Some Notes on Notes

Writer and Script Reader

If you are a working writer you are going to have to deal with notes. Robin Taylor is part of our script reading team and a writer himself and shares some advice on the types of notes you are likely to receive and how to work with them in a constructive way.

Oh notes. Encouraging, demoralising, challenging, infuriating, inspirational notes. As much as we all love being praised and told we’re amazingly fantastic, criticism is a constant and vital element of writing. It pushes us to improve and adapt, so it’s important to know how to react to script notes.

Early on in a writer’s career it can be tricky to obtain reliable critiques, so any notes you do receive should be mined for maximum usefulness. It is also necessary to keep a check on emotional responses, to make sure you do not take criticism personally, let it knock your confidence nor over-inflate your ego. And at the same time it helps to recognise that every response to a script, even if they sometimes seem stupid and wrong, can indicate an area in the writing which may not be functioning properly. So let’s fling ourselves face first into looking at the different type of notes you may receive, how to make use of them, and the best ways to respond to them.

Notes from friends

When starting out, asking friends to read your work is the most accessible way of getting thoughts on your script. This can get you used to the idea of other people looking at your writing, which is an essential psychological hurdle to get over. However, hopefully your friends are nice people who are fond of you and want to encourage you. (If not, maybe get some better friends?) This can mean their responses may be limited to, “I liked it!” The fact is that most people are not used to reading scripts - they undoubtedly watch TV, films and theatre, but that is a very different experience, so their thoughts may be an emotional rather than analytical response.

You can guide friends to give you more useful criticism by asking questions about areas which are causing you doubt: Was the story clear enough? What did you make of that scene? It is also possible to take a seemingly innocuous comment, such as “I really liked that character”, and then apply your own analysis - does that mean that character deserves a more pivotal role? Or do you need to do more work on the other characters to bring them up to the same level? Over time you can train friends to be more critical, but obviously that requires willingness on their part. It’s certainly wise not to exploit anyone’s kindness by incessantly bombarding them with your latest piece and having the dreaded elephant of “Have you read my script yet?” constantly trumpeting in the room.

Kindred Spirits

Consider finding other writers to read your work, as they will have artistic leanings and are more used to looking at scripts. Such people may be found in local writer’s groups or through online resources such as Twitter, or maybe you could locate someone right here in the BBC Writersroom comment section! I see you all down there - get chatting! One important thing to remember though is that if you are seeking criticism you should be prepared to receive it and endeavour not to take any negative points personally. This is not only for the sake of your relationships, but also because when working in the industry you have to maintain professionalism and cannot afford to be offended or upset when critiqued. On the flip side of this, if you do get praise and encouragement, that’s great and you should definitely use it as motivation, but don’t rely on it to the extent that you think, “My friend liked it, so everyone else should too.”

If you end up reviewing other people’s scripts, think of the type of notes you would appreciate receiving, not cruel or condescending, but not vague or pandering either. Remember you are offering perspective and possibilities. Always avoid telling people directly what they should write or even rewriting it yourself, and resist receiving that kind of feedback, as you should always want to maintain authorship unless you’re co-writing. Essentially notes from friends and peers are the first step on the journey of a script. They allow you to believe in its potential and do preliminary improvements, but with the aim of getting professional feedback, which we’ll move on to now.

Rejection Notes

The harsh reality is that a lot of responses new writers will receive are rejections. BBC Writersroom recently published a blog post about dealing with rejection, which you can peruse and be amused by here. Sending your scripts to competitions or open submissions, many examples of which you can find in our Opportunities section, are great avenues for new writers, but highly competitive. Quite often a rejection will be a generic message, or no notification at all. This can be very disheartening, but it is a matter of dusting yourself off and trying again. 

If you progress to the later stages of a competition you can potentially receive a rejection with notes. These tend to come in the form of what we’ll call a Sh*t Sandwich. This means a positive introduction, a lot of criticism about the areas which aren’t entirely working, and then a bit of encouragement to say “Keep going though!” at the end. These kind of notes can be tricky to take at first because it can be tempting to focus purely on the negativity and feel you’re not good enough. But use any disappointment as fuel to fire your efforts to improve your work. And remember that the mere fact that you are getting those notes demonstrates that the reader has seen potential in you and they think you can learn and develop by focussing on particular areas that you can strengthen. 

In this situation, look for these specifics and then consider how you can work on them. If it is something technical like structure or clarity, these can be learned through training courses, lectures, books or blogs, or many useful features on the BBC Writersroom website. If it is something more artistic, such as voice or originality, these are things you need to develop personally. Explore ways of giving your characters more defined identities, or create concepts which are more unique or perhaps personal to you. Hopefully these kinds of notes should also push you to think of your script in a more holistic way, such as your overall intention and how you expressed it. Bear in mind that even if you end up a finalist or winner you would still receive these kind of critical notes. You can also obtain notes by using a script consultant, but these are generally paid services, and it is a matter of deciding whether they would be suitable for you or not. 

Hey Mr/Ms Producer!

Outside the world of competitions, it is possible to make contact with a producer and persuade them to read your script, a tricky but not impossible undertaking, which relies more on making a personal connection through networking. However, this will also often result in a rejection and does not guarantee significant feedback. Producer notes can be quite vague and not particularly constructive, such as, “It wasn’t for me.” This can be frustrating because it doesn’t give you anything tangible to work on and improve. It can be tempting to try to push for more detail, but be very cautious about this. It really depends upon the relationship you have with the producer, and the fact is that often if they wanted to give you more specific notes, they would have done so already.

Sometimes you may simply be told that something very similar to your idea is already in development, in which case it’s a matter of moving on to another concept, while recognising that you still have a sample of your writing in your pocket. Most of the time it’s best to thank them for reading the script and then asking if it’s okay to send them future examples of your work, thus maintaining a positive relationship.

It’s important to note with these kind of rejections that, unless the reader specifically asked for it, you should not send them a rewrite of the rejected script. Instead take the pointers they have given you and apply them to the next thing you write. That doesn’t mean that you can’t take this free advice, rework the script and then send it somewhere else. Doing a rewrite may seem like hard work, but it can be good practice, and eventually if you have a script which is being developed you may get to a point where you are receiving notes for multiple rewrites. Speaking of which...

Development Notes

So if you find yourself with a producer who is asking you to rewrite a script, you may believe that you’ve finally made it and all you really need to worry about is what you'll wear to the Baftas. But this is not only where the hard work begins, it’s also a test to see how you respond to notes and what a working relationship with you would be like.

It may seem like an obvious point, but don’t be overly argumentative or belligerent. Our scripts are our precious babies, and at times it can be too tempting to protect them from any perceived attacks, like a mother bear savagely mauling a hiker who inadvertently got too near to her cubs. If you say no and disagree with every suggestion a producer makes, it not only suggests that you would be really difficult to work with, you’re actively devaluing the other person’s opinions. It is best practice to be open to suggestions, to think them over and respond with possible solutions rather than road blocks.

If something isn’t clear you can ask for clarification, if you need more time to consider it you can respond by saying you’ll take a look at it. Of course if you powerfully believe that a suggested change would fundamentally damage the script then you have the right to argue your case. As with many things in life it is about how you express yourself. If you come across as aggressive, while you may think it seems strong, it could be that the producer sees you as uncooperative or even arrogant.

At the same time don’t try so hard to be agreeable that you’re giving the thumbs up to notes you don’t understand or have no intention of implementing. Otherwise when you submit the next draft and you’ve apparently ignored points that you’d agreed to it will give the impression that you don’t really listen. It can be helpful when sending follow up drafts to summarise what you have done to address the notes you received, as well as acknowledging any that you didn’t follow and why.

Cutting and Editing

One area that writers can be particularly defensive over is the idea of cutting material. Early drafts are often longer than necessary and so it is important to cut them down for time and to ensure there’s a good pace to the story. You may well feel that everything that is in your script is there for a reason, the primary one being that you like it. But if a scene, character or plot strand doesn’t serve a clear purpose you do need to either strengthen its reason for being there or be prepared to remove it. The idea of ‘killing your darlings’ is well established, and it’s important to remember that, since you really liked that element which you created you are able to create other elements that you will like just as much. Also there is always the potential to recycle what you have removed for a more suitable purpose, even in a different script. And if you don’t make the cuts at the script stage they could potentially be removed in the edit, where you have less creative control.

A similar note that may be tricky to adopt is the idea of moving around scenes and altering the time line. This can be intimidating if you feel you have a clear structure in your mind, but it can be as simple as cutting and pasting scenes into a different order. It’s a matter of looking at your script not as a sacred tome which can’t be adjusted, but something flexible and organic which can go through many iterations. You can even try alternative drafts to see which feels the best.

Thinking Practically

Be aware that there’s a high chance that praise will diminish even more at this more practical stage of development because people are essentially getting on with it rather than pandering to your ego. They will potentially only focus on critiquing what isn’t working rather than complimenting what is. A wise producer once told me, “If we don’t mention something that’s because it’s good. We’re only giving you notes on the parts which need to be as good as the rest.” With this in mind, don’t be tempted to rampantly rewrite an entire script because of a couple of criticisms. You could inadvertently throw out good material in your fervour. It’s about remembering that no one is trying to demean or belittle you, they are trying to help you improve and strengthen your work.

Every once in a while it is possible that you may get notes that you simply do not agree with. Obviously this can be difficult, particularly if you feel this is a rare opportunity for you to progress, and it requires personal strength and resolve to see if you can find a way to work through it. But sometimes it may be necessary to recognise you and your producer have completely contrasting opinions, and doing what they ask would result in writing something you don’t want to. But hopefully if someone likes your work in the first place they would never be offering destructive notes!

Seeing the Trees in the Woods

It’s important to remember that whenever you get a note there is always something there to be considered. The reader may not express it properly, or they could offer a solution that you don’t care for. But the point is that they responded in a way where they felt something wasn’t quite right and it is your task to figure out appropriate ways to fix it. Sometimes they can be small and simple. If you are told that a character isn’t likeable, that doesn’t mean you need to get rid of them or drastically alter them. Rather look for moments where they can show their humanity and behave empathetically, so the audience can better understand them. Other times they may be a bigger undertaking. If the conclusion of the story is seen as unfulfilling you may have to go back to the very beginning and rework every step of the plot, or even replace it with a whole new idea.

At times you may get a note where you think the reader has simply missed important information, and maybe they have, but remember that you know this story inside out. It is possible that while you know what is happening you may not have made it entirely clear, and maybe you need to add in little moments to increase clarity. While your brain is full of backstory and character details, if it isn’t apparent on the page then it isn’t evident to the reader, and an audience would share this confusion. This is the benefit of notes, as they offer an outside perspective which can express what someone coming to your work with no prior knowledge would experience.

So, what have we learned?

In summary, the key factors to remember are openness, compromise and a balanced attitude. Creating a script may feel like a solitary activity when you’re writing away on your own, but to produce something from that script is a highly collaborative process. In a production there will be all sorts of people and departments with concerns and requirements. It is therefore advantageous to know how to cooperate with others and respond effectively to notes as early as possible. With that in mind, hopefully you'll be inspired to get a kind soul to give you some notes, or offer some thoughts to a fellow BBC Writersroom user, and continue to develop your writing!

Check out Robin's blog post on Studio Sitcom

Coping with Rejection - some advice on the unavoidable

Networking, Agents, Treatments, Top Tips - read a series of blog posts for us from script guru Philip Shelley

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