Art is subjective, and it’s also intensely personal. And while intellectually we all understand these things, and that criticism and notes are a necessary part of making art your career, emotionally it can be tough to stop ourselves from arguing against every possible suggestion. I feel you, defensive dudes. I am you. If you called me argumentative in front of my mother, she’d tell you that’s euphemistic, because what I actually am is a living nightmare.
In an attempt to remind myself to Keep Calm and Take Notes Better, I wanted to offer some advice I’ve found useful in my own journey to both giving and receiving great notes, in the hopes it will be helpful for yours.
Ask for What You Need
The biggest trigger for my defensiveness is getting feedback on a part of my script or film cut I’ve already locked, thus throwing my entire process into a spiral of turmoil and imposter syndrome. It doesn’t help when what I’m all of the sudden getting feedback on can’t be changed, whether I agree with the note or not. As such, give people you’re asking for feedback from some guidance!
I like to set the stage when asking for feedback with a status report: is this a FIRST draft/rough cut, or nearing the end of its draft stage? Am I looking for high-level structural advice, or fine-level detail nitpicking? Next, I set the ground rules: I am seeking feedback on [these elements], and I am not seeking feedback on [these other elements]. Example: I’m seeking feedback on character motivations (do they make sense?) and distinctions (do they feel like different people?), and I’m not seeking feedback on grammar/typos or the ending, both of which are still in flux.
Don’t Pre-Bias Anyone
All that said, it’s important not to be so hyper-focused (especially in earlier drafts/cuts) that you signal what elements in your project you aren’t as confident in, biasing your audience to solely focus on that. When you keep things vague, it makes it possible for note-givers to take in the work free of expectation. Then, when they do or don’t bring something up, you’ll either be validated in your concerns or pleasantly surprised it isn’t as big of a deal as you worried.
It’s a fine line, so I try to align how specific I am with instructions depending on draft phase and the person giving notes. With a note-giver I’ve worked with before and an early draft, I’ll establish the themes/elements of the project I’m most excited and challenged by without offering specific details, page numbers, etc. That way, they know where my head’s at and can meet me there, giving us an aligned mission statement. With a newer note-giver and early draft, I’ll keep it even more vague, since I don’t know their taste or perspective yet and want to learn it without biasing them.
Read Everything, Then Take a Walk
I get intense anxiety when I get an email of notes on a script, both from the general fear of the unknown (did they like it??) and from the more specific fear of if this will be the email to put the final nail into my screenwriting career’s coffin. Then I’ll read a note or two, see red if I disagree with even an ounce, and seethe before finishing consuming the advice days later, strung out and emotionally exhausted.
This year, I’m trying to give off more chill vibes, however, so I’ve found it can be helpful to suck it up, read the entire message of notes, and then log off and take a walk. No podcasts, music, or mobile games—just walk. Let the notes, and all the feelings they bring to the surface, sink in. Get mad, get sad, spiral into existential dread, then take a deep breath and remember that I asked for these notes, I want my script/rough cut to improve, and the person who graciously took time out of their day for me is just trying to help.
It doesn’t completely cure the defensiveness, but it helps.
When you’re getting notes in person or on the phone, you can’t really take a beat for a walk and re-centering, so I’ve found the next best thing is to, simply, shut it. Clam up. Shhhh.
Especially when you’re getting feedback from more than one person, you’ll get far more out of the session (and be far less combative with very nice people taking time out of their day to do this with you) by listening more than you talk. You can answer questions, sparingly, but it's more valuable that you know how people answer their own questions without your input, since you won't always be in the room when audiences experience your work.
If you must talk, or respond, try to frame these unavoidable outbursts as questions, forcing you to tamp down on arguments and focus on improving the work rather than defending your ego.
No matter how practiced or well-meaning, there comes a moment in every feedback interaction where the person giving notes makes a suggestion or pitch to improve the work. This is where most defensiveness stems from, because the easy reaction is to argue about why that suggestion doesn’t work or make sense. A-ha! You think. Finally, the truth comes out—they don’t understand me or my vision and thus it’s already perfect as-is!
I’m sorry to break this to you, but their suggestion doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a great idea, maybe it’s a terrible idea, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. They aren’t rewriting this script—you are. So, if you disagree with the suggestion, the disagreement is not the point. Instead of arguing about a suggestion made, your job is to try to understand the root of the suggestion so you can solve the underlying problem in your own way.
Suggestion: You should make the talking iguana a talking owl, actually.
Defensiveness impulse: They can’t be an owl! There’s already a talking owl character in the third act, and I don’t want to undermine that reveal. You fool. You worm.
Correct response: That’s really interesting. What’s not working about this character being a talking iguana for you? And why, if you were in control, would an owl seem more fitting?
The defensiveness impulse is correct, but again, that’s not the point. Something isn’t translating, and you can’t fix the problem by convincing them their suggestion is wrong, only by understanding the core of why they felt the suggestion was necessary in the first place.
Remember Why You’re Here
At the end of the day, the goal of receiving feedback should not be validation, even if it’s what we all secretly want. Don’t fish for compliments, as that’s not a productive use of anyone’s time. Be genuinely interested in and open to how to improve your work so it communicates your vision as clearly as possible to the greatest number of people, and remember: we do this because stories matter to us.
So, ask for what you need without biasing people, take some time before responding if you can, otherwise shut up and looker deeper than the surface level suggestions. Your defensiveness is only hurting your relationships with other artists and the work you care so much about.
*Feature photo by Monstera (Pexels)