Taking Notes: Thoughts on Receiving Judge's Feedback
Months of pain and hard work. Maybe years. That's what it takes to craft a script you're proud of. You know there's something brilliant there. In fact, you're sure of it.
So you submit your script to a contest. Maybe you won't win, but if you order feedback on your entry, at least your judge will give you some notes with ideas on how to make your script even more brilliant - maybe something like "you're missing a comma on page 47." You'll probably win though. The script is that good.
And then you don't win.
If you're like me, you go through a range of "pearls before swine" and "unappreciated in my own time" thoughts. It's righteous anger. "Those judges don't know anything! They're just trying to be mean! Aren't they?"
Then, if you can take a deep breath and really look at the notes and digest them, you realize that maybe some of those notes have merit. In fact, maybe they even inspire you. So you open up your script and start a rewrite.
I've been teaching screenwriting since 2008. I love it. I love the opportunity to help shape writers and their work. I love seeing that spark when they get why something isn't working and suddenly make it work. But I get in-person time with those writers and we develop a rapport. They know that they can trust me and that their success is my goal.
However, when I judge for the PAGE Awards, I don't see you and you don't see me. I read your script anonymously. I work hard to give you useful, critical notes that could help you take your work to the next level. But I know how we human beings are. I know how tempting it is to curse the faceless jerk who had the audacity to overlook your brilliance.
One of the trickiest parts of being a writer is taking notes. I don't mean writing down what Robert McKee says about how to structure your second act. I mean absorbing and processing constructive criticism, even when the advice seems completely insane. Tough notes are usually not what we want to hear, and depending on the source, they can be downright insulting.
The thing is though, ALL notes can add value to your writing. Whether or not you agree with a specific comment, the reader is giving you that note for a reason. He or she is bumping on something in your script that isn't working.
As vindicating as it feels to discard notes you don't like - believe me, you will always want to - try to look for the note behind the note. Try to figure out what might be missing in your main character's dialogue, way of being, actions and/or choices that made the reader give you that note. Because I guarantee you that if one reader bumped up against that issue in your script, it's very likely that others will too.
The most important thing is to stay open to notes. I recently worked with a writer who had experienced a fair measure of success as a journalist and came to screenwriting with a cavalier "I'm a a professional writer, so how hard can this be?" attitude. The answer: much harder than you think. This writer dug in his heels, unwilling to accept any notes other than "your script is great," despite the fact that his protagonist's motivations made no sense.
As writing coaches, we only ever give notes to help. We don't gain anything by making you feel bad. It may be hard to hear, but if you can develop a facility for hearing the harshest notes, you will only grow as a writer.
Of course, this requires setting the ego aside, and that can be a big challenge...especially for those who think they should be a great screenwriter on the first try. Personally, I spent a decade getting humbled.
Most of the writers I know who've been doing this for a while have learned to crave the tear-down. Your mom will tell you your script is great. That doesn't forward your work. Look for colleagues and trusted readers who will find any holes in your plot, character motivation and dialogue, then tear them apart. And learn to embrace the destruction!
Find sources you respect. But also learn to respect notes from sources you wouldn't choose but have to accept...like that exec who might be able to forward your idea to her boss. Ultimately, learning how to take notes will make your plot, characters and story stronger. And stronger sells.
My hope is that with each set of feedback I send into the ether, the writer will move through any anger and resentment quickly, understanding that we can all do better. Our work can always be tighter, sharper, funnier, scarier, more heartbreaking, more human.
My hope is that you hear the feedback in the supportive spirit in which it was written. My hope is that in some small way it strengthens your writing, and maybe someday you'll look back on a long career and say, "I once got some feedback that was tough to hear at the time, but it made a difference and I'm a better writer for it."
Because at the end of the day, that's why you seek feedback, and that's why we give it.
Heidi Hornbacher is a judge for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards competition. An independent producer, director and writer with feature films, shorts and music videos to her credit, Heidi was recently hired to write two movies and she also has a series of novels in the works. A graduate of UCLA's screenwriting program, Heidi is a founding partner of the script consulting company PageCraft, which runs retreats, workshops and classes in L.A. and Italy. Her goal is helping writers find their voices, and her coaching has helped a number of her clients win contests and find representation.