How Screenwriters Can Learn To Love Feedback

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Photo Source: Photo by Daniel Bosse on Unsplash

There’s an old saying that a young writer wants to hear everything that’s right and a seasoned writer wants to hear everything that’s wrong. The truth in that colloquialism is that the ability to take a note is a necessity for any artistic endeavor. One could go further and say it’s the most important and required skill to excel in the business side of show business. 

Film and television are profoundly collaborative art forms. The image of the solitary writer toiling away and turning in a brilliant completed product is as big an illusion as an actor performing without an audience, a scene partner, or a camera pointed at them. But learning how to receive criticism, feedback, and notes isn’t as daunting as it may seem. Let’s examine this through the lens of screenwriting, although it can be applied to any art form.

Here are the three simple steps to learning how to take criticism.

1. Accept that your script is not, nor will ever, be perfect.
Success in the arts is defined by your constant pursuit of achieving “Hamlet,” not the actual achievement of it. Once you accept this principle, things get a lot easier. If it can’t ever be perfect, then your goal is simply to continue to make it better. And why wouldn’t you want help in doing that? 

2. Recognize that you’re a craftsman whose job is to sell a product that others will buy. 
The job definition is not the pursuit of solitary perfection, but in creating a product that others will buy. Therefore, who better to guide you in those changes than the buyers themselves?

3. Understand that notes are often suggested solutions, but your responsibility is to uncover what the problem was that led to the solution.
The phrase “the note behind the note” is often misunderstood. When we give notes, because of our inherent desire to solve problems as humans, we often give notes that are full of our ideas and our solutions. But you’re the writer, not us. So you must dig below the solution and ask yourself what the problem was to begin with. Your job as a storyteller is to make us feel something, so when we give you a note it’s because we didn’t feel something when we expected to. Your job is to not “use” our solution, but to try to identify the root of the problem: what didn’t we feel and how can you fix that.

The application of these three simple steps gets you on the path toward learning how to accept, appreciate, and even crave criticism. In fact, as a professional writer, you’ll spend more time receiving and taking notes than you ever will in the process of solitary writing. 

So, what’s the next step? Learning how to give that same critique and notes to yourself first. Learning how to give yourself notes can help streamline your creative process, and prepare your material (script or performance) to be taken out into the world battle-tested and ready for more feedback. Here are two simple strategies for learning to give yourself notes.

1. Force yourself to change hats.
We all know how easy it is to have opinions of other people’s work. How do you recreate this for yourself? Use your imagination:

  • Print a copy of your script and sit down with a red pen like a real editor would. 
  • Save it as a PDF and send it to yourself as if you were receiving it as a submission. 
  • Imagine instead of your biggest fan, the person least likely to like your story sitting down to read it. Now, what do you want to change?
  • Send it to anyone you know and then go re-open the script. You’ll immediately see it through their eyes and also immediately see everything you want to change. Hint: Use this on close friends who won’t mind being used as bait.

2. Know your “tree.” 
This means: do you know what your story is about? Can you say it in a sentence? Write it on a sticky note? You’d better be able to. Because it’s the foundation, the “roots” upon which everything in your story should build. So, what is your tree? Once you know, it becomes much easier to sacrifice scenes, send babies down the river, and cut characters when all of those choices are in the service of a central point. Ask yourself: “Does this serve BLANK central purpose?” And if the answer is no, now you know exactly what you need to change!

If you can apply these simple strategies to your own work, you’ll have a solid foundation upon which to not only self-edit and self-critique but to be prepared and excited to receive feedback from others. Learning these techniques is what will turn you into the kind of creative force people can’t wait to collaborate with time and time again.  

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Alexa Alemanni
Alexa Alemanni is an actor and screenwriter. She has written for TNT’s “The Librarians,” sold to UCP for TNT, and played Allison on “Mad Men” for which she won a SAG Award. She teaches screenwriting at USC & NYFA and at her own studio: Bad Pitch Writers Lab.
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