diagnostic vs. prescriptive

This has been making the rounds lately–what work-in-progress feedback can sometimes look like:

Which is a radically different experience than what I have now in publishing. (Thank God.)

The best way of phrasing how to deal with notes that I heard once was given by a young writer, a big 6’6" football-player-sized man who’d just had his first hit movie (an Adam Sandler comedy) and was one of the featured authors at the Austin Film Festival–Steve Franks. Steve sat sprawled in a chair clearly not designed to hold a man so large and I half-expected to hear him discussing the shot-gun formation or defensive end stats. The other members of the panel Steve was on discussed receiving notes from studios: how they dealt with the hell of having sometimes upwards of twenty execs and assistants hand them copious notes, many contradictory, often not clear as to who gave what note (so no way to put them in a hierarchy). They commented on how the studio expected the writer to incorporate all of the notes. Steve laughed, a little embarrassed, and when they asked him why, he explained he hadn’t realized at the time that the studio had expected him to do the notes. Instead, he thought everyone was just trying to be helpful when they first gave him the piles of suggestions. He’d never received studio notes before–he’d been working at Disneyland the day before his script sold as one of the "ride engineers" — the guy who made sure you were buckled in before hurtling you past your own brain cells.

He had looked through the notes they’d given him and, since they were contradictory, realized there was no way to do all of the notes. And, since these were relatively smart people, he concluded (you’ll see how naive he was) that they clearly hadn’t meant for him to do them… they were just trying to give him the tools to determine what needed to be done. He decided that these notes were diagnostic tools, not prescriptive. He mentioned, for example, how several people noted the story slowed too much in a certain section and wanted him to change only that section. Others had wild ideas about how to change the beginning of the story which resulted, ultimately and most specifically, in that slow section being changed. Others had problems with the characters or reactions… somewhere a little after that slow section.

Steve, though, used the notes not to change the section, but to analyze what was making that section slow to begin with. And the problem, he discovered, had actually occurred in a decision he’d made about twenty pages earlier. The readers hadn’t realized this, because it took them a few pages for the cumulative effect of that one decision to start resonating through the story–and the readers were reacting. Had Steve made all of the changes they requested–which was impossible anyway–he’d have had a mess and they would have ended up having the same disquiet, only now they would attack something else (probably whatever he’d changed the section to). Instead, Steve changed the earlier section, left the old one as it stood, and when the execs received the script back, they were enthusiastic (it was greenlit at that point) because they were convinced he’d done all of their notes. And he’d done almost none of them.

Now, I’m not claiming Steve’s a great writer–I’ve never read anything of his, and judging a writer by the finished product of a movie is a bit like judging an alligator by the shoes a woman’s wearing. He did, however, manage to stay on the film, get the credit, get the back-end production bonus and start his career. Not bad for a guy who’d been pushing a lever to send people up a rollercoaster just a few weeks earlier.

One last (possibly apocryphal) story. John Sayles has had a quiet-but-successful career in Hollywood as a script doctor and (from what I was told) often did not ask for arbitration in order to take credit away from the original writer; he would, instead, just ask for a fee, do his job, make the original writer look better in the process, and walk away so that the writer got the credit (and back-end). An exec who worked with him closely on a couple of projects told me the following story, swearing it was true.

One day, John was hired to fix the characterization of a woman. This character, let’s call her Mary, came off as extremely bitchy and unlikeable, even though later on, the audience was going to have a great reason for liking her and rooting for her. The problem was, the execs couldn’t get any actress of any stature to read that far because the character started off so mean. They hired John to rewrite the beginning of the script, (with permission to toss out everything there), and to change her character throughout so that she was still the tough-as-nails type of character she needed to be to accomplish whatever it was that was her goal… but to be more approachable and likable. So John took the script, kept it about a month, and turned it back in. The execs loved it. Raved. He’d solved the problems, they were ecstatic. They paid him and went on their merry way.

Now the executive telling me the story said he’d had a copy of the original script and when he started reading John’s rewrite, he couldn’t see what was different between the two versions. (He was not an exec on the project.) Since John was a friend, and since his curiosity got the better of him, he called the man and asked him, "What the hell did you do here? It works, I like Mary now… but I can’t see any major changes."

John (reportedly) said, "Notice when you first meet Mary?"

The exec flipped back to the beginning, and read the line (something like):  Mary, a stubborn woman, sometimes, bitchy, but you’re really going to like her later…

And that was it. The first few times Mary was introduced, he simply changed her description, point blank telling the reader what their reaction to Mary was going to be. Clearly, that bit of directness won’t usually do in prose, but it amuses me that he dealt with it so simply, instead of tossing out the script. He went to the root of the problem: Mary hadn’t been introduced well.

Sometimes, we get feedback during the writing process and it seems on the surface to not be helpful. Maybe like the YouTube example above, it’s so contradictory as to lead nowhere. Sometimes, the person reading just does not like the genre of your material and when that’s true, that’s just all there is. There’s almost nothing a writer could have done to change that sort of natural individual preference, and the writer shouldn’t try. (You cannot please everyone, nor should you.) I respect reviewers / commenters who shy away from something that they know ahead of time just isn’t their cup of tea because they don’t wish to do harm to a work-in-progress.

If the response you’re analyzing is true of only one person, and everyone else universally feels differently, then toss the aberrant opinion as just that–a random opinion–and go with the general responses. But if the general consensus is confusion–when it’s clear that the note-giver means well, likes you, likes the story, but has vague or non-helpful or even contradictory suggestions–line those suggestions up and use them as a diagnostic tool to see if you can’t ferret out the real problem.

I have been exceptionally lucky with my editor–she’s smart, funny, and thorough, and it is crystal clear from everything she does that her goal is to help make the book–my vision of the book–better.  She asks questions, doesn’t impose (except when I’m loading the gun to shoot myself in the foot), and her ability to push me to be a better writer is one of the single finest gifts I’ve received. That isn’t to say I agree with her 100% of the time, or that I always accomplish the ideal, but she’s a joy to talk to and receive notes from because I know I’m going to come away with a better book.

Then again, I love the editing process. For me, that’s when a work really starts to form into a whole, a final image.

What sorts of helpful advice have you ever received when editing your manuscript? Or, heavily disguised as to the culprits if you like, what was the worst advice?

10 thoughts on “diagnostic vs. prescriptive

  1. Jacky B.


    Interesting bit about John Sayles. Going to the root of the problem: What could be simpler, or more effective? Beats band-aid solutions every time.

    Best advice: Keep the narrative moving forward. (I had a bad habit of taking little side-trips. Going off on tangents.)

    Worst advice: Rewriting the final 90 pages of my second novel. Turned a savage, brooding, sinister noir into something more likely to appeal to a fifteen year old kid. Assuming a fifteen year old kid would be willing to abandon his Play Station long enough to read a book.

    Jacky B

  2. Dana King

    Great post, and the You Tube clip was laugh out loud funny. I think the concept of using ALL comments as diagnostic works well. I’ve not sold anything yet, so I’ve not had to deal with much of it, but even the prescriptive comments my manuscript received from my agent were phrased in a way that made her diagnostic approach more clear.

    It’s always better to cure the disease than to just treat the symptoms.

  3. JT Ellison

    Single best line of editorial advice ever:

    Do cannibals use pixie dust?

    I agree, my editor does nothing but improve my work, and it’s a joy to have people work with you, not around you.

    Great post, T.

  4. pari

    Toni,Great post.

    I’m thinking a little about critique groups here, too. Everyone reads with a different sensibility and end-sight. I’m in a new group right now and haven’t shown them any work in progress because I want to own the original idea before letting it out for other views.

    How open should a person be? I don’t know.

    I wonder how many of us novelists would feel if we wrote a screenplay/tv script or play and went through that “collaborative” process?

  5. Louise Ure

    I hadn’t seen that clip before, Toni, and you have me howling this Sunday a.m. Great way to start the day.

    Hopfeully a good writers’ group comments are not as bi-polar as the screenwriting process you guys have been talking about. Yikes!

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That was just too close to actual script notes sessions for me to even laugh. These guys got it down to every last painful nuance.

    In fact, waves of nausea are starting again just thinking about it… excuse me…

  7. toni mcgee causey

    Oh, Jacky, I completely empathize with tangent-itis. It was probably the habit I had that was most difficult to break. Screenwriting helped tremendously with that because there just wasn’t room in the page limits to go scampering off too far. And that rewrite sounds like a nightmare.

    Alex, I have this overwhelming desire to send flowers. Or Xanax. 😉 Very very sorry about that PTSD thing I started.

    Dana, yep, better to cure the disease. And I think it’s so easy to get caught up in the symptoms as they can sometimes be so huge, it’s hard to remember to find the disease.

    Thanks, JT. But… do they? (cannibals, pixie dust?)

    Pari, thanks… and yeah, I think writing groups (and MFA programs) can end up being some of the worst culprits with this sort of note-giving, even though they usually mean well.

    Louise, I’m glad it made you laugh. And yeah, let’s hope that writing groups and feedback don’t ever devolve to this!

    (Alex, again, really really sorry.)(Sending chocolate.)

  8. toni mcgee causey

    Welcome, Keith, and glad it helped. (I wish someone had told me that before I got my first producer notes: “We love this! It’s wonderful! And funny! And the characters are great! Except, can you change the city to Seattle? No one in the south goes to movies. Oh, and the woman should be a guy, don’t you think? And maybe not a reporter… maybe a… tailback! That’s it, for the Yankees!” Me: “Um, the Yankees play baseball.” Them: “And?”)


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