Thursday, December 08, 2011

Notes on giving notes

Getting notes is rarely fun. But as all TV and screenwriters know, it’s part of the gig. And more often than not, the notes are coming from authority figures who have no creative instincts or are just clueless in general. Again, not all executives fit into this category. Some are terrific and their input results in a much better script. But for the most part, you’re getting notes from people out of their league. And it’s not that they’re not bright or wonderful people; they’re just not qualified for this task. It’s as if I had to give notes on choreography. “Do we like her when she kicks in that direction?” “I feel there’s too much hopping.” Seriously, what the fuck do I know?

That’s not much different from getting script notes from former business affairs veeps, former lawyers, or 2010 graduates from Smith.

The best notes are the ones seeking clarification. “I didn’t understand this?” “Why is she mad?” If you’re having trouble tracking the story then I haven’t done my job. I will always address those notes.

The second best notes are the ones that are SPECIFIC. If a concern is pinpointed, I can respond to it. Either I can do the note or not, but at least I know what the note is.

There was a longtime executive at a major broadcast network who was notorious for giving the most obtuse notes imaginable. These are two actual notes that I have received from him.

1. (He holds his hand in the air) “You’re script is here.” (He raises the level of his hand) “I’d like it to be here.”   Huh????
2. “You’ve given me the meat the vegetables. But it needs more candy.”

How the hell do you write that? You spend half your rewrite just trying to decipher what to do? Have we raised it to this level? Or merely this level? Have we put in too much candy? Have we spoiled the meal? What is candy?

A Supreme Court Justice, I believe, coined the worst note ever. Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 ruled that Obscenity is not covered under the First Amendment. When asked the obvious question, “So what exactly is Obscenity?” he replied:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it,


Talk about shooting at a moving target. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received this note. And it’s totally useless. I’m not a mind reader, and even if I were, what good would it do me if you don’t have a thought in your head?

Obviously, you can’t always articulate what your problem is or exactly what you’re looking for. And it’s my job as a writer to provide fresh ideas, surprise you once in awhile. But give me some clues. Give me some parameters. Point to some examples. What was a previous instance and what satisfied you that time? What, do you know for sure, you don’t want?

The answer to I KNOW IT WHEN I SEE IT is...


Give specific notes!!!  Thank you on behalf of the entire writing community.


Rory W. said...

Although I'm not in show business, I've received some similar feedback from those "above me" when presenting material I've worked on.

My favorite is when an executive was invited to give feedback during the early stages of development, declined to do so, and, then when presented with the final product opined, "Well, I wouldn't have done it that way."

Very helpful and motivating. (Note that there was no follow-up by the executive along the lines of, "Here's how I think it should be.")

Dancer in a Former Life An said...

“I feel there’s too much hopping.”

Still chuckling and probably will be all day.

PolyWogg said...

But if I feel there isn't enough hopping???? :)

Like Rory, I too have had feedback (in a different industry) that was less than helpful. One of our former chief executives was notorious:

1. Not quite there;
2. Not what I expected;
3. Do over;
4. Yes, but no;
5. Crispy.

Option 1-4 meant do it again, but with no guidance what was wrong with the first version -- bearing in mind that these docs had been vetted by three layers of management as ready to go to a Minister.

We never discovered what 5 meant.


Anonymous said...

As a television editor I'm inundated with vague notes all the time. My favorites are "Make it a something", "Make it Prime-Timey" and my all time favorite... "make it bigger" which I've determined means louder.

Anonymous said...

Well, you've got to admit the unnamed executive's note would have worked for that episode with Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory.

Johnny Walker said...

As a Graphic Designer, I've had to find ways of trying to get decent responses from my clients. One type of note I get, which isn't mentioned here, is the, "Why don't we try it in red?" note. Which is to say, rather than put into words what they don't like about something, they try to solve it themselves... without ever thinking two important things:

1. "Hey, I'm paying this guy to make something look good, why don't I just tell him what I don't like, and HE can figure it out?"
2. "Maybe he's already tried it in five different shades of red, and it didn't work."

I think because Graphic Designer is such a visual medium, everyone feels they have a valid opinion and useful input.

But forgetting all that for a moment: THAT'S MY LEG! (And Ken's very cool Dad.)

Keith said...

Here's a sketch poking fun at bad notes:

Mac said...

I've had "I feel it's talking to me, now make it sing..."
I still don't get that one, as I wasn't writing a musical.

I've also had, after no days off for two months and working round the clock; "Disappointing." That was the entire response.
I emailed back, thanking him for the in-depth critique on story, dialogue, character development etc and the many constructive suggestions and guidelines. Then I got fired.

For the sake of balance, I've also had "It doesn't work, but I'll never say it doesn't work without telling you why, or without suggesting how it could be made to work."

So they're not all bad.

Brian Phillips said...

I've directed and acted (local theater) and my favorite note as an actor was from the writer of a sketch. This was radio theater and I and another fellow were grown men playing seven year-old boys.

So, we wore beanies with propellers; it got a big laugh.

The writer said, with a laugh:

"Rot in Hell, both of ya!"

RCP said...

"I’m not a mind reader, and even if I were, what good would it do me if you don’t have a thought in your head?"

Love that line.

Working in publishing, I'll receive "helpful" writing tips, such as one (not an exact quote but close enough) from a client seeking to sell a luxury property:

"Sip wine on your private balcony while being serenaded by a symphony of a thousand crickets."

Sometimes, being vague is preferable.

Jim said...

Was it Ken who posted a link to a spoof recording session for a radio ad a couple of years back? It was a pirate style voiceover where Oo Aar mne hearties slowly got whittled down to Arr Hearties to leave more time to get the name of the shop in. Complete with lots of meaningless direction for the poor actor trying to do his job.

Liz M. said...

I'm not sure sure where else to ask this, or if it's been asked before, but do you appear in any of these Behind the Scenes M*A*S*H clips:; and do you have anything to add or critique about how the process is described?

RS Gray said...

I was in the middle of writing a comment with some non-specific ideas about notes that I receive from my eccentric boss. But then serendipitously he called me into his office and I got one of the doozies of all time.

The scene in question is a negotiation between an American celebutante on the lam in Vietnam and a marriage mediator who has been bribed by the groom's family to keep him from marrying a poor local village girl. The celebutante offers to make for the marriage mediator some Vera Wang wedding gowns explaining that he'll make more money selling the Vera Wang knockoffs than he got from the parents' bribe. So.

Rather than explain what he thought was wrong with the scene as written I got this anecdote: When my boss was a young man, he was a surgeon in Egypt. He wanted to open a clinic in a small Bedouin town near Cairo, but everyone who had tried to open one had been run out of town by Hassan, the local barber, because Hassan also gave injections and saw a clinic as competition. So my boss' solution was to explain to Hassan that if he offered to give the men injections of calcium, it would make their balls hot (verbatim quote - I have no idea whether it's true, or why this is desirable). My boss could get the calcium injections for five pence and Hassan could sell them for fifteen. And in this way, my boss was able to open the clinic.

So that's the note. About how to change the Vietnamese marriage mediator scene.

Okay, back to work.

Cap'n Bob said...

I was in a community theater play. During rehearsal the director said this to me: "You did something good in Act 2. Keep doing it." Need I say that as a director he sucked.

Cap'n Bob said...

Here's the question mark I omitted from my comment: ?

c. swanberg said...

I remember a line from one of my favorite films
"Stranger than fiction" when Will Ferrell's character, "Harold Crick" is talking to Dustin Hoffman.
Hoffman says "So live your life, eat pancakes" and Harold protests because he feels that Hoffman doesn't understand. Then Hoffman says that its the quality of the life depends on the quality of the pancakes. In other words enjoy your life to its fullest while you have it. I love the metaphor. like Carpe diem! If there is one thing I have learned, as screenwriter or story teller. only let like minded people read your work(in other words other writers or artists who know you.) I shared a story with a one time friend who was not such a person and he didn't get it-at all. But also ask for specific feedback. and be open to their response- it might be good or even fix a problem.

Debby G said...

The vague "I'll know what obscenity is when I see it" ruling led to many years in which the Supreme Court Justices "had to" watch movies at the courthouse in order to rule on whether they were obscene. For real.

I write humorous novels. My former editor's notes often consisted of "Make it funnier." Gee, thanks for that very helpful guidance.

cjdahl60 said...

Those notes you reference are bad, but one has to wonder why no notes were sent on this British sitcom (from the "Now I Know" website):

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Here's a Friday question, raised by last night's Big Bang Theory. Here is a show I have loved since day one, but last night's episode lost the magic because all I kept thinking throughout was, "This could be an episode of Two and a Half Men". In fact, it may even have *been* an episode of Two and a Half Men. Same stable, after all. Similarly, it was noticeable that during the years that Buffy and Angel overlapped the same themes would pop up on both shows, always done differently, but also always recognizable. So, my question: when you're running two shows at once how hard does it become to keep them separate? And what are good strategies for doing so?

PS: Could still use a restaurant recommendation for Honolulu.

Ken levine said...


Go to Roy's in Hawaii.

Ken Levine
Via iPad

imsmart said...

I'll bet that execs wouldn't be giving a lot of suggestions to someone they felt was taking their kinds of concerns into account. In fact I'll bet that they wouldn't mind getting a lot of suggestions from such a someone.