Grains of Salt: Identifying high-quality feedback for screenwriters

Stephanie Schellerup
5 min readApr 28, 2020
Photo by Matias Malka on Unsplash

Nothing feels longer than the hours (or days or, god forbid, weeks) between the moment a writer hands over their screenplay to a fresh, uninitiated reader and the moment the screenplay is returned, various criticisms and critique in tow. Simultaneously, nothing works faster than a writer’s mind as they talk themselves down from hoping the reader will love the screenplay, to liking it, to being unoffended by it, to just simply finishing it.

Finding good feedback is hard. And to be clear, by good, I do not mean positive. Platitudes and smiles won’t get you or your screenplay very far. Alternately, a sharp, top-to-bottom evisceration of your screenplay won’t be helpful either, especially if you’re too busy angry-crying to internalize any salient points.

Note the emphasis on helpful. This is your guiding light in terms of identifying good feedback, or the feedback that should drive your revisions and future actions. Let’s start with some examples.

The Many Breeds of Critique

High-quality feedback is not fluffy, flattering, or ego-fattening. Examples of this type of critique include, “It was great! Good job!” or “The plot was really exciting.” We can call this kindergarten critique; it’s feedback for a five-year-old learning to fingerpaint, not an adult trying to complete a competent, professional piece of writing. We can also include in this category any critique that focuses primarily on appreciating the writer’s effort (e.g., “I can’t believe you wrote a whole screenplay! I’m so impressed.”). Is it nice? Yes. Is it helpful? Hardly.

On the other hand, high-quality feedback is actionable and specific. Say your friend reads your script and returns with the following feedback: “Your protagonist was really funny and engaging. However, I’m not sure he evolved as much as he could have, though, and his ending felt too easy and unearned. Maybe he just didn’t have to make enough sacrifices to get the girl and the dream job?” In this case, your friend has given you a golden gift. They’ve let you know what you’re doing well (making a character generally interesting and writing comedy) and what has room for improvement (crafting an overall character arc). It might sting a little to know that your character development didn’t jump off the page quite as you had hoped. Before you delete this friend from your contacts, however, go re-read your script with their words in mind. You might see your script from a new angle, and with new insight.

It stands to reason that the characteristics of low-quality feedback can be deduced from the above descriptions. And for the most part, they can: low-quality feedback is general and superficial, and it is often hard to take action based on its content. Further examples include statements like, “The ending was good,” and “Your side characters were annoying.” This kind of feedback will always leave you haunted by the internal scream of “Why?! What makes it so?” We can call this low-fat feedback: it’s a pale, unsatisfying imitation of the real thing.

Brace yourselves, because some of you are not going to like this next truism. Low-quality feedback is not when the reader admits they ‘don’t get it.’ Not always, at least. If you have the smallest modicum of trust in this particular reader, then you need to take ‘not getting it’ as a signal that it’s time for some major re-evaluations of your script, particularly when it comes to your artistic intent versus the impact on the reader.

Sometimes, especially when feeling the pressure to justify their art by making it supremely ‘unique,’ a writer conceives of a unique storytelling device, only to have it completely obscure the story itself. In this case, you might have intended for your nonlinear storytelling to convey some meaning about the fallibility of human memory. But if your readers walk away with a poor comprehension of the plot and character development, you likely missed some key storytelling marks.

Another common disconnect between intention and impact in screenwriting occurs with romantic relationships. A quiet moment between love interests may be intended as sweet and touching, but comes off tired and dopey; a male character’s dogged pursuit of a female character may be intended as passion-filled and fate-bound, but comes off creepy and obsessive. At the heart of these issues is tone, and the best way for a new (or even intermediate) screenwriter to get a handle on tone is by examining the impact of their writing upon their readers.

Judging the Judgment

Not all feedback is created equal. So, yes, I am effectively giving you permission to not take some of the feedback you’ll receive in your writing career seriously. I am also strongly suggesting that you solicit feedback from the best sources. Don’t hand over your cerebral political drama to that friend who spends his nights gorging on unscripted television. Conversely, don’t offer up your lighthearted children’s adventure to that oh-so-edgy acquaintance from work who has a very specific, very limited definition of what she tolerates as ‘art.’

You always have the option to pay a professional for feedback, as well. This removes any bias inherent in having a friend or family member read your work, and ideally it will improve the quality and quantity of advice you will receive as well. Before you Venmo a stranger a small fortune, however, see if they can provide a template for the kind of critique that they’ll be providing or, better yet, a sample critique for another client. Your money will be better spent on someone with an organized approach who delivers actionable and specific feedback.

Whichever path you choose, it will always be up to you to decide which advice to act on, just as it will always be your choice to implement changes based on intent-versus-impact discrepancies. Approach feedback with an open mind and a heavy dose of prudence, and you’ll find yourself readier than ever to evolve and refine your screenplay.