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.
The Purpose of Feedback
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.
Know Your Manuscript
- Grammar, spelling and style. Tools for grammar and spelling are legion on the internet. Again, this doesn’t demand total perfection, but repeated errors are going to distract and annoy your reader. Space your paragraphs appropriately, and be aware of white space.
- Formatting pass. There is a slight variation from screenwriter to screenwriter, but the core of formatting is generally consistent. Know the basics and apply them consistently.
- Use exemplar scripts as comparison templates. There are a lot of professional screenplays available on the internet. Select one or two and take note of how they’ve been formatted, and how text is organized on the page. They won’t be uniform in style or format, but will give you a range of acceptability.
- Include notes to the reader any time you have a concern or some information you want to share about the manuscript, such as confusion about finer formatting details, a forewarning about a language barrier, or an advisory about a learning disability like dyslexia. Letting your reader know about these issues ahead of time will allow them to switch off their copy-editor, and stay focused on your story.
Narrative Problems Inventory
Before sending out a request for feedback:
- Do a critical self-pass and make in-text notes of your own concerns as though you are reading someone else’s script. The more you can anticipate potential story problems (and provide alerts that you’re aware of them) the more efficient your reader can be.
- Use those alerts to specify areas of the text where you have concerns or questions.
- Provide a detailed statement summarizing those concerns or questions to your reader. The more advanced notice they have of what problems you already know about, the less effort they need to put into addressing them.
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.
- Accept that vulnerability is part of the process. You can’t write compelling stories with emotional substance without being susceptible to emotional reactions yourself. Writers often have to go to dark, personal places in order to find their best stories. It’s not meant to be easy.
- If you’re concerned about excessively critical feedback or you’re extremely inexperienced, you can communicate your relative comfort level in your advance statement, but be aware that this may prevent a reader from doing their best work for you.
- Be aware that readers aren’t perfect, nor are they final authorities on your work. Opinions may vary widely, so it’s important to try and get feedback from more than one person.
- This also goes for paid feedback — there is a natural impulse to believe that because you’ve invested money in notes, those notes are somehow more qualified. But each reader speaks for themselves, rarely for the industry at large.
- While you shouldn’t turn in a sloppy or incoherent story, perfectionism will make you inflexible and defensive.
- When someone points out a failure of understanding, remember it’s usually a failure of translation. Your imagination isn’t making it to the page. It doesn’t mean you’re not capable of doing that — it signals that the reader is expecting you to apply creative thinking to solve the scene.
- Be prepared to be forensic about the notes that impact you the most. Take notes on your own reactions, be ready to interrogate your own feelings, and use the lens of your story to examine the feedback that challenges you most.
Use this checklist before submitting or exchanging your screenplay for feedback:
- “Have I made it as technically easy as possible for someone to read this screenplay?”
- “Have I reduced my reader’s workload by covering all of the problems and redundancies I’m already aware of?”
- “If handed this script to read, would I see evidence that my time was being respected?”
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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