it personally, because it’s going to come at you all the time from lots of sources – from agents and managers; consultants and contest judges; script readers, development executives, and studio folks; producers, directors, and actors; audiences and critics. All of these folks are going to have problems with your work to some degree or another and are going to offer (some gently and some insistently) suggestions as to how you can correct them. If you are unable to maintain a healthy objectivity about all of this – if you take these criticisms as personal attacks on you and your talent, rather than simply as comments about an existing piece of work – then you are going to have a really hard time. If you’re not careful, you could become depressed or discouraged; lose confidence or heart; turn angry or embittered.

I was really lucky – my first professional experience was as a staff writer on a situation comedy, which turned out to be the best training ever for dealing with criticism. Each week after the table read, the writing staff would assemble in the showrunner’s office to identify what the problems were with that episode’s script (and there always were at least a few; sometimes there were lots and lots). Since we only had two or three nights to get the script into shape prior to shooting, there was no time for anyone to be precious or protective or defensive – if something in a script didn’t work, then it didn’t work, and that was that. There was nothing personal in these assessments – the table read usually made it pretty clear what was funny and what wasn’t; what played and what didn’t; what was clear and what was confusing; and so on. The script would be ruthlessly dissected, it’s problems pinpointed and attacked, and carefully crafted lines, scenes, and even entire acts would be revised (or even tossed out completely) if they failed to hit the mark, with little or no time taken to temper critical comments or protect the author’s feelings. This extremely blunt approach to evaluation took some getting used to – the first time one of my scripts was subjected to this process, I was absolutely devastated and felt like jumping off a bridge. Before long, however, my skin thickened and I realized that the goal in all this was not to make me feel bad, but simply (as it always should be) to make the script better. This made it a lot easier to accept critical comments, deal quickly with the inevitable disappointment that comes from hearing that your work isn’t perfect, and then move on to finding acceptable solutions.

For me, the ability to deal with criticism dispassionately is one of the key elements that separate the professional writer from the amateur. Here are some tips to help you develop such an attitude:

1. Don’t be precious about your work: It is vital you believe in your writing, but don’t become deluded about it. There’s no such thing as a perfect script (even yours) and every script (no matter how hard or long you worked on it) can always be improved.

2. Remember, your script isn’t you: It is important for you to fully invest yourself in your work (for there is no way to create anything worthwhile without doing so), but it is equally important to recognize the finished product isn’t you or even a part of you – it is a unique and separate object, created by you but that stands on its own. When people criticize a script, it is this separate object they are critiquing, not you or your talent or your inherent worthiness as a human being.

3. Keep in mind everyone’s just trying to help: When industry professionals criticize your script, their goal is to make the piece better, not to hurt your feelings. Now, some may deliver their comments in a clumsy or indelicate manner, which can certainly make them feel like personal attacks, but you can take out a lot of the sting if you keep in mind that, even if your reviewer’s manner is inartful, his/her intentions are probably good. Remember, everyone in the industry wants to find or develop a great script – no one’s out to discourage anyone just for fun or to dump on a piece of material arbitrarily.

4. Don’t become defensive: When their work is criticized, some writers react by going on the attack. They will reject every negative evaluation loudly and strenuously, arguing that it is not the script that is flawed, but the reviewer’s opinions -- because the reviewer is stupid, lacks taste or good judgment, is jealous of the writer’s superior talent, is out to keep the writer from getting ahead, or simply because he/she “didn’t get it.” Taking a defensive position is never helpful – it can keep you from recognizing input that can help make your work better and, more importantly, it can make people not want to deal with you, which can be a big problem if you’re hoping to build a career.

5. You don’t have to listen: Let’s say that you think a reviewer’s negative assessment of your work, while sincerely formulated and offered, is simply wrong. Okay, fine – then you don’t have to take his/her suggestions. The abilities to discern good advice from bad and to know when to make a change and when to hold fast are also hallmarks of a professional screenwriter. As with all things, the key element in all of this is to keep an open mind – give your material to people whose opinions you trust and value, listen carefully to what they have to say, and then use your own judgment and discernment to determine how best to proceed.

Ultimately, it is probably best to think of criticism in the same way that you think of a pen, paper, computer, or a dictionary – as a tool that, used judiciously, can help you make your work the best it can possibly be.

Tools to improve your chances of success: