Friday, January 18, 2013

Why I don't do notes for strangers

Every so often, someone I may have chatted with on Twitter or DDP or via email or whatever will ask if I would read something and give them notes.

At first, I was glad to do it. I was a teacher, after all, and doing notes is something I enjoyed. So I happily read and gave notes on anyone who seemed eager.

 But then a few people neglected to thank me, or thanked me with a rant about how wrong I was in my criticisms. So I started telling people, "Look, I'm pretty harsh. I'm going to tell you exactly what I think is wrong with your script and I may not be super nice about it, because being nice takes effort, and I'm already expending all my effort on reading your script and figuring out ways to improve it."

To a man, every person I said this to agreed that they were cool with it - nay, that they demanded harsh notes! They are looking for nothing but honesty! They crave it!

And then a lot of those people were super pissed when they saw what I had to say about their precious script, if they responded at all. I'd say about two thirds of the times I've given notes - which usually takes me about two hours - I've gotten no reply at all from the person whose script I read. Not even a "Thanks," although I've gotten that lovely one-word reply frequently as well.

Now I'm no Josh Olson, but I think a lot of us can relate to his rant, even those of us without his impressive pedigree. There's an art to accepting criticism, and often the very people with the weakest screenplays are also the weakest at knowing how to respond to notes. It's a bad combination. eventually those people wear the note givers down.

I know, I know, you're not that asshole. Except that asshole always says he's not that asshole until he gets his notes back and turns into that asshole.

That's why I decided not to do notes for people unless I know them. I know a lot of people who have the same rule. I mean, why should anybody do notes for someone they don't know if they risk getting kicked in the proverbial nuts for it?

Some people are cool. Unfortunately the cool people aren't numerous enough to make up for the assholes.

So I guess, what I'm saying is, if you ask someone to give you notes, say thank you, and not sarcastically. Acknowledge that they gave you a lot to think about. Ask follow up questions if you like. But don't write back an angry rant or an explanation of why you're right. If you disagree with the notes, you can just go off and ignore them. You don't have to explain to the person who took two or three hours of their time why they wasted it because you think they are stupid. You asked for their help and they did you a favor. Don't be a dick about it.


  1. Last month, two very nice people gave me notes - I thanked them at the time but I feel a sudden urge to thank them again. And send them cookies.

    It's a big deal to ask someone to read 120 or so pages and prepare thoughtful notes. It's an even bigger deal if you are asking someone with whom you don't already have a relationship.

    I belong to a couple of writers' groups - two local, two online. All operate on reciprocity; to get notes you have to give notes. A disappointing number of people don't even want to do that.

    Emily, I was going to ask you a question about being a high school teacher but now I'm thinking I could probably just Google it!

    1. Writer's groups are excellent places to develop a method for receiving feedback! Good ones are invaluable.

      And you can always ask me questions - I don't mind.

  2. Two thirds of the time, not even so much as a thank you? Wow.

    I've eased off recently, but I used to pretty much give notes to anyone that asked. I enjoyed doing it, and people seemed to appreciate it.

    Of all the notes I've given (offline), I can only think of one person who got pissed, and one non-reply, although that guy came back a year later and asked me to read another script, so maybe his reply got lost somewhere.

    Of course, the only note I ever gave was that this was the best thing I'd ever read...

  3. I swap scripts with other semi-pros, but I charge strangers for notes. I used to charge $99 but I got too many requests, so I charge $400 and took down the registration page on my web site and thankfully I don't get too many requests now. I've usually gotten good responses to my notes, but I heartily agree, it only takes one asshole to really take the wind out of your sails. The one that really set me off wasn't even the swearing-out kind, it was the smug, prim, lecturing me on what constructive feedback is supposed to be, which they apparently thought meant you never say anything negative at all. No, sorry, constructive criticism is STILL criticism. Made me wish I had charged those fuckers double.

    What really ended it was the relentless-arguing-every-note writer that paid for several rounds of notes in advance. Oh boy did I regret that. Take it or leave it, but don't argue notes.

    The ugly flip side to this, of course, is people who promise to read your script and give notes and never do. No one should be that guy/gal either.

  4. A lot of times the best note you can give is, "Write something else."

    No one wants to hear that.

    @Dustin "The majority was "this is cool"... "this is fucking stupid"..."

    The irony is that is pretty much all I want from notes now.

    I think when you're starting, you really want to know if you are doing things "correctly." As you get along you start to realize there is no correctly. There's only enjoyment and not-enjoyment.

    All that really matters to me is when and where my readers fall off the read.

  5. Excellent post! Thanks for spreading the gospel on "notes." I've been on both sides and I'm shocked by the audacity and the presumptuous nature of so many screenwriters. And sadly, it's been my experience that most people don't truly want constructive criticism.

  6. I bet a lot of those assholes are thinking in their back of their mind, "She's going to love my screenplay anyway so I don't have to worry about harsh notes." Good post. =)

  7. Covering someone else's work is like walking into a dark room looking for something and not being able to turn on the lights until you've already found it. It's a murky, thankless task.

    That's why, after a few bad experiences, I don't go out of my way to provide notes except where I have to. Like on zoetrope, where you have to review 4 to submit 1.

    Recently, I got a script read request from a fairly well-known amateur -- a guy who's won or been runner-up in several contests, and who posts regularly on moviebytes. He suggested a script exchange, and started off by sending me one of his, slated for Kairos

    So I read it, provided my 3000-5000 note coverage. The upshot was, It needs some work.

    Been a month and a half now, and I haven't heard back. And the writer at the other end is supposed to be, let's say, in the high ranks of amateurs, hop skip and a jump from a pro.

    It's a thankless task. Ultimately I think it's better simply to read and learn from pro scripts....

  8. Nothing more obnoxious than THAT GUY who can't be bothered to send a nice "Thanks for taking 3-4 hours out of your life to read my script and provide notes." I know a couple of those, unfortunately.

    Fortunately, I've amassed 3-4 online writer pals who I can consistently count on with reads/feedback and vice versa. Free quality feedback is so important - especially in the early draft stages - when one is too poor to swing a pro-reader fee.

  9. Emily,

    We traded notes about two years ago. Burnside & I.F.O. I appreciated it greatly and still do.

    I gave you rookie notes in return. I learned several valuable lessons from you about giving notes as you were the first person to read something of mine that had a screenwriting background and you took me to task for what I had given to you in terms of the type of notes.

    I was new and needed to learn that lesson as note giving is a skill set all in itself.

    Thank you again for your time and effort.


    1. Actually I felt like I was particularly dickish in my handling of your notes. I didn't follow my own advice, but I was younger then, and more insecure. I should have thanked you properly for taking the time to read, so I'm doing that now. Thank you.

  10. I've been pretty lucky. Most of the people I've given notes to have been cool about it, though there were a few who got very defensive or neglected to thank me.

    If you're lucky enough to get someone's thoughts on your script, appreciate the time they put into it. There is nothing more valuable to a writer than blunt, honest feedback.

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  12. Hmm, reply isn't working so...

    It looks like we both got something out of it so bonus!


  13. Great post, Emily. I would even say "thanks" for it. :)

    There really is an art to both giving and receiving notes. Both seemed easy to me at first too, but man, they are not.

    When you're giving notes you're often commenting on something very personal that, at the very least, took a lot of time and effort. And so even if it's not great, even if they break every rule a beginner shouldn't break (because that information is all over the Internet now, c'mon people, look for it!) I think you still gotta try and be as encouraging as possible, while still being honest.

    That's the balance I'm always shooting for - how do I give an extremely honest critique while not discouraging - instead ENCOURAGING - the screenwriter?

    After all, if you're just starting out, your script isn't going to be great. But what IS great, is the craft of screenwriting, and shouldn't we encourage as many people to keep doing it?

    So lets get people to realize that the road is long - a lot longer than they thought (did you not see that curve?) but still, stay on it, because it's worth it! The journey and destination, both, man...

    Boy, this comment has become more of post...sorry, Emily. Next time I'll just put up a response on my own website! :)

    Well, great post again. got me thinking.


  14. Thanks, Emily. This post is so spot on, I have linked to it, in lieu of having to explain the exact same thing in less lovely language.

    All the best.


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