We all do it. We finish a draft of a script, are excited about it, and want to get some feedback. We give it to a few people and tell them to be honest – maybe even brutally honest (a phrase I hate, but that’s another topic for another day).
Yet despite our requests for honesty, we all secretly, in our heart of hearts, want to hear one thing and one thing only: This is the best script I’ve ever read. You are a freaking genius. Don’t change a comma. But do clear space on your desk for the Oscar you’re destined to win.
This never happens. And if by some once-in-a-millennium alignment of the planets it did happen, it wouldn’t be helpful. Because none of us are geniuses. Not you, not me, not even (insert name of your favorite screenwriter). We’re just working writers.
Our second choice for feedback, barring the you’re a freaking genius fantasy, is a precise list of eleven things in the script that need fixing accompanied by eleven perfect suggestions for how to fix them.
Yeah, not so much that, either.
What you usually receive is some combination of helpful suggestions along with ideas that seem flat out wrong to you. Ideas that make you cringe, and perhaps rethink why you even consider this person a friend. So the sensible thing is to take the helpful ones and reject the others, right?
Not so fast.
I was a sitcom showrunner for many years. Getting notes from the network, including really bad ones, was a regular part of the job. But here are three truths I learned about network notes:
Truth #1: Network execs are terrible at being able to tell you precisely how to fix your script.
Truth #2: Network execs are only slightly better at identifying precisely what’s wrong with your script.
Truth #3: Network execs are really good at identifying where there’s something wrong with your script.
Even when the notes were misguided, I found that more often than not, the misguided network rep had done me a great service because she had put her finger on the exact spot where the script had a problem. She just didn’t know the right way to identify the problem.
So I learned that the best thing I could do when I got a note that made no sense was not to reject it, but to ask myself What’s bugging them here at this point in the script? And how can I address that issue and improve the script?
In the end, you’re the expert, the professional writer, not the note-givers. Even when the note-givers are other writers, they can’t be expected to know the script as intimately as you do.
Think of it this way: you’re driving a car and you hear a weird noise. It sure feels like something is out of whack and needs to be fixed. But if you’re anything like me, there isn’t a chance in hell you can diagnose the problem, let alone perform the work needed to solve the problem. That’s the mechanic’s job. They are the expert, not you.
But you still played a vital role in the process of repairing your car: you brought the problem to the mechanic’s attention by saying something automotively amateurish like I don’t know, it’s just that once I hit about 30 it goes grrr-voop, grrr-voop and smells like someone kept tuna fish tucked in their armpit for a week. And somehow, because he’s a professional, the mechanic took it from there and made things right.
When it comes to your script, even if you get a note that seems dead wrong to you, don’t dismiss it out of hand. Instead, assume that something is making a grinding noise for the reader at that spot in the script and you, the chief mechanic, need to pop the hood on the sucker, take a look around, ask yourself what might be making that awful noise. Then break out the tool box, roll up your sleeves, and make a few adjustments.
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