Nobody Knows Nothing
I used to work for a big New York ad agency named Ted Bates. The agency was constantly pitching new business.
The way it worked was the entire Creative Department, about 150 people, would be assigned to come up with new campaigns for Burger King or Seven-Up or whatever business Bates was going after. You were supposed to put 20% of your time against this, with usually a two-week run-up before the first inside-the-agency meeting.
These meetings were called “gang bangs” because everybody took part. They were held in the giant conference room around a table that felt like it sat a hundred people. This was back in the days when everybody had a pack of Camels or Marlboros in their purse or shirt pocket. The room was so thick with cigarette smoke, you could barely see from one side to the other.
In turn, each creative team (art director and copywriter) would stand, pin its storyboards to the wall and do their pitch. The entire room got to comment, though the ultimate verdict would be pronounced by the Creative Director, who sat at the end of the table like Morpheus or Zeus.
What lesson did I take away from these sessions?
Nobody knows nothing. (To paraphrase William Goldman from his wonderful book, Adventures in the Screen Trade.
What I mean by that is that when people critiqued the campaigns, their judgments were wildly variable (Hate it! Love it!) and almost always wrong. You could see it. Everyone could. Even though the critics were highly-paid professionals at the top of their game almost every one was incapable of objectively evaluating creative material.
I sat through at least twenty of these all-day sessions. My conclusion was that out of eighty or ninety people making comments, no more than two or three were sound, insightful judges of the work.
This was a very sobering experience.
Later, when I got to Hollywood and started receiving “notes” (i.e. critical assessments of work) from production execs and “development people,” I saw the identical phenomenon.
Nobody knows nothing.
My writing partner in those days was Ron (“Alien,” “Total Recall”) Shusett. He used to say (and he was absolutely right), “It’s unbelievably rare to find someone who can tell you what’s wrong with a script, and ten times rarer to find someone who can tell you how to fix it.”
(By the way, I would place Ron in the latter category.)
But what if you’re the writer? What if it’s your work? How hard is it, then, to objectively assess your own stuff?
The task, we have seen, is ridiculously difficult, even for an impartial reviewer. How much harder is it for the writer herself, who cannot help but be subjective about her own work, who is almost by definition in love with it (or at least with its subject matter, or she wouldn’t be able to work as hard as she has to to complete it), and who has attached consciously or unconsciously all kinds or hopes and fears, aspirations and emotions, to its success.
How do you know if your stuff is any good?
If it’s good, what’s good about it? Is it working? Why? What parts are working and what parts aren’t? Why?
If it’s not working, what’s wrong? Is it all stinking or just part? Which part? Why?
Now add Resistance to the mix. You may have just completed Gone With The Wind, but that voice in your head is still telling you to hurl it into the trash. You suck. The book sucks.
Does it? Or is that just Resistance talking?
Please don’t show your work to your spouse. That’s a straight shot to divorce court. Your wife or hubby is not trained to do this kind of duty. Don’t put that kind of pressure on him/her.
What’s my own policy when people compel me to read their stuff (and yes, they do have to compel me)? I lie. Not 100% of the time. But I lie a lot. You have to. I tell them their stuff is great. Do they know I’m lying? Hell no. They’re so desperate to hear a friendly word, they’ll believe anything.
Why do I lie? Because I’ll lose a friend if I tell the truth.
And, in absolute candor, I, like the guys in the gang bangs at Ted Bates, am a highly flawed evaluator of work. I don’t know nothing neither.
What does all this mean?
It means that you and I as writers have to be extremely careful in assessing others’ material and, even more scrupulous with our own. We have to be aware of our limitations and aware of the limitations of others.
It seems so easy to render judgment, right? Read something and tell me what you think. But in truth it’s unbelievably hard, and very, very few people can do it.
If you find one, hang onto them for dear life.
More on this subject next week.