Giving good notes is not the same as giving instructions.
A bad note
I gave a talk last year at a conference that was recorded but not posted yet. I’ll say more about the actual talk soon because it was interesting for a couple of reasons.
One of the organizers recently sent me a cut of the video. He did a great job. I had had a coughing fit on stage and every once in a while would cough and it would have ruined the video to leave those in. He silenced the video at that point.
I would have handled it differently but that’s a judgement call and he’s doing the editing and his way works fine.
He also begins with a video of me speaking and then shrinks to picture in picture to show me speaking in the corner with my slides behind me.
At one point my face is covering the part of the slide that I’m talking about. At many points, because the venue has two screens, it looks as if I’m looking away from the content while talking about it.
I gave him a bad note.
I said I would remove me from the video at that point and just show the slides.
It’s true - I would do that. But I never like the way I look on stage and prefer all of my videos to just be my voice over slides.
My note should just have highlighted the issue and left the solution to him. “My face is covering the part of the Go board that I’m talking about.”
He could have faded out my image or he could have moved the picture in picture to a different part of the screen.
He’d actually already noted the issue and come up with a different suggested solution. It’s then that I realized the error in my notes and backed off.
Stay in your lane
I follow a lot of screen writers and listen to a lot of their podcasts. In a recent episode of Scriptnotes, guest-host Aline Brosh-McKenna talks about giving notes on the music used in her show “Crazy Ex Girlfriend”.
Aline was the show runner in charge of a show for which music was essential and yet when a song wasn’t quite right, she deliberately used non-musical terms in her notes.
She didn’t specify how she wanted something fixed.
She didn’t ask for a Hammond B-3 Organ in a particular spot.
Instead, she would try to capture how she felt about something with phrases like, “this feels a little crunchy and a little sour”. She didn’t pretend she knew musical terms.
But what if she did know the musical terms? Should she have used them?
Respect the experts
We all know about directors who pride themselves on knowing lenses and specifying which lens to use to their director of photography.
You can use what you know to describe the vibe you’re going for - “the feeling of the flute in Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’” or “like you’re standing in the audience twenty feet from the stage”.
You don’t specify the notes to be played or the lens to be used.
Brosh-McKenna says it’s better to “make suggestions that are more of a feel thing and then allowing the person who has the expertise to say, ‘yeah, you want this?’”
The expert keeps up with their field and may have a much better way of accomplishing what it is you want.
You aren’t expected to know their field better than they do.
A manager can express what they want in a product but shouldn’t be telling coders how to accomplish it.
Find good people, give them notes that help them understand what you want to see, and leave the implementation to them.
You may have to iterate and give more notes - because once you see what they’ve done it may clarify what you are looking for.
Notes for others
Friends send me things they are working on all the time and ask me for my opinion. I used to do this professionally when I edited books and websites - now it’s just for fun.
My advice is never based on how I would write the piece.
I have a distinctive voice that is different than theirs. My advice is on how I think they could improve the piece while being true to their voice.
Television writer Jose Molina posted this which says that better and clearer;
“Note-giving tip: your job is to improve the writer’s script, not turn it into your version. It’s not about how you would do it, but how they can improve on their idea. Make sure your notes make the script better, not just different.”
I have no notes for Jose.
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 16. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe