Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How to Give Feedback

Another Blog by Levin Menekse
Hello guys and gals, welcome to the flip-side of my earlier article: "Getting and Processing Feedback"

On first impression, giving feedback seems like an altruistic thing to do. You're helping someone else, right? It's a good, nice thing, like helping an old lady cross a street. Well, not to appeal to your selfish nature or anything, but it's actually more than that. Giving great feedback is essential to your growth as a screenwriter.

First of all, we have established previously in the "Getting and Processing Feedback" article that you need a collective of Writers to get notes from so that you can become a better writer. And, well, you reap what you sow. People are much more likely to be engaged with your material if you are engaged with theirs. If you are in a Writer's Group situation and you realize that everyone is surfing the web while your script is being discussed, either you are the only decent person in a circle of assholes or... you might be the asshole who does the same while theirs are discussed and what you are getting is your comeuppance.

                                               Pictured: Not a good feedback session.

Secondly, half of the jobs in the industry are "re-write" jobs. This means you will be handed a piece of material and then asked your "take" on it. So, say, a production company is remaking Lord of Rings for the new generation and they already have a script, but they want it to be more "hip" in order to capture the imaginations of young people. What you will need to do is to read the script, deconstruct it and basically tell them what you found lacking and what you would improve. In these situations, you will use the same set of muscles you use when you're giving feedback. So, flex those suckers!

"The script DEFINITELY needs more of Legolas skating down the stairs. Young people love that shit!"

Okay, you convinced me. How about some pointers?

Okay, here you go...

Respect the Writer's Vision:

Some movies are action blockbusters (Transformers), some movies are witty romantic comedies (High Fidelity) and some movies are existential ruminations about our quotidian life and what it means to be a human being. (The Room)

While giving notes, remember that you're trying to support the Writer to achieve his/her particular goal. Don't go into "This is what I would've done" mode and impose your vision onto theirs. Yes, maybe you believe the world doesn't need another Adam Sandler vehicle and you think this particular story would be much better if the protagonist slipped and fell into a volcano filled with battery acid... but don't say that. If the person you're giving feedback to is writing that kind of a movie... Then that's what you're working with. Accept it and do your best. Help the writer make his/her story the best story of its kind.


Give your feedback to the Work, not to the Writer: 

Yes, maybe you don't like the cut of that fucker's jib, but don't be an asshole to his/her writing just to hurt him/her. On the other side of this coin, don't wear kid gloves and treat your best friend's script with utter reverence. Both attitudes are harmful in the long run and the only thing you should be concerned with is how you can improve upon the material you are presented with.

And most people aren't stupid, they know when they are targeted as opposed to their writing. (Pro life-tip: Even stupid people can tell that.) Don't poison the well, don't turn your Writer's Group into a bunch of people sniping at each other. In the professional world, you will work with a lot of people you don't necessarily mesh with, so it's a good idea to get used to it.

Be gentle: 

When you're giving feedback, it's some fragile shit you're dealing with. Months and months of work and the Writer's self-confidence could be on the line.

This isn't to say that you shouldn't be harsh on your critique, but package it nicely. Instead of saying: "Logically, your script makes no sense. That would be somewhat okay if your protagonist wasn't a deplorable piece of human garbage with whom the audience has no empathy. And, by the way, I enjoyed reading your climactic sequence as much as I enjoyed doing my taxes last year." try to say:

"You know that scene in the first act where Martin takes the eel and uses it as a lasso to choke his girlfriend to death? I kind of felt like that was a moment where my empathy with Martin broke. I think if you could let me glimpse into his mind more and understand why he decided to do that, then I think I could be on board with his journey more..."

Realize I didn't say anything about the problem with the climax or the logic holes in the script. It's because you don't want to just pile on your critique all at once. If a script is a mess, chances are other people are aware of it as well. If they're not, then next time you speak, maybe you talk about a sequence you enjoyed and why you enjoyed it before you point out another problem with the script.

It's phenomenally easy to come off as the "bad guy" in these kind of situations, so avoid that. Tell the truth, but in acceptable doses with a gentle style.

                       According to Google images this is what an "eel lasso" looks like

Tailor your Feedback to the situation at hand: 

Deadlines are a staple of this industry and to many people's creative processes, so chances are you will be asked to give feedback on a project that has to be delivered in a certain amount of time. Be diligent of this fact while you're delivering your notes. Don't give tectonic, structure-razing notes to someone who has a deadline in two days. Similarly, if someone has only a week to deliver a draft and s/he's on page 60, it's better to give feedback about the future of the script and not that one scene that bugs you back in the first act.

Don't drop big -ist Words: 

There are sensitive words that become even more sensitive in the context of a feedback session. For example, I've seen people call other people's material sexist, racist and other kind of -ist's. The problem with this is two-fold: First of all, whether you like it or not, you are calling the Writer an -ist of your choice as well and this violates the "Don't critique the Writer, critique the Work" rule. (Best case scenario, you're saying: "I know you're not a racist, but you might have accidentally been one while writing this script.") Secondly, give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they have an endgame in mind that will subvert your expectations or maybe they tried that and failed. Hell, maybe they know more about the subject matter than you do.

There are many works of art that have been called an -ist of some kind -- lately, it's been the FX series Tyrant which has been called both racist and sexist -- and just because you think something is an -ist doesn't mean it is. Just because you're offended doesn't mean you're right. And by dropping a big -ist word, you're essentially derailing the conversation. All of a sudden, anything the Writer is saying is being contextualized around your accusation. So, be very, very careful before saying something like that because it creates a toxic environment. You can definitely bring up your problems with the material without resorting to an -ist word.

Instead of saying: "This pilot is sexist because all women are depicted as sex objects." try to say: "I think your female characters can use more complexity and layers."

                                      Don't be this guy. Nobody likes this guy

And, finally... Share: 

Be open. If you have a great idea that could improve someone's script... Give it to them. Don't sit on your ideas because you think sometime in the future you might be able to use them for your own material. You have chosen these people to give/get feedback from for a reason and, to bring it back to the beginning, the more you give, the more you're going to get.

Well, that's all I have. Take care friends, hope you enjoyed this journey. If you have any feedback about this article, you're welcome to comment! Who knows, maybe I'll give you a feedback about your feedback and we'll forever be stuck in an everlasting feedback loop!

- Levin Menekse

(For more advise, check out Ken Miyamoto: How To Give Notes on A Screenplay)


sanjay sahgal said...

These are excellent guidelines for cultivating a productive writing group. Thanks for distilling this information. In addition to creating an entertaining essay, you've shined some light on a crucial area for any thriving writers' collective.

Levin Menekse said...

Thank you, Sanjay!

My feedback on your feedback post is that it is excellent both in form and content!