Every Good Beginner Deserves Feedback 2: the Rumpelstiltskin method

Picture from Rumpelstiltskin
“Can I interest you in my heart-warming play of an island community?” “No!” “How about a dark comedy about social media?” “No!” “My biopic of a feminist activist?” “No!” “A satire on petty corruption?” “No! That is not what we’re looking for.”

COMMENT: It’s fine for script rooms to claim it’s not in their interests to give feedback on unsuccessful scripts. It’s a different matter to claim it’s not in the interests of the writers.

Last month I did something I haven’t done before: I wrote my first rejection e-mail for an unsolicited script. I never set out to be a reading service, but as I direct as well as write the occasional script finds itself my way, and now that I have a web page I’ve started getting contacted from abroad. I can’t say whether this script was any good, because it was an stage adaptation of an ancient text; nothing wrong with that, just not something that interests me. So I politely declined and explained that I wasn’t right person to approach with this, and gave some advice on why this sort of adaptation is hard and some tips on how to approach this challenge. Had it not been over Christmas, I might not have had the time for the latter bits. But at the very least I would have told him ancient texts weren’t my thing; I cannot see any justification to withhold something that significant, especially something that would have taken me 90 seconds max to write. And besides: I’ve already made my views clear on rejection without feedback. I have to set an example.

So this might be a good moment to return to my pate hate of rejection-free feedback, the #1 reason I rarely bother with script submissions. To repeat myself, I am not asking for the same detailed feedback the top 5% get at Writersroom – I accept they do not have the resources to do that – but a simple explanation, in one paragraph or less, as to what made you decide no. At the time I first wrote about this subject, I had no insight into why this is done, but last July I got involved in a discussion on the BBC Writersroom blog where the then-head, Paul Ashton, explained his reasons. It was a polite disagreement, and the fact that he explained his position is something I am grateful for – most places not only don’t give feedback, but also don’t explain why. As such, I do feel a little bad for singling out BBC Writersroom for criticism, but, hey, this is the world of performing arts where every public utterance is picked apart mercilessly in public. Sorry. If it’s a consolation, much of what I say here probably applies to everywhere else too.

(And yes, my script was one of the 83% that didn’t get past the first stage, but this has been my position all along. It didn’t change when I got the the final of the People’s Play, so I’m not going to change my mind now.)

When you’ve had an online argument with someone, it’s tempting to misrepresent what the other guy says and then berate him for saying what he didn’t say. I don’t believe in doing that, so you will find the discussion here – feel free to read the unedited version and make up your own mind. However, the gist of it came down to two reasons. The obvious reason, the one I was expecting, was that it would take up too much of their time: time which, so they argue, could be better spent doing other things. I personally think they are massively overestimating the time this would take, but that debate can rumble on elsewhere. But there was another reason, something I was not expecting. I’d always assumed the script reading departments would have thought that explanation-free rejections might not be ideal, but not their problem to solve. Instead, I was astonished to find how wedded places like BBC Writersroom appear to be the idea that explanation-free rejection is ideal. It was close to implying that, by keeping you in the dark, they are doing you a favour.

The justification Paul Ashton used is that giving feedback of a only few sentences raises more questions than it answers, therefore, it is better not to give any feedback at all – not only better from Writesroom but also better for the writer. Apparently, the done thing is to think about what you did wrong, write another script, and try again next time. The trouble is, this requires an extraordinarily rose-tinted view of what it’s like to be in the cycle of submit-reject-submit-reject-submit-reject-etc. So BBC writersroom or whoever tells you there was something wrong with the first ten pages. What was it? Already by rejecting the script you are creating more problems that it solves. How about the “general feedback” they give as to trends as to what people are doing right or wrong? That too raises more questions than answers. As I’ve previously said, the toughest part of avoiding common mistakes is to identify when you’re making these mistakes. It’s ten times easier if someone warns you when you’re doing it. Most people don’t get that privilege.

To give you an idea of just how unhelpful I think the status quo can be, here is a hypothetical case. Let’s image Stella writes a play and submits it to Writersroom (or the Bruntwood, or the Verity Bathgate, or something low-key or whatever). It was good for a first attempt, but not enough to make it through the first sift. So Stella has a look at the general feedback on stage plays, and reads there were a lot of “Plays without story. Where the story is intellectually/cerebrally conceived, rather than emotionally driven.” She reflects on the opening, thinks she tried to be clever, and resolves to write something with a bit more human interest. But she was wrong. The clever idea she had for the play was fine – in fact, that was the bit that had the most potential. Instead, the flaw that caused the script to be rejected was clumsy dialogue – something she could have fixed. But as she doesn’t know, the dialogue stays unfixed. She dumbs down her writing in the mistaken belief it will improve her chances, and the one thing that gave her potential is lost. It’s over for Stella before it’s begun. Could she have made it as a playwright? We will never know.

Of course, anyone can cook up a hypothetical case to support a cause, so here’s some real stats to back this up. Over the year, I’ve submitted scripts of mine to various script calls, competitions and vetting processes fifteen times. I succeeded in getting past the sift on four occasions and failed on eleven. Out of the eleven times I failed, I got the brief feedback I talked about twice, general feedback given to all unsuccessful applicants four times, and nothing at all the other five. On the two occasions I got feedback, it was annoying to read it, but I learnt lessons. In particular, I realised where I was going wrong was not doing enough to keep the audience interested – and thanks to that, I improved. That wasn’t the only way I’ve improved my writing – the most useful method of all, of course, was getting my own work on stage and seeing for myself what worked and what didn’t. There were other methods I used too. But I found nothing helpful from so-called “general feedback” and I have NEVER used it to improve my writing. Not once. Never ever ever ever.

Two valid points were made about problems with brief feedback, though. One is that the criticism contained in feedback for a script that’s not good enough to pass the sift will be so dispiriting the writer will give up instead of try again. The other is that without the detail available to expand on the reasons for rejections, the writer may misinterpret the criticism and end up making the script worse. Both these scenarios must be taken seriously.

Sadly, however, neither argument stands up to much scrutiny. I could just as easily argue that being stonewalled drives aspiring writers into jacking it in – and, in any case, in a world where writers are expected to take rejection after rejection on the chin and keep trying, it is illogical to also claim writers writers’ feelings are so fragile they must be sheltered from criticism. Brief feedback making future scripts worse is indeed a worry – but again, I’ve already shown how not giving feedback could have the same effect. In any case, the onus should be on the writer to decide whether or not he or she will benefit from brief feedback. At the most, those two point are arguments for allowing writers an opt-out from feedback; they are certainly not a case for making the choice for them.

Another oddity I picked up was how difficult they make out the task of brief feedback to be. Paul Ashton argued that although any reader will easily be able to justify their decisions, it is difficult to make the comments articulate, honest and constructive. But based on my own experiences as a reviewer, I don’t buy that. One thing I’ve learned is that for small-scale productions at Fringes, every review matters, even self-published blogs like this one. So for the majority of plays where I don’t write positive reviews, I have to be able justify the decision to myself – and yes, if the theatre group concerned asks, I have to say why in the articulate, honest and constructive manner required. And in the Edinburgh Fringe environment, where I am liable to run into someone whose play I didn’t recommend without warning, I might even have to explain my decision on the spot. And if I couldn’t, would you trust my verdict as a reviewer? I wouldn’t.

And I’m afraid this brings me on to a highly cynical suggestion of what the real motivation behind feedback-free rejection is. If you cannot justify your thumbs down decision in a professional manner, it can be for one of two reasons. Either the process of explaining why is somehow more difficult and complicated than my experience suggests – or, maybe, just maybe, the real reason you are having trouble explaining your decision is because your reasons aren’t as good as you think they are. If your basis for rejection makes perfect sense in your head, but you struggle to put down on the written page is a way that doesn’t sound stupid or arbitrary, that’s a warning sign that something probably isn’t right. Now, I’m not saying that all BBC Writersroom rejections are that poorly thought out, but justifying a decision in writing, in a proper professional manner, is a very basic check and balance on any kind of decision. I have to say, I sometimes wonder if the real reason for standard rejection letters is to protect the readers and their decisions from scrutiny.

That, I admit, is a harsh suggestion so, here is another, more lenient suggestion. It’s only fair to point out that my arguments so far have been based on a premise that writers will react to feedback, however negative, in the same professional manner we expect of readers. That’s probably a wildly optimistic assumption. I mean, Writersroom is the only place I know that attempts to engage with writers on why they operate the way they do, and what do they get on their online comments? A load of whinging and moaning from people whose scripts were rejected, and a smug-arsed theatre blogger from Durham nit-picking everything they say. Can you imagine how these people are going to react with actual feedback? Do you really want to give your critics ammunition for further attacks? Perhaps not. If that’s the hidden reason they’re not telling us, that’s understandable. And it’s a bit much to say man up and put up with it.

What I can do is say why I think it’s best to face the music. If Writersroom or any other major reading department was to give reasons for rejection to everyone, yes, you’ll have a tough time to start with. You’ll get people using their feedback to find new ways of being annoying, whiny, or outright abusive. That shouldn’t be a problem provided you make it clear that no further correspondence is given on the feedback and you stick to it. What might be more troublesome is the scrutiny of the feedback. No matter how careful you’ve been, examples will inevitably come to light of poor decisions where the reader gets shown up for not understanding the script. Or contradictory verdicts given on similar scripts, or even the same script. And it will be embarrassing. But embarrassment is a good thing. The threat of this keeps readers on their toes. It forces them to think carefully if their verdict withstands a critical eye. Instead of getting defensive over inconsistencies highlighted in public, it should be treated as an opportunity to learn what goes wrong and put it right.

But that’s not the only reason. BBC Writersroom can consider itself a success by virtue of getting a crop of new writers working with the BBC each year, but it could do better. If you get 20 new writers working for the BBC each year that’s not enough (neither is 200, or 2000). You should be aiming for the 20 best writers you can find – and you want to get them before someone else does. Even the briefest of feedback gives you an edge over your competitors. But it goes deeper than that. People who clear script sifts are only a sub-set of the talent out there. Yes, some script submission winners are doing great stuff, like Bruntwood winner Alastair McDowall with Brilliant Adventures. But how many more Brilliant Adventures have been left unwritten because the aspiring writers gave up trying to clear the first subjective hurdle? I’ll wager it’s a lot. And if the briefest of feedback means you get these people on board, it will be worth it.

However, that’s just me. Just my priorities. It’s not my business to dictate to BBC Writersroom what’s best for the BBC – that prerogative rests solely with the BBC itself. I can’t claim to know every intricacy of how someone else’s script reading process goes; if it’s their considered opinion that feedback to unsuccessful applicants isn’t their problem, and not in interests to do something about it, fair enough. I don’t claim to know what’s best for you. But please don’t claim you know what’s best for us. Please don’t claim lack of feedback isn’t problem for us, because many of us feel differently.

I credit aspiring writers with the intelligence to decide for themselves what’s good for them. So should you.

2 thoughts on “Every Good Beginner Deserves Feedback 2: the Rumpelstiltskin method

  1. Lolly February 22, 2014 / 7:31 am

    At the risk of invoking your ire, may I say that it doesn’t cost a whole heap of money to get a professional crit for yourself…before you submit to the BBC. Why should they lay themselves open to protracted dialogue from anyone who has submitted a script? The BBC is not your Auntie and they owe you nothing and don’t pretend to. Your piece was interesting but far too long. Sorry, I got the gist but it could have been half that length and I could have read some of your other blogs this morning.
    Cheers for the advice though – I think what you left out was quite telling…now do you want me to enlarge or are you happy to leave it at that?

    • chrisontheatre February 22, 2014 / 9:08 am

      You’re welcome to expand on “I thnk you left out quite telling” if you like, but I do have to say the tone of your post is a little on the passive-agressive side. But never mind, let’s get back to a couple of valid points:

      Why should they lay themselves open to protracted dialogue from anyone who has submitted a script?

      I have some sympathy with that concern, but I see no need for it to come to that. Provided BBC Writersroom (or any other department) says in advance “This is what you get if you don’t get through the first sift and we don’t enter into further corespondence” and they have the sense to stick to it, that elminates the risk of protracted dialogue. Lay themselves open to embarassing contradictory feedbacks being highlighted on the internet, maybe, but the BBC easily puts up with a lot worse.

      may I say that it doesn’t cost a whole heap of money to get a professional crit for yourself

      I’ve never tried using one of these services myself (I prefer seeing how well scripts go down in front of real audiences) so I can’t comment on their effectiveness myeslf. I’ve heard good things from other people, but there is one major limitation with this: different departments don’t necessarily agree with each other. I remember Paul Ashton answering a query on these sorts of services last year, and whilst he was generally supportive of the idea, he also went to great lengths to say that different departments have different priorities. He was in arse-covering mode (quite reasonably), but the point he was ultimately making was that you can get a positive in-depth report and you do everything they say to make it better and your script still gets binned at the first sift. On the whole, yes, it’s an option, but it’s a pretty expensive and unreliable alternative to telling a writer “The story started too late in the plot”.

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