Why Writers Mess Up When Getting Notes & How to Avoid it

As screenwriters we are repeatedly told that in order to become professional, we have to learn how to respond to notes like a pro. This information is always given in a moralistic, judgemental manner. Hey, look at those losers who can’t take notes like a pro. And, many writers carry huge amounts of shame about because they genuinely struggle with getting notes and this is only ever presented as a failing in them as writers and as human beings. I want to make one thing really clear in this post…

You aren’t bad at taking notes. You just don’t understand the psychology of the process. You are not a bad person or a failure.

In order to progress as screenwriters, we genuinely do have to be able to respond appropriately to notes. But, unfortunately, there is an important psychological element in screenwriting that people don’t talk about enough. And through lack of knowledge/understanding a lot of writers make the same mistake over and over again. A mistake they could avoid if they understood what was happening to them.

Yesterday, I was getting notes on my biopic. The conversation took four hours. And it was a really good session. The director and I have reached the point where we trust each other. We’re both focused on the same thing, creating the best film we can. 

The notes I got were good notes and I understood where they were coming from. I now have a rewrite to do and a deadline to hit. You might imagine that I am throwing myself into the rewrite today. I am not! Today, I am taking a day off to do other things. Let me explain why.

To create a script, we have to build a visualisation of the movie, of the characters, locations and their actions, that is so real, we feel like we’re living it with them.

Notes ALWAYS require an alteration of that visualisation! ALWAYS!

If we try to respond to notes immediately, we will run into the our existing visualisation like it’s a brick wall. It may feel impossible for that visualisation to change because we’ve lived with it and are emotionally connected to it. 

Notes work on a subconscious level before they work on our consciousness directly. So, by taking a step-back for a day, a week, a month, our subconscious will soften the visualisation. Instead of feeling like running into a brick wall, it will start to feel malleable, like clay. And once it is like that rewriting is a pleasure because we’re being creative again. And, we are creative people.

Writers who are “bad at taking notes” aren’t really bad at taking notes. They’re just unaware of the psychology of rewriting. They only experience the pain of trying to force the visualisation of the film to change whilst it’s still completely solid and impenetrable. So their natural reaction is to declare how utterly solid and completely unchangeable the story is. They do this because it really does feel that way, at that moment.

Writers who are “good at taking notes” generally are the ones who listen and who wait for a day or two before reacting to what they’ve been told. It’s really that simple. You have to let the visualisation soften before you try to alter it.

For More Screenwriting Techniques

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For more techniques to improve your screenwriting Clive has written a ground-breaking book called The Process of Screenwriting.

There is a free sample and other useful handouts here.

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