Thursday, June 6, 2013

How to Take Notes

(Part Two of Two on Notes Sessions)

Last post I discussed the politics behind a professional notes session. This week I’ll discuss how you, the writer, should behave when receiving notes and some strategies for dealing with bad notes. Be aware, notes sessions can be in person in a meeting or over the phone. Notes may be delivered verbally or in writing.

Write Everything Down

The first rule of taking notes is don’t react immediately to the note. This is true whether the note is coming from a producer or from a member of your writers' group. The best thing to do is simply write the comment down. In fact, in a studio notes meeting, not writing the note down could be seen as unprofessional or even insulting.

There are a couple good reasons not to react immediately. First of all, you are likely to have an emotional response, and if this response is that the note is stupid, then you might say something unwise. Second, it can take a while to wrap your head around a bigger change. Your initial reaction might be that the suggestion can’t possibly work, whereas if you think about it for a while it may actually dramatically improve the script. Third, the stress of a notes session may not be the best place to evaluate the quality of a note.

Finally, if the notes are delivered verbally, sometimes people start coming up with things off the top of their heads. And when they’re doing this, sometimes they’ll blurt out something dumb. They may know it’s dumb the moment it leaves their mouth and are hoping everyone will just kind of forget they said it. But if you point out the dumbness, you force them to defend it, particularly if their boss is in the room. Now they will insist that you must do the dumb idea.

So write everything down. If you don’t fully understand a comment, feel free to ask for clarification. But turn off your judgment for the moment and just record the notes. Later you can ponder them at your leisure and decide how to address them.

Sometimes you’ll get a suggestion that is so right on and so clear and that will so obviously make the script better, you smack your head because you didn’t think of it yourself. But that, unfortunately, is the exception. It can take a little work to evaluate notes. Sometimes the note-giver will have identified a problem but offer the wrong solution. Other times it may be difficult to even figure out what problem they stumbled over. When I get a note that doesn’t seem to make sense, the first thing I do is try to figure out what prompted it.

This is key because most of the time the producer or executive isn’t so concerned that you do exactly what they say, but rather that you address the issue they brought up in some form. If you come up with a better solution than what they suggested, they will usually be delighted. Sometimes, however, they will insist that you make the change exactly as they said. In those cases, you have to decide how important it is to make them happy – which may amount to how important it is that you keep the job.

Pick Your Battles

Obviously if a suggestion will improve the script, you should do it. You should also do the suggestions that are neutral – those that don’t make the script better, but they don’t make it particularly worse. Why fight over something that doesn’t really matter? If the note makes the script only slightly worse, you probably want to do that, too. Save your resistance for the notes that really hurt the script. The more suggestions you take, the easier it will be to fight the ones you hate.

And what do you do with the bad notes? As I mentioned earlier, sometimes you can just ignore them, especially if they were delivered verbally and there is no real record of them other than what you wrote down. If, however, you ignore a note and then it comes up again in the next meeting, you’re probably going to have to do it.

A for Effort

Usually you have a certain latitude to say, “I tried it and it didn’t work.” You might be able to use this on up to 20% of the smaller notes, the ones that only impact a scene or two.

Now, I recommend that you really do try these notes. Maybe the producer or executive is actually right and you’re wrong. Shocking, I know, but it does happen. Sometimes when you try a note you think is off base, you’ll find it actually does make the scene better. Or perhaps it will give you a different idea that improves the scene. And if it turns out it doesn’t work, then you can honestly justify why you didn’t do it.

If you’re collaborative, if you make a serious attempt to execute most of the notes, then usually the executives will accept that the handful of notes you rejected really didn’t work. But it’s important to make it clear that you listened and took them seriously. I find this to be the best way to deal with conflicting notes. You can say you tried both approaches and you picked the one that worked best.

When I am faced with the prospect of executing a note that I disagree with, the first thing I will do is try to come up with an even better change. I will give credit to the note-giver for inspiring this new idea. Hopefully they will agree it’s better than what they suggested.

Lipstick for a Pig

There will be times, though, when you are instructed in no uncertain terms to make a change that you disagree with. You’re only choice here is to do it or quit. Quitting is hard, both on your spirit and on your career, but occasionally it’s really the best choice for your long-term success and happiness. Most of the time you’ll want to hold your nose and make the change.

And when that happens, I recommend doing your very best to make the change work. As I said last time, it’s your name on the script. You don’t get to assign blame to the person who made the awful suggestion. So try like hell to make the note work.

I know some writer believe “if they are paying you, you should do whatever they say.” I disagree. Sometimes your job is to save them from themselves. If the script improves, everyone benefits. The trick is to build a good relationship with the people you’re working for, and to be willing to make changes – if not always every change or the exact change they suggested.

And remember, there are a lot worse jobs than screenwriting!

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