Whether you’re looking to break into script reading or just want to help out a friend, knowing how to give the best notes to help the writer is key. It may seem easy… just say if it was good or bad, right? Well, that wouldn’t help the writer at all.
If you’re not sure how to start, here are four points to learn before you dive in.
Read the whole script before you start to write down the notes. You need the whole picture before you can start pointing out issues. It’s easy to jump the gun and start claiming story elements are random or don’t have a purpose before you see the final resolve.
What I would recommend instead, is to highlight the problem areas and then, once you have the whole story stored away, you can return to those areas with the bigger picture in mind. You owe it to the writer to understand the story like the intended audience first and then return with the critical mind of the reader.
Have you ever submitted work to be judged? Something you’ve worked countless hours on? If not, maybe you should have that experience first before wielding such great power. If you have sat through a workshop and received criticism, you know what works and what doesn’t. This can help you write feedback in a better tone and in a way the writer can better accept it.
An even better idea is to trade your services for theirs. If the writer is reading over your script while you read over theirs, it will keep that idea fresh in your mind to produce the best feedback you can because you would want them to do the same. Critiquing someone’s work can feel empowering, but be very careful. With great power, comes great responsibility. Coverfly has a free peer-to-peer script exchange you should try out.
Devil in the Details
As a writer reading another writer’s work, it can be easy to try to impose your own writing style and preferences into their work without even knowing it. The best fix for this is to start big picture. Reading the whole script first helps with this. Start with structure, characters, the plot, and then go into more detail. Think about the WeScreenplay script coverage example and how it moves through topics going from overall comments to a more detailed analysis.
The smallest you should do is fix spelling errors and formatting issues. If you’re changing verbs and descriptions because “this sounds better”, you might consider taking a step back. No artist wants someone they asked “how does it look?” to start painting over their hard work. The reader’s job isn’t to ‘fix’ the writer’s work, it’s to guide the writer to discover a better version of their story.
Open a Book
It’s never too late to learn about the roots of storytelling. How can you advise someone to change their story, if you can’t tell them why you think those changes will work? You can help a writer and your credibility if you can tell them how to fix their structure and back it up sources from those whose analysis of stories have been studied for years. Some good places to start are: Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Aristotle’s Poetics, Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, and Lajos Egri’s Art of Dramatic Writing. There are, of course, more modern texts on the structure and form of screenwriting and storytelling, but while our narrative tastes have changed, the structures of stories remain the same.
Script reading may sound easy, but without knowledge about writing and story structure, it can be hard to give the writer the advice they need to revise their script and make it the best they can. You have to get out of your comfort zone and look at all different types of scripts from big budget high fantasy to a two camera one-room horror. You need to suspend your preferences to give an unbiased reading of their story.
Feedback is the unsung sidekick of writing. Without feedback, writers can burn themselves out trying to perfect their drafts with only their perspective. A lot can be lost after rereading the same script and rewriting it a few times.
Make sure when you’re chosen to give a writer their feedback that you understand that they’re trusting you to be a new way of seeing their script, not a new co-writer.
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting graduate from Drexel University. She loves all visual writing mediums and has experience in writing plays, comic books, screenplays, TV sitcoms, and video games. World building is her favorite and she obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her spare time, you may find her trying to get over her fear of heights at a rock wall or adopting yet another plant because she can’t afford an actual pet.