How to Give Proper Feedback to a Writer

Feedback: Yuck

Have you, as a writer, ever received feedback on a doc that didn’t give you what you need? As an editor or stakeholder, have you ever had to give feedback on a doc, but it didn’t work out as well as you’d hoped?

I think sometimes the problem is that the person giving edits doesn’t really know what the writer needs.

Let’s say someone’s sent along some copy for you to look at. You’d like the writer, Rob, to make some changes.

You send the following email:

The first three paragraphs look great, but let’s change, “Mary and David go around the mulberry bush” to “Mary and David skip around the mulberry bush together”.

Now, this seems like great feedback. It’s concise, precise, and clear.

But Rob sees this and thinks:

“Skip” doesn’t work here because the previous paragraph used “skip” three times and it’s getting old. And we can’t end with “together” because we’ve been asked by Marketing to end with “bush.”

Unfortunately, Rob can’t take your note as a signpost to writing something better, because he has no idea why you’ve chosen “skip,” or chosen to put “together” where you did.

After all, maybe you happen to dislike the word “go.” You don’t really care if the replacement is “skip” “hop” or “roll about with arms akimbo,” but all he knows is that you suggested “skip.”

So he either:

1. Works hard to make the change as requested, lets Marketing know, and rewrites the previous paragraph to get rid of a “skip” or two. Unnecessary work.

2. Makes the change as requested, doesn’t let Marketing know, and doesn’t change the previous paragraph. Marketing is annoyed and quality is lowered.

3. Emails you to explain the problem. Then you have to explain where you’re coming from. Extra work on the writer’s part and on the requester’s part.

4. Some unholy combination of the above.

Here’s a better way to write that original feedback email. It doesn’t have to be eloquent, but it should be clear.

I’d like to avoid using the word “go” in this blurb because the product name is “Go Ahead.” Maybe use “skip”? Also, let’s show that Mary and David are doing this together. I want to make it clear that there’s one bush and they’re both moving around it.

This way, you’ve made a suggestion, but made it clear that it’s just a suggestion. And you’ve explained what you want, while letting the writer choose the actual words. Which, after all, is what you pay him for.

Does this sound like the right way to go about sending feedback? If you’re a writer or requester, does this make sense to you?

8 Responses to “How to Give Proper Feedback to a Writer”

  1. Alyssa Fox
    October 4, 2011 at 7:07 pm #

    I love this idea. We do peer editing on our team and one of the biggest benefits is that everyone’s writing improves – this happens because you have to be able to explain your edits to someone else.

    One thing to consider is that depending on how you provide your edits, this could be easier or harder. If you’re doing any kind of online review (which is what we do), it’s much easier and less time-consuming to type up your explanation for each edit, than if you’re editing hard copy.

  2. Larry Kunz
    October 4, 2011 at 8:34 pm #

    As Alyssa pointed out, this kind of comment can be harder for the reviewer to provide. It can be harder for the writer, too. Receiving one comment like this is no problem. But receiving, say, 40 or 50 means a long afternoon’s work as the writer ponders the best phraseology to use in each instance.

    Sometimes the best kind of comment — from the viewpoint of both reviewer and writer — is a straightforward “change X to Y.” Especially when it’s a question of technical accuracy. (X is incorrect; Y is correct.)

    A long-ago editor I knew, back in the days of editing on paper, used three ink colors to indicate three kinds of comments: red meant “you have to make this change; it’s simply wrong otherwise”; blue meant “I strongly recommend this, but you’re free to disagree”; green meant “just a suggestion for you to consider.” It would be nice if we could find some equivalent of red/blue/green in the review tools that we use today?

  3. admin-Robert
    October 4, 2011 at 9:14 pm #

    Great points, thanks! Maybe I should have been more clear about the kinds of comments I’m talking about. Of course, if there’s an error, then that’s different. And editors do need to figure out ways to communicate with writers.

    But really, if the reviewer doesn’t have the exact phrase in mind, then I suggest that it SHOULD be the writer who wrestles with the phrasing. Maybe that’s harder than having someone else do it, but that’s the whole point of being a writer. The alternative is that someone else wrestles with it (and then usually the writer wrestles with it again).

    When I edit, I prefer saying, “awkward” (for example) than trying to rewrite it myself. I let the writer write, because the writer knows the subject better. (I do often give what I hope are helpful suggestions, but not always.)

    In my post, I went a little overboard with the explanation, because the reviewer had only two edits. But it could have been, “change “go” to something else, and make it clear they’re together.” Pretty easy, though I agree that comments in general are harder on paper than on the screen.

    • Larry Kunz
      October 4, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

      In my heart I agree with you, Robert. Especially when you say things like “if the reviewer doesn’t have the exact phrase in mind…it SHOULD be the
      writer who wrestles with the phrasing.” I struggle with the practical aspects, though.

      What we want, I think, is a way to simulate that idealized view of the world where writer and reviewer sit side by side as colleagues, engaged in relaxed, friendly dialogue: “I think I’d rephrase that bit about the mulberry bush.” “OK, how could I make it better?” “Well, what if we tried….”

      • admin-Robert
        October 4, 2011 at 10:03 pm #

        As long as our hearts agree, then I’m happy.


        (I see what you’re saying, of course, about the ideal vs. the practical.

  4. Julio Vazquez (@juliov27612)
    October 5, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    Some good points here. I definitely like Larry’s idea of having some way to indicate technically incorrect changes as opposed to suggestions in an online environment. In a world where seconds are becoming increasingly important, making the review as concise as possible becomes critical.

    I think that if a reviewer is making a suggestion, then there needs to be some way of providing some way of indicating that. It may be, as Robert suggests, that the suggestion have rationale expressed and the technical incorrect could be, as Larry suggests, just a flat change this to that statement.

  5. Marie-Ève
    October 5, 2011 at 10:01 am #

    I love the different colors idea! I think I’ll use different Post-it colors for my comments from now on. However, I do find that talking together is the easiest way. Picking up the phone is sometimes the fastest route to making sure the intent is well undertood. But then again, it isn’t always possible. In which case I’d go back to the coloured post-its!


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