Be Like Sherlock: The Art – and Science – of Receiving Feedback
Feedback: a word that can strike joy or fear into a writers’ heart – sometimes both at once. Love it or hate it, it’s as inevitable as Thanos so you need to learn how to process it. Beyond immediate improvements to your script, learning to process feedback well will be a great advantage when building relationships in the industry.
So here’s our overview on feedback: the receiving. Tune in next week for feedback: the giving.
What is feedback?
In the baldest scientific terms, feedback is information a system receives that modifies its output. Your internal temperature rises, so you sweat and blood vessels dilate. You get cold, your blood vessels constrict and you get goosebumps and shiver. Modification, based on information.
Now of course, writing isn’t science. Your blood vessels haven’t toiled for months over whether they should dilate or constrict, and whether to do it over three acts or five. Writing is, quite rightly, an emotional business. But there’s a valuable reframing lesson from science here: feedback is not a comment on your worth as a human being. It is merely information. So when processing it…
… be like Sherlock
Maybe don’t take up drugs or engage in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with your nemesis. Do, however, become the ‘consulting detective’ on the Case of the Improvable Script. Seek out the clues. Gather and evaluate the evidence. Solve the case.
How to do that?
- Provide context when you send the script. Tell the reader what format and genre this is intended to be. If it’s a peer-read, let them know what draft you’re on, or whether there’s a specific audience, platform or purpose in mind. Your reader might be more concerned about the heartwarming, cosy tone if you have imagined this airing on HBO. And while your first draft will benefit more from comments on structure than a list of typos, if you’re about to send a script to a producer it’s great to know that your ‘night shift manager’ has inadvertently become a ‘night shit manger’.
- Only ask open ended questions. When sending the script, resist the urge to tell someone how to respond (“it’s too long, isn’t it?”), or to give the magician’s choice (“is it too glib or too farcical?” – because what if it’s neither?). If you do want to ask for feedback on a specific element, make it an open question. “I’d love to know what you think of the antagonist” is better than “Is the antagonist a bit one-dimensional?”
- Observe: Not all responses will be analytical masterpieces but they (mostly) contain something useful. So switch to ‘listening mode’. Take in the response with an open mind. Try to understand the intent behind it. Feedback is often a case of finding the note beneath the note. To do that better…
- Seek out multiple points of view. Getting feedback from a range of people will bring greater insight. It might not feel like it at first – especially when you get conflicting notes. But each reader will bring something different to the table, and even conflicting notes can contain useful information. If two readers reacted to a scene in opposite ways, consider the source. Are they a reliable – or expert – witness? Is one reader a body horror superfan who really gets your Cronenberg reference, while the other prefers family drama and is simply grossed out by the scene? Perhaps the former has a better point of view for this project. The family-drama fan might still bring great comments on characterisation though, so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
- Discard the red herrings. Sometimes, you just get bad feedback. The person hasn’t read your script properly; or they’ve read it in bad faith; they’ve brought their own agenda or personal issues to your work or they’ve just delivered something totally off the wall. That’s OK. Maybe the only information you can get from some feedback is ‘never ask this person again’. But be brutally honest with yourself – because if you find yourself irritated by a response, it can be because it’s something you secretly know needs fixing but you’re avoiding. (And yes, we all do it.)
- Weigh the evidence. So you’ve now got a few points of view on your project. They’ve all been given context and they haven’t been led to a conclusion before they begin. You should have some solid information to work with. Start to look for patterns. If three people who are all period drama afficionados feel that the denouement of your Regency romance is a bit cliche, take another look. They might just push you towards something startlingly original. In general, getting the same note a few times means that something is wrong. But broadly speaking, you should now be in good shape to put your analytical mind to work in planning a rewrite.
Just before you do…
Dealing with the emotions
The above is all well and good, but perhaps you’re still feeling sore. Let’s be frank: when we ask for feedback there is a little part of us – that heady mix of ego and insecurity – that just wants to hear “WOW, this story has redefined the genre. You’re a genius. Please take my money / sign as my client / marry me”. When that isn’t the response, it can hurt. And it’s hard to process the information objectively if we’re taking it personally.
- Separate yourself from the work: You’ve poured your heart and soul into this script so it’s not surprising that any criticism of the work feels like a criticism of you. The trick is to practice consciously viewing yourself and the work as separate. It does not define you. You define it.
- Time and space: You don’t have to respond to any notes immediately, and probably shouldn’t. If feedback is given verbally, jot down your own take-aways, smile and move on. If the feedback is written, read it once, then put it away for a while. Create some time and space to let any initial emotional reaction die down, then you’ll be more able to view the information received dispassionately.
- Be kind to yourself, if needed. Writing will very likely push at your personal limits, at some point or another. That discomfort can be exactly what we need to help us grow and learn. But if you’re feeling more severe mental health symptoms, just take a step back. The script isn’t going anywhere. Seek out good company, rest or whatever best soothes you. Then step back in, refreshed and ready to roll with the punches.
Talking of rolling with the punches, a final word from Oscar de la Hoya:
“There is always space for improvement, no matter how long you’ve been in the business.”
So here’s to always improving.