This week I’m delighted to share with you some thoughts from screenwriter and former development executive, CAT MOULTON. As someone who has worked on both sides of the fence, Cat has a unique insight into the process of both giving and receiving notes.
Cat worked in drama development and production before she became a screenwriter. Her credits as a development exec include The Good Karma Hospital and Peaky Blinders. She was on the 2019 4Screenwriting course and she has written an episode of Baptiste series two. She is currently writing an episode of a new show for Sky One.
The Dark Art of Giving and Receiving Script Notes by Cat Moulton
Eighteen months ago, I left my job as a development executive to become a writer. I spent seventeen years giving notes to writers and now I’m offering up my own work for criticism.
My first script meetings as a writer were meta, out-of-body experiences. I was attempting to respond to notes and simultaneously giving myself notes on how I was reacting to the notes. Was I that awkward, defensive writer I sometimes encountered as a development exec? The one I wished would understand I was trying to help them make their script better?
There’s no doubt receiving notes on your work can be an uncomfortable experience. I’m lucky to be working with producers who are very good at giving notes and it’s given me a renewed appreciation for the job I used to do.
When I decided to make the move into writing I wrote a weird horror script. I gave it to a few people whose opinions I respected and I braced myself for their reactions. It turned out that my script was very marmitey. Some people really liked it and others didn’t get it at all. But even among the people who liked it, there were a wide range of opinions about how to make it better. Some people loved certain sequences, others earmarked the exact same sequences as cuts. If I’d taken on board all the notes I was given the script would be a mess. So how do you work out what to take from notes?
Writers are often told to trust their gut when working out what’s the right choice for their script. Which is great advice if your gut is a responsible adult, but I’ve learned from experience that my gut is often telling me it doesn’t want to do a note because it would unpick things that took ages to write and it feels like hard work. Or that it doesn’t know how to address the note and it feels scary.
Giving and receiving notes is definitely an art and not a science. There’s no one right way to do it. But for me, the two most important attributes on both sides of the note-giving process are clarity and vulnerability. Every good experience I’ve had, on either side of the table, had these qualities.
We’ve all heard about the “note behind the note” and, to my mind, this is the note that should be given first. One of the most important skills of note-giving is to identify the often vague feelings you have when reading a script. Here’s something I noticed when I read your script that I think needs attention. And then here’s a SUGGESTION for how you might address it. But scripts are complex things and the note-behind-the-note isn’t always easy to put your finger on. Often something feels wrong and you won’t know why.
Writing a script often feels like trying to build a house without any plans. You and your producer have agreed you’re going to build a house. But even if it feels like you have the same house in mind, if it’s a new idea it’s likely that neither of you will know how it will turn out. The best note-givers are able to interpret those often vague feelings about where the construction is going wrong and to steer you towards the best possible version of your idea.
On the writer’s side, clarity is about understanding and articulating what’s important to you. I usually start out with a few things I know I want to hold onto. Sometimes it’s a tone – what I want people to feel when they read, or hopefully, watch my work. Often it’s a character and how their dilemma expresses a theme I want to explore. Those things become the yardstick I can measure notes against. Does this note bring me closer to or take me further away from the things that are important to me?
It’s just as important and, also, just as hard to achieve.
Let’s take it as a given that most writers are inwardly nervous wrecks, some are outwardly too. And it’s not surprising given we have to balance the arrogance needed to have a “voice” and “vision” for a TV show / film / play we feel really needs to be out in the world, with the humility to really listen to criticism of our work.
Resist the temptation to see notes as an argument you need to win! Hopefully this is obvious, but I came across this attitude as a script exec and, as a writer, I often have to squash the urge to try to cleverly wriggle my way out of notes.
If I’m reacting to a note I ask myself why (trying not to listen to my work-shy gut). The notes that provoke the biggest reaction are often the things I most need to hear. Everyone has areas they’re naturally good at and other things they need to work at. I try to steel myself to listen carefully to the notes on the areas I find hardest. The note is not always going to be the right one, but if several people are telling me there’s a problem with my script, there’s definitely somethingthat needs attention. My job is to find a way to fix it that works for me and my script.
You might find you disagree with a note and this time you’re utterly convinced it’s the wrong thing to do. That’s the time to start fighting. But I try to choose carefully the things I’m prepared to die in a ditch for. I find I get a lot further when it really matters if I don’t prickle at every note.
On the note giving side, vulnerability is about setting a tone that allows the work to be the focus. I like direct notes. I don’t want anyone to tiptoe around me. Writing is a job and we’re talking about how to make the work better, even if it does sometimes feel like it’s your soul that’s being critiqued. It helps to have an appreciation for what IS working (this is the house we want to build and here’s where the workmanship is good, or maybe even beautiful). It’s all too easy to gloss over the good stuff and go straight in with what isn’t working.
Script problems are often hard to solve. And as a note-giver you need to have the confidence to say you don’t know the answer. Talk around the issue for a bit. Maybe float mad ideas that don’t end up going anywhere, but the diversion you go on might end up leading you to a much more interesting idea. The best relationships I have are with producers who are prepared to explore and to push me out of my comfort zone.
For writers it’s also about having the confidence to ask for clarity. Can you talk a bit more about why you’re suggesting that? Are you saying you feel X is the problem? Or is it more about Y? It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to feel steamrollered when a producer is confidently giving you a suggestion instead of a note and saying, just do this. It will work.
There is alchemy at work in all good writer / producer relationships. If you find a producer who shares your taste, gets your voice and can give you notes in a way that allows you to do your best work, then hold onto them. When the notes process works well it’s often genuinely fun. And those are the days I feel lucky I get to do this as a job.
A huge thank you to Cat for taking the time and care to write so helpfully and insightfully about the every-tricky issue of notes and rewrites.
The next newsletter will be on Friday June 11th,
May 28th 2021