Giving notes on your friends’ screenplays can be a tough gig. If you’re too critical you may damage the relationship; if you’re too soft you’re not providing the help they need. I’ve come up with a few things to keep in mind when providing feedback on your friends’ scripts.
Know your audience
Treat every writer different. Each writer has a different temperament. Know how blunt you can or cannot be in your notes. Some writers have a thick skin and want the ugly truth—no matter how ugly. They know that even the harshest criticism could help their work become that much better. Others are too fragile and need as much lipstick on the pig as possible.
Know what’s being asked of you
“I want your feedback,” means nothing to me. If someone hands me a script I start asking questions. Understand what stage the work is in and what level of notes they’re looking for. I give different notes to a rough draft than I do to later drafts. It’s a waste of my time to harp on typos in a rough draft and the writer probably won’t welcome structural critiques in a sixth draft.
Some friends come to me with specific tasks like, “I need to lose 3 pages from the first act. Find them,” or “Make it funnier.”
A little clarity goes a long way. Understand the task you’re being given.
This isn’t just for note giving. Too often I hear people use phrases like, “I’m just being honest,” to excuse unkind behavior or speech. No, you’re being a dick. You don’t have to be, but you clearly enjoy it. Don’t try to pass yourself off as being tough, honest, or “just keeping it real,”. You’re a dick. You can still be honest or tough in your criticisms without being mean.
Remember you’re not telling them how their script sucks, you’re telling them how to make it better.
Be careful in your word choices. I typically use “consider” before my notes. Don’t tell them what to do, offer suggestions. People are less butt-hurt and far more likely to accept your notes when they’re offered this way. No one wants to be told how to tell their story.
One writer found their b-hole particularly peppered when I hit them with harsh words and offered zero fixes. This is why they came to you in the first place. Anyone could poo-poo their script but only another writer could offer a tool kit of possible fixes to improve it. I try to give at least one possible fix for any given problem. Even if they hate all my ideas it might just spark another all their own.
Nothing I’ve said here is much more than common sense but sometimes it’s easy to get lost in our own ego when people crave our approval.