The Notes You Don’t Take
While I’ve never subscribed to the adage that “having written is better than writing” (people who think that way need to find a new profession, if you ask me), I can see how a similar statement might be true. I maintain that writing itself is incredibly joyful, but revising existing work is infinitely superior than writing something new. I live for the late stages of a creative project, when your idea has finally taken form, but you still have the opportunity to make it even better. And one of the best parts of this, for me, is soliciting outside feedback.
I have a handful of trusted advisors who have given me fantastic notes on scripts more times than I can count. As I get older, I’ve grown to love it. I’m no longer embarrassed when somebody finds a flaw in my writing, I’m just thrilled for the opportunity to fix it. It takes a village.
I’ve recently finished a play that I really, really love. It’s a new experience for me, as I rarely do anything that lives up to the standards I set for myself. But this time, I really think I have a winner. So I asked a mentor of mine to read it and tell me if it was really finished. I thought for sure that he would find a massive flaw that I missed, and I could go back to revising.
I sent him the play, and for a few days it was like waiting for Santa Claus. I literally woke up ever morning thinking “today I’m going to get his notes on my script.” This person has picked apart my scripts more times than I can count, always finding an issue that I completely missed, and telling me how to fix it. And he’s always right.
So when his notes finally arrived, I was ecstatic. Then I read them.
Everything he wrote was incredibly thoughtful, but I realized that I couldn’t use any of his suggestions. He essentially conceded that the script was finished, and recommended a few tweaks that came down to personal preference. But for the first time in my life, I knew his tweaks were wrong, and I could explain exactly why.
I wasn’t trying to be defensive, I just knew that my vision for the script was incompatible with these new ideas. And that was great news, because it meant that I had a vision! I’m no longer cobbling together scripts from a bunch of half-baked ideas then trying to make something coherent. I had finally written something in which every decision had been thought through, and I could coherently defend my thought process.
One of my favorite screenwriters once said that you should be liberal with asking for feedback, and extremely conservative with taking it. Ask everyone what they think of your writing, but only apply a note if you’re certain it makes things better. It doesn’t matter who gives advice, only if it advances the story.
For the past five years, I’ve been taking writing advice from just about anyone who would offer it. And frankly, it’s because I didn’t know what I was doing. Any new suggestion sounded good, and I trusted that everyone knew more than me. But for the first time, I understand what it’s like to entertain advice without taking it.
I’m certainly far from perfect, and I plan on soliciting a lot of feedback on everything I write for the rest of my life. But I’m realizing that good writing only happens when you know enough about your characters that you can identify unhelpful advice. Because if you can’t do that, the helpful stuff is worthless.