Ask a Mentor
Paul Redford has advice for the writer asked to give notes on a script.
There is a lot of helpful info on the internet about how to implement notes you’ve been given on a script. But how should you handle the situation when someone—a friend, a mentee, your third cousin who came out of the woodwork—asks you to give them notes on theirs? Paul Redford (Designated Survivor, Madam Secretary), who leads a mentorship group with Allison Abner (Madam CJ Walker, When We Rise), has advice for those writers who dare to step into the emotional and professional “minefield” that is giving notes on a script.
Question: What advice do you have for someone being asked to give notes on a script?
Paul Redford: Well, the first bit of advice:
Not unless you’re aware of how completely loaded the situation is—how it always is—when you’re asked for notes. You’re being asked to step into a minefield, both emotional and professional. You’re being handed someone’s baby. Coming between a mama bear and her cub. What if you get mauled?
So why not use the excuse that you don’t want to get sued? Tell them you can’t read any script not submitted through representation (agent/manager/lawyer) because down the road, when you’re accepting that Emmy, that Oscar, or Nobel, you don’t want the note-requester coming forth and saying the idea was theirs. That they came up with the concept of a guy whose job it is to solve crimes and he’s called a “detective.” See? It’s right there on page 5. Of that script I gave you ten years ago.
But what if you have the desire to be a good friend and mentor and you say yes?
Then it’s up to you to ask for notes from the writer first: What is it that you, Writer, expect from my notes?
Do you want me to point out typos? I can do that.
Do you want me to tell you if it’s GOOD? Can’t. Too general. Too existential.
Do you want me to tell you what WORKS and what DOESN’T? Okay, getting closer.
Let’s talk about criteria here. Are you asking me to measure and evaluate your script according to some industry standard? Tell you if this is or isn’t a successful network-faux-documentary-format-half-hour-single-camera-comedy? A streaming-limited-crime-series? A Blumhouse-cheapie-horror-one-off-with-potential-for-multiple-spin-offs-and-sequels?
I can do that! We’re writing in a marketplace here and we have to identify the goods. We have to be a little cold-eyed and treat this damp-from-the-womb-of-your-soul newborn as a PRODUCT. As—everyone’s favorite word—CONTENT that comes with a set of expectations, and that’s where I, as an industry professional and CONTENT PROVIDER, can be of help. I can tell you what slot this fits into, what captioned row on the Netflix home screen this would belong in, and where your efforts fulfill that criteria and advise you from there.
Beyond that, my two most important bits of advice have to do with respect. If you’re going to give notes, do it from a place of kindness, of regard for your colleague’s feelings, maybe even love. That means:
Give your opinions as opinions, not as truths. (I’m indebted to the wonderful John August and Craig Mazin for this insight and their wonderful Script Notes podcast. Check it out. And then tell me if podcast titles are italicized. Formatting note.)
It’s like you’re in couples counseling. Use “I” words, say “it feels to me like,” and not: “This is how it is. This is THE TRUTH.”
Not: “Your first six pages DON’T WORK and your lead character IS UNRELATABLE.”
“I wasn’t engaged by your opening scene in a way I think you intended; I found it confusing unfortunately, and it wasn’t until the scene with their dog on page 50 that I finally understood why I should care about your lead character and their problem.” Implication: These are just my opinions, my feelings, and I’m willing to answer for them, argue about them. I’ll take responsibility for them as just another writer and not as your superior. Not someone who knows what’s what and you don’t.
Present your note-giving as an invitation to a conversation.
Another way to say it is: make your notes more often questions than statements. “What were you going for when you made them a dog-owner? Really? Then why not show them with their dog on page 8 instead of 50? And is the dog really the best way to do that?”
See? Questions. Conversation instead of a diagnosis or a verdict, a series of declarations of what’s wrong. Leave those for the actual pros who are reading it, with money and their jobs on the line. They’re the ones who get to be bad cops.
Treat your fellow writers’ babies with love and leave it to others to murder their darlings, including the actual author themself. They’re going to be harder on this script than anyone. Or they ought to be.
And by the way, we all know that scene with the dog on page 50 is terrible; you don’t have to say it. Just leave it to your fellow writer to figure it out on their own.
Send your questions about the craft, job hunting, your career, or Guild service to Connect (under 100 words, please) with the subject “Mentor,” and we’ll send them to an established screen or TV writer to answer. Questions might be edited for space or clarity and will be published anonymously. WGAW mentors provide informal career advice and are not expected to read scripts, give notes, hear pitches, or help find representation or work.
Missed a previous “Ask a Mentor”? Read answers to these questions.