Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Giving Notes

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 13, 2013

Giving notes is the phrase used in the movie business to mean reviewing or critiquing a screenplay or treatment or even a short pitch. Getting notes is when you’re the one on the receiving end. Both positions are really hard.

Clint

Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force: "A man's gotta know his limitations"

I’ve lost friends. People have stopped talking to me. For a while I simply refused to give notes. I would not read anything. It was too dangerous.

Here are the rules I follow now:

1. I NEVER read anything from someone I don’t know.

Beyond the agony flowing in both directions there’s the problem of plagiarism. Suppose I’m working on a story about Stonewall Jackson. Suddenly someone sends me their manuscript/screenplay/pitch about Stonewall Jackson. The next thing I know, they’re suing me, claiming I ripped them off.

My lawyer will not let me even open a file from someone I don’t know.

2. I say no even to friends, unless I know they are thoroughgoing pros.

It’s even more dangerous to read for friends because they are close to you and, even if unconsciously, they can expect favored treatment. If you say something negative, they can take it not just as hostile but as a personal betrayal. You think I’m kidding? Please, please do not read your wife’s pilot. Don’t read your priest’s. Don’t read your sister’s.

If somehow you have weakened and said yes, adhere without fail to the following axiom:

Offer only positive comments.

If necessary, lie. Do not be afraid to lie. Start lying and keep lying.

The CIA has three response guidelines for its agents caught in compromising positions:

“Admit nothing, deny everything, counter-accuse.”

If you are giving notes to a friend, praise everything, trash nothing, keep pouring sugar.

Believe me, you will never be found out.

But seriously …

3. I will give a serious, professional read to a serious professional whom I know and who is a friend.

Within this sphere, I have three principles:

First, always start with the positive.

Remember, you’re trying to help your friend. Even if the specific piece under consideration has misfired, at least your friend has written it. She has overcome Resistance. She has dueled her dragons. She has crossed the finish line.

Whatever observations you proffer should be put forward in the spirit of a colleague and a fellow professional.

Second, tell your friend what you liked. I learned this from Randall Wallace. He always asks for this. I’ve found it extremely helpful myself.

When you’re reading, don’t breeze past the good parts. Mark them. “I loved this scene.” “That line made me laugh out loud.” This really helps the writer because it gives her confidence in the good parts of her work. Later, when another reader criticizes a specific section, the writer has ammo to believe in it and withstand the attack.

Third, don’t suggest changes. I’ve done this and it never helps. Bite your tongue. When you suggest changes, what you’re doing—unless you’re really a great note-giver—is telling the writer how you would do it.

That’s not what she wants. Even if she asks for it, don’t give it to her. Your writer’s voice will infect hers. You will only screw her up.

The writer must solve her own problems. She knows it. Your job is to help her see what is a problem and what isn’t.

Fourth, if you must say something negative, give it to ’em straight. Don’t be mean but don’t sugar-coat it either. Pay your friend the respect of telling it like it is.

Don’t overload the boat. If you see five problems in a piece, remark on no more than two. Two is plenty. Two is a back-breaker.

Remember, too, that you can be wrong. The ability to give good notes is one of the rarest skills on the planet. I myself trust only one person: Shawn. I will listen to no one else. No one.

I don’t even trust myself. If I were my own friend, I would not ask me for a read. As Dirty Harry once said, A man’s gotta know his limitations.

The bottom line of giving notes is that we want to support our fellow artist’s journey. Whether a specific piece is good or bad (even if we’re arrogant enough to think we can tell the difference) matters nothing for our friend alongside the imperative to keep working, keep believing, keep improving.

Whatever praise or criticism we offer should be put forward in that spirit. War is hell. Every one of us going to be shot down in flames, not once but many, many times and for the length and duration of our careers.

Keep it positive. Our fellow aviators have shown incredible guts, just to get this far. The most important thing to help ’em keep flying.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

17 Responses to “Giving Notes”

  1. March 13, 2013 at 5:28 am

    Excellent post, Steven! Offering notes is a minefield… but don’t you think that the serious artist should also learn how to ACCEPT notes, as well as learning how to give them? After all, if the artist in question handed a manuscript to friends/colleagues for feedback, they’re really only hurting themselves when they refuse to consider the feedback they’re offered. Taking criticism and weighing it accordingly is part of being a pro, is it not?

    • March 13, 2013 at 3:29 pm

      I agree, Dale. That’s an upcoming post: GETTING Notes!

  2. March 13, 2013 at 6:04 am

    How one gives comment — offering notes — is a real skill. One can use it to enlarge the world or diminish it. Your guidelines are great.

  3. Basilis
    March 13, 2013 at 9:09 am

    Usually I’m the guy who gets notes and I don’t mind to get a review that can break-backs. Actually I’m expecting it. I always keep in mind the “Nobody wants to read your shit” principle.

    But when it comes to give notes, hmm, that’s tough. Anyway, the post offers fine advices, based on “don’t break them, help them”.

    I’ll remember the advices when I’ll have to give notes in the future (something extremely rear, actually).

    • Karma
      March 22, 2013 at 10:08 am

      Aaaah…. “Nobody wants to read your shit”…thanks for reminding me about it. I used to have a desktop plaque with those words! Now to find it again…

  4. March 13, 2013 at 10:14 am

    Oh. So right.

    With friends, you either don’t read at all, or don’t give notes, or don’t give honest reactions at all. There is no upside to it. Ever.

    But with colleagues, clients, partners, it’s different.

    Oddly, though, the clients who were best at giving me notes (sons of bitches, all of them) did it this way: Rip you first, compliment you after.

    “The opening loses me. The headlines I’ve seen 128 times. I don’t get the middle section at all. You phoned in this part.”

    Then, while I was boiling and seething, they’d come back with. . .

    “But the flow is dead on. You nailed that. I’m also really loving the tone and voice here. You do have a touch.”

    Instantly, all the bile would recede. And I’d get thinking about how to fix the other parts, without rancor. I was a genius after all. Just needed to tweak some soft spots. Easy.

    Do the trashing first, then the stroking. Worked on me at least.

    • March 13, 2013 at 10:23 am

      I agree, or with the concept of a “praise sandwich.” Find something to compliment, talk about a problematic area, offer some suggestions for how to fix it if you can, “The dialogue is brilliant here, but it feels a little talking-heads. Can you break it up with some actions or body language?”

      But I love when people close with encouragement and things they liked. THAT’s when I want to run home and revise.

  5. March 13, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    You gave good notes today, Steve!

  6. March 13, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    A new metaphor: Resistance is like a pre-root canal tooth – distracting enough to be a good excuse not to work, but not really debilitating.

    How, when, who to critique seems to be making the rounds. I saw similar posts at Writer Unboxed, Crime Fiction Collective and a particularly cogent one from Seth Godin.

    One further point: There is a difference between a reader or note-giver and an editor, though sometimes we’re fortunate that they are the same person.

    I wonder, is Respect the opposite of Resistance? Certainly not following the note-giving guidelines you present is a form of Resistance – not only resistance to the other’s person’s work, but to one’s own. Your guidelines reflect Respect – which not everyone wants.

    I am, perhaps strangely, rather encouraged by your refusal to read. Your note-giving “no” empowers others to say “no” to their own resistance. Thanks.

  7. Amy
    March 13, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    I agree with it all, especially about voice. It hurts when someone tries to mess with your voice. But when I hear the honest and the positive, I literally feel my voice strengthen…..which will eventually help me recognize and solve my own writing problems.
    Thank you :)

  8. March 14, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    Can’t wait to get the post on GETTING notes!

    Gary

  9. March 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Great advice Steve! Especially the 3rd point: don’t make suggestions because you’re really telling them how _you_ want it, not helping them find what _they_ really want.

    I run my classes along the lines you lay out when we do readings of student material. But the one thing I insist upon is that it’s not enough to say “I liked this” or “I didn’t care for that” — they need to articulate WHY they liked or didn’t like something. I push them to be able to express the reasons not so much for the writer, but for themselves because it then forces them to better understand their own process.

    Because once you can articulate your reasons for liking or not liking something for someone else, you can use that info to help make your own writing sharper and better.

    But you’re tell me to save postage on my epic I was going to ask you to read?
    ;->

    Bill Pace

  10. March 17, 2013 at 11:18 am

    Receiving notes… I got an initial response from an editor on Friday. Details on my website. Among nice words were ones more difficult to hear. But what was very interesting (to me) was my lack of negative response. No anger, no despair, no excuses, no self-justification. It was weird, in a way, to experience what he had to say with calm acceptance.

    I came to the conclusion that my emotions were not stirred because my faith was not based on his opinion as to “value.” My relationship is with the art, with my Muse. She and I never assumed the art was perfect. She and I wanted another pair of eyes to make the art better and will use them for such. Ideas that invalidate our vision will be tossed. That’s just the process.

    I may have enjoyed an exclamation that I had created a timeless, mind-bending story of epic impact. But I didn’t expect that and will sift for value in the criticism that can make the art as good as it can be. That’s what I’m after.

  11. March 17, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Liked this post a lot Steve, very sage advice.

    Query: Do you “give notes” differently with non-fiction than fiction?

    I get many things to read in draft stages for comment, almost all non-fiction .mil/strategy/policy related – from whole books to working papers to scribbled ideas on a .ppt slide. Time is frequently a constraint and giving intelligent feedback, perhaps it shouldn’t be, but unfortunately it is. What do you do here?

  12. March 18, 2013 at 9:54 am

    I’m a member of an in-person critique group and regularly give and receive crits at the Online Writing Workshop. Although, I have benefited greatly from the critiques I’ve received, I have learned far more about writing by learning to give a good critique.

  13. March 18, 2013 at 10:38 am

    This post cracks me up because just this morning someone I like wrote her candid opinion of something one of my clients’ excerpt choice and I was ‘po’d’ for a second. (actually longer), but I found my civil backbone and replied that this was what we had chosen and gave her more information about the book.

    I’m working with reviews more than notes and feel that when I write a review, the author gets some stars for showing up (I haven’t written a book, good or bad), writing a book that was published (not my taste, but it was someone’s)and which has appreciative buyers. My dislike was a matter of personal literary taste — tearing the author apart isn’t fair. I like your similar approach for giving notes. RESPECT goes a long, long way. I just subscribed to Writing Wednesdays to get more wisdom and information.

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