If you're a producer who wants the best out of your writer you have got to know how to talk to him!
I am a writer-producer, so I know the subject of communicating with writers from both the writer’s and producer’s perspective. I’ve worked with producers who have inspired me to become a better writer. And I’ve worked with others whose terrible communication skills have inspired me to write this article.
When working with writers, a producer's goal is to get the best possible script. Period! The way to achieve this is with clear, friendly, supportive communication.
There are right ways and wrong ways for a producer to talk to a writer. The right ways build confidence. Good notes have always made me excited about writing the next draft. Why shouldn't they? They'll make my script better, and in the long run I'll get the credit. It’s a win-win.
Here’s an example of the wrong way for a producer to communicate with his writer:
I recently received a one-sentence email from a producer. He said, “I have a major problem with your revision.” This is not only the wrong way to communicate to writers, it’s not the way to communicate to anyone. It immediately sets up an I’m-right-you’re-wrong situation which creates a barrier to good communication. Writers have enormous imaginations, and when a producer says something like the above, the writer will imagine the worst. In my case, however, I knew when I submitted the revision that the producer would have a major problem with it. It was a problem I intended to work out with him, and rewrote the script the way I did so he could fully see the ramifications of the choices. Once we got on the phone and discussed it, it took me all of five minutes to resolve the “major” problem. How should this producer have communicated? First off, I would never send an email to a writer to say I have a problem with his work. I would call him. Second, I would never start off by saying I have a major problem. I would say, “Thanks for the rewrite. Good job. There is one thing that’s not working for me yet—” This puts the writer at ease so that he's willing to hear what I've got to say without any barriers or pre-conceived ideas.
I once worked with a producer who told me he never validates writers because they'll want more money. He had it backwards. If you validate a writer he’ll make you more money. A producer should validate the writer every chance he gets. Tell him everything that's good about his script before you get into the problem areas. Validation builds confidence and respect. If you beat up a writer with only the negatives you will put doubts in his head. A writer’s creative universe is built on thought. So if you put bad thoughts into his head you’re messing with the very thing that creates good scripts. The last thing a producer needs is a writer who's worrying about if he's good enough. If you build up a writer with honest validation, when you tell him what's wrong with the script he'll be on your side and want to fix it. He’ll see that you know what’s good as well as what isn’t. If you just pepper him with negatives he'll get defensive.
The worst thing a producer can do is invalidate a writer. Invalidation is the killer of creativity. If a producer tells a writer “You’re not funny enough” or “Your can’t write emotional characters”, and if the writer is stupid enough to believe him, then the writing will get worse not better. It’s okay to criticize a piece of bad writing. But never invalidate the writer.
KNOW THE CRAFT
The best producers know how to write. They may not be writers, but they know theme, plot structure, character and good dialog. Before a producer can communicate effectively to a writer he must know the elements of writing. This will enable him to not only speak the same language as the writer, but will help him convince the writer that he knows what he’s talking about. If a producer can’t convince a writer of the efficacy of his comments he’ll get resistance and argument. The same is true for the writer. I’ve always felt that if I couldn’t convince a producer that my ideas were best then they probably weren’t.
OPINION VS. FACT
Everyone has an creative opinion. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But it’s a good idea when talking to a writer to differentiate fact from opinion. A scene may be written well, but if, as a producer, you simply don’t like it, that’s completely valid—but it’s opinion. A producer has every right to impose his opinions on his writer. But he should make it clear that they are just opinions. If the writer’s scene is good, but the producer just wants another, and doesn’t make it clear that it’s an opinion, the writer can feel invalidated. Most writers will assume the producer thinks the scene is bad if he wants it out. So a smart producer will validate the writing first before asking for a new scene based solely on his opinion.
The producer and the writer's goal is the same—the best possible script. You want to work in parallel to achieve this. It's not an adversarial position of producer versus writer. Some writers may feel this way. They believe that they have written a great script and the producer or exec will ruin it. This is death to the producer-writer relationship.
A producer must want to help the writer achieve his best. And a writer must believe that a producer is reaching for the same goal he is. In fact, it's a good idea if the producer lets the writer know that that is his goal at the very beginning of the process. As a writer, the first thing I tell a producer who has asked me to write his project is that I am not looking to take over creatively and write the script I know is best. I tell him that I want to help him achieve his creative goal and will work with him to achieve it. It’s a two-way street. And it leads to a better script.
Any producer-writer antagonism is usually caused by the fact that the writer, as the creator of the work, naturally feels it is good (and thus right). And it IS right in his creative universe. It’s just that each of our creative universes are different. It is when we try to share these universes that it is sometimes hard to agree. It’s not about who’s right. Everyone is right in their opinion. But you have to get past opinions and work toward agreement. If the writer is working for a producer then the producer is, by contract, RIGHT. Which is to say that his opinion is superior when it comes to final decision making. But this rightness is arbitrary and not a fact. The writer needs to understand this.
The experienced writer often has a better idea. Being “right” is not important. Writing the best script is. But keeping peace with the producer-writer relationship is also vital if you want to reach the goal of the best possible script. As a writer or producer, when I'm in a story meeting, I just want to get the best story. If I think I'm right I'll express myself. But I am always willing to hear a better idea. I want the better script, not the better ego.
The worst note a writer can get is Make it better. A writer has no clue how to make plot or dialog better without first being told why it’s not working. It is vital for a producer to be as specific as possible when giving notes. Vagueness is destructive as it can confuse the writer. And a confused writer is a unconfident writer. Confidence is key. The producer shouldn't just give notes and that's the end of it. He should make sure that the writer understands and agrees with the notes. And if he doesn't, the producer should discuss them openly with the writer until agreement is reached.
A producer needs to be positive. Positive about his writer and his skills. Positive about the direction the material is taking. Positive about the ultimate success of the script.
A book can be written on this subject. In fact, many have. For all I am really talking about here is good communication skills.
©Jeffrey Scott, All Rights Reserved
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