One of the more frustrating things about reading amateur scripts is seeing the same mistakes being made over and over again. These are simple mistakes that, had the writer had any sort of feedback community, they’d have nipped in the bud a long time ago. This is why writers can go 5-6 years without significant improvement. They have no idea what they’re doing wrong because they have no community to tell them that they’re doing anything wrong.
I also get a good e-mail a week from writers looking for writing partners. They ask me where the best place online to find a writing partner is, and their hearts sink when I tell them there isn’t one. At one point, I was going to create a Scriptshadow Social Network that highlighted and paired writers looking for partners, but it would’ve taken a year and too much money so I gave up on it.
Today, I’m going to solve both of these problems. You, my slug line slinging friends, are going to use the comments section to set up writers groups and find writing partners. The process for how you do this is up to you, but let me offer a few suggestions.
1) Tell us the genres you like to write in.
2) Tell us how many scripts you’ve written.
3) Tell us what level you’re at.
The third one is a little subjective, but it’s important, since no one likes to exchange work with people significantly below their level. So I’d suggest using my Screenwriting Rating System as a general scale. Keep in mind – and this is just in my experience – that women will tend to be honest with this scale, while men will rate themselves one or two levels higher than they are. C’mon guys, you know you do it.
Once you find someone you think could make a great partner or group member, contact them and trade a script with them. Lots of writers talk a big game, but there’s no way to know if their stuff is any good unless you read it. If you’re looking for a partner, you should really like the writing, since you’ll be working closely with the person. You can be a little more lenient if you’re looking for a group member, though. You don’t have to love someone’s work. You’re just looking for another set of eyes to give you feedback. As long as the person seems like they have a good grasp on the craft, they’ll probably be a good fit for your group.
Another reason I wanted to set this up was that it was a good opportunity to talk about feedback. Feedback is one of the most critical components to becoming a good writer. Not everyone has money for a professional consultation or is friends with a professional writer who’ll spend 8 hours breaking down your script and helping you. Agents and producers usually reject scripts with a form letter, so they’re not helpful when it comes to feedback. And while some contests offer notes, you don’t really know who’s giving those notes. It could be some 21 year old who doesn’t know the difference between irony and Iron Man.
Other writers reading your work, then, is your only real chance at getting critical feedback. However, feedback is not as simple as it sounds. It’s actually kind of complicated. There’s a little hidden language that goes on, and it changes from person to person. It’s important that you know how to speak this language, or you’ll have no idea if your script is actually good or not. So here are a few tips to keep in mind.
People are inherently nice (well, except for Grendl). They understand how much work you put into your script and how much you care, so if they don’t love it, they’re not going to anoint themselves your dream-crusher. They’ll look for any positives they can and focus on those. It’s actually hard to find someone who will be brutally honest and tell you your script sucks, so every bit of praise you hear during feedback should be taken with a grain of salt. How do you get honesty out of readers then? I’ll get into that in a bit.
FOCUS ON THE MEAN
For this reason, when you’re getting feedback, move past the compliments and focus on the negatives, even if the negatives weren’t that negative. Because the reality is, if someone says they thought your script was okay, it means they didn’t like it. If they say they didn’t like it, it means they thought it was awful. Nice people hide truths in between compliments. So it’s your job to read between the lines, find out what they didn’t like, and address those issues the best you can.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS
Family and friends are necessary to making us writers feel good. Writing is such a lonely journey, that there aren’t many opportunities to get praised. Giving your script to a family member or friend, someone you know is going to be supportive, is important for your self-confidence. But do not base any major script decisions on the feedback you got from family or friends. They are the least reliable in terms of if your script is any good.
EVERYBODY’S GOT AN ANGLE
One thing I’ve found over years of feedback is that everybody who gives feedback has an angle. And it’s your job to identify that angle and factor it into the feedback. For example, if a professor is giving you feedback, his angle is that he’s there to encourage you. So his notes are going to skew towards the positive. I’ve seen plenty of instances in “opposite sex script trading” (which sounds worse than it is) where one of the people secretly likes the other. Naturally, their feedback is going to be really positive in the hopes that you’ll like them. Even past history can influence script feedback. If you give a script to someone and they rip it apart, which sends you into a spiral of despair and lots of drinking, well, what do you think is going to happen when you give that person your next script? They’re not going to want to ruin your life again, so they’ll be a lot nicer. It’s your job to sniff out what the angle is of the person giving you feedback, and factor that in.
FIND THE MEANIES
We’re writers. Which means we’re insecure. We want praise so badly that we’ll do anything to get it, including deluding ourselves. We’ll seek out that guy or girl who has a crush on us to read our script, because we know they’re going to tell us everything we write is great. But if you really want to improve with your writing, you want to seek out those people who are mean (or, at the very least, brutally honest). The people who you know are going to tell you when something sucks. As long as they’re willing to tell you WHY they thought it sucked, so you can learn from their feedback, these people are invaluable. Because the truth-sayers are the only ones who are going to improve your script. When I give notes, the writers I like the best are the ones who say, “Be brutal.” Because they know that sugar-coating problems isn’t going to solve anything. Don’t look for Paula Addul. Find your Simon Cowell.
ASK ASK ASK
The best way to get true feedback is, after someone’s given you their thoughts on your script, ask specific questions. I’ve found that while people are really nice in their prepared post-read statement to you, that filter comes off once you start asking questions. For example, they may have casually mentioned that the characters didn’t pop off the page, making it seem like it was a minor problem. But when you ask them specifically about your hero, Jack, they get snarky. “I don’t know. He just seemed like an asshole.” Listen not only to what they’re saying, but HOW they’re saying it. Do they seem annoyed? Pissed? These are important emotions to track because they’re not the emotions you were hoping for. The more you can sniff out these problem areas through questioning, the better off your script is going to be.
The best way to get HONEST feedback from fellow writers is through a long-term relationship with them. The more scripts you trade with someone, the more you begin to trust each other, the more honest the feedback becomes. Just like any relationship, comfortability sets in, and you’re less worried about hurting each other, since you know that you’re both after the same thing, writing a better script. Let’s start that right now. Use the comments to find that group of people (or partner) who are going to help guide your writing through your amateur, as well as your professional, career. Good luck!