How to give a writer feedback on their screenplay

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Yesterday, I offered some tips on how you should receive feedback from a reader offering it. Today we look at how to give feedback.

In my weekly writers workshop, I am guessing my reputation is that of being quite blunt and sometimes harsh. It probably depends on who you ask. But let me go on record as saying that neither label bothers me because when I praise your writing you know it’s earned. I don’t blow smoke up your ass. That’s not to say I haven’t had to work (and continue to do so) on adding a little sugar in my comments from time to time, afterall, I know what it feels like to be in the hot seat wishing your script was up to snuff and ultimately I want to be encouraging to writers, not only because I am one but because it’s important that a person who risks creating something feel safe to share it while it’s evolving.

That said, there are two fundamental situations where writers benefit from feedback. The first is when they are in a workshop group like mine and they parse out sharing pages along the way. Some writers like to share every page as they move along on a project while others just share pages here and there. Either way, the feedback they are seeking is usually a bit different than the feedback they need once they give you a completed draft.

For those who share pages while still working on the first draft, it is important to let them know how it is feeling in terms of setting, tone, general sense of anticipation about reading more, that kind of thing. This isn’t even a draft, just pages, so it is very much a work in progress. It’s important to be encouraging but still keep your notes honest about what you see. A typo might not be the best thing to bring up now but if you just read the first 15 pages and you have no idea what the hell you read then that should be discussed.

A finished draft is an entirely different animal. Once the writer hands it to you, expect to give thorough, thoughtful and honest feedback.

SOME TIPS ON HOW TO GIVE A WRITER FEEDBACK ON THEIR SCREENPLAY

  1. DON’T ASSUME – Ask what kind of feedback they are looking for. If the answer is “Anything and everything” then clarify. “You want to hear about typos and format issues?”. Questions like that will let you off the hook by forcing them to be specific about the type of feedback they expect.
  2. ADD SOME SUGAR – Don’t be a giant dick. You’ll have a script read soon enough and you don’t want someone being a jerk when they don’t like it. Find some things you like and lead with those. They’re an artist and you are too so you know how far a little positive can go.
  3. BE HONEST – Don’t you dare puss out. It serves nobody when you hold back saying what you really think so find a way to articulate what you think without being so defeating they’ll want to give up. There is a real talent to being able to say exactly what you want without hurting people. You can lead with some comments that soften the blow you’re about to deliver. Be kind but be truthful. If your intention is to help then you should be okay.
  4. BE SPECIFIC – Do not say vague things like “I loved the characters” without expounding on reasons why. The same goes for anything you mention. Speaking in general terms is a sign that you are either lying or you don’t know what you are talking about. The more specific you are in delivering your feedback the more helpful it will be.
  5. OFFER SOLUTIONS – Fact is you are probably going to be wrong on most of the ideas you come up with to solve whatever problem you think exists in their script but by offering solutions you will kick their brainstorming button in and they will better see what the problem actually is. It’s their job to decide what notes to take so don’t be afraid to offer up solutions. You might hit one that blows their mind.
  6. DO UNTO OTHERS – If you are reading this then I assume you’re a writer as well. If that’s the case, it serves you to treat this opportunity exactly the way you hope someone would offer you feedback on your next script. You just did them a favor and that means they are likely to return it by reading your stuff so it’s to your benefit to teach them how you want it by setting the example.
  7. BE ENCOURAGING –  You can hate their script but love the concept and vis versa but you should not be in the business of killing someone’s dream. Maybe they won’t ever get the craft down or maybe they’ll outgrow you as a writer. There is nothing to be gained by letting someone know you don’t believe in them but if you start to believe in people, even if they don’t deserve it quite yet, they’ll be loyal to you until the end. That is a good person to have on your team. Be encouraging, believe in people and their ability to improve.

Dane Reade is an admitted knucklehead, writer, producer, actor, storyteller and managing editor of The Tiny Protagonist. You can connect with him on twitter @TheUrbanHobo or via @TinyProtagonist

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