Notes on Notes

I once worked with the same group of seven writers for an entire year. They were young, working on important projects under a great deal of pressure, and they had known each other for quite some time. I’ve taught many a workshop class, but for some reason the chemistry was off in this group and the atmosphere was rife with tension.  Notes sessions began to devolve into skirmishes and ambushes, which eventually exploded into all-out warfare being fought on multiple fronts complete with allies, enemies and traitorous spies.  It was a disaster. Something had to be done.

I emailed other teachers, writer friends, studio executives, producers, directors, an agent and a manager, and I asked them if they had any insight into the giving and taking of notes. So, assembled with their guidance, and culling from many of my own hard-won lessons, here are some important rules to keep in mind for the giving and taking of notes:

1.  A person receiving notes should not speak until the group is finished giving him/her notes.  Small points of clarification necessary for the discussion can be permitted, but a note taker should spend his/her time listening.  The note taker should be given time near the end of his/her time to ask questions, propose changes, and seek further advice.

2.  Note givers should always begin with what they like about the work, even if it is just a single image or turn of phrase.  It’s important that what works in the material be reinforced.  We are not coddling writers, we ensuring that babies aren’t tossed out.

3.  Don’t just point out problems when giving notes, try to offer solutions.  Barring that, attempt to be as specific as possible about what is troubling you.  Whether it be in features or TV, “working the room,” thinking on your feet, and collaborating with others to solve problems is an essential business skill.  Foster a tone of “what if,” or “maybe,” as we are discussing possibilities, not absolutes.   Avoid language like: “What I want is…,” or “I need to see….,” and “If I were you….”

Partner, don’t preach.

4.  The writer is interested in what you took from the material, so give him/her your interpretation and your thoughts instead of asking questions like, “Why did you write this scene?” or “What was your intention?”  Do the work of forming a well-reasoned opinion for the benefit of your fellow writer before playing prosecuting attorney.

5.   When giving notes, you are not judging the writer, you are dealing with his/her material.  How you feel about the writer as a person, how he/she lives his/her life, and what he/she believes are not often relevant.  The important thing to remember is that we must separate the writer from the work as much as possible.  We are never to attack him/her as a person, and we are certainly not attacking his/her material either, we are simply trying to do all we can to improve the product.  Delivery and tone are everything.

6.  Become invested in your fellow writers’ material.  Doing so is not only rewarding on a creative and personal level, but it makes smart business sense as all ships rise in the tide.  Help someone now, and they may be in a position to help you later.

7.  Strive for objective investment.  When giving notes, do your best to remove emotion from the discussion.  Be helpful, remain invested, but be as objective as possible.  Avoid sarcastic, superior, and condescending tones.  Such deliveries imply judgment.  Receiving notes is never easy.  We almost never feel good after getting notes.  Do not exacerbate this problem for the writer by delivering your thoughts with attitude.

8. There is great benefit to “riffing” or brainstorming in the room. However, talking to talk, or talking in order to seem as if you are participating when you have nothing truly constructive to say can cause dangerous digressions and be a waste of time.  Better to keep listening, keep thinking, and wait until you have something clear and helpful.

9.  When receiving notes, a writer should employ his/her poker face.   Never let ‘em see you sweat.  Looking demoralized and defeated, or acting wounded and depressed will not change a producer’s or agent’s mind about what they read, and it only makes you look weak. Getting angry is even worse.  No rolling of eyes, scoffing, or grunting.  Writers must strive to be objective about their own work.  You want your story to be better.   A note is not a setback, it is an opportunity to improve.  Writers are inherently insecure people, but you must set aside that fear and doubt, tuck away your ego, and listen for ways to make your story better.  The goal is to put a poster on the wall.  Go home and mourn alone, but do not grieve in a meeting or in class, and never, ever, throw a tantrum.

10.  Readers are your audience.  They are visualizing a movie in their minds as they read your script.  You cannot argue with the audience in a movie theater, therefore, you should not argue with your readers.  They feel what they feel.  In a workshop, attempting to prove yourself right or someone else wrong – be it as a note taker or a note giver – simply wastes time and distracts the group from our goal of making the script better.  You may disagree with what you’re hearing and choose to disregard it, or ask to discuss it further.  That’s fine.  But arguing gains you nothing.  Take the note, be grateful, and move on.  If you are giving a note that is not well received, be the bigger person, consider it his/her loss, and move on.  (Note: arguing with studios and producers is a completely different situation, where you may choose to battle, but must do so wisely.)

11  As I said: move on.  After your time has passed for notes, try hard to focus on the next person’s work.  We all encounter the same problems in our stories.  You can learn as much from notes on other writers’ stories as you did from those on your own.  Do not tune out, fade out, or mope.  It is now your turn to help those who have helped you.

12.  It’s not unusual for writers to develop a sense of the readers whose sensibilities match their own.  This is okay!  You can’t please everyone, and much of workshopping is knowing what to take and what to leave.  Some writers paint themselves into a corner by taking all notes which can be as dangerous as taking none.  Use your discretion.

13.  After receiving notes, do not panic.  It is wise (unless you are being pressed by a particularly severe deadline) to leave the material for a day or two.  Let the swelling go down. You will find yourself in a better, more objective frame of mind to work, and therefore, feel more creative when it’s time to rewrite.  Large issues at the note table usually seem less daunting once emotions have subsided and a more distant perspective has been gained.  Let your logical, problem-solving brain take over and get to the work at hand once emotion has subsided.

14. Never, ever, ever, allow yourself to be a coward and not present work for fear of negative feedback. It takes courage to share our writing, it’s been done for centuries by better writers than you and me to extreme success, and unless you fancy yourself a true genius, the give and take of sharing material is the best way to improve your writing.

15. That is all.  Let’s be productive today. Who wants to go first?

*This post was originally published on the Spalding Brief-Residency MFA in Writing Blog.

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