Giving and taking notes from peers is truly invaluable in many ways. Learn how to give feedback that doesn't ruin a friendship.
Aarthi Ramanathan has previously written for a web series, and her screenplays have also been recognized in various screenwriting contests including Final Draft Big Break (top 10 in genre), Stage 32 Feature (winner), Screencraft (finalist), PAGE (semifinalist) and AFF (2nd Rounder). Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @ajramanathan
I still remember the time I first started writing seriously several years back – I mean, not the average-joe seriously, like ‘Sure! I have this cool idea! Let’s take it for a spin!’, but with an unrelenting, ‘it’s now or never!’ mindset. It may have helped that I was going through a bit of an existential crisis too, not connecting with the job I was in; but what motivated me, like many other writers, was the dream of creating something magical, that could also emotionally connect with others. The problem was, once I had that realization, I had no idea what to do next. But I knew it was important to find other peers who would be willing to read my work – also because God forbid, every time I would talk about writing to my family or friends, they would look at me like I was discussing my pilgrimage to Mars.
Yes, many of us have heard the importance of getting professional feedback, but before that, feedback from peers is truly invaluable in many ways as a variety of good peer reads can ferret out a lot of problems before you spend money on that pro read. Having befriended many talented writers who I adore, and who have been incredibly kind in letting me benefit from their wisdom, here are some helpful lessons I have gleaned over the years.
Peers are usually more objective than you. No matter how hard we try to be objective about our work, we are also the most attached to it, so having other readers’ perspectives can help fix big/small nagging issues that are not immediately obvious to the naked eye.
Writing may be solo but movies aren’t. It’s for an audience, so the sooner you feel comfortable with opinions and can get eyes on your work, the better.
You need to know what works, and what doesn't. It's easy to get lost in the minutiae of your feature magnum opus (for instance, write a scene over and over until you die… yeah, I’ve done that). Peer opinion can assist in seeing the bigger picture, so you aren’t alone.
Different opinions can help define what you really want to convey about your story. Do person ‘A’ and ‘B’ have different points of view on such and such? When two or more opinions of an issue in your story concur, time to really pay attention.
Here are some guidelines or ideas that may be helpful when dispensing notes to your friends:
1. Always take the time to thank the reader who is reading your script, no matter if you love or hate the notes. In that same regards, also always take the time to thank the sender – aka. the person who sends you their script.
2. Start with the positive, and don’t be a grinch. Maintain the focus on the constructive during a critique, versus only stating everything that is wrong with the script, thus demeaning, rather than helping a writer with their efforts. There is a difference between being honest, and being plain rude. For example, ‘Dudeeee this sucks! Go get another job!’ Eh, doesn’t work for me.
3. Find people whose experience you trust. Anyone can be a good critic, but not everyone can ‘critique’ in a way that is helpful to a writer and help elevate their writing to the next level, so it’s important that whoever is reading your work is someone who has some level of experience. For one, read as many scripts as possible yourself, before offering to read your friends’ scripts. The more experience you have as a reader yourself, the better you will be at critiquing someone else.
4. Taking away the ego. This is not always an easy one, but a no-brainer. It is impossible to absorb wisdom from others if you can’t see you have something you can learn from them. Even if you have something critical to say about another writer’s work, try to convey it with humility and respect.
5. Learning from others and being honest. Going back to point #4, confidence is key when you write and stories automatically suffer when their writers lack the conviction to give the substance to their pièce de résistance. That said, an overarching ego in a writer is an immediate barrier that can easily doom them into the quicksand of ‘has-been’. Screenwriting is an ever-changing multi-faceted profession and there is always something we can learn through the process of collaboration.
6. Praise, but don’t over-praise. While there is absolutely nothing wrong in appreciating a good story, it isn’t as helpful when the praise overshadows the issues that need to be fixed. So, as a reader, don’t abandon the reason why your friends asked you for notes in the first place!
7. Don't bug people. Give your peers enough time to read your work, and vice-versa (a reasonable period of time is one to two weeks). However, If you are on a deadline and need things sooner, communicate this with your reader at the outset and come to a fair agreement on whether a read is feasible within that time or not, before deciding whether or not to exchange feedback.
8. ‘Fish are friends, not food.’ Yes, the writing world is competitive and we all sometimes feel like it’s a dog-eat-dog world, but there is nothing more wonderful than creatives coming together in times of need. Being ambitious is good, without being pernicious and bringing down other writers and their successes.
Finally, some quick thoughts on receiving notes:
Good notes come from a place of helping you improve what you already have.
Avoid arguing if you disagree. As creatives, we are always subjected to criticism about our work, and it’s quite easy to let passion of your story be your guide and want to spout out various explosive exclamations at our readers when something they say is off-base to your line of thinking,’You’re wrong! You suck!’ Sometimes the criticism is beneficial, and sometimes it isn’t. Try not to become too emotional and react to the notes right away. Giving yourself the time to digest the note will help you also see the note (or the note behind the note) with more objectivity – speaking from someone with experience in that regard.
So bottom-line, fellow-scribes, writing isn’t easy, but sharing and learning from others is a good thing. Be generous, keep learning and regardless of whether opportunity calls, be a collaborator and give back to the screenwriting community. You won’t regret it.