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By Travis Maiuro
Franz Kafka once said, “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” Jeez, Franz. Could you be any more depressing?
But the lonely writer stereotype is indeed a famous one and it’s somewhat true — writing is, for the most part, a solitary act. It may not be “the descent into the cold abyss” of your soul that old Franz makes it out to be, but the fact remains that as a writer in the throes of writing, you’re stuck inside your own head and it’s difficult to escape.
And that’s where your writer friends can come in handy. Don’t take them — and their writing advice — for granted.
But there’s a catch. In order to maintain writer friends willing to provide you with feedback, you have to become one of those writer friends yourself; you have to learn how to give good feedback.
You may be thinking, who am I to give notes? I’m no expert. I feel like a fraud, why should anyone listen to me? Or maybe you have a hard time delivering feedback in a diplomatic, insult-free package.
Alas, this is for you. Here are some things to keep in mind when giving feedback to your writer friends.
Be Positive (Without The BS)
Worry not. The aforementioned self-doubt affects all creative types. We’re all fragile — especially those of us who are afflicted with sizable egos. It’s important to keep this in mind.
There’s a difference between positivity and kissing ass. Don’t blow smoke. Don’t create any illusions for your writer friend. Everyone wants to hear that their work is loved, but it’s not what they need to hear. So keep your positivity honest and pragmatic. Don’t tell the writer his/her scene is nearly there when it’s not, just to get him/her off your back.
“I like where this is headed…” “It’s clear that you have a good sense of this character…” Notes like that are encouraging to hear — they inspire a drive to keep on writing. That’s the goal: keep your friend writing; drive him/her to push harder. Use the fact that he/she is a friend to your advantage. You can be real. No beating around the bush, no sugarcoating. It’s a sign of respect. Use positivity to encourage more and better writing.
Read The Whole Thing
Whether it’s the work of a friend, acquaintance, or total stranger off the street, respect is necessary. So take the time and read the whole thing — whether it’s one page or 120. The fact is you either offered to read it and give notes or you said yes to the request of reading it. Either way, you own the responsibility now.
Here’s the thing: a half-assed read will translate to half-assed notes. If you skim, you might miss something and your notes will reflect that. Either you’ll look like an idiot, or it’ll be blatantly obvious that you didn’t care enough to pay attention. Granted, there’s always the case that you missed something due to logic problems in a confusing script — but make a note of that if that’s the case! You don’t want to be the friend known for giving crappy notes.
Don’t waste your friend’s time (or yours). If you can’t read thoroughly, don’t take it on.
Asking Questions Is More Engaging
There’s a reason writing workshops work — they foster a collaborative environment. Things become more engaging. Translating your thoughts and notes into question form will engage the writer — your feedback will become more workshop-like, more collaborative. Asking questions like, “Have you thought of this…?” and “I’m wondering if this character needs…?” makes the feedback process more interesting for both reader and writer.
Take a cue from Pixar. They call it “plussing.” Incorporating your notes using the words “and” and “what if” adds to and expands upon the foundation that your writer friend has built. Again, it’s about collaboration rather than tearing down and picking apart. (Seems to be a pretty successful method for Pixar… just saying.)
To Nitpick Is To Annoy
Let’s face it: nitpicking is annoying. It’s also the easy/lazy way out. Focusing on minor mistakes that can easily be fixed in a polish avoids tackling the bigger issues of the script, like whether there’s a narrative drive or character development needs work or if plot movements make sense, etc.
Unless your writer friend specifically asks you to look out for grammar or formatting/style issues (or if these things are bad enough to be distracting from the overall read) ignore them for now. Pick your battles — there are bigger things to deal with. Don’t avoid the meat of the writing.
Ask Yourself: How Would I Want Feedback?
We learn a version of this from an early age: treat others the way you would want to be treated. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
But it’s true! And worth incorporating into your feedback. In fact, it may be one of the most important aspects. Think about the type of feedback you respond to the best. Steal from that. Build on that type of constructive criticism. Maybe you like it straightforward and to the point. Maybe you need encouragement to find the motivation to keep on writing. Maybe you’re partial to the questions.
Use what works best for you and create your own style. Stay attuned to what your writer friend responds to and be flexible. Just treat the writing like it’s your own. You want to see it improve.
So hold onto your writer friends. Their feedback on your writing will give you an escape from that “cold abyss” of your mind. They’ll provide you with very much needed objectivity.
Make some writer friends if you don’t have any — they can typically be found in the wilds of writing workshops, classes, grad school cohorts, etc. Maybe even your local bartender. You never know, she could be a devoted reader and have the best notes — only one way to find out.
And there’s only one way to keep your writer friends — giving them good feedback in turn.
Travis Maiuro taught the craft of writing while pursuing his MFA in Screenwriting from the University of Texas at Austin. He currently writes about movies (primarily of the guilty pleasure variety) here.