Scribosphere Carnival #3 – Criticism

Michael Patrick Sullivan at Red Right Hand is in charge this week, and he’s come up with a very intriguing topic.  In his words:

This week’s Scribosphere topic is how we each take criticism, or how we don’t, who do we seek out to provide it, and what do we do with it once we have it, how we give it, or, you know…whatever.

Let me start with this very important admission: As a kid, I was terrible at taking criticism.  My dad would constantly tell me that I needed to grow a tougher skin because I would inevitably burst into tears at even the smallest bit of criticism, constructive as it might be.  Of course as an adult, I realize that back then I might have also been uncontrollably bursting into tears due to my undiagnosed chemical imbalances, but that’s beside the point.  No, the point is, that over the decades, I have definitely gotten a thicker skin, and now I actually look forward to receiving notes and criticism of my writing.

I think I finally learned how to accept criticism when I realized that I wouldn’t become a better writer without it.  I believe too, that when you begin to critique the work of others, you gain a new appreciation for how difficult it is to be the bearer of criticism.  If you understand the difficulty in taking notes, it makes you more mindful on how to give them.  But, some people do not know how to give a note.

Let’s talk about that…

How To Give Good Notes

It may seem corny or even kabuki, but it does honestly help to soften your criticism with compliments.  Often in my writers groups now, I or others in the group will say ‘skip the compliments’ because we are there to work and we don’t need the platitudes to ease the pain of getting the tough love.  But when you give notes to someone you don’t know as well, and don’t know their level of pain tolerance, it’s a good idea to err on the side of “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”  Start with pointing out something good, and make it more than just a surface level platitude — were the characters really interesting? Was the plot intriguing? Did you like the writer’s voice? Was it a quick read? Funny? Exciting? Do more than just say you ‘liked it’ – writers tend to equate that with ‘it sucked’ — specificity of positive attributes will endear the writer to hearing what you have to say, particularly if you can be observant and astute about it.  The less specific you are, the less it feels like you actually read the damn thing.  Note good dialog or a great scene description — give them the page number! Let them know that you read it, you have real notes and you aren’t just placating them with positivity (like, say, your mom or your significant other).

Once you’ve got the sugar down their gullet, it’s time for the medicine.  There’s a way to administer this that causes less pain.  “I hated x” tends to be a bad way to give a note (unless you know the person really, REALLY well). I mean, that’s like stabbing someone in the neck!  Look, you are trying to make this as painless as possible.  We all know there’s some kabuki going on, that we are following a little bit of a script in giving notes, but that’s okay.  It’s what makes it possible for us to really hear the note and digest it.

I tend to start with big, general notes first — structure issues, for example.  Plot. Characters.  Start with the big notes first.  As an inverse to the positive, what gave you trouble? (what did you “bump on” — a common term for something in the script that jolts you out of the reading, making you aware of the mechanics beyond the story; a question, point of confusion, a contradiction)  Once you have your big overall note stated, you can get to specifics — where do the bumps occur?

Now, you may want to give the writer suggestions.  There’s a way to do this, and I’ll address ‘suggestions as notes’ in a few paragraphs.

Sometimes a script is just a train wreck.  It’s not small things, minor fixes — it’s just a hot mess.  Usually the hotter the mess, the nicer you have to be in dishing out the notes.  Because not everyone knows…

How To Take a Note

It’s inevitable.  You’ve read this script for this person, taken the time to read it, digest it, dissect it, figure out what works, what doesn’t, and when you go to tell them the news — they just seem defensive. Oblivious. Angry. In denial.  Any or all of these.

Defensiveness is the worst.  If someone gives you a note, you must fight the instinct to argue it.  Don’t tell your note giver that they are wrong! Wrong! WRONG!! This person has taken precious time to devote to your baby.  You asked them for their feedback.  The proper thing to do is keep your mouth shut, unless the person asks you a question for clarification.  That doesn’t mean you just nod and smile — that’s a sure sign you aren’t listening, another way of being defensive.  It is possible for the note to be wrong.  Very often you’ll get contradicting notes.  The important thing here is to take your emotion out of the process.  Before I go into a meeting or a setting where I am about to receive notes, whether in a professional capacity or in a group of peers, I mentally divorce myself from my project.  I try to imagine that this is someone else’s script, and I am hearing the notes as an impartial bystander.  Sometimes this doesn’t always work (I mean, I’m not made of stone after all!) but it does help.  If the note giver is doing all of the things I suggested above, the process is almost pleasant.  You want to know where the problems are — knowing where you aren’t being clear with story, character, intent will help you make a better script.  Isn’t that what you want? You want these notes! “Give them to me!!”

Okay, sometimes the person giving the notes isn’t very good at expressing themselves.  They say “I hated X.” (and they really don’t know you well enough to get away with that).  They stab you in the jugular.  It’s hard — you weren’t expecting that pain and wow, someone just called your baby ugly.  Take a moment.  Count to three.  Do NOT rebut, argue, cry, laugh or scoff.  Just write the note down.  Here’s the thing — they may not have given you a good note, in fact, it could be really crappy — but generally if someone gives you a note on something, even if the note itself doesn’t make sense, it’s indicative of something.  If you get the note more than once, obviously you need to look at it.

Some people want to give you suggestions.  We can’t help it — we’re writers, we see a problem, we want to help fix it.  Executives love to give you suggestions.  The problem is, their suggestions are usually wrong.  They tend to suggest things that fix the symptom, not the underlying problem.  You have to learn to see the note within the note (yeah, this process gets very Inception-like).  I take all the notes — those I agree with, those I don’t, because hours, days, weeks later, I may read that dumb note and realize it isn’t so dumb.

There’s a way, as the note giver, to provide suggestions, but you can’t just say “you should do Y instead of X.”  That is a sure-fire way to get the receiver of notes to completely shut down and ignore everything you have to say.  You may have the brilliant fix for them, but you know what? It’s their script.  They need to decide what to do.

Instead of “you should have a car chase here” the better way to make a suggestion is “I think your script loses momentum here– perhaps you need some kind of action sequence – maybe a car chase? I don’t know, you decide what it is, but it just feels like nothing is happening.”  Another favorite device is to talk about the “bad version,” a) because it most likely is the ‘bad version’ of something and b) it allows the note receiver to understand you aren’t necessarily prescribing that a solution, just using it as an example to illustrate their point.  There is a rare chance that the “bad version” is actually the right answer, but let the note receiver figure that out.

Wow, I had a lot more to say about criticism than I realized.  I suppose the TL;DR version (too long, didn’t read, for you not into the whole brevity thing) is: Don’t Be Mean. Don’t Be Defensive. Everybody be cool and respect the other party.  It isn’t easy to be on the giving end or the receiving end of notes, but these little tips can help make it just a bit easier for everyone involved.


Posted under writing

This post was written by Shawna on October 7, 2013

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