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January 21, 2020

The Give and Take of Receiving Screenwriting Feedback

My mom thinks I’m a talented writer.

I believe her.

She also thinks I’m handsome, intelligent, emotionally tuned-in and an all-around great catch.

I’m dubious about all that.

Something about writing, and the creative process in general, brings out our worst approval-seeking instincts. It’s probably because writing is really hard. I was listening to a podcast the other day featuring Vince Gilligan the creator of Breaking Bad. The host asked him if he enjoyed the process of writing. After a long pause, Vince replied, “I enjoy having written something.” I think we can all identify with that. Getting from what it is to what it could be is a long process that can chip away at any screenwriter’s confidence. Feedback is necessary to move past difficult scenes and gain perspective on the readiness of a screenplay but sometimes it feels like the only options are cheerleaders at home and trolls online. There is a creative middle ground but getting there requires both strategy and collaboration.

How to Receive Productive Feedback About Your Screenplay

Find an Active and Supportive Writers Group

Writers groups mostly suck. They’re filled with negative know-it-alls and shameless self-promoters. You’re going to step in a few stinkers before you find a good one, everyone does, but here are a few key things to look for:

  • Active Participation
    A good writing group can have as few as three people as long as everyone is contributing, reviewing and collaborating. Balance is the key.
  • Screenwriters with Different Strengths
    Ideally, you want the screenwriters in your group to function as specialists; a plot maven, a dialogue guru. Style matters too. If you give your franchise ready action script to a screenwriter working on a gritty drama set in 1920’s Chicago, they’re going to see things another action writer wouldn’t.
  • Objective Feedback
    What does the scene need? Where are the plot holes? You want to work with screenwriters who are able to objectively review the work without letting their own creative inclinations cloud the feedback they provide, and needless to say, you need to hold yourself to the same standard.  

Start with a Treatment

You’ll hear people say, “Don’t show your work until it’s ready to be shown!” which is complete nonsense. Imagine this conversation:

                   Guy with a Hammer
         I’m building my first house!

         Good for you. Would you like me to take
         a look at the blueprints?

                   Guy with a Hammer
         Oh, no, no, no. I can’t show my work,
         not until it’s finished.

         And you’ve never built a house before?

                   Guy with a Hammer
         No, Sir!

Solicit feedback when your screenplay is still in the blueprint stage. That doesn’t mean hastily typing out an extended logline and saying, “So whaddya think?” Take the time to write a full treatment, really think through the plot structure of your story, then use that treatment to create a detailed outline. The process of outlining your story beat-by-beat will help you recognize holes in the plot and will likely change the core aspects of your treatment. Revise and polish your treatment based on the outline updates. Submit that version of the treatment for feedback.

Why not send the outline instead? Outlines are simultaneously too specific and too vague. The beat-by-beat details will tempt fellow writers to infuse their own creative choices and the parts left out, the subtext imagined but not bullet-pointed, will only lead to questions that don’t need to be asked. A treatment covers all the major elements and provides an easy jumping-off point for conversations about concept and structure.

Leave a Trail of Disconnected Scenes

You’re writing a screenplay, not an old-timey serial novel. You don’t need to share a chronological series of scenes with your reviewers. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. When you eventually get to the beta reader stage you want them to approximate a cinema audience; intrigued but never ahead of the plot. Instead, give your reviewers a series of disconnected scenes; pivotal scenes and scenes you can’t seem to get past. You want them to be focused on the words without the familiarity and expectations that come with scenes delivered in a narrative sequence. Treat your most difficult pages as puzzles to be solved.      

Choose Beta Readers According to Arcs and Beats

See what we did there? Arcs and Beats because the blog is called Arcs and Beats? Anyway, it’s important. When you’re ready to receive feedback on your finished draft, you’ll want to have a beta reader who loves plot development and another who lives for the details. Having collaborators who approach your story from different angles helps expose the tiniest imperfections in story development. It is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Challenge your beta readers to challenge you. A willingness to ask for help is the quickest route to honest feedback.  

Take Advantage of Collaboration Tools

You want the collaboration process to be as fluid and dynamic as possible. Two writers playing off of each other’s ideas has a stream-of-consciousness, jazz vibe to it. That means a lot of changes. The professional screenwriting program you use to share your work will play a vital role in how effectively you are able to collaborate. You’ll want to be able to easily compare the current draft to past iterations and highlight your changes prior to requesting additional feedback. Arc Studio Pro allows you to do all. You can send out acts, outline or highlighted parts of your script with a simple click and ask for review from a writer who is not your coauthor. Collaboration is also made simple with easy conversation tools in the app which allow for smooth conversations and collaboration.

collaboration tool arcstudio pro screenwriting software

More info on receiving and managing feedback with Arc Studio Pro.

Approach Feedback with Professionalism

Screenwriting is a creative endeavor but it’s also a career. Approach giving and receiving feedback as part of your professional development. Don’t submit a treatment, scene or draft until you’ve taken it as far as you can. The writers you’re collaborating with are taking time away from their own screenwriting projects to help you. Give them review ready scenes with specific questions in mind. The flip-side of course is that you’ll need to leave time in your writing schedule to work with your collaborators on their scripts. If you’re not helping them, they aren’t going to help you. Everyone’s time is valuable so be honest about your strengths as a reviewer and hang on to good connections because they’re hard to find.

Accept that Criticism is Part of Being a Screenwriter

Not everyone will be a fan of your work. In fact, some may strongly dislike it. That’s ok, screenwriting is a subjective art form. If the reviewer is being constructive and development focused in their criticism, take a deep breath and listen. You may find inspiration in their dislike.

As you progress in your professional career, feedback (and by extension criticism) will become an entrenched part of your process. Agents and managers will have notes. Producers and their development teams will have notes. Studio executives will have notes. Ask any big-name screenwriter and they’ll tell you about a story they love that’s lost in limbo–it’s called development hell for a reason.

By taking a strategic approach to giving and receiving feedback, your writing will improve and you’ll gain the fundamental skills needed to thrive in the film industry. Find a supportive writers group, request feedback on your treatment and troublesome scenes, divide your beta readers into arcs and beats but more than anything be a good creative partner because Guy with hammer never gets anywhere.


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The Give and Take of Receiving Screenwriting Feedback
Michael Bartolomei

Former Director of Development of Mandeville Films & Television in Los Angeles, Michael Bartolomei is a published author and story teller.

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