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The Right Way to Give and Receive Feedback on a Script

Paula Goldberg

No (good) script exists in a vacuum. Giving and receiving feedback is essential for successful screenwriters. So what’s the best way to go about it?

We all know that writing is re-writing. It’s a process. You have an idea, and that idea evolves and ends up on paper. It gets revised, reshaped, and re-crafted yet again. At some point, you need a fresh perspective — a trusted pair of eyes to delve into the story for the first time and give you honest feedback.

This can make the writer feel vulnerable — and the reader uncomfortable. How can you navigate these choppy waters, so both people feel it was worth the effort? Just look to screenplay structure as your guide. Everything said and received should be goal-driven, specific, and moving toward an honest conclusion.

Giving Feedback

The Right Way to Give and Receive Feedback on a Script — Giving Feedback

Image via Wonder Boys (Paramount).

When you’re reading someone’s work, you are not a critic. Your role is as an adviser, and your ultimate goal is to help the writer improve the screenplay. It’s easy to think the best course of action is to point out flaws. That doesn’t create trust in relationships. Why would it work in art?

Focus on suggestions for improvements rather than pointing out flaws. Anyone can see the broken fence; it takes knowledge to offer ways to mend it.  And remember, there are many choices — patch it, secure it, replace it. The same principle applies to a screenplay. You won’t have the one right answer to fix a story issue. However, if your feedback is honest, if you take the time to read carefully and lovingly, if you ask smart questions and offer encouragement, you can help the writer craft a better draft.

Be Specific

Be concise with feedback. Use a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.  And choose wisely so you don’t over-burden the writer.

For example, if the format is off, don’t point out every flaw — that can be overwhelming. Tell them you’ve noticed a few format mistakes and suggest they brush up on the rules. If they then solicit specific advice, feel free to point it out. Now, you’re being helpful and reducing stress — pointing out every one of their mistakes would have simply added stress.

The Right Way to Give and Receive Feedback on a Script — Be Specific

Image via Adaptation (Columbia Pictures).

However, don’t be general with story issues. It is unhelpful to simply say, “This doesn’t work” or “I don’t believe this character.” Go back to the first piece of advice. Goal-driven suggestions. If your goal is to help the writer to make the script stronger, how does vague feedback help?

You may not have the answer, but if you put your response in the form of a question, you and the writer can brainstorm together. At the very least, you’re giving the writer something to ponder for the next draft.

To be goal-driven and specific, look to the facts of what you’ve read. Instead of saying “This doesn’t work,” for example, you might say “You’ve set up this character as someone who is very confident. Why would she defer to others in this scene?” You’ve now taken an astute observation and used that detail to ask a smart question that will guide story development.

Be Honest

Nobody improves by hearing that nothing needs to change. Every artist knows a painting is never finished; at some point, you simply put down the brush. If you’re in a position wherein a writer has asked you to read the script and wants feedback, that means it’s not time to put down the brush.

Giving honest feedback is your obligation when you agree to read the screenplay. The thing to remember is that it is facts, not your opinion, that the writer is soliciting. Who cares if you liked it, or it’s not your preferred genre. You can hate horror films, but as a professional, you should know the elements that are necessary to produce a successful horror script.

The Right Way to Give and Receive Feedback on a Script — Be Honest

Image via The Exorcist (Warner Bros.).

Every screenplay is going to have some aspect that works; look for that and point it out to the writer. That could be the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down when you address significant story and character issues later.

If you read with a purpose, use structure and character as your guide; give honest feedback with an eye for discovery and opportunities to improve. You’ll be a smart advisor. And if you know the writer well, you’ll also be able to preserve your friendship!

Receiving Feedback

Nobody sets out to create bad work. Sometimes we get attached to a specific idea or element in the story that isn’t working, but we can’t let go. Sometimes that attachment makes us blind to seeing any issue. I call this the “key syndrome.”

The Right Way to Give and Receive Feedback on a Script — Receiving Feedback

Image via Get Out (Universal).

I know I put my keys in the kitchen. I can’t find my keys. I look all over the kitchen. Still can’t find them. In a panic, I’ll search other places, but I often fly through that search — quickly hit the bedroom, bathroom, and come back to the kitchen, where I am sure I left the keys. I may have a moment of inspiration! Check the car! Then I get mad at myself. Idiot — how did you get into the house if you left the keys in the car?

Enter a neutral party. This person doesn’t own the keys, is not crazed with finding them. This person only wants to calm you down and be helpful. They often ask questions.

“When did you last see them?”

“Were you carrying anything else in your hands at the time”

“What pants were you wearing?”

All of a sudden, smart questions that yield facts are solving your problem. You realize you changed clothes and that the keys are in your jeans on the bathroom floor. That is what you need to remember when getting feedback. The goal is to help you find the key to the story, to strengthen it and fulfill the promise of your initial idea.

Remain open, ask questions, and don’t feel obligated to accept every note as direction. It’s still your story. You don’t need to incorporate someone else’s feedback if it doesn’t resonate with you. What you do need to do is take it in, and if that note is consistent among other people who read your script, you should examine it. Perhaps it was the suggestion of a solution that didn’t appeal to you. Maybe you only need to focus on the story issue the reader pointed out and find a way to fix it that makes sense to you.

Focus on the goal — a better draft. Be open to specific feedback, and embrace the truth of what you have now. The work ahead is to make it better.

Cover image via gerasimov_foto_174.

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