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avoiding feedback: DEALING WITH FEEDBACK

Here’s the twelfth in the series. Okay, there WILL be feedback. So how do you deal with it?



So, if you’ve been following along, it’s been a year now that I’ve been giving you all these hints and tips. And that means that if you were to write a musical today and turn it in to me, you would get no feedback!

When I’m doing a feedback session, I usually start by saying when you’re writing a musical - and you’re putting it out there into the world - there will be feedback. Everybody and his uncle is ready to tell you what is working and not working in your musical. It’s impossible to avoid feedback, actually, and so I thought I’d spend a little bit of time talking about that.

You can certainly lessen how much feedback you’re going to get by following a lot of the tips that I’ve been talking about, but it’s a very subjective art form so you are going to get feedback. So I thought I’d talk today a little bit about how to deal with feedback.

Over the years of watching writers and writing teams receive feedback of various different kinds, from me and from other people, I’ve developed three rules that I think are worth following when you’re getting feedback. Now this applies to when you’re getting feedback from people that you really trust and you have asked for their feedback. If you’re getting feedback from people that just feel like they need to tell you what they’re thinking— then it’s fine to smile and nod and say thank you very much and leave it at that. That’s the simplest way to do it.

But if you’re getting feedback from people that you admire, you trust, and you’ve gone after their feedback, or it’s important to you, or important to your career; these are the three rules that I think you should follow.

So, the first rule is: If you disagree don’t defend.

What that means is: sometimes when people are giving you feedback, you’re going to disagree with what they say. You’re going to feel that they’re wrong in what they want you to do, or how they’re interpreting what you’ve written, and so your immediate response - and it’s such a human response when you receive feedback of any kind - is to defend yourself and to start saying “well, that’s because”, or “the reason for that is”, and “oh, but you wouldn’t feel that way if you saw it in a full production”, or “nobody’s ever said that to me before”, and you instantly get defensive.

I would really encourage you not to get defensive. Because it’s your show. You get to decide whether you’re going to pay attention to the feedback or not. No matter who’s giving it to you. So you don’t have to defend yourself. You just need to listen to the feedback. Hopefully, write it down or record it, and then think about it for a while. And then either use it when you’re writing a revision, or don’t. And that’s your decision. You don’t need to defend that to anyone. It’s your show – and your team’s, of course, if you’re on a collaborative writing team. So, I’m speaking to the team now. The team gets to decide what to pay attention to, and what not to.

It doesn’t make sense to bring your defense mechanism into a feedback session. Just listen, write it down, record it, think about it, make your decision later, and don’t feel like you need to make any apologies or excuses to the people who are giving you feedback about why you paid attention to some of their advice and you didn’t pay attention to some of their advice. That’s just your right.

Rule number two: If we misunderstand don’t explain.

This is similar but just a little bit different. Let’s say the person giving the feedback says “well he never told his mother that he loved her”, and your instant response is “No, no - don’t you remember in the third scene of Act one, right after he came into the room - he said to his mother ‘I love you’ - how did you miss that?”

There are instances like that, where you’re going to feel if you just explain yourself, or if you can just give an explanation of why it is the way it is, or what they might have missed, that then they would understand.

But here’s what I say about that: Once your show is out in front of an audience you don’t get to walk out onstage and explain to them what they might have missed, or why this makes sense, or the bit of backstory that they may have coughed or gone to the bathroom during, or whatever the reason is. You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to explain to your audience. So what you need to do when you when you feel that urge to explain a moment away, is to think “why is this person not understanding it?”.

And then you get to make the decision: either you can say to yourself “I don’t think anyone else missed that”, or “I don’t think very many people will, I haven’t gotten that feedback from very many people. It was one person in a room full of hundreds. This was the only person who missed it, so I think I can safely say I don’t need to explain this because it’s rare that somebody misses it.”

That’s fine, but it’s always worth your while to then look at your writing and say, “Can I figure out why they misunderstood this? Can I look at the clues that should have led them to this moment, or the backstory that I thought I had laid out?” Look at it again and figure out if a smart person that you trust who’s giving you feedback misunderstood this, there might be a reason for it. There might be something you can do in the writing to fix it. Don’t explain it to me, because that isn’t fixing it. Think about how you might be able to go back and revise it.

And once again - if your decision is, “No I think they just missed that and I don’t think an audience generally would”, that’s fair enough. That’s an okay response. But don’t try to explain yourself to the person who’s giving you feedback, because – here’s the thing to remember - the person who’s giving you feedback is only telling you they misunderstood a moment. You don’t need to make them understand it in that moment, you just need to know that they didn’t understand it, and you need to see how can you apply that to your work. How can you go back to your revision and say “If they were unclear, if they were confused, if they misunderstood, is there something I can do in the writing to change that?”

Rule number three: If you agree, don’t rewrite yet.

Meaning: If you agree with the feedback, don’t rewrite yet, because sometimes when very smart critiquers are giving you feedback, they will give you fabulous ideas. They will tell you things that make you go “Oh my god, why did I never think of that, that’s brilliant!”

But what you want to do is avoid trying to rewrite the show right there in the room at that moment and say “Oh sure that’s great because we could have him kill his uncle at the end of Act one, and then that would mean that then we could do this”, and then you’re actually starting to re-write the show right there in the feedback session. I would say: try not to do that. If it’s a great idea – great! Because an idea you get in a feedback session is yours and you can do with it as you wish, use it or not. But as soon as you start to use some of the ideas that you get, there are going to be big ramifications.

Every little change you make is going to have ramifications throughout your whole piece. You’re going to need to check in with your collaborators and see if they also think it’s a great idea, and you’re going to need to go back to your outline and rewrite your outline with this new change, where he kills his mother at the end of Act one, and see how that changes everything that went before and everything that comes after.

The ramifications go in both directions, and at some point, you might say “Oh you know - it was a brilliant idea, but if I do that, then this other thing isn’t going to work so I can’t do that. And it takes time and thought to figure that out. So don’t get all excited in the room and try to revise it right away. It’s a process. It’s something that you need to think about and percolate on and make decisions about. What things are going to be useful to you for you to employ, and the feedback session itself is not the place to begin your revision.

What you want to do during the feedback session is: just listen, write it down, record it, and then think about it and percolate on it for a period of time. The ideas that make sense - that your collaborative team all agree on and that really work - will rise to the surface, and the ones that that you don’t agree with, or that wind up not making sense - you can let those go. And you do not need to explain to anybody or defend yourself to anybody for which route that you choose.

So, when you are actually in a feedback session what I would say is: if you disagree, don’t defend; if we misunderstand, don’t explain; and if you agree, don’t rewrite yet, just listen to it, write it down, record it, and then think about it for a while. And you get to make the decisions about what you use and what you don’t use - but listen to all of it and take it into consideration and hopefully that will allow you to get through a feedback session and make use of the feedback that you get in the best way possible.