Sunday, December 04, 2016

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) “Your 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.

This is a re-post from five years ago.


Steve said...

Re-posting old post! Run out of ideas Ken?

By Ken Levine said...

No. Just running out of patience for people who complain about amount of content on a free blog. Go somewhere else. There's plenty of fresh material for you to enjoy.

Covarr said...

I think most people have to deal with this during school years. I once had a short fiction assignment in college come back with mostly positive notes from the professor, but one really stuck out to me: "Overall, the story was great, but some of the lines were a bit predictable." Not the story or plot, just the lines.

Even aside from the fact that I was aiming to write realistic dialogue and humans often speak predictably, I found it immensely frustrating that there was no indication as to which dialogue he meant. If I'd had that, I could've either defended my writing or fixed it. It may have been good feedback.

I still have the story, but even if I look at it a thousand times, it'll still be me looking at it. The whole reason people ever ask for feedback is a for fresh set of eyes, without the same biases, perspectives, prior knowledge, or insight into what we had in mind. But if it's not actionable, it's as useful as no feedback at all, but more annoying because of the time we waste trying to figure out what action we need to take.

I'm imagining of an elementary teacher marked assignments like this. A big red C at the top, with the note, "Several words were spelled wrong," but not a single misspelling marked individually. It seems so obvious, so absurd, as if nobody could be that dumb, yet applied to the sorts of writing people do as teenagers and adults it's quite common.

Nathan Clark said...

Well said Ken... Time to give it to those trolls.

On another note what's your take on all this Mel Gibson is back, forgiven by Hollywood......

You think he will be nominated for anything bigger than these Critics' award?

AlaskaRay said...

Great post, but I have a few notes.

FeelingBlueInARedState said...

Covarr, an English professor once returned one of my college essays with the comment, "You have an unfortunate fondness for dangling modifiers." I was mortified and, even more embarrassingly, had to go look up dangling modifiers in my grammar handbook as I'd never heard of them before. Despite the fact that I can actually see the humor in her comment now, it absolutely stung at the time despite the fact that she gave me an "A" on the paper. Teachers...and bosses... They really now how to kill the creative spark sometimes.

Ken, despite the baseball talk, I keep coming back to your blog because it resonates with me. I'm far removed from Hollywood but stumbled here because of a Dick van Dyke google chase I was on. Whatever the reason, I keep hanging around because you and many of the commenters here seem like kindred spirits. I admit that I've been in a funk these last few weeks, worried what the Orange Cheeto will tweet next and whether that will result in all-out war with China or just a tweet battle with Alec Baldwin. A bright spot in my day is always your daily post, even the baseball ones. And the good news is that I'm getting old and forgetful, so even your re-posts seem new again. :)

Todd Everett said...

I understand exactly what the "more candy" guy means -- network HR take note; I am available for an executive position.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Hypoglycemia would explain a number of programming decisions.

Cap'n Bob said...

I had an inept play director tell me, after a rehearsal, "I like that thing you did in Act II. Keep it in."

I had no idea what he was talking about, but at least it was positive.

MikeN said...

That would mean that anyone who replies to a comment in this post is
giving notes on notes on notes on giving notes.

Ken the notes you reject is what from Aaron Sorkin & co is considered brilliant writing, where the President tells his speechwriter he wants 'altitude'.

Diane D said...

If you don't know that Ken Levine does occasional reposts, you must be new to the blog and may also not know that he has a post every single day of the year, even when he is on vacation---a remarkable feat considering all the things he is involved in. He has new readers all the time so reposts are the same as new ones if you've never read them, and there are favorites that many readers are happy to see again. You may not have meant to offend, but as you noticed, he gets justifiably annoyed when someone complains about a blog that is not only free but full of very valuable information for people aspiring to be involved in television comedy writing. And for those not in the business (like me) it is very entertaining and interesting, even fascinating.

MikeN said...

The Bond post was one of the few reposts that I recognized. Another one was where he described spec scripts, and said How I Met You Mother was dated, but in the original post he said it was part of the zeitgeist.

Diane D. said...

"Notes on notes on notes on giving notes." Hilarious, MikeN!

Johnny Walker said...

There's so much gold in the archives, a re-post is always welcome, especially one as good as this. Maybe, just maybe, an executive will read this and improve their ways, too.

Dana King said...

I used to draft advertising copy for trade how blurbs and magazine ads for a small company. My favorite "note" form that time is when the boss said, "I know I didn't tell you what I wanted, but this isn't it."

Okay, it's my favorite now. Not so much at the time.

VP81955 said...

I have no complaints reading Ken's "greatest hits," just as I'll still watch a repeat episode of "Mom."

Andrew said...

"There are, how shall one say... Too many notes." (from Amadeus)

Diane D said...

"Note this before my notes; there's not a note of mine that's worth the noting." Shakespeare

Flynn said...


I did not respond on your earlier request to know who your readers are but I thought I would do it now so that you know you are loved.

I am 50ish, live in Canada, not a fan of baseball, have no involvement in the entertainment industry. So basically there is no reason I should enjoy this blog. And yet I make sure I visit everyday.

I also have the memory of a goldfish so reposts are fine with me

Jason Evans said...

It's about the notes you don't read.

Also, the candy is clearly hardcore pornography

Andrew said...

Sorry to sound pretentious, but the entire dialogue I referred to earlier is so on point that (with Ken's permission) I'd like to post the whole thing, both because of the example of vague feedback from a mediocrity, and the irony of referring to "notes."

Mozart: So then you liked it? You really liked it, Sire?

Emperor: Well of course I did, it’s very good! Of course now and then – just now and then – it seemed a touch, er –

Mozart: What do you mean, Sire?

Emperor: Well, I mean occasionally it seems to have – oh how shall one say? How shall one say, Director?

Orsini-Rosenberg: Too many notes, Your Majesty?

Emperor: Exactly, very well put. Too many notes.

Mozart: I don’t understand. There are just as many notes, Majesty, as are required, neither more nor less.

Emperor: My dear fellow, there are in fact only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening. I think I’m right in saying that, aren’t I, Court Composer?

Salieri: Yes. Yes, on the whole, yes, Majesty.

Mozart: This is absurd.

Emperor: My dear, young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Cut a few and it will be perfect.

Mozart: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

Unknown said...

It is said that note-givers date back to the earliest days of the movies when moguls like Louis B. Mayer invented unnecessary jobs in order to parcel them out to their relatives. Hence the abundance of non-writers telling writers how to write