So you’ve completed a first draft. The next logical step is to find someone to read it, get their opinions, and to start measuring the distance between the movie in your head, and what your pages communicate to your reader. There is some thinking that feedback should not be sought on less-than-polished drafts. I consider this to be completely oppositional to the process of developing a screenplay, especially for a new writer.
That said, there is neglected but important skill that all screenwriters should apply to first drafts before they draw on a reader’s time and energy — the etiquette of requesting and receiving feedback on a first draft. This differs slightly from asking for feedback on later drafts, and can be a helpful way for new writers to demonstrate a willingness to learn by showing special consideration for their readers.
Note that this article will cover community feedback that is exchanged or donated. Coverage (evaluation intended to be read by studio executives) or script consultation (paid development feedback) don’t require the same level of consideration by the writer, since they’re paying a commission for these services.
Feedback is intended to help you, the writer, make narrative development choices about your screenplay. It is most effective when your story has some level of narrative confidence: character objective, story end game, a stable world– at least one of these story elements should have clear direction.
Feedback is, however, less effective when you’re rigidly committed to every aspect. A first draft needs to be limber. It needs to have room to grow, and bend. The story and characters you began with may not be the ones who are ultimately the strongest. You need to develop the necessary flexibility to hold multiple viewpoints at once so as to provide yourself with the ability to make abrupt, radical changes where necessary.
Feedback is not intended to provide you with a primer on formatting, grammar or style. These are prerequisite concepts that are covered by countless resources available all over the web. If you want to show respect for your reader’s time, you’ll minimize errors or inconsistencies as much as possible before putting your script in front of them.
The community of screenwriters is strengthened by this kind of creative reciprocity. True, it’s possible to get good feedback value on a paid basis, but it doesn’t come with the kind of relationship that can help you with networking or group motivation. The first impression of your screenplay does not have to be a perfect or finished story, but it shouldn’t fatigue the reader with distracting elements. Your consideration of your reader will also say something about you.
I want to emphasize — a first draft is not about presenting a narrative fait accompli. Yes, you should put your best story forward, but it’s important to accept that the very nature of a first draft is transitional. Sometimes uncertainty can be a tremendously powerful tool. So let’s look at the best way to harness it so your reader can think creatively on your behalf.
Before sending out a request for feedback:
There isn’t much written about the emotional vulnerability that comes with offering a draft for criticism, especially a first draft. Writers like Craig Mazin and John August have discussed some of the psychological and physical effects of being criticized, but in general it’s a topic that new writers usually don’t get much exposure to in advance of their first experience.
Here are some things you can do to make it easier to accept criticism, and to reallocate negative feelings into productivity.
Use this checklist before submitting or exchanging your screenplay for feedback:
Arc Studio Pro comes packed with features specifically designed to make the feedback process easy, including comment functions, and — specifically for our purposes — the ability to create a contextual statement to help guide your reader through your concerns.
Show gratitude when someone volunteers to read your script, before and after. Offer to read theirs. Acknowledge they are donating their time and effort to help you improve, regardless of their experience level. Everything someone tells you about your screenplay will evoke a reaction that you can use to help your narrative decision making process. Even if they’re dead wrong, you’ve learned something about your own confidence level in your choices.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my screenplay. I wanted to let you know I really appreciate your feedback, it’s helped me a lot. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you ever need someone to read a script for you.
Your attitude will impact a reader’s willingness to do detailed notes on your draft, and it will also have an impact on your future relationship with them, and any communities you both belong to. Getting motivating, affirmative feedback is good, but a critical reader who invests themselves in your work and wants to continue sharing the process with you is rare, and invaluable to your journey.
Your first draft is almost always inherently the worst draft. The point of feedback is to make it better. It can only be made better if you accept it as inherently flawed to begin with– and understand that doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a writer. Integrating feedback is part of the drafting process, allows you the flexibility to take risks, and develops your ability to solve story problems by teaching you to pivot your own expectations.
The primary objective of note-giving is to help you develop a rewrite schematic. That might even mean a page-one rewrite, which seems extreme, but is very often the foundation of many second drafts. Conscientiously preparing your first draft for feedback will often give you advance notice of this possibility, and if it does, you have something you didn’t have when you started — a detailed set of directives and insights that will help guide you towards a more dynamic, engaging and motivated screenplay.
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