How To Give Constructive Criticism That Inspires

Constructive Criticism that Inspires

Constructive feedback is that thing we writers, filmmakers and all artists have a love-hate relationship with. Here’s a personal story that encapsulates my approach:

When I was a 19-year-old film student, I gave my boyfriend a script for feedback. He got back to me with only one comment: there was a subplot that he liked. He pointed out that there were two characters with cool chemistry between them and that every time he got to a part that had them in it, he got into the script.

I felt inspired, because I too liked that subplot. It was the most fun part of the script for me to write. So with that one piece of feedback, I put the script away and wrote a new one in which that subplot became the main plot and those two characters became the leads. The script sold on spec, was made for two million dollars, paid off my student loans, and garnered twenty awards at international film festivals.

Mind you, the script I handed my boyfriend at the time was atrocious. It was one, boring, impersonal, and laboriously written page after another. I still know how he got through reading that script. He could have easily handed me a list of a thousand problems, and I would have gotten buried in discouragement and put writing on hold for a few …decades.

The moral of the story: Positive feedback is more useful than any constructive criticism a writer will ever receive.

My tips on giving constructive criticism:

Beginning the revision process with a list of “problems” is the fast track to nowhere.

Most writers spend the rewriting process obsessing and agonizing over the “problems” in the script. That’s the reason that most unfinished scripts remain unfinished scripts, and it’s the reason that rewriting is a notoriously painful process. If we felt good about our work, rewriting would be a fun and enjoyable challenge.

Without clarity about the strengths of a script, a writer has no perspective on the work. I recommend to writers that as they go through their first draft and circle everything they like without paying mind to anything else. What you like in your script is your best clue as to what the revision calls for. It calls for more of that.

Every script has something unique and wonderful about it.

As a writer and writing coach, there is one truism that I will swear by: every script has something unique and wonderful about it. If you’re reading someone’s script who has asked you for feedback, that kernel is what you are looking for. That little kernel of positive feedback is the flashlight the writer needs in order to tread into the dark and wild woods of the revision process.

Even scripts that take days to read, that are utter drab, the ones that you think even a page-1 rewrite couldn’t save – even those scripts have at least one thing in them that is priceless. If you can pick out the one golden nugget in the script and genuinely call the writer’s attention to it, your feedback will be invaluable.

When a writer is reminded of what is good about their script, if they can remember the kernel of inspiration that drove them write it to begin with, they will be able to expand upon it and make more of it. If you read a script and can’t find a single piece of goodness in it, than be honest with the writer by telling them that you’re not qualified to comment on their work.

Sometimes that little piece of goodness is a single scene that’s full of spark. Sometimes it’s a character that shows up for two pages and disappears. Sometimes it’s the intention of the writer, even if the intention wasn’t realized. Telling a writer that you appreciate what she’s trying to do, before you explain why she didn’t pull it off, will keep her inspired in her efforts.

Writers don’t know what’s good about their script.

When giving feedback, folks often make the unfortunate assumption that writers already know what works well in their script. So we dive in and hand the writer a list of “issues”.

This, by the way, is why I only accept constructive feedback from people who actually write and don’t just talk about writing. Writers know what it’s really like:

Even the most skilled and experienced writers have no perspective on what they do well. That’s the reason it takes us so long to write. If we paid attention to what we do well, we would all be prolific.

Because of the addiction to look for problems, positive constructive feedback is the best way to get a writer to think outside the box. If nothing else, positive constructive feedback will keep the writer writing, and we all know that writing is the only way to become a good writer. Don’t worry about making a writer’s head too big. Writers have big egos only because our self-esteem is the size of a pinhead. These big loud egos are just some weird and silly way that we cover up how insecure we actually feel.

Give an exhaustive a list of positive constructive feedback as I possible.

When you’re handing a writer that flashlight, you want to hand them the biggest possible flashlight and throw some batteries in. With that flashlight at hand, writers can illuminate those dark and dreary woods, and see for themselves what they need to fix. Instead of thinking that their second act sucks, they will think of that one scene that pops out and follow it up with other scenes that exploit that element to the fullest.

Positive feedback does not preclude honesty and rigor.

Your feedback ought to come with the highest expectations of the writer. If anything, it has been my experience that negative feedback generally comes with a set of low expectations, which is why they drive writers towards quitting. When I help someone develop their script, I ask them to think of the best scene in the script, and then I put out the expectation that in the final draft, every scene will be that good. This reminds them that they can write that well, while encouraging them to finish a piece that is that good start to finish.

If you’re not accustomed to lavishing writers with positive feedback, I challenge you to try only giving positive feedback. When the writer begs you to criticize them (yes, we unfortunate souls are that misguided) tell them that you’re on a diet and have given up criticizing for three months.

Like abused children, writers pass on the abuse to other writers.

You know the type of feedback I’m talking about: those long random strings of this-didn’t-work-and-I-didn’t-like-this-and-I-didn’t-care-about-this-person-and-I-didn’t-get and on and on and on. I’m of the opinion that there is only one thing to do with that kind of feedback: throw it out without reading it. Even if there’s some kernel of intelligence in there, it’s not worth mining through all that bitterness to find it. No writer has the self-esteem to withstand that kind of injury.

Avoid “focus group” feedback.

It sounds strange, but when someone asks you for feedback, your personal tastes and opinions are not relevant or useful to the task at hand. Leave it to the producer to gather a focus group. There are genres that I don’t particularly like, but when I look at a script of that genre, I’m there at the service of the writer’s intention. The writer is not taking a poll to see if people like this type of story.

Most scripts share more or less the same set of problems.

Is negative criticism ever constructive? Absolutely. But here’s the trick to it: most scripts share the same issues. If you’re being original when giving “constructive criticism,” it’s likely that you’re venting the same bitterness and insecurities that got aired out at you.

While the good stuff about scripts is always original and interesting, the problems with stories are pretty much always the same: There’s not enough conflict; the characters don’t want something badly enough; the main relationship is one-noted and does not evolve; too much backstory rather than starting where the story begins; the antagonist has no believable motivation; the cool concept isn’t fully exploited – there’s a standard list of issues that keep coming up over and over again across the board. The problems that are pointed out in a script, if they’re real actual problems, are usually the same problems that appear in many scripts time and again.

Best to focus on just one or two key story issues.

Instead of listing off all the problems in a script, I find that writers move fastest when they focus on just one or two key issues.

If you’ve studied the craft, you will know what the key problem in the script is and you will be able to point it out. When a writer tackles one key issue, they inevitably discover for themselves what all the other problems are. It’s also usually the case that when you solve a key story issue in a script, is automatically solves the hundred other problems that didn’t even need to be pointed out.

If you looked at a dying tree and were helping the gardener, would you stand there and point out every brown leaf that you see? Or would you point out that the soil is too dry? That’s how you go about giving input on a script.

Is this also true of scripts that need a page-1 rewrite? It’s even truer of those scripts. You point to just one problem, and blam! — that first domino piece falls and the rest unfolds. Now you can sit back and beam at the writer while they have a series of “Ah-huh’s!” as all the other dominos fall on their own. Scripts in more advanced stages generally require a longer, more detailed list of adjustments, but those scripts are far and few between.

Until you have studied for a while and written a few scripts yourself, try doing what my boyfriend did: name the one good thing, and you will have given your beloved writer the ticket to success.

My tips on how to receive constructive criticism

Turn to one experienced writer, not twenty well-intended friends.

Knowing how to receive constructive criticism is also a skill in it of itself.

Firstly, know that you are better off – much better off – getting excellent notes from one experienced writer, than gathering the opinions of ten people who don’t write. I guarantee that you will not be aware of the damage that feedback can cause. At a painting class once, someone casually passed by my easel while I was working and said that he loved my painting but didn’t like the green. I made nothing of it. Two years later, it dawned on me that I hadn’t used green paint in two years. The injury is deeper and quieter than you’ll ever know.

When sharing with friends, seek encouragement only.

Understand that when you send a work-in-progress to numerous friends, you’re not really looking for constructive criticism, even though it’s what you tell them and what you make yourself believe.

In reality, what we look for is encouragement. And rightly so. That’s mostly what we need. We’ve all done this. We ask for “constructive criticism” when what we really seek is reassurance that we ought to keep at it.

So here’s a better way to get it: If the insecurities are chewing you out (and they usually do), if you find yourself absolutely having to share your work-in-progress with friends, tell them that your writing teacher instructed you to only get lists of what they liked – that you were forbidden by your teacher to receive any constructive criticism. People will usually balk at this request, but end up enjoying it. Collect lists upon lists from your friends, telling you anything and everything that they like about your script.

Separate from that, figure out who are the one or two writers that you’ll get constructive criticism from.

Beware of blocked writers.

Blocked writers are everywhere and the condition is contagious.

Be sure that the people you choose for constructive criticism are people who are currently writing – regularly. Don’t choose someone who sold a script for a million dollars 15 years ago and hasn’t written a word since. Don’t choose someone who’s been a “development executive” for big Hollywood studios, who will tell you that they worked in the industry for decades, but in reality they’ve never dared to write anything themselves. Those well-intended (and often pricey) people are blocked writers, and they don’t even realize that they’re programmed to discount anything good about your writing. These well intentioned folks are trained and practiced at nitpicking at it till you’re buried in as much discouragement and insecurities as them. Writing blocks are contagious. Ask for feedback from a blocked writer, and you’ll get a writing block. I’d hate to see you never use green in your paintings.

When you do receive quality input, you still need to stay the boss.

Regard the person giving feedback as your assistant, not as the expert. Even if they are more experienced than you (and hopefully they are), you still know more about your story, your vision, your intention, than anyone else out there. I love it when I offer writers suggestions and they dismiss it: “Nah… my character wouldn’t do that… that’s not really what the story is about …that’s not what I’m trying to do here…” There’s nothing I love more than writers who trust their own thinking. When they correct me, they are always right.

That’s your mantra my friend: trust your mind. You know what is right for your script. If you make mistakes, and I guarantee you will, they will be your mistakes and you will learn and grow from them quickly. But you will not grow and learn from making other people’s mistakes.

The litmus test to quality constructive feedback is whether the writer enjoys hearing it.

Whether the feedback is positive or critical, receiving accurate feedback is enjoyable. I’ve given consultations to writers whose work was so poor that they needed to begin a page-1 rewrite, and I watched them walk out of my office with a skip in their step because they felt excited to get to work. When you receive good feedback, you feel reconnected with your purpose and with what had inspired you, you know concretely what you need to do next, and you feel excited to keep going. If the feedback you receive sends you home to take a 5-year nap before you ever write again, that feedback was inaccurate.

When you’re working professionally, you will receive feedback from development executives and producers. The quality of feedback will vary tremendously, but that shouldn’t matter to you. If you’re being paid to incorporate someone’s opinion, you bite the bullet and do what you can. Sometimes it will improve the script, and if you incorporate it creatively, you don’t have to let it diminish your script.

Because these folks are temporarily in a position of power over you, that’s no reason to internalize their opinions and assume they know better than you, unless what they’re saying truly makes sense to you. And certainly don’t extend this courtesy to your writing group members or friends who are giving you feedback. If they’re not paying you to rewrite your work, don’t even try to incorporate their suggestions.

The most important skill to receiving feedback is to learn how to tune most of it out.

I dare you to like your work, regardless of what shape it’s in – if for no other reason than the fact that you were brave enough to write at all.

Happy writing!

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1 thought on “How To Give Constructive Criticism That Inspires”

  1. Awesome advice to be shared widely. This misguided soul loved the “diet” line, had me really laughing.
    “When the writer begs you to criticize them (yes, we unfortunate souls
    are that misguided) tell them that you’re on a diet and have given up criticizing for three months”.

    Reply

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