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.
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.