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How to Take Feedback Like a Professional Writer

This article originally appeared on Script Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

by Tim Schildberger

Everyone hates getting feedback. But if you can’t make peace with receiving it, you won’t have a career as a paid writer.

Let’s agree that we all send off a first draft to be read with the secret wish the feedback will be: “Don’t touch a word, it’s a masterpiece.” And let’s also all agree that NEVER HAPPENS.

Just like writing, receiving feedback requires practice, experience, and skills. Many writers connect feedback too closely to their ego/self worth. So they ignore it, stumble through it, or worst of all, fight it. That last batch of scribes is doomed from a career viewpoint. Doomed.

So how do you resist the natural urge to punch someone in the face when they say your script “just didn’t do it for me”? Here are some tips for improving your very important feedback receiving skills.

1. Not all feedback is helpful, but treat it like it is.

Counter-intuitive right? No. If someone has taken the time to read your script – or at least the title and half of the first page – and then taken the time to offer feedback in written or verbal form, you accept it graciously and with respect. You ask a couple of follow up questions. Then you remind yourself that even though they’re suggesting your sci-fi musical feature would be awesome as a western TV series, at least they didn’t ignore you like 97.5% of the other people who said they would read your words.

,Everyone likes to feel heard. Dismissing someone’s notes as “garbage” is disrespectful and guarantees they won’t read anything else from you.

Remember – you never have to implement anyone’s notes. You can always hold onto the dream your 257-page screenplay about the secret life of grass will win an Oscar one day.

2. Don’t get defensive.

I know you want to. We all do. But when a writer says “you just don’t understand” to the person giving them feedback, the only person who doesn’t understand is the writer. If one person is confused, they may be an idiot. If two people are confused, and you resist, ignore, or fight back, you’re the idiot.

Handy tip – if you get your script read aloud and you’re the only one laughing at your jokes, don’t tell yourself the audience doesn’t get your sense of humor. Also, taking time to counter someone’s opinion by explaining/justifying how they’re wrong serves no purpose. I promise the person giving you notes doesn’t care if you agree or not. It’s your script, not theirs. So listen, say thanks, and move on.

3. Don’t believe everything you hear.

How do you know what to accept and what to ignore? It’s a gut thing, which improves the more you subject yourself to this process.

Here’s one technique – if you hold a reading or send your script to a few people and get a bunch of notes, read/listen/write them down, then stop thinking about it. The next time you’re in the shower, take a moment to think about that feedback, and see what you remember. Chances are, the points that resonate are the points you may secretly agree with but haven’t yet had the inspiration to fix.

4. Not all feedback is consistent.

If your script is starting to work, the feedback will be all over the place and will focus more on the characters’ actions and behavior and less on structure and tone. People are investing in what’s happening, which means they’re engaged. At that point, you listen, and see if there are common threads to tinker with – but otherwise, understand you will NEVER please everyone. Ever.

We all filter stories through the lens of our own experiences, values, and moral compasses. If your readers are “filtering” – celebrate. And if they’re talking about structure, story, and the fundamentals, listen more closely because you have more work to do. It’s your job to figure out which is which – so really listen to your notes.

5. They’re just words on a page.

There’s a bunch of overused catchphrases about killing your darlings and all that. So look at it this way. They are words. On a page. Hopefully they came from a place deep inside you that leaves you vulnerable. If someone doesn’t like that – okay. If they don’t relate to what you’re trying to do – okay. Think about ways to improve and get them connected. But understand you may fail.

Your current idea may be junk. No writer in all of human history has ever had a 100% success rate. So if everyone’s telling you it’s dead, don’t keep poking the dead horse hoping it’ll win the Kentucky Derby. Maybe build another horse.

6. Don’t stop. Never stop.

You will get notes that are less than ideal, and you’ll be tempted to wallow in them and let them stop you or slow you down. Understandable? Sure. But not helpful.

There are two secrets to trying to make a career out of writing. Writing a lot. And persistence.

Don’t ever let one person’s opinion stop you. Understand writing is a skill that demands practice and experience, which cannot be gained by doing anything other than writing. You don’t get in shape by reading a book. You don’t become a successful writer by not writing, or by letting feedback stop you.

Detach the script from your self-worth. Listen, analyze, and keep writing. Understand feedback is an unavoidable requirement of this job, find your own way to make your peace with it, and never stop writing. Eventually you’ll learn to appreciate the notes, because usually, they help make your work better.

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