Good constructive criticism is hard to find, and even professionals can forget the basics, so here are 10 handy tips to remind everyone of how to give good con crit.
1. Take your time
Read the whole thing over once while you jot down notes. Odds are you’ll have questions that will be answered later on in the script, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll have snarky opinions that you should probably find other ways to word. Then, as you read it over again and type up final comments, take that moment to reflect on what you are saying, and how you are saying it.
2. Sandwich your crit
Say one complimentary thing for every two things you criticise. Begin and end your con crit with at least moderate praise. “I thought this line was really funny” or “Overall I think this is very strong.” That sort of thing. Writers are delicate creatures, and it is nice to have reassurance that we don’t suck and should, in fact, continue.
3. Your mother always told you, “If you can’t say anything nice…”
If you can’t find at least one nice thing to say about it, give it back and tell them you’re actually too busy to read. There is no kind way to tell someone that for the good of humanity they should refrain from putting pen to paper ever again. Telling them that their reprehensible attack on the English language is good, is unfairly raising their hopes and, worse, you leave yourself open for more reading requests.
4. Do not confuse the author with the MC.
The author is not the MC. Even if they say it’s based on true stories, or their own life, or whatever, the character in the film IS. NOT. THEM. It is a character. Never refer to that character as “you.” It’s weird and it makes any criticism of characterisation sound like a personal attack. Also, it helps provide distance for the writers who have based the character on their own lives.
5. Know your audience.
Once you know a writer well, and know how they’re going to react, you can get less formal. “Man, this might be the worst thing you’ve ever written,” is totally fine to say to someone you know extremely well. I have been laughed out of my own living room for writing, “something’s coming, something big,” but because it was a very dear friend of mine, I simply threw a dirty sock at her and told her to shut it. In the beginning of a relationship don’t get clever, sarcastic, or flippant. Just state your point. If you want the writer to actually read what you’ve said, try not to annoy them too much with your tone.
6. Do not, I repeat, do not send a script back where your notes are in all caps.
You’d think this would be obvious, but the fact that I have to say it, proves otherwise. TALKING LIKE THIS is the same as shouting. Don’t be that guy. Nobody wants to be that guy.
7. Some people like “What Ifs,” some people hate them
Find out beforehand if suggestions are welcome. Remember, this isn’t your screenplay, and even if you would have done it differently, it’s ultimately the writer’s decision.
8. If the problem is with structure, don’t bother nit-picking the dialogue.
Bring that up once the structure is solid and the characters make overall sense. Too much criticism can feel overwhelming to a writer and they’ll get defensive and stop listening. Pick your battles.
9. You get to call formatting.
If you’re not getting paid to give feedback, and you want to give them email notes, that’s up to you. If you want to handwrite them, that’s okay too – so long as your handwriting is legible. But as in all things, be considerate.
10. Insist on workshop protocol.
The person doing the con crit gets to say their piece and the author shuts up, listens, and takes notes. At the end, when the editor is done, the writer can ask for clarification of points, or you can discuss XYZ, etc. If you have to remind the writer that they will not be there to defend their work every time someone reads it, do so. You are entitled to your reading. If you thought their tragic climax was hilarious, then that’s your experience and they might want to take a look at that.
In conclusion, a good writer/editor team has a relationship of give and take, and open dialogue. Giving good feedback, and being a writer who can take con crit, comes back to the three principals by which I live my life: Don’t be a jerk, Put on your big girl panties and deal with it, and Can’t we all just act like adults for five minutes? Follow all three, and you’ll be golden.