'Notiquette' - the art of giving and receiving notes - is one of the least talked about but most vital parts of every screenwriter's life. (I can't speak on behalf of playwrights and novelists, having had only a passing experience of being either, but I'm sure it applies to them too).
Being a member of a writing partnership, as I have been for the past fifteen years, makes Notiquette a constant part of my working life. Solo writers may have days, weeks or months of writing alone in their garret/penthouse (delete as applicable) before they send their masterpiece off and await the 'ping' of head-swelling praise or testicle/ovary-crushing criticism (delete as applicable), but a co-writer gets notes on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. After fifteen years I've learned what the tiniest muscle movement on my co-writer's face means with regard to the joke I've just pitched or the tone of his voice on the other end of the phone says about the quality or otherwise of the scenes I've just emailed. And I’m pathetically grateful for his fake laughter at my substandard gag. I'd choose a genuine belly laugh every time, but I deeply appreciate what the fake laugh means - that he's trying to deliver a negative note in the kindest possible way. Which is perhaps the essence of all good note giving.
Of course the basis of our note give and take is friendship and trust. We trust each other’s judgement and sense of humour and we are patient with each other’s foibles. It’s a very different thing when we are faced with feedback from a producer or script editor whom we may not know very well, or even at all. It’s particularly hard when a writer is starting out as he/she doesn’t have established relationships with trusted producers/script editors – everyone is a stranger. How can I trust this person? Am I a pawn in their weird mindgame or are they an angel sent to help me write a better script?
Here are some tips for note-givers.
1. Don’t rewrite the script and send it back to the writer. Admittedly this has only happened to me once, and it was done by a producer/script editor who had come up with the concept of the show, but it is still a high-watermark of note-don’ts.
2. Don’t forward to the writer an uncensored email containing extensive, negative notes from a third party who is not in any way involved in the process. (This has only happened to me once, but once is enough.) The note-giving process has to occur within a ‘circle of trust’ and a note has value in proportion to the commitment of the person giving it. In other words, if you’re not involved in the project and you don’t even like it, please don’t give me your notes. (There are exceptions to this rule – for example, rejection letters do occasionally contain worthwhile notes. If all the rejection letters you get contain the same note, it’s probably worth taking.)
3. Don’t take the piss. All writers get it wrong, but it is our right to fail (and know we’ve failed) without getting humiliated in the process.
4. Don’t give too many little notes at an early stage. We don’t need to know if some lines or jokes could be improved at Draft #1 – at Draft #1, we just want to know if the story is any good at all.
5. Don't give notes based on how you would write the script - if you want to write, there are plenty of blank pages still available.
6. Try to avoid emotional/inflammatory language in notes. Say there are problems, not that something is 'sloppy' - say it could be funnier, not that it's 'schoolboy humour.'
1. Please make suggestions and come up with ideas. A list of problems is depressing. A list of problems peppered with ideas for solutions is less depressing. Plus it shows you’re making an effort and putting yourself on the line. It’s a lot safer and easier to be critical than it is to be creative. If even one of your ideas is worth including, we will be forever grateful. If all of your ideas are terrible, that will make us feel better about our half-decent ideas – although we may never be able to take your notes seriously again. It’s a risk worth taking.
2. Do include relevant anecdotes from your life, the more embarrassing the better. They may not get into the script, but they make you more human and we are better able to accept you hitting us over the head with your notes as a result.
Here are some tips for writers (note-receivers):
- Try not to treat every note as if it was an arrow aimed by an assassin straight for your heart. If you can find even one thing in any given set of notes which helps you improve your script, they were worth receiving.
- Have compassion for the note-giver. Like the wolf in the forest, they are just as scared of you as you are of them. They are probably frustrated writers at heart, who envy your good looks and your prodigious talent.
- Forgive them their confusion. They may not even really know why they don’t like something. But if you can figure out why they don’t like it, you’re halfway to solving it. Look past the bad/harsh/stupid notes to the motive behind them ...
- Give your note-giver notes on their notes. A call, a chat, a coffee - when an editor knows what the writer finds most helpful, they'll do it more. Notes are negotiation. Don't just act on notes, talk. Most notes are really questions in disguise.
- Above all, realize the value of a good note-giver. If you can find a note-giver you can trust, whose judgement you respect, whose sense of humour you share, grab hold of them and never let them go.