The Art of Giving Notes

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
- Neil Gaiman

This week I want to give you a framework for how you can become a generous, helpful note giver.

Humans are much better at noticing symptoms than coming up with a diagnosis.

This translates perfectly to judging creative work.

We’re great at picking out when something’s not working.

We’re terrible at figuring what exactly is wrong, and how to fix it.

A note givers mindset

It’s not about you.

When giving someone notes you are doing so to help them.

Not to show how smart you are.

Not to force them to make the movie you would make.

Not to get brownie points from your professor.

You are there to HELP.

Please keep that in mind throughout this entire process.

Thank you.

It’s not just what you say, it’s how

“This is pretty bad.”

I say the words without an ounce of empathy.

The mood in the editing bay turns frosty.

Defenses are up. The editor’s face crumbles.

No one else speaks.

My boss calls me into his office.

“Morten, we appreciate your honesty and Scandinavian bluntness, but that shit was not helpful. If you want to be a director you need to learn how to present your opinions in a way that starts a conversations, not shuts it down.”

I cringe thinking of how rude and disrespectful I was that day.

Even though I was right, it was not a good cut. I was soooo wrong in the way I delivered the message.

Tearing something to shreds is the easiest thing in the world.

Telling someone their work sucks tends to put them on the defensive, and eliminate any chance of improving the product.

Giving thoughtful, helpful feedback is way more demanding, and as a consequence, rarer.

To be clear: We must be candid in our feedback.

Sugar coating or glossing over problems will only harm our fellow filmmaker friend.

How we present our notes is as important as what we’re saying.

Again I want to remind you:

Our goal is to help the filmmaker tell their story better.

I prefer a conversation over sending written notes. We can be more helpful when we discuss the film with the filmmaker, rather than sending over a bunch of notes.

Written notes followed by a conversation also works well.

If all we can do is send an email with notes, we need to make our intentions clear.

We want to make sure as little of our original intent gets lost in translation as possible.

“I’m here to help in any way I can. These are my observations and suggestions, take them or leave them.”

Today we’ll go over a 3-step framework for giving notes:

  1. Gut reaction
  2. What and Why
  3. Solutions

Your first impression

I like to watch a cut or read a screenplay with as little information as possible beforehand.

The two things I want to know are:

  • where are they in the process (rough cut vs director’s cut, second draft vs eighth draft etc.)?
  • what, in general, do they need feedback on?

Like we talked about last week, we want to get the experience of being first time audience members.

I try reacting as I would if I didn’t know the filmmaker. I pay attention to when I’m locked in, when my attention drifts and how I’m feeling throughout the experience.

After I watch or read I jot down any and all gut reactions.

“I looked at my phone at minute 22” or “I had to re-read page 57 to get the hang of it” can be a lot more insightful for a filmmaker receiving notes than something super prescriptive.

Also remember to take note of the highs, not just the lows.

We all want people to enjoy the films we make.

Knowing when a scene works is equally valuable to knowing when it doesn’t.

I find that my first impression of a film creates a map of areas that are working and others that aren’t.

I call it a bump map.

Lightbulb icon
Pro tip: If you can watch a cut in your editing software, add markers throughout the film as you watch.
To make it as effortless as possible don’t write anything.
Use the shortcut for adding a marker, and drop a marker any time something either bumps you, excites you, confuses you or bores you.
Once you’re done watching you’ll be able to get a bird’s eye view of where things are bumping the most.
It’s also a great tool for going back in to dig deeper into what exactly made you react.
For reading scripts, use a colored pen to make dots on the page, or a highlighter to make marks without breaking the flow of reading.

Based on our knowledge of our brains, we can be confident that there’s something to these reactions.

If all you give for notes is your gut reaction to the material, you’ll be providing value.

This is the most important step.

What and Why

To be helpful we have to understand what the filmmaker is trying to do with their film.

After our first run-through, in an ideal world, I’d like to have a conversation with the filmmaker.

We use our directorial curiosity and we ask questions.

We have to understand the film from their perspective so our notes can help them realize their vision.

The key to this is empathy.

We don’t want to give notes that will contradict what the filmmaker is intending.

Remember: we are here to help.

If time permits, once I have a good understanding of what the filmmaker is going for, I like to give it a second go.

This time with my film nerd glasses on.

I use my bump map to scan through the film and I ask myself two questions:

What’s making me have this reaction and why?

It’s simple, but our feedback will be clearer and more valuable if we can dig deeper on each point in the film that threw us off.


Welcome to the danger zone.

This is where we’re on thin ice. Continue with humility.

As Neil Gaiman pointed out above - when we point out exactly what’s wrong and why, we’re almost always wrong.

Let’s recognize this when we offer solutions.

Present suggestions not demands.

Put yourself in the filmmaker’s shoes: what is a solution that would help them solve the problem within the confines of the film they are making?

I find that this is where a conversation helps the filmmaker the most. If they can ask questions and you can bounce ideas off of each other, things neither of you had thought of will come up.

The potential for original solutions increase exponentially.

At the end of the day, your job as a note giver is to give.

Give freely and generously. Be honest and kind, and do your best to help.


Good note givers are knowledgeable, kind, helpful and give their distinct feedback seen through the film you are trying to make.

In short:

  1. It’s not about you, it’s about the story the filmmaker is trying to tell.
  2. Capture your gut reactions
  3. Ask yourself “what made you have that reaction and why?”
  4. Offer possible solutions as suggestions.
  5. Be nice.

Become an amazing note giver