Feedback loop

Occasionally blog posts stick in your mind: as an example, Phil Barron offers a good explanation of how, when you get feedback on a script, the more problems the reader – and this perhaps only applies to producers and other professionals, not local writing groups and the like – lists, the better. If there are only a few problems, they are likely to be big ones: the plot, the characters, the dialogue, the structure. But if there are lots of notes, they are likely to be smaller matters of detail.

Now, giving feedback is difficult. In the professional world, producers have a licence to be harsh towards scripts: it is, after all, a business transaction and it may well be that they have bought the thing already. Though that doesn’t mean they are always horrible. But if you’re giving feedback as a favour, it’s more difficult: part of the course I went on last year was about how to give – and receive – feedback.

So, “Dos and don’ts” include:

  • try to give brief comments and avoid getting bogged down in particular details
  • always start with a positive comment – it’s hard enough having work assessed without being presented with a solid wall of problems
  • identify problems, but don’t try and re-write it – it’s not your script.

But there is no right and wrong to giving feedback… as I have discovered. I finally put my full-length script in for feedback at my local writing group, and a few of us met in the pub to discuss it on Monday evening. One chap who couldn’t make it very kindly went to the trouble of sending me and others feedback on our scripts by email. The bloke in question is a nice guy, whose comments are usually fair, well-reasoned, and hard to disagree with.

Trouble is, he seems to have been given lessons on how to give feedback by Pol Pot: what I got was a list of about five serious problems with my script, and nothing else. Now, I can see where he is coming from on all the points, and several of them are neatly aligned with some niggling doubts I have had; and I’m grateful that he has taken the trouble to read what is, after all, a pretty long script. But, well… ouch, y’know?

That said, as I wandered up to Acton High Street, I reflected that it smarted a bit but was probably very useful and necessary advice. Mentally I began sketching out some possible rewrites… Except everyone else at the meeting disagreed with almost every point, and felt the script worked pretty well. So – confusion ahoy!

But this did make me reflect on different approaches to feedback, both giving and taking. The only time I’ve received feedback from an experienced professional, it was extremely helpful in pointing me in the right direction, while being so courteous as to be almost over-generous – but certainly extremely heartening.

By contrast, Steven Moffat once observed that Russell T Davies will be totally blunt about identifying problems with a script: he’ll tell you what he likes, but if something doesn’t work he’ll just say “that doesn’t work” and leave you to deal with it. It’s a characteristic Davies himself ponders in his frequently self-lacerating book of correspondence, The Writer’s Tale: in a passage that particularly stuck in my mind he recounted how, as producer on Children’s Ward, he announced that a particular child actor would have to be replaced, and was perplexed that the rest of the crew seemed to treat it as a big deal that needed to be handled sensitively.

Adrian Mead‘s excellent book on screenwriting advises that feedback is essential, but also has a section headed “Why advice and criticism are bad”. Mead recommends the writer seek questions, but not comments: you are, after all, trying to write your own script, not a script by committee, and most people you get feedback from are no more qualified than you. Good points all – though even the inexpert reader may have the advantage of being less close to the subject.

Mead’s advice was reinforced via the wonderful medium of Twitter. Having received my splendidly confusing feedback, I wrote a tweet to that effect. Almost immediately Lucy Vee very kindly tweeted back that I should concentrate on what I want to do with the script, and pay more attention to the readers who had found positive things in it. So that’s the plan: it’s still going to be a heavy rewrite to bring the length back down (accidentally 25% too long – strange mistake, lesson learnt) and address the things that need addressing… but hopefully keep the good stuff and not tearing it all up needlessly.

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