Screenwriting Critique – How to Handle Script Notes Like a Pro

B. O'Malley

Triumph the Insult dog saying "This script was great... for me to poop on."

Triumph the Insult dog saying "This script was great... for me to poop on."A screenwriting critique – It can be fun to do one, but it’s not always fun when it’s your script that’s being critiqued.

If you’ve ever received script notes on one of your screenplays, you know how frustrating it can be if the reader who read the script just flat-out didn’t like it, and/or gave your script low marks, or even, (gasp!) a PASS recommendation (if it’s a script coverage).

But even with notes and feedback you absolutely don’t agree with, or is just plain wrong, here are several things to keep in mind, (if you can just tamp down that frustration a bit, and be willing to get strategic with it) to help parse your script notes calmly and professionally:

Understand that any screenwriting critique is just one opinion

Script readers read many scripts in any given week. The good ones are able to focus on your script and give it the attention it needs; but some of the other ones, well, let’s just say they might not be reading your script as closely as they should.

But in either case, the reader who hands you script notes on your script which isn’t favorable (or may even be downright overly-critical of your writing and your script) – that reader is just one person.  One opinion.

There’s no need to panic over one opinion. Ever.

But at the same time, you don’t want to dismiss the opinion either.

If the notes are destructive, or needlessly negative, they’re not always helpful, but you still can glean good notes from them. If the notes are constructive, they’re generally more helpful because they’re usually more on the side of synthesizing solutions to the script’s problems than tearing you a new one.

Raindance has a great little tutorial on how to give constructive script criticism here.  Not every script reader follows these guidelines, sadly, but you can use them as the bar for what counts as “constructive” and what doesn’t.

Get a second opinion and cross-reference the two critiques

Get more feedback. Free, paid. Whatever. When the coverage or notes come in, compare the new ones with the old.

Now, this is far from scientific, and actually could cause you more confusion, (especially if the second reader’s opinion of your story points seem to be complete opposite of your first reader’s opinion), but it’s important to be able to cross-reference the opinions on all the important aspects.

Did the two readers agree that your dialogue was stilted?  Well, then perhaps you might want to take a closer look at your dialogue.

Did both readers seem to suggest that your script’s stakes weren’t high enough, and/or your hero didn’t seem to face enough obstacles?  Well, then, maybe they’re right.

Take what the reader got wrong… and use it!

This is key. And this is why I believe there’s value to be found, as a screenwriter, in any coverage I get back on my scripts, whether I feel the script reader hit the mark not.

Here’s why:  Soon, you’re going to launch your spec screenplay out into the world, where it’s hopefully going to be read by lots of people. That is, lots of strangers.

But if all those strangers who read your script get it wrong too, (just like your first script reader did with that overly-critical coverage) then your script will be sunk.

Use a screenwriting critique, even a critique you don’t like, as an opportunity to make your script’s points absolutely clear to any reader.

That is, make it impossible for them to get wrong.

Tape the script notes to your wall

Nothing motivates me more as a screenwriter or a filmmaker than using a bad review as motivation to make the next one better. The next film, the next draft.  I can’t tell you how many bad things have been said about my movies and scripts.

But on the other hand, a lot of good things have been said about my movies and scripts as well.

Use your critics. And when I say “use,” I mean – use them like the tools they are (no pun intended.)

If you tape the bad coverage to your wall and look at it every time you sit down to write, you’ll be reminded constantly that you’re not writing for yourself.  And you’re not writing for “the people who get you.”

You’re writing for everybody, because you want to be a successful screenwriter.  And successful screenwriters must write films which audiences come to see.

And that means, as you stare at that screenplay coverage taped to your wall, fuming in anger that that script reader got it so wrong… You’re writing for that guy.  And don’t you forget it.

Not big on taping things to your wall?  Try these other great motivational tactics.

Get over yourself

And this is a big one as well. Too many screenwriters automatically assume any criticism of their work is automatically negative, insulting and wrong.

But the only screenwriters who succeed are the ones who put aside their initial angry reaction to their negative coverage and actually put themselves in the shoes, so to speak, of the  script reader.

If you can start thinking like a script reader, or better still, if you can start thinking like the critics of your work, you’ll find yourself in a position to be able to circumvent those critics.

But you’ve got to drop the ego, and drop the self-righteousness.

Yes, tenaciousness and spunk and moxy and self-belief are the fuel that fires all success, especially in the film industry, but you’ve got to temper that self-belief with an open ear an humility.  And a willingness to listen, and to learn.

(At least once in while, you egomaniac.)

Finally, here are some survival tips for screenwriters dealing with rejection and/or criticism of their work.

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