Productive Feedback vs Negative Criticism: Taking Notes on Your Screenplay

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By Arik Cohen

I have an actor friend (in Los Angeles? WHAT ARE THE ODDS?!)  Let’s call him Fred.  Now Fred was in a small play in the area, though it was big enough to attract a review from an online LA theater site.  He read the review, and it was positive for the show, but not for him.  Poor Fred got a critical review.  It wasn’t angry, it wasn’t worded as “Fred sucks” or anything like that.  It was all legitimate criticism.  As expected, Fred didn’t take it well.  Fred is a man with a big, delicate ego (in Los Angeles? WHAT ARE THE ODDS?!)  He dismissed the fair criticism entirely.  He passed it off as jealousy or envy.  “He’s probably just pissed he didn’t make it as an actor,” Fred claimed, “And he’s taking it out on us actors with the guts to go for what we want.”

  • Haters Gonna Hate

If there’s anything I’ve learned from listening to hip-hop over the past fifteen years, it’s that those predicated towards criticism and anger will continue their pattern of criticism and anger.  This is, of course, better known in the hip-hop world as “haters gonna hate.”  This concept works as a way to dismiss unnecessary negativity, but it has a bad side effect of giving someone permission to reject all criticism.  And this is a misstep that Fred made.  Fred could have internalized that review and really took it to heart, and he would have probably gotten a tad better at his craft by doing so.

But this isn’t a blog about acting, it’s about screenwriting.  So let’s move over to you: 

You pushed those keys.  You crafted those scenes.  You worked passionately for nine weeks and have finished your full-length script.  You give it to friends.  You submit to a competition. You forward it to that family friend who works as an associate producer at some studio.  You sit on the edge of your seat.  Waiting for something you want but loathe at the same time: Feedback.

  • Fair Feedback

There are two purposes to feedback: To stroke your ego and to help advance your work.  Both are entirely legitimate.  You have to know what you’re looking for and what you need at any given moment. 

I’ll admit it, as someone who has done various artistic endeavors in his time, sometimes you just WANT that ego-stroke.  Of course, everybody wants everybody to love their work, but there are those times where you just want someone to pat you on the back and tell you you’re doing well.  And everyone has someone they can turn to for that. We all have that optimistic friend.  We all have that biggest fan.  And if that person doesn’t have the time, you can always send it to your mother.

But when you send it to an industry insider, or a script competition, or that brutally honest friend of yours, you must realize you’re not going to get a lollipop just for showing up.  The Oscars don’t have participation trophies.  These people – if they care at all – are going to let you know what can be improved, and hopefully why.  Fred came across a person like this.  He rejected it.  What are you going to do with it?

  • Your Critics Are Your Friends

Now I’m not arguing that you should never dismiss criticism or that the critic is always valid.  Subjectivity is a big part of any art and at the end of the day, you are the artist.  I write screenplay feedback for a living, and I would actually be disappointed if every author used every single one of my notes every single time.  Every note I give is with conviction (I certainly don’t criticize for the fun of it), but I’m sure there are still instances where a writer could and should believe I’m wrong.  As you get better your hit percentage goes up, but nobody bats a thousand.

But the unhealthiest attitude towards feedback – whether it’s mine, Steven Spielberg's, or Aunt Hilda’s – is to dismiss it simply because it goes against your kneejerk instinct.  You shouldn’t ignore feedback because you can’t handle it.  “He’s just a hater”, “They just don’t get it”, and “Well let’s see her do better!” are not valid excuses, they’re ad hominem attacks.  A person is simply trying to invalidate the arguments not by taking them on logically, but by invalidating the person making the arguments.

  • Putting Ego Aside

The ability to separate criticism from your own ego and be able to look at them critically is not just important in this stage of a screenwriting career, but in any stage.  Every working screenwriter receives notes from producers, actors, and the studio.  Sure it could be easy to dismiss them all, but you’ll be written off as a writer who doesn’t play well with others; a non-collaborator   A good, professional screenwriter knows to internalize these notes, to give each note its logical consideration.  A professional screenwriter will give every critique its due, and then figure out the best way to go forward.  Maybe he’ll use half the notes.  Maybe all of them.  Maybe none of them.  But he won’t brush the notes off because his ego can’t admit there is room for improvement.

  • The Buck Stops With You

So as you get your feedback from your Mother, your friends, Fresh Voices, that dude you keep seeing at house parties with the long hair who claims he’s friends with an assistant camera guy on the next Sharknado, remember that the buck stops with you.  These people are giving you their honest opinion, but it’s your script and it’s up to you to decide what to do with those opinions.  You might not agree with every single one, but you shouldn’t ignore any of them.  The only thing worse than thinking you're terrible is assuming everybody else is terrible.  Give each one its due consideration or you’ll end up like Fred:  Angry, short-fused, and frustrated with a town full of rejection. (Rejection in Los Angeles? WHAT ARE THE ODDS?!)  

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