Script Production How to Write Useful NotesIt can feel easy at times to recognize when something isn’t working in a script. After all, we live in a highly literate society and, as such, are exposed to good and bad narratives throughout our lives. This constant exposure to narrative has honed in us the ability to identify fairly quickly when a story isn’t any good. However, recognizing that something isn’t working is a very different skill set from being able to articulate exactly what that ‘something’ is.

Whether you are a producer, a development executive, a script editor, or someone else who is part of the script production process, the way you summarize your thoughts and express them to the script writer can make the difference between a writer who understands and will respond to your thoughts and a writer who walks away from your meeting feeling confused, insecure, or angry. Keep the following advice in mind as you prepare to meet with a writer about his or her script. It will help to facilitate clear communication of your thoughts and wishes.

Don’t dilly-dally. You want the writer to know that you respect his or her work, and one of the best ways to show this is to respond to each new draft as quickly as possible. Remember that your writer spent weeks (and possibly months) working diligently on this script and is now quite possibly waiting by the phone for your feedback. If you can’t get to a new draft right away, then express to the writer that you look forward to reading the draft and will make it a priority as soon as your current task is taken care of.  This will express to the writer that you respect the amount of time and energy spent on this script and will treat it accordingly.

Don’t skimp on rereading. When you get a new draft rewrite, your inclination may be to read only the marked up changes. Instead, take the time to read the entire script in order to feel the flow of the new version. You may even find that your writer chose to change sections outside of a problematic scene in order to address the problem. If the rewrite is very different from what you had in mind yourself, make sure you take the time to reread it a couple times. Let it simmer and consider that it may even be better than what you originally expected.

Don’t be afraid of a little work. There is sometimes a false belief in this industry that great scripts leap out of their writers’ minds like Minerva springing from the brow of Jupiter. This is absolutely not the case. Great scripts evolve from the collaborative process between you and the writer, from respectful conversations, and from numerous rewrites. Be patient with this process and avoid putting undue pressure on your writer to fix everything immediately.

Relate everything back to your main goal. Sometimes as you work through draft after draft of a script, you may lose sight of your original conception of the film. What kind of film did you set out trying to make? Remind yourself of this and consider how each of your notes relates to that original conception.

Questions are the key. It’s not your job to find answers or solves problems with the script. Leave that to the writer. Instead, use your notes to raise questions about the writer’s intention in a spot that seems problematic, or ask the writer how he or she thinks a section could be reworked to address an issue. Consider saying things like, “This is an interesting concept. Where did you get the idea for this?” or “I’m having trouble visualizing this. What would it look like?”

Don’t forget the compliments. This is a common complain among writers, whose creative investment in the script causes note-taking to feel like a personal confrontation. Therefore, even if you’re trying to get your notes finished as quickly as possible, don’t let yourself get tunnel-vision, only pointing out the parts of the script that are problematic. Make notes that highlight the areas of the script that you think work really well, too. Not only will this provide encouragement to your writer and strengthen his or her self-esteem; it can also keep your writer from cutting out or rewriting the parts of the script that you liked.

Start big. Organize your notes so that they begin with more general observations (for example, regarding the film’s premise or overarching themes). Then move gradually into more particular aspects of the script (characterization and sequences next, for example, followed by specific scenes).

Be clear and concise. Don’t just read the script once and then throw some vague ideas at your writer. Give the script the attention it deserves and read through it a few times. Think about your notes carefully and consider whether they give real constructive feedback. Avoid suggestions like, “This needs to be funnier.”

Avoid trivial details. A common complaint of writers occurs when they are given notes that micromanage the script instead of pointing out broader concerns. Doing this can have two negative results. First, by focusing on small details, you will find yourself with twenty pages of notes for your writer – an extremely off-putting and demotivating form of input. Second, your writer will likely feel insulted that you feel the need to micromanage the script like this, which demonstrates a lack of trust in your writer’s abilities. This can undermine your long-term relationship with your writer.

What is the story being told? This may seem like an obvious questions, but often writers and note-takers lose sight of the forest through the trees. In other words, look for the core of the story, the primary tale that is being told, and ask yourself (and your writer) whether that is coming through the script clearly. Consider and ask your writer how apparently tangential scenes support or otherwise relate to the main storyline.

Do you avoid business talk or not? Chances are, your writer is not going to be overly motivated by the economic promise of the film, but rather by the feeling that he or she is adding to the aesthetics of film culture. This is not to say that you can’t get a writer who cares about the film’s marketability. Ultimately, this is a situation which depends upon the personality of your writer, and you will need to make this judgment call yourself. If you’re in doubt, you can always simply ask your writer what his or her preferences are, whether it’s best to avoid discussing potential tag lines and poster images or whether that can be a fun and enjoyable part of your meetings together.

Be consistent with other note-takers. If you aren’t the only note-taker –and chances are that you aren’t – then you’ll need to compare notes with the others before passing them on to the writer. Resolve any significant disagreements or contradictions among the note-takers before passing your comments to the writer. Don’t pass on notes from other people with which you disagree; it’s difficult to discuss the implications of a problem with the writer when you don’t actually believe it’s a problem.