August 29, 2008 Jill

I’ve been wondering lately about a different way of giving script notes. What would happen if you only gave positive notes on a script?

What if you didn’t point out any of the flaws or problems you see in the material and instead pointed out everything you liked.

This joke made me laugh out loud. This scene is really moving. This sequence of beats is very effective.

The writer would know exactly what to keep and everything else in the script would be up for grabs.

Plus the writer would be in a great frame of mind when approaching the next draft. He wouldn’t be all disheartened or focused on what isn’t working. Instead, he’d be concentrating on bringing all the rest of it up to the standard of the best parts of the material.

Those of us who write know how important it is to get the positive feedback. When the notes are all negative it’s easy to lose all faith in the script and your own abilities. The best notes I’ve experienced are the try to balance out ideas for how to improve the material with praise for everything in the script that’s praiseworthy.

In most cases — there are some exceptions, but in most cases — a happy writer writes better and not just better, also faster. Because she doesn’t have to go on a week-long shoe shopping binge. Nor does she waste several days writing from that fuck you place. When a writer feels like the script is going well, she can’t wait to dive in to the next draft.

There’s power in positive notes. That’s clear, that’s obvious.

What I don’t know is whether it is necessary to accompany them with the negative notes. Do you have to point out what’s wrong with the script for it to get fixed?

We’ve all gotten notes that were entirely negative, not a kind word anywhere to be found. And it’s happened on scripts that weren’t total dogs. Sometimes they were crap, but in the heat of production or when a know-nothing exec is on the case, you can easily get a couple of pages of deal with this, deal with that — on a script that may not be fully cooked yet, but is definitely in the right oven.

So you read the notes and you suck it up and you take another pass. And you dutifully dig into everything, because frankly, you have no idea if any of it is working. Who hasn’t heard oh, where’s that part I liked so much in the last draft? Whatever.

It make take a few more drafts but eventually, you get the script production ready because the process of writing and rewriting works. Even when no one says anything nice.

What if it went the other way? What if you entered the land of Bizarro where all the notes were nice.

First off, you’d feel great and you wouldn’t need to keep the extra strength vitamin I in the top drawer. You wouldn’t care what they were making for subs or whether Denis had put up another post, because your ass would be in the chair and Screenwriter would be the only thing on the monitor.

And you’d WANT do another pass.

Would you fix the flaws? I think you would. I know my motivation would be very strong. I’d be working extra hard because I personally like praise a lot and I’d want more of it. You may not be as neurotic as me, but I think you’d dig it too. So you’d turn your own critical eye on the material and drawing on all your chops because you’d know you were onto something.

To paraphrase Julie Gray, experienced writers kill their darlings even before they’re asked. In other words, writers who’ve been through the grind a few times know how to dig into a script and make substantive changes and they do it, with or without the note.

When I talked this idea over with kh today, she wanted to be able to give neutral notes, as in “I don’t get this part”. But I wonder if you need those kinds of comments either. If the note giver was good, he’d be going through the script carefully, praising everything that had to stay. As the writer, you’d know that anything that didn’t get a gold star could be improved.

But this is just speculation. I’ve never had anything like this happen to me. Have you? Do you think it would work? Or would you rather have the kind of notes that help you find the flaws?

Comments (8)

  1. Nope, that wouldn’t work for me. I need people to say “this is broken” so I have the motivation to fix it. If someone just gave me good notes I’d be all “Well, then, I’m going out for a drink since my script is all good!”

    I guess it depends on what type of person you are. Maybe I’ll try the all good notes on my writers’ group and see what happens.

  2. If I knew that all the negative comments were being left out . . . maybe.

    I also think that any negative comment can be made neutral. I *really* want to know if my audience doesn’t get what I’ve written, even if they like the jokes.

    And any writer can conveniently forget to kill one of their little darlings. Especially if they’re on a writer’s high from getting only compliments on their script.

  3. Heather

    I believe that a good writer will find and fix their own mistakes – eventually. But Production is a fast moving train and it’s just plain quicker to tell the writer what needs to be fixed so he/she can get the rewrite out asap. As for positive feedback, it’s just as important so the writer doesn’t waste time wondering if they should change something that doesn’t need to be.

  4. Uh – it’s Julie GRAY but thank you for the paraphrase. I think this is a lovely idea but ultimately unworkable. It’s not so much WHAT you say to the writer, it’s HOW. If you are respectful and professional and of course point out what is working, then the writer is in a more comfortable place to hear what is NOT working and why. Very new writers need and appreciate confidence-building comments but are being under-served if you don’t point out what is not working as well. They can’t necessarily reverse-engineer your nice comments to see what is not working. That’s the point. They are asking for an honest opinion.

    More experienced writers don’t get that excited about flattering comments because they know they are talented and that’s nice but what they paid for is to hear what can be improved. You can be nice and truthful at the same time. Production company readers are trained to take no prisoners. That is the kind of coverage you will get on your script. And you need to be prepared for no holds barred criticism. But you can ramp up to that with kind, honest, considered notes from a professional. My job is not to be “nice” per se, but rather to be respectful. Being rude or short or completely focused on the negative is not respectful of what the writer was trying to accomplish. But being completely sweet and only pointing out the good is cheating the writer of the opportunity to grow.

  5. admin

    Obviously, one reason you need comments that aren’t entirely positive are to deal with glaring errors — like a completely wrong name. Julie, a thousand apologies. I KNOW your name, but my fingertips betrayed me.

    And thanks for the thoughtful comments. Clearly, the idea won’t fly.

    And I agree, especially with less experienced writers, it’s great to have another writing mind dig into a script and help you to find and solve problems.

    But there are lots of professional situations in which the focus is entirely on what’s not working. And if that can achieve a production worthy script, I still wonder if the opposite would be true.

  6. Elize

    I think it would be *heartening*. The doesn’t mean that it would always work. For newbie writers there’s definitely a bit of play there — where if all they see is good they’d wonder (perhaps) why another write was required.

    It really lends itself to experience. All negative notes can kill a script. All positive can leave a mediocre script… well… mediocre.

    Perhaps, though, this is just me coming from it as an editor. As a writer I’ll admit that having a lot of positives would definitely propel what needs work on the other side.

  7. I don’t think you should be so quick to let this idea sink. A newbie writer getting notes from an exec who had established this pioneering practice would certainly need to know to root out the problems. But such an enlightened exec would certainly have established this expectation early on with the writer. I do agree with Rich. It is important to know what is not working. And Heather’s point about time in production is well made. Also, nice notes that point out issues in a good way are often well received. In fact, a good exec might already know this to be important skill that elicits positive results. I always wonder that negative feedback is the standard in this industry — along with a 12 hour production day. It might be revealing to see an experienced showrunner introduce this revolutionary technique. Nice Notes: the new standard?

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