The notes process can be difficult. And while much has been written about receiving notes, it’s also important to learn the skill of giving feedback. After all, it’s a two-way street.
The first step in givings notes is to put yourself in the shoes of the writer who’s asked for your opinion. Writing is extremely personal. When it’s time for feedback, moving out of that safe space can really leave them feeling vulnerable.
Notes that are blunt, snarky, or overwhelmingly negative can make a writer defensive. It can also irreparably affect the collaborative relationship and possibly sink the project altogether. On the other hand, thoughtful, balanced, and articulate notes can add real value to a project and help build a feeling of trust.
Make sure to read the script at least twice. First, read without stopping, just let yourself experience it. The second time through, read with a pen in hand to track your overarching thoughts; what needs improvement on a macro level. This is when you’ll start thinking about story, plot, pacing, structure, and character, both in a general sense, and in regards to the individual characters’ arcs. It may even be helpful to separate these into explicit categories. Ultimately, you’ll want to get down to the nitty gritty which might involve a third readthrough resulting in a page-by-page breakdown noting typos and dialogue tweaks.
Remember, it’s your job to give the writer a different point of view, approaching it in a way they might not be able to. This should include thinking about how the project itself is going to get made. Will you be able to cast that uninteresting minor character? Is the script’s estimated budget justified by its commercial promise? Is there even a market for it at all? Though the writer probably hasn’t thought about many of these angles, they are necessary considerations when taking a project from inception to production.
When you get into page notes themselves, be specific and let them support the macro notes. Make sure to not only point out the shortcomings, but let the writer know what is working. Break up your barrage of corrections, criticisms, and suggestions with truthful compliments. Notes like, “This twist took me by surprise” or “I literally laughed out loud at this line,” can go a long way towards boosting their confidence. Plus, you don’t want them to throw the baby out with the bath water!
In terms of delivering the notes, it’s a good idea to create a document to give to the writer, but before you hand anything over, ALWAYS discuss it with them in person. It’s easy for your tone to be misinterpreted in a written document, so why leave any doubts? Soften the criticism with a respectful discussion that allows for some back-and-forth, then follow up with the hard copy for their reference.
Let them know you’re available if they have any questions / thoughts / push-back. Often giving feedback is done as a favor to a peer, but if you’re in a working relationship, be prepared to do it again. And again. And yeah, maybe yet again. Give notes until the script is ready to be shared with potential collaborators or investors. Then, be prepared to get as good as you give, because you can be certain they’ll have their own notes for you.
Truth be told, this process is never really finished until the film is in the can!