Balls of Steel™: Getting Honest Feedback

Last year I had a screenwriter ask me for feedback on his very first screenplay. I gave him my standard warning, “I have no filter.” He agreed to let me come at him with both barrels. I did. He cried.
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I have one rule when it comes to giving or receiving feedback on scripts: Don’t blow smoke up my ass, and I won’t blow it up yours.

If I’m asking for feedback, I want you to tell me what I need to hear, not what you think I want to hear. And if I’m giving feedback, I’m not going to pat you on the head and tell you what a pretty little script you’ve got there. I’m going to tell it like it is.

I warn people of this policy ahead of time, but they’re never quite prepared for me to call their baby ugly. And before you jump all over me, I assure you, I do point out what works in a script, too.

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The goal is to be constructive, not to placate.

I recently had a conversation with screenwriter Doug Richardson (Die Hard 2, Bad Boys, Hostage) about feedback and how he gets readers to be brutally honest.

You have to let people know it’s safe to tell you the truth. Start by giving them permission.”

Our nature is to protect a friend’s feelings, to step back from criticism, or to simply validate a writer’s efforts. While that’s all warm and fuzzy, that reaction is not going to help you tell a moving story.

Richardson shared some tips on how he gets his select group of readers to feel safe:

When you have your first conversation with them after their read, start off by pointing out something in your script you already know isn’t quite right and ask their opinion. This starts an honest discussion.

Thenwhen you thank them for their honesty, it gives them permission to criticize. Now they know you truly want an open dialogue. If you can’t get them to that place of honesty, you won’t be able to trust a word out of their mouths.”

Another important part of feedback is to understand the kind of critique you’re looking for and to find the right reader to provide it. Sometimes you need a non-writer to give you a gut reaction to the story. Other times you need someone who understands structure. Be clear in your own mind what your script needs and seek out the appropriate reader to help.

The purpose of criticism isn’t to change your voice or your work, it’s to help you clarify your ability to communicate.”

Richardson uses a helpful analogy:

If my story is an orange, I want you to be able to see, feel, peel, and taste it. If I send it to you and you don’t get that sensation, I’ve failed to communicate what I intended.

There’s also a matter of weighing your readers' feedback. If nine out of 10 understood the “orange,” and one thinks it’s an “apple,” then you’ve probably done an excellent job in meeting your goal; but if only five see an “orange,” you might want to revisit how you’ve executed the tale.

The challenge is not to over-think the input you receive or be too eager to please. If you do either, you run the danger of changing your own story into one you no longer recognize.

It’s all about interpreting the feedback, sifting through it, and deciding which criticisms you find valid and which are only presented based on a reader’s own filter. Everyone reads a story and brings his or her own life perspectives to it. Only you can determine whose viewpoint aids your story best.

The only way to determine the intent of the feedback is to get your reader engaged in a dialogue.

I’m a big believer in the analysis of my work and the work of my friends. When I read their scripts, I always print hard copies out and scribble all over the pages. I comment on authenticity of dialogue and plot, but my main focus is to jot my emotional reactions in the margins. I want to show another writer what I’m feeling while I’m reading it … what I’d be feeling if I were sitting in that theater seat.

For me, that’s the sole reason to tell a story – to make the reader/viewer feel something.

Last year I had a screenwriter ask me for feedback on his very first screenplay. I gave him my standard warning, “I have no filter.” He agreed to let me come at him with both barrels.

I did.

He cried.

Then, a month later, he emailed me, thanking me for my brutal honesty. In the time between my initial feedback email and his email, he had received my hard copy of his script with a bloodbath of red scribbles. Seeing my emotional reaction to his words helped him understand my intent. He enthusiastically dove back into rewrites.

One of the biggest reasons to get used to honest feedback early in your career is to prepare yourself for the moment you’re in a studio executive’s office and get your first set of real notes.

If you think I can make a writer cry, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Let’s continue with Richardson’s orange/apple analogy:

You finally sold that spec script you’ve been working on for years. It’s the tastiest, juiciest “orange” of your career. You stroll into the executive’s office, confident he already loves it as is.

Wrong.

He now wants you to turn your “orange” into an “apple.”

Your job is to figure out if he really wants an ‘apple’ or if he wants a better, tastier ‘orange.’ If you can’t determine the true intent of his feedback, you’ll either get fired, or you’ll unintentionally fire yourself.”

You need to be smart, think quickly, and pull ideas out your ass faster than the Road Runner. In short, you need to turn those dung notes into golden nuggets right before his eyes.

This is what separates a successful screenwriter from an amateur.

As you sit in your office, rehashing feedback and organizing notes, Richardson suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • What do I want to communicate in this story?
  • How am I failing to do so?
  • How can I communicate it better without changing what I’m trying to convey?

Your job is to make your readers confident enough to engage in an open and honest discussion, giving you clues to help you solve the puzzle.

One last tip: Join Scriptchaton Twitter. It’s one-stop shopping for not only screenwriters who trade scripts for feedback, but also an amazing community of support and industry information. While you’re there, follow Doug Richardson at @byDougRich. Most professionals on Twitter are generous and approachable. Richardson is no exception.

I practice what I preach: Twitter is where I’ve met many of the writers I trust to bitchslap my scripts into shape.

Bottom-line: Don’t be afraid of honest feedback. It’s the one thing that will bring your work to the level it needs to be, as well as prepare you for that big Hollywood meeting you’ve been working toward.

Be honest. Be ready.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you handle feedback and find readers. Share them below; and as always, you can find me on Twitter at @jeannevb. I don’t bite, but I do talk back.

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