Road to Commissioning… How to Give Better Feedback
When it comes to learning the craft of writing, there is one absolute, unifying, inescapable truth… we cannot improve without feedback.
Now, if you’ve read my previous post on How to Build a Writers’ Room, you will be rich with the knowledge that writing is a team sport. It takes a village and all those other gratifying idioms about how it’s good not to be totally solipsistic. As with all symbiotic relationships, when it comes to feedback, it’s important to give back as much as you take.
While it’s great to get the opinions of your friends and family on your work, the best feedback you’re going to get is from other writers, and that’s very much a ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ type of deal.
It is absolutely invaluable for you to curate a network of trusted people you can turn to for honest feedback. People you know will take the time to deconstruct your work, who will give you insight and workable steps on how you can make a good script great. However, in order to keep these connections and ensure a harmonious working relationship, we ourselves must give quality feedback in return.
There’s a lot to be said for the phrase, ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’, and there is no quicker way to sour a relationship with another writer than to give them generic, half-baked feedback. Particularly after they’ve spent their time giving you specific, personalised and considerate feedback of your work.
Unfortunately, you will find a lot of inconsiderate people who will happily shake you down for feedback, only to repay you with a boilerplate report that makes you wonder if they even read your script.
You might even be one of those people who thinks, ‘whatever, there are tonnes of writers I can con for feedback’. You might laugh now, but eventually your circle is going to get really small until your only resort is paid services - a heavy price when you could have just been decent.
There are two types of feedback in the world - good feedback and bad feedback - and neither is what you think it is. The only difference between the two is the quality. All feedback is good as long as it helps you to understand your craft and improve. A glowing review that gives you no insight isn’t really worth anyone’s time. Similarly, it doesn’t matter if someone says your work is terrible as long as they tell you why.
Okay, so I don’t want to imply that everyone who gives ‘bad’ feedback has nefarious intentions. Some people just aren’t very skilled at breaking down your work. They might know they did or didn’t like something but lack the understanding to give proper insight. In which case, maybe that generic feedback really was the best they could do at that time.
Even if you lack experience, we’re still learning after all, there are ways we can put our best foot forward and give others the type of feedback we ourselves would like to receive.
So, without much more rambling ado, here are 4 tips on how you can give better feedback:
1) You get what you give, so don’t give half-arsed feedback
I get it, we’re all busy, but we want to help, so we say yes to that read request from the sad-eyed, frazzled writer who we kind of know from Facebook. They need the feedback quickly for an upcoming competition deadline, but you have family commitments, you’ve already had to work late three times this week and you also have to do revisions for you own looming competition deadline.
So, out of courtesy, you give their script a quick skim and send back a few lines of generic feedback, mostly about typos and formatting, and you move on with your life believing you did your good deed for the week. Sorry to tell you this, sweetheart, but all you really did was waste everyone’s time.
I am firmly of the belief that generic feedback is as bad, if not worse, than no feedback. Quality feedback is not about saying you did or didn’t like something, or correcting what is essentially window-dressing (typos and formatting). It is about helping someone deconstruct their work and discover what they did right and wrong. How they can think around a problem, how they can make their writing more punchy.
If your report isn’t peppered with phrases like, ‘I liked/didn’t like this because…’, ‘I think this scene would work better if you tried…’, then it might just be half-arsed.
If you don’t have the time, or desire, to give quality critique - it’s kinder to just say No.
2) Don’t be a wimp
Sometimes people don’t write well. Sometimes they have outlandish ideas or just plain don’t understand story construction. Sometimes you’ve just got to call a spade a spade.
Now, I am not for one moment suggesting that you should purposefully tear someone’s work apart and destroy any motivation they had. Critique should always be handled delicately and with compassion, but at the end of the day we must be honest.
It can be difficult, I know. Some writers will react to critique like you just told them their baby is ugly. A lot of people, in all walks of life, take negative feedback personally, and it can feel easier to just sugarcoat things to avoid the emotional tirade of a bruised ego. However, their inability to handle critique is not your problem, and it should not influence your ability to give honest feedback.
Writers who blow-up at less than stellar critique don’t actually want to improve their writing, they just want unfettered praise and validation. They might not realise this, but that is how it is. I know this because I used to be one of those writers. However, once I made the decision to get over myself, my writing improved… a lot.
Writers who cuss you out for giving them honest feedback are excluding themselves from improving - that sounds like their problem to me. So, don’t be a wimp about it. Say what you really think and help people understand how they can make their work better. We build muscles through micro-tears and we grow stronger with every set.
If someone can’t accept feedback given under the best intentions, then move on to people who are ready to put skin in the game. You don’t need to waste your time on writers who don’t want to learn.
This industry is tough, grow a thicker skin or get out.
3) Understand your opinion is not gospel
Writing is incredibly subjective, and just because you don’t ‘get’ somebody’s idea, doesn’t automatically make it baseless, tasteless or worthless. It just isn’t your jam, man.
Just because you don’t see the merit of someone’s idea, doesn’t mean no one will. I’m sure when Thunder Levin was touting Sharknado around town he got his fair share of raised eye-brows. Yet, 7 years later he has a 6 movie (and counting) franchise off an idea that most of us ‘serious’ writers would scoff at.
It’s not about the idea, it’s about the execution. When giving feedback our job is to help people write the best script they possibly can, not pass judgement on their ideas.
Maybe you’re right. Maybe their 6-part mini-series about the invention of sandpaper won’t ever get made, but that is the story that is authentic to THEM. You telling them they’re an idiot for writing something that you think won’t sell isn’t helping anyone. It’s just making two people upset.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret - most of your amazing, well thought-out, highly original screenplays will never get produced. It's a sad fact that so many stars need to align for something to actually make it from script to screen. Getting an original idea under the right Hollywood nose is no picnic. Let alone actually getting a studio interested or finding investors ready to fund the project.
Even if it's optioned, your screenplay might never see the light of day. That isn’t why we write them. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but most proper working screenwriters spend their time staffing on TV shows or writing/rewriting IPs that studios already have in development. Your pitch perfect portfolio of ground-breaking original screenplays is just your resumé, darling. So, write whatever the fuck you want.
As an established writer you might be selling original screenplays left, right and centre, but for that to happen you have to get your foot in the door. As new writers, we have to flex our creative muscles and practice until we can write a perfect screenplay in our sleep. You start that journey by writing what is authentic to you and learning how to execute those ideas PER-FECT-LY.
Does it help to write something desirable to the market? Sure. You should always have your ear to the ground to see what producers are looking for, but this, again, is to prove to the Big Wigs that you can write something that sells. It is also in your interest to show range - if that includes a mini-series covering the invention of sandpaper, so be it.
Nelson Mandela once said, ‘I never lose, I either win or learn’.
Everything we write pushes us closer to our 10,000 hours. Even if the idea is crazy, treat it as a training exercise and some extra padding for their portfolio. Stop assuming you know everything and just help your friend write the best version of their dumb idea they possibly can. You never know where that crazy idea could lead.
4) Know your limitations
You don’t need to know everything about writing to give quality feedback, but it is helpful to know your limitations. You might know that something isn’t right but lack the language to articulate this properly. You don’t know what you don’t know and there is no sense pretending you know more than you do. However, if you do lack technical understanding, or you’re just not totally squared on the writing ‘rules’, you can still give your impression as a viewer.
You might not be totally sure if an aspect of someone’s script is right or wrong, but it still has an effect on you. If you can explain your impression of what you read in reasonable detail, you are still giving the writer insight. It doesn’t matter how you package it.
If you find scenes slow or rushed, that could be a pacing issue. You struggle to differentiate characters, maybe they’re not clearly defined. Did you find the dialogue tedious or robotic? That could mean it was too expositional. Just explain how the scenes made you feel. Just because you haven’t quite got the jargon down it doesn’t mean you can’t get your point across. You might just need to try a little harder.
You have to remember that the majority of the people who consume film & TV are total laymen. Yet, they are still capable of making an assessment about whether a story resonated with them. Your gut impression of someone’s work is valid, even if you aren’t Aaron Sorkin. Just be aware that your impression might be down to your own personal taste, particularly if you do lack technical understanding. Let the person know that they might have to take some aspects of your critique with a grain of salt.
The most important thing about feedback is to let the writer know where they fell down with their storytelling. What did you find confusing? Were there logical inconsistencies? Was their foreshadowing too subtle or nonexistent? All of this analysis is helpful and provides insight that the writer can use to improve their craft.
If at the end of it all your feedback isn’t quite technical enough, at least you tried.
You should always try your best to give feedback that the other writer will find useful. Don’t give critique just to get it, always give feedback in earnest. Not only is it the decent thing to do, it helps you learn to deconstruct your own work, which will make you a better writer overall.
So, while you might not always give the most perfect feedback, as long as you try to give critique to the best of your ability, you will always be giving quality feedback.