by Fin Wheeler
Screenplays aren’t static, they’re a fluid thing. They change from draft to draft. An ability to rewrite and to listen to, take, and incorporate feedback is what separates professional screenwriters from the rest.
In an interview, Joss Whedon was asked about feedback and whether a screenwriter should change things just because the network or some other person says so. His reply was, “It’s very important to know when to stick to your guns, but it’s also very important to listen to absolutely everybody. The stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.”
If your feature screenplay or television pilot is picked up, you will be expected to take and implement round after round of notes. If a writer ignores this feedback, or is unable to do the required rewrites, they are replaced with a professional screenwriter who can.
So, it’s in your best interest while you’re still early on in your career to get used to taking feedback in a professional manner and doing rewrites based on those notes.
Feedback After Selling a Script
When your spec is optioned or sold it goes into development. Your project is assigned to a development exec and you do rewrites based on their and their bosses notes. Sometimes the various notes you are given contradict each other. The situation is similar for those in the television industry.
If you want your script to stay pure and unchanged, don’t sell it. Once you have sold it, the choice you have is whether you want to stay on the project (and do the rewrites), or walk (and have someone else do them).
Producers have tens of millions of dollars (and their jobs) on the line. You need to respect that. When producers invest in your script, they then need to use all available resources to try and create the best, most risk-free product possible. Rewrites are an integral part of that process.
As soon as your spec is sold, you’re expected to be ready and raring to go.
Feedback Before Selling a Script
How does an unproduced screenwriter get up to full speed before they’ve even sold their first spec?
We pay for feedback, and we do rewrites based on it. That way we learn the ropes and how to avoid the common pitfalls.
Most fledgling screenwriters ask their close friends or relatives for feedback. Unless they work in the screen industry, their comments aren’t likely to be too insightful. But a feature length screenplay is a deeply personal work. If you know they aren’t going to say anything nasty, it can be a good first step to show them your work.
Eventually, though, if you are serious about screenwriting, you take need to take it up a notch. If you’ve read out-of-date screenwriting manuals, they’ll tell you to look up any friend of a friend of a friend who works in the industry and send a copy to them. In fact, they probably suggest you send copies to everyone you can think of.
It’s a very fast way to burn bridges. And bridges take a very, very long time to re-build. Sometimes years. Sometimes you burn the connection forever.
Some people suggest that you swap your script with other screenwriters. Other screenwriters who, just like you, are trying to sell their unique ideas to exactly the same producers you’re trying to pitch to. If that’s your thing, so be it, but you really do need to be sure that you can trust the person.
Worst Case Scenario A: You sell your spec and the other writer sues you for co-writer credit because of the crucial ideas they claim they gave to you.
Worst Case Scenario B: Their next spec sounds almost exactly like your last screenplay.
The best and safest way to get feedback is from specialist companies. A Google search will give you plenty to work your way through, and there are many sites listing their own preferences. (LA Screenwriter recommends Script Pipeline.)
Some screenwriters use the same one reader at the same one company for every single script. I understand how that can give a writer some sense of control, but the whole point of getting feedback is to learn to politely and professionally receive all sorts of notes. That’s why I think it’s vital that you mix it up. I tend to alternate between one of the more expensive companies I trust, and one of the others.
Taking Feedback the Right Way
I cannot stress how important it is for a screenwriter to remain unruffled while taking unpleasant comments about their most cherished script.
You’ve probably seen discussion boards where screenwriters moan on and on about the terrible and wildly varying feedback they got, especially from The Black List. Three readers read the same draft and all give it a different score and hate or love totally different things, or they got a great score, but then none of the actual producers who read their spec liked it. The complaints go on and on.
The thing you have to remember about The Black List and the other cheap services is that each reader only gets paid $25 per script, and they’re doing the reading around their other full-time jobs. It’s not surprising their feedback can be patchy.
Either you pay premium prices for a union reader to do the job properly, or you take your chances with the cheaper options.
Either way, you won’t like everything the reader has to say. There will be things you don’t agree with, things you only sort of agree with, and there will be things that deep down you know are true but wish weren’t. You’ll hate those comments the most.
When you get the feedback, read it once or twice and then put it down. Go for a walk or a bike ride — something physical. Don’t yell or rant to the nearest person about how damn wrong the reader is. Just let your subconscious absorb the notes, and filter the justified from the ego-based. When you’re working professionally, you’ll be expected to sit down and get onto the rewrites the very next day, that’s what you’ve got to work up to. To start with, it can be good to leave a week (or a month) between getting feedback and then sitting down to do the rewrite.
What you should never do is complain about feedback. Even the worst feedback has something you can scrape off and use.
When you do finally get your first sale, an ability to take feedback on the chin and do rewrites incorporating the feedback are things that will impress people who have the power to offer you work on more projects.
So start taking feedback now to secure your professional screenwriting career.
Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.