How to give feedback on writing
First published to my Medium account: read the original post here
When I first left college and was desperately scrambling to gain the skills I’d been too indecisive to learn in school, I took a screenwriting class at SVA. My professor, while no doubt a capable writer in their own right, was… not my type.
Let me just say that there’s nothing wrong with having a method. We all use a structure or philosophy of writing at some point, if for no other reason than to get us started. But this person didn’t profess a method of writing. He had discovered- THE METHOD OF WRITING!
Amazing, I know. Who knew that all the theorist who have been squabbling over act structures and character arcs and indeed the very point of literature throughout history simply missed this person’s class?
They knew how many acts a story ought to have, what the point ought to be, what and when and how and why this characters needed to do “x” and exactly how it would lead to result “y”. Now, I have no structure. Just, in general. I’m not even sure my height is consistent day-to-day. I’ve never been able to stick to a method, or even an approach, to writing and to be honest I always thought that was a bit charming. I am a creature of alien geometries. My mind doesn’t seem to have an internal clock and ideas get too monstrously unruly in my head to allow for mental organization. That’s why I write.
This meant that presentations of my neat little story template to my professor and my colleagues in the class featured mostly blanks or vague generalities punctuated by points that flowed out of their boxes, dominating the page with messy and exciting story ideas.
And that was a problem for my professor: it meant that I didn’t have a story.
But I did have a story, dammit! It’s all right here on the page, and in various Google Docs, and in my brain. But they couldn’t see it. They would tell me I’d done it wrong, that they didn’t agree with choices I’d made, not seeming to realize that I hadn’t been able to make any choices yet. That they necessarily didn’t even understand the thing they were criticizing.As a script consultant, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to give advice on writing. There’s one particularly annoying thing about giving feedback on another writer’s work, specifically for someone of my temperament. Likely for that of my old professor as well. Unfortunately, it’s the single most important part of being a script consultant.
You have to be a believer.
I’m not talking about optimism: you should never sugar-coat your feedback if you want it to be effective.
I’m talking about believing your writer. I mean not looking at a page and seeing all the things you desperately want to change. I mean looking at a page and seeing, or trying to see, what the writer sees.
It doesn’t matter if you want the two heroines with clear chemistry to run off together rather than fighting over the hero. And it doesn’t not matter because you’re (maybe) being paid and you need to do what you’re told.
It doesn’t matter because this isn’t your vision. The writer is the only one with a sense of what this piece of art can be if given the care it requires to exist. But that only happens if they are able to execute their vision.
That’s what you’re therefore. To peek behind the veil and contribute to the fantastic, ghostly, half-formed thing attempting to take shape on the other side.
I won’t lie, sometimes I read a screenplay and I walk away unsure of the affect the writer wanted to have on me. When that happens, I simply try to recall the affect the screenplay did have on me. If I reach the end of a screenplay about WWI and find myself confused, I consider what it means to be confused about a screenplay about WWI. Am I supposed to be confused? Do I like feeling confused?
If I do, how can I help this writer really fuck me up in the head?I know, it can be satisfying to listen to a bad piece of literature being bad. This is the reason Jenny Nicholson reviewing books I have never read is one of my preferred forms of art. But there is a bright side to the approach I ask you to consider: you may find that you enjoy more art.
I’ve reviewed screenplays where I could easily spot the ideas the writer had and was trying to execute. Fun, haunting, cerebral, amazing ideas that I knew were being driven at but could be vastly improved upon with reworking.
Instead of having to read a screenplay I knew wasn’t living up to a rubric I’d devised, I had the opportunity to turn off my critical mind for just a few hours and experience something foreign to me, something surprising.
All art is a work in progress that you happen to be glimpsing in one stage. Every joke you’ve ever heard; every doodle on a binder; every short story; every video game; every poem; every screenplay is an indefinite amount of missteps away from perfection. The way I see it, you can either point out the mistakes until the activity becomes mind-numbingly boring…
Or, you can choose to believe.