How to Deal With Notes

How to Deal With Notes

A few days ago a friend who got hired to write a show called me after the very first meeting with the TV execs during which she got to know how much they approved/disapproved her Bible and hear their “notes”.

Notes-taking is a tricky business when you’re in a hierarchy, and if you’re paid to write or direct, you will get notes. Most notes will probably make you want to puke or scream but what do you do once your “boss” tells you: “You should do this! You should change that!“?

To Follow or to Ignore?

I think the first important point is to recognize that to handle a note the best way possible and to be able to discern if it’s a note worth following, one must let go of their ego.

The hardest hardest hardest thing to do when receiving notes, is not to answer in your head (and then out loud) to justify yourself. And yet that’s a very important skill to master:

-listen to the actual note.

And the same way we should refrain from opposing notes, we should also refrain from nodding to everything. As I was talking with my friend I realized that one of the thing I have internalized came from a similar advice shared by Shonda Rhimes and Steven Soderbergh.

Three people I highly respect and who’ve demonstrated great skills at developing original work within a studio system have come to the same conclusion:

The note might be wrong, but there’s something underneath
it that you might want to dig deeper.

The Middle Path

As with most things in life, the answer is in the middle path. It’s neither about rejecting or fully agreeing with a note for the sake of it but rather listening to find out what’s underneath the note.

The job of the storyteller is to tell a story the way others can’t. The person who gives the note is giving it with the words and imagination they possess and that will likely feel frustrating and out of tune. But if one can swipe shoes and try to understand what bugs the note-giver, one can really decide if it’s a note worth following or discarding.

Here is how wiser people said it better:

Christopher Nolan about Steven Soderbergh’s Approach

When you get into that Studio environment where there’s a hierarchy and people whose jobs it is literally to being paid to give you notes to turn things around; he (Steven Soderbergh) had developed such a reasonable attitude to it that in no way compromised what he was trying to do creatively. It was all about respectfully hearing a person’s point of view, it was all about saying “Ok, the note might be wrong, or the suggestion might be wrong, but they’re saying it for a reason“.

And you have to figure out what that reason is. Sometimes that reason is ego, or trying to impress someone or whatever that is, but very often there is a creative reason. And you can either get it all out, or you can internalize it and think about it yourself.

Shonda Rhimes

I have to say the first year there were times that were really heard because my response, maybe that’s a good response, I don’t know, my response to what I call “stupid notes” from the Network is always silence, because my whole thing is that if you don’t have something nice to say, you don’t say anything at all. So they’d give me a note that I would find horrifying, like really horrifying, ‘Can’t Meredith just be nicer?’, ‘Can’t Meredith and Christina just hug?’ and my response was always, you know you’d be on the phone on this big conference call, and my response would always just be total silence, because there was nothing I could of to say, that wouldn’t be insulting.

And in that silence, what would happen for me, and still does, is after a minute or two, when they’re wondering if you’re still on the line, it gets filled with nervous chatter, because they are just as scared as you are, I mean that’s the reality. They are just scared that they don’t know what they’re talking about, and what you have on your side is that you have the vision, at the very least you feel like you know what you were trying to achieve. So it gets filled in with this nervous chatter on their part, that sort of comes around to something, and then it enables me in that silence to try to figure out what it is that they are trying to say.

Because I think that even the most stupid note is a note that is coming from something, no matter what the note is. And sometimes they are painful, sometimes they are really painful, but every note has a point. There is something underneath it that they are responding to, they may not have a way to express it, they may not have a way to verbalize what they are trying to say, but if you really let them talk long enough, you will figure out what it is that is the problem.

I’m pretty positive Neil Gaiman said the same thing but was unable to track back the quote and source, so you’ll have to either believe me on this one or prove me otherwise.

Bottom line, my conversation was a good reminder that every professional (no matter the profession, really) will have to deal with notes as soon as their work involves either collaboration and/or hierarchy and the best way to leverage a note’s potential is to remember that under the first layer of possibly clumsy words something much more important and interesting might be hiding.