Taking Notes

One of the trickiest parts of being a writer is taking notes–not as in writing down a speaker’s words, as in absorbing and processing critiques. Notes are often not what we want to hear, and, depending on the source, can be downright insulting. The thing is ALL notes have value to your writing.

While it’s important for our sanity to be able to mentally dismiss notes from clueless sources, the thing to realize is: they’re bumping on that point for a reason. Maybe their suggestion of changing the main character to a monkey is misguided, but it means there is something about the main character that they’re struggling with. As vindicating as it can be to discard such notes at the ravings of an ignorant idiot–believe me, you will want to–the value is in looking for the note behind the note.

Monkeys may not be the best solution–or they might be awesome–but to turn that annoying note into a valuable note, look for why this person thought monkeys were a good idea. What might be missing in your main character’s dialog, way of being, actions, choices that made him think “what this needs is monkeys.” Because I guarantee you: if this person bumped on it, others will too.

Without bringing too much “they just don’t understand me” judgment to notes, it’s important to consider the source–and find sources you respect. But also learn to respect notes from sources you wouldn’t choose but have to accept…like the exec who might be able to forward your idea to her boss.

As much as notes can be hard to hear, we have to learn to listen. We recently worked with a writer who had experienced a fair measure of success in other writing fields and came to screenwriting with a cavalier “how hard can this be?” attitude. The answer: much harder than you think. This writer dug their heels in and became unwilling to accept any notes other than “it’s great” despite the fact that the protagonist’s motivations made no sense and goals were non-existent. As writing coaches, we only ever give notes to help. I think most people do. We don’t gain anything by making you feel bad. It may be hard to hear but if you can develop a facility for hearing the harshest notes, you will only grow as a writer. This requires setting the ego aside and that can be a big challenge…especially for those who think they should be great at this on the first try. Personally, I spent a decade getting humbled before I felt confident of my pages and even now the humbling never stops.

Of course, there are times rejecting the note is truly best. I was once working on a story that had a redemption arc in it for the main character and her best friend. We got notes from a reader that we should cut that storyline all together; they hated it and didn’t want to read it in the pages. It turned out that it reminded them of a very personal experience from their childhood and had nothing to do with the quality of the storyline. We chose to keep that because it was pivotal and revealing for the characters. When possible, exploring and clarifying a note with a reader can be invaluable.

You must develop a nose for separating the wheat from chaff…as well as appreciating the chaff without having to eat it. Most of the writers I know who’ve been doing this for a while have learned to crave the tear-down. Your mom will tell you it’s great. That doesn’t forward your work. Look for colleagues and trusted readers who will find the holes in plot, character motivation, and dialog and tear them apart. And learn to embrace the destruction. Ultimately it will make your plot, your characters and your story stronger. And stronger sells.

About heidihornbacher

A graduate of UCLA’s screenwriting program, Heidi has written numerous features, treatments, and TV pilots for various independent producers. She’s judged for the Slamdance Film Festival screenwriting contest and co-founded the Slamdance Script Clinic. She and her husband founded PageCraft Writing in 2008 offering script coaching and writing retreats in LA and Italy. Her clients have gone on to find representation, win contests, and become working writers. Heidi has written, directed, and produced numerous commercials, music videos, and electronic press kits for various artists. She’s currently making a documentary film about British artist Paul Whitehead.
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3 Responses to Taking Notes

  1. Ian Clements says:

    I try and make it as easy as possible for potential critiquers by saying: ‘Don’t worry if you can’t come up with specifics about character, plot, or pace. Just tell me the points where you found it easy to put the story down and do something else.’ By that alone, I can often figure out what went wrong.

  2. Great post. I always have the writers write down ALL the notes (they usually leave out the good points!), then look at them and process them later.

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