The best notes tend to be specific

Reading services, from the Blacklist to me, prefer to give overall notes in a general way. They’re easier to do, and harder to specifically challenge. Unfortunately, they’re not always the most helpful.

Take these Blacklist notes posted by reddit user wolfduke :

The narrative suffers from a premise that is ungrounded, as it introduces a sprawling cast, myriad of magical, fantasy elements, and a limitless time span that transcends a specific, coherent setting. The script could function quite well if it focused on Servanda’s story in the 1487 Rome location, but the addition of an african slave, a Grim Reaper, and the adventure plot that ensues leaves the audiences with too much to digest and too many elements that require a leap of faith and willing suspension of disbelief.

The gist of the note is clear: focus on a storyline and cut things that require the willing suspension of disbelief, but that’s rather abstract. It’s not like authors go into scripts knowing the precise rules that govern willing suspension of disbelief and works against them. Notes like these often need specific examples and a stress on why they break the reader’s perceived “rule” but there’s rarely enough time in two pages.

Readers tend to communicate general concepts: enter late/leave early. Show don’t tell. Speaking as someone who struggles to internalize these after years of writing, these notes are tough to execute. We generally grasp them, but it’s hard to do in the moment. As such, scripts tend to fail on individual lines, but notes rarely go that granular and we end up reading them like tarot cards, trying to discern a useful meaning from abstract symbols.

This is my preferred way for giving (and getting) notes:

  1. Convert file to editable format. Writerduet is really good at converting PDF scripts.
  2. Make notes immediately after the specific situation to which they pertain, marking them with a hashtag (#) so they’re easy to search for.
  3. Make liberal use of strikeout.
  4. When suggesting a general rule, pitch an example. These are rarely perfect, but they illustrate the gist of what I’m suggesting.

Example here: I made these for a short I found on /r/readmyscript so I could show an example without any client confidentiality issues.

As you’ll note, my style is rather blunt, I’m liberal with suggestions and pitches, and I do a lot of striking out. This may be a little undiplomatic for some, but generally when I do these I’m getting paid for them, or someone’s specifically asked for them knowing my specific reputation. Any and all these notes can be ignored, but they’re actionable and specifically useful.

Some may find the idea of suggesting cuts or alt lines a little too presumptuous, and that’s fine. It works for me, but not everyone. But I strongly recommend the idea of tying notes to specific lines. You could do this by writing on a script, using PDF annotation apps, or making a word document tying notes to specific pages, but I find this way the most efficient and easiest to digest.

I also like doing this to my own scripts. When I’m rewriting I try to take off my writer hat and put on my critic hat. I ask myself, “If this were someone else’s script that I had no investment in, what would I legitimately think?”

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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