Criticism is not good.
Especially when you’re a writer.
You pour your heart and soul into every word you write for hours a day trying to find the right combinations to convey to your readers what you visualize in your head. Your inner thoughts are laid bare onto the page for others to see. It’s like standing naked in front of somebody. All the flaws and imperfections you’ve hidden from the world for so long are now out in the air for everybody to see. And a lot of the time we like how you look in the mirror.
If you’re a writer then the chances are high that you write with the intention that somebody will one day read your work. (Unless you are a journaler, in which case your private diary is for solely for you and the voices inside your head.) Reporters write for the public. Poets write for each other. Novelists write hoping their books will one day become movies. Screenwriters write hoping their screenplays will one day become a movie. Bloggers write in vain hopes that somebody will find their articles interesting.
But all writers have one thing in common. An audience.
Hopefully that audience will like what you write. Sometimes they won’t. At the worst, they will be indifferent. What you’ve written is so bland that you can’t even pull a single emotion out of them. It’s the equivalent of death by firing squad for your work. The only thing worse is to have somebody pick apart your work, piece by piece, and tell you why it’s so awful.
However, as writers we need to realize there is a silver lining to criticism. It’s actually not so bad because it gives us valuable feedback to improve what we’ve written. Without it we’d never progress and develop our craft. Criticism isn’t something to be avoided. It’s something we should seek out and embrace. You should be hungry for it. Let it nourish you. Devour your criticism with a smile, wipe it off your chin, and ask for seconds. “Please sir. Can I have some more?”
Below are some helpful tips to keep in mind when dealing with criticism.
Know the Difference Between a Critique and Criticism
There is a big difference between receiving a true critique and getting destructive criticism.
Criticism comes from a reader who only wants to highlight problems with your work. They can’t tell you the exact reasons why they dislike what you’ve written nor they can they give you any advice on how to fix it because they focus on the negatives and don’t care about anything else. These are people who only know how to take things apart and they relish in making others feel bad. A read from somebody like this would be like taking a giant wrecking ball to your script. The damage done will be massive and you’ll be left to pick through the wreckage afterwards which won’t be pretty. Avoid them at all costs.
But an honest critique is an invaluable tool to take your script to the next level. The purpose of a critique is to have another reader point out your script’s flaws and and articulate their existence to show how they can be improved. Where criticism is always negative, a critique is always positive, even if it doesn’t seem so at first blush. The goal here is to make your script stronger even though it may feel like two steps forward, one step back.
Have Reasonable Expectations
Understand that your early drafts will be far from perfect. Overwritten and full of typos, the plot holes in it will be big enough to park a car in. And that’s totally OK because nobody is expecting your first draft to be your final draft. You shouldn’t either. Expect mistakes.
See Problems as Opportunities
Critiques are valuable because they expose the hidden flaws in your script. The ones you can’t see because your nose has been so buried in your story you sneeze out sluglines. A fresh perspective from a new reader can identify areas of weakness that may be clear as day but you keep missing. Now that you know where your story is struggling, go back and fix them in your next rewrite. Take your problems and turn them into areas of strength.
Critique Other People’s Work
A good way to deal with those nervous butterflys is to critique other screenplays to become comfortable with the process. Critiques become a lot less scary after you’ve done a couple yourself. And doing so can provide you with a nice break from your own work, while still using your time effectively to improve your craft. You can gain a lot of good insight on what makes a script tick by reading examples of good, and bad, screenplays. So take good notes while you read on strengths and weaknesses as you see them and share your thoughts with the author in a constructive way.
If you don’t know anybody who writes screenplays that’s fine. There are lots of places online where writers post their scripts and they are always dying for good feedback. SimplyScripts.com has thousands of amateur screenplays to read for free and is updated almost daily with new ones in every category you can imagine. And many of the writers there will be glad to return the critique and read your work in appreciation.
Never Send Out Your First Draft
Your first draft is your script at it’s worst. It may not be a total trainwreck per se, but it could be close. Don’t waste your reader’s valuable time by giving them an error ridden first draft to read. I know it’s hard to not want to share what you’ve just written with others, but resist the urge. In all honesty, once your first draft is done it’s your job and your job alone to go back and edit before anybody else does. Afterall, why ask someone to fix what you are perfectly capable of doing yourself in the first place?
When you send out a first draft you are literally putting your worst foot forward. The feedback you get will revolve around the basic mistakes you could have found yourself. It’s a waste of everybody’s time. If the reader even makes it all the way through your work. Most readers will identify a first draft quickly and stop right there. Why should they put in the work to make your screenplay better when you haven’t even had the courtesy to do so yourself?
As a matter of fact, I’d recommend you don’t send your script out to get read until you’ve rewritten it a few times at minimum. Keep rewriting until you can go no further. To the point where your story is as good as it’s going to be and you have no idea how to make it any better. NOW is when you put yourself out to be critiqued and get that valuable feedback to take your script to the next level.
Don’t Take Criticism Personally
Your characters may be boring. But don’t take it personally. You are not your writing and your writing is not you. Just because somebody found some faults with your screenplay doesn’t make you a bad person. Nor a bad writer. Everybody makes mistakes. Of course it’s hard to receive negative feedback on something that is as mentally draining as writing a screenplay. But you need to develop thick skin if you want to work in this field. Don’t get overly defensive or get into an argument if somebody really picks your writing apart. It’s unprofessional and will make people less willing to help you if you dismiss everything they say. Take your critique in stride.
Get A Second Opinion
Just like with a Dr. you’d be wise to get a second, or even better, multiple opinions on your script. There will be a lot of times where you’ll disagree with the feedback from your reader. You may not be wrong to do so. Nobody knows your story better than you. You made it. You wrote it. You’re the expert and sometimes a reader just may not get what your screenplay is about. I’d advise you to refrain from going back and making every little change somebody has suggested to you without giving it serious thought first. Do take input with a grain of salt.
If you’ve had multiple readers offer you feedback and they keep bringing up the same issues again and again then you’d be wise to take their advice to heart. Because where there is smoke, there is fire. And if your readers are independently identifying the same weak areas then you need to seriously listen to them to what they are saying.
Also take into consideration that your script may not be for everybody. A reader who loves romantic comedies could be totally lost in your space opera epic and vice versa. Ideally your story should be so good that this won’t matter but it does happen from time to time. Their feedback is still good though, as you want your script to have a wide appeal and input from readers who aren’t fans of your genre are just as important as feedback from readers who are. But sometimes you won’t hear what you need to unless you find a reader familiar with the tropes of your material.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your screenplay. It takes time, a lot of time, some scripts take years to come together, to craft a strong story and write a quality script. Stay persistent and know it will get better with every draft. No script makes it to the screen on the first try. But with enough work and dogged persistence yours can. If you just keep at it and look to improve.