Tuesday 31 May 2011

Responding to Notes like a Pro

A little while back, I thought about notes on this blog. And I've been thinking about them again. In particular, I have been thinking about how writers respond to them. And how they should respond to them.

It is fashionable to laugh at people who give you notes, ignore or challenge them. Especially when there are stupid or come from a talentless exec or chinless script editor. And it's funny when Rob Long talks about it. But he's sucked up his fair amount of notes in his time, and written episodes of Cheers. So he gets to talk like that.

So how does the young writer respond to notes? Learn the mechanics of writing is one thing. But what's etiquette. How does it work?

I've been a script editor on a several series of radio and a few series of children's TV - and given a fair amount of notes, as well as being on the receiving end of them. Before a few specifics, here are a few general points.

Bear in mind this. The script writer wants the same thing as you: a funny show. He (or she) doesn't want to make the show worse. And he (or she - you get the idea) doesn't want you to remove good jokes. He wants you to remove bad jokes, or cut things that get in the way of the jokes. Or streamline things that are confusing. Or ensure that everyone's motivation is clear and defined. He may be wrong about some of these things, but not all of them. So assume he's write about some of them. Maybe even most of them.

The script editor doesn't just want the show do be funny. He wants the script to be ready as fast as possible, so we all get to go home early. When I'm reading sketches or episodes of things, I want to be able to say 'Yup. All good.', and close the file, go home and watch the Test Match, just as much as you do. If the script isn't right, it's more work for me. I'm only going to give a note on something if it needs fixing.

The script editor is busy. He may be editing multiple episodes. CBeebies do runs of 26. (Hey, it's like working on an American show!) I may make a mistake in your notes. I may remember something incorrectly. This may be the ninth script I've fed back on today. So if the notes are little non-sensical, or contain errors or contradictions, try cutting them some slack.

If they don't find a joke funny, they can't help that.

And if you're going to be a writer of any kind, be it for TV, radio, film or books, you'll get notes. Get used to it - and remember that most notes make things better.

So here are a few of specifics:
Don't give notes on the notes. You don't need to go through them all on the email and say whether you agree or disagree with them - or give the lines a backstory. I'll go further. Don't do that. It's really annoying. Don't defend lines or bits with non-specific lines like 'You told me to cut that bit but I really like it. I don't know why. Just feels right.' Just read the notes and act on them.

Ignore some of the notes, if you know what you're doing. But think twice before ignoring a note completely, because there's probably something in it. Even the silliest most deranged note (like 'Hey, could the hero die on page 1?') is worth considering. A script is a moving, mushy thing. Nothing is set in stone until it's actually broadcast and out there. At least try it their way, even if you end up switching it back.

Don't crow. It's quite likely that a script editor will suggest something after draft 1, and then suggest removing after draft 3. He's forgotten that it was his idea. But then, he's read 2 drafts of 25 scripts since he gave that note, so maybe he's forgotten? Cut him some slack and don't make him feel like an idiot. When he's dishing out extra commissions, he might remember your notes on his notes and decide to go with someone else.

Do question notes, politely. Do say 'I'm confused by this note, because...' or 'I'm struggling with which way to go on this. We've talked about two ways and I'm still not clear why you favour the second option... etc.' A dialogue for clarification is fine.

There's lots more than can be said constructively in this area. I'd love to hear your experience of giving and receiving of notes. If you keep it good-natured, polite and professional, there aren't usually any problems. But you may prove me wrong...


Advice like this and much else besides can be found in Writing That Sitcom, which walks you through the whole process of going from idea to script and beyond.

Available as an ebook for Kindle & Kindle App. Or as a PDF here.

"If you're even thinking of writing sitcom, you need this book.
It's beautifully specific and brutally honest." - Jasmine


  1. Good advice. It reminds me of something I was gently but firmly told early in my writing life: "Never critique a critique." Advice that has served me well :)

  2. Great post! I think one of the most important things to do when receiving notes is to sleep on them if at all possible. Read them. Don't respond. Let them sink in for a day or so, and only then act or ask for clarification.

    Everyone's first instinct is to be defensive, but I often find that after letting that first reaction die down, it's a lot easier to see where the note giver has a valid point.

    I once had a nightmarish script editing job when every time I sent a set of notes the writer responded within moments (to the point I doubted she had had time to read them all) with variations of "NO NO NO! That's not how it happens!" I wasn't sad to see the back of that gig...

  3. All notes are useful - one way or another. Even notes that come with suggestions that will destroy your story/characterisation/jokes are useful, because they underline the fact that your story/characterisation/jokes aren't working for the note-giver. Arguably, the hardest part of dealing with notes [beyond the initial knee-jerk horror], is seeing past the suggestions to identify the underlying problem. Coming up with the solution - well, you're a writer, that's your job - making shit up for money.

    One kind of feedback to watch out for, especially when starting out: notes that don't make your script better, just different. Dealing with them: tricky. Harder still when you're starting out, as you need the gig more than they need you as the writer.

    Your mileage may vary, all in my humble opinion, etc.

  4. I was a script editor on a few things, and always tried to bear in mind a couple of things. 1) This may be somebody's LIFE WORK, so handle it with care. You don't engender trust or confidence by scrawling red pen across the page with SEE ME written at the bottom. And trust and confidence are quite important in the relationship. Employ a bit of psychology: there are ways of giving loads of negative feedback, positively! 2) My opinion is just another opinion. (OK, it may be a more experience opinion but still...). You don't need to present yourself as some kind of infallible expert. You can't possibly be an expert on someone else's ideas.

    I think you probably say both those things above. I'll probably come back and edit this contribution, when I've thought about it some more!

  5. I've given notes and got them, and career-wise the former came before the latter. I got some good advice which was to provide a "golden feedback sandwich" ie say something positive first, then give the bad news, then say something nice again". What's weird is, when I was in the position of receiving notes, when I got handed a golden feedback sandwich myself, EVEN THOUGH I KNEW IT WAS A BULLSHIT TRICK, I still really appreciated it!