Delivering Feedback That Makes a Difference
Do you feel flattered when someone asks for your feedback on their writing? Don’t get ahead of yourself – your brilliant wisdom and advice may fall on deaf ears if you don’t deliver it in a way that the writer will absorb.
The first post in this series talked about how to clarify the writer’s needs and expectations in this situation. With that insight, you understand what kind of comments to provide.
How you deliver your feedback can be almost as important as what you say.
Writers Can Be Tetchy
Remember how you felt as a student, getting writing assignments back covered in correction and commentary? If so, you can empathize with the writer. Receiving constructive criticism about your writing can be painful.
Even if the writer truly wants honest feedback to make the work better, some part of them doesn’t want to hear it. And, if a work colleague includes you in a mandatory review process, watch out. They may be even less open to to any changes you suggest.
Your goal: Deliver feedback in a way that preserves the relationship, while guiding the writer to improve the piece.
Go ahead and mark up a copy all you want, but don’t dump it all back on the writer. Take a moment to frame the comments carefully, or you may cross the fine line between constructive and negative feedback.
Here are a few guides for offering review comments.
Judge the Writing, Not the Writer
Many writers take criticism and feedback personally, as an indictment of their skills and abilities. Focus your comments on the project itself, rather than the writer.
Instead of this: Your writing style is too formal.
Try this: This piece is more formal than the other content the company produces.
Even if you (privately) think the writing is terrible, don’t tear into the writer. Your job is to help the person make this particular piece better, not to “fix” them as a writer. If the person repeatedly receives and absorbs helpful and constructive feedback, their skills will improve over time.
Differentiate Between Objective and Subjective Issues
Certain types of feedback are always valid and important, no matter what your role in the review process. These include:
- Spelling errors and typos
- Factual mistakes
- Violations of corporate naming conventions
Other comments and suggestions fall into a gray area:
- Issues of style and tone
- Whether or not something is confusing to you
- Which grammatical rules to adhere to
If your feedback falls into this category, present it as your opinion, rather than fact. For example: I find this text confusing.
Perhaps the writer’s style plays fast and loose with grammatical rules. That may be an intentional choice. Ad copy, for example, makes effective use of sentence fragments.
Frame the Feedback for the Reader
Filter your subjective responses through target audience’s perspective. If you aren’t part of that target audience, then your personal preferences may not matter.
Read that one more time: If you aren’t the target audience, your opinions may not matter.
For example, if you’re reviewing a manual intended for auto mechanics and you have never once opened the hood of a car, your subjective responses to the text may be irrelevant.
Focusing on the reader also helps the writer think beyond themselves while receiving the feedback. Remember, the content’s job is to serve the reader.
Frame critical feedback from the reader’s perspective. For example: Our customers include many people for whom English is a second language. Consider using a simpler sentence structure so they can read and understand this with less effort.
Focus on What, Not How
The review process is a golden opportunity for writers to get perspectives beyond their own and to defeat the Curse of Knowledge. (See Three Reasons It’s Hard to Write For Your Audience.)
As a reviewer, you can help the writer by reporting honestly what doesn’t work for you:
- Sentences that you have to read twice
- Words or acronyms that are unfamiliar
- Anything you find confusing or unclear
However, it’s not your job to tell the writer how to fix the problems. That’s a matter of opinion. The writer may have their own ideas about the craft, and yours may not be welcome.(You can offer help, though.)
As author Neil Gaiman advises writers:
“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.” (See Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing post.)
The first post in this series: How To Give Feedback on Other People’s Writing (Part One)
My free online course on Managing the Review Process