The Art of Receiving Feedback
by Sarah Archer
A man gave his friend a gift of a saddle. It was beautiful, with the finest, hand-tooled leather, and mother-of-pearl fittings, perfectly molded for the recipient’s measurements. “You look disappointed,” the man said. “Don’t you like it?”
“It’s marvelous,” his friend said. “But I don’t know how to ride a horse.”
Feedback is a gift. But the most insightful notes in the world are useless if you don’t know what to do with them. How do you take those notes—even the notes that are maybe not quite so insightful—and make the most of them?
- First, and always, be gracious. I used the analogy of a gift above because it’s true, feedback really is a gift. Someone has taken the time to read your writing—and if they work in Hollywood, their time is almost certainly constrained—and given the benefit of their expertise to help you make your project better. So no matter how negative your kneejerk reaction to a note might be, thank the reader. Relationships are everything in this business, and taking feedback well is an opportunity to show that you’re the kind of team player people want to work with. Don’t be afraid to ask questions for clarification or bounce around ideas, but resist the urge to argue a note. There’s usually no point—it’s your writing and at the end of the day, you get to decide what to do with it, so you don’t need to convince anyone of your take. The exception is when the note-giver is someone actively involved in your project, say, a producer or development exec. In that case, you have to balance protecting your creative vision with compromising to keep the project moving forward and keep yourself attached.
- Give yourself time. Receiving and incorporating feedback is a process, so unless you’re under a deadline, don’t rush that process unnecessarily. If you like a note straight away and find yourself inspired by it, then go with that momentum and jot down your own ideas about changes you want to make. But it might be best to not make those changes immediately. Let the ideas have some time to marinate. Particularly with notes you’re less certain about, or don’t initially agree with, don’t discard them right away. If you put the notes aside and come back to them later, you might see something in a new light that sparks an idea.
- Consider the source of your feedback. One advantage of being in a writers’ group is that you get to know your fellow group members over time: what they’re writing, what they like and dislike, what sorts of notes they typically give. If there’s a writer whose work you admire and whose notes to other writers in the group you agree with, their critiques are probably worth spending more significant time with. If, on the other hand, another writer is putting out material that’s very different from what you write or enjoy, or you often find yourself questioning the notes you hear them give to other group members, then still consider their feedback, but you probably don’t need to bend over backwards to use it if it doesn’t seem helpful to you. Remember that writing is extremely subjective, and reactions reflect personal taste. Writers who are outside of your intended audience might still be capable of giving great notes, but don’t be offended if they’re not as excited about what you’re creating. And writers of different experience levels, and who work in different media or genres, will bring different perspectives. When I get notes from screenwriters, they almost always encourage me to cut. Fiction writers encourage me to expand. Filter the feedback you’re getting through the lens of who’s giving it to you.
- Look for the note behind the note. At first glance, a note may seem contrary to what you’re trying to accomplish, unhelpful, or just confusing. Rather than rejecting it out of hand, take a step back and try to understand what your reader may have been thinking or feeling that prompted this note. If they’ve told you to cut a certain scene, what might motivate that? Is it slowing down the pacing? Is it repetitive in some way to another scene? Is it tonally off from the rest of the script? It might be that the changes a critiquer suggests aren’t in line with your vision, but the notes could still point at another root issue that you can address in your own way.
- While it’s important not to reject a note just because you initially don’t like or understand it, it’s also good to question whether you’re dismissing a note just because you don’t want to take it. I know my brain is pretty adept at finding excuses for why a certain piece of feedback isn’t valid for my script… especially if that feedback requires extensive rewriting. When a reader suggests a significant change, I have to make sure I’m not resisting it just because I don’t want to do the work.
- Look for patterns in notes. This is one reason why getting notes from many people, and people with a variety of perspectives, is especially useful: you can identify common threads. If I get versions of the same note from multiple people on a script, I’m more likely to dig in and really try to address it. And if I’m seeing consistent feedback on numerous pieces of writing over time, I can use that to gauge how people are responding to my writing overall, and look for areas where I may want to rethink my technique, or refine the audience I’m targeting.
- Remember your vision. As you slog through multiple drafts, potentially over months or years, and hear more and more outside opinions and reactions to your work, it can be easy to lose sight of what excited you about this story in the first place. There are an infinite number of possible takes on any story. The one you are writing is yours and yours alone. Other people’s ideas can help you improve your work, but don’t let them cloud or replace your own style and creativity. Their tastes may not line up with yours, but that doesn’t mean either of you are right or wrong. Watching movies you love that are similar to what you want to create can help fire up that energy again when you start to lose it. Think back to what first gave you the passion to write this script, and let that be your polestar.
- Don’t get discouraged. No piece, and no writer, is above criticism. The older I get and the more experience I have with writing, I have no less need for other people’s eyes on my work. Getting constructive criticism doesn’t mean that you’re a bad writer or that your script is bad—it’s part of the process! The best screenwriters and authors in the world still have their work developed and edited. The subjective nature of writing means that we can all benefit from outside perspectives. If someone gives you particularly harsh feedback, just know that any writer who’s putting their work out there has been in your position. If there’s anything constructive to be gained from the feedback, use that, but then set the rest out of your mind and don’t let it dictate your vision of yourself or your writing.
Sarah Archer’s debut novel, The Plus One, was published by Putnam in the US and received a starred review from Booklist. It has also been published in the UK, Germany, and Japan, and is currently in development for television. As a screenwriter, she has developed material for MTV Entertainment, Snapchat, and Comedy Central. She is a Black List Screenwriting Lab fellow who has placed in competitions including the Motion Picture Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship and the Tracking Board’s Launch Pad. Her short stories and poetry have been published in numerous literary magazines, and she has spoken and taught on writing to groups in several states and countries. She is also a co-host of the award-winning Charlotte Readers Podcast. You can find her online at saraharcherwrites.com.