Everyone likes to give notes–but no one likes to get them

I’ve spent most of the last 10 years working as a screenwriter. And as anyone in the film industry knows, when it comes to “above the line” talent (those who are responsible for the creative direction of a film), screenwriters consistently rank at the bottom.

On a typical film set, the director is king, the actors are the prima donnas, the producer(s) are the generals and lieutenants, and the screenwriters–if they’re even allowed on set–are the hapless schmucks who are expected to spin straw into gold at a moment’s notice and, if not, are replaced just as quickly by some other schmuck who can.

Thankfully, that has not been my experience. That is due in part to the sort of films on which I work. Documentaries pretty much require a writer to be present at all stages of the filmmaking process, from pre-production to principal photography to post, making them far more difficult to fire. I have also enjoyed a close working relationship with my directors on the few dramatic feature film and short film projects I have written or co-written. I have only been fired once, and even then I still received sole screenwriting credit for the film.

That said, no matter what kind of film I’m working on, I’m forever receiving notes from people–written or verbal suggestions/demands re: how to improve the script. As I like to point out (half-jokingly), few people would dare to tell a director or actor how to do his or her job, but EVERYONE thinks they know how to write.

Therefore, as a screenwriter, one of the key skills I have had to develop over the years is how to receive notes in such a way that damages neither the project nor my relationships with the other people on the creative team. This is easier said than done. Seeing as we artistic types tend to pour our heart and soul into everything we do, when someone informs us our best isn’t good enough, we tend to take it personally. The note-giver isn’t just criticizing my work; he/she is criticizing me.

You’d think this would get easier as time goes on, but it actually becomes more difficult. Sure, my skin has thickened up considerably. However, seeing as I have been at this for some time, surely I should be getting better at this by now, and my first draft should be much closer to the mark. In times like these, it’s wise to reflect on the immortal words of Ernest Hemingway, who said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Once I get over my initial hissy fit that whatever I have produced is anything less than perfect, I’m in a better place to sort the wheat from the chaff. This involves separating valid critiques from ignorant asides.

You see, a screenwriter labors for months, even years, on a script, poring over possibilities, exploring dead ends and rabbit trails, revising and refining constantly until we finally settle upon a particular course of action, which represents only a fraction of the options available. Meanwhile, our critics devote maybe an hour or two to reading the script or watching a cut and then tossing out a few thoughts, having no idea how much work has gone into the presentation before them. As a result, it’s only natural to scoff at their obvious ignorance. Do they really think we are so stupid as to miss something so obvious? Do they seriously think we haven’t tried that already? Who do they think they are, anyway?

Sorry, still in hissy fit mode.

My point is, just because someone proposes a stupid solution doesn’t mean they haven’t identified a valid problem.

Especially if numerous note-givers keep tripping over the same section of your script. You will resist these critics at first, arguing against them and perhaps ridiculing them behind their back (or maybe even to their face). You will also make little attempts at change, trying desperately to address the problems without altering anything substantial. But a little voice inside will begin to whisper. And try as you might, you won’t be able to shut it up. That’s because the voice knows. You know it, too, but you’re still too invested in the current draft to admit it. You know the script needs significant changes, perhaps a page one rewrite, but you put so much work into the current version that you can’t imagine what it will take to undo it. Remember: in a well written script, there are no such things as throwaway scenes or story beats. A well written script is irreducibly complex. Change or take away even one part, and the entire thing ceases to function.

If you remain in this state of emotional paralysis, the project–or at least your part in it–is pretty much over. Bring in the next schmuck! The only way to have a career in this business is to pick yourself up, rub some dirt on your wounds, and get back out there. More often than not, I have discovered that once I overcome my initial resistance (a.k.a “fear”), the requested changes aren’t nearly as earth-shattering as I first thought. Lo and behold, often, they actually make the project better–way better than I could have made it on my own.

Which brings me to my main point: Like thin-skinned screenwriters, none of us like to be told our theology is anything less than perfect, but we rarely hesitate to give such notes to others (either publicly or in private). The question is, how can we become better at receiving notes? How can we improve at discerning valid critiques from ignorant solutions? How can we become better at moving beyond the hissy fit and listening to that little voice inside that knows? And how can we gain the courage to adopt not just a few minor changes to our thinking but entertain the idea of wholesale change?

I don’t have a magic solution, except to say that no one can control the creative process–which, if we are honest, is a pretty accurate description of how we form our theology. Therefore, we need patience–and humility. It’s only natural to resist notes, to assume we have everything nailed down. But unless you want to be some schmuck who gets booted off the set, accept that your current draft is probably shit and rework it accordingly. It won’t just be different; it will almost certainly be better.

About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" and "After..." In addition to his work in film, Miller has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.


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