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How to give feedback on writing

A nifty revision-related word cloudCouple weeks back, I presented a workshop for high school journalists on revision. One of the most pervasive questions was about editing other people's writing. This is a common question I hear from our consulting clients, too.

Giving feedback on writing is hard, but it doesn't have to be. It's just that we don't know much about how to edit other people. Chances are good we didn't learn how to do it in school. (Personally, I'm still plagued by visions of those two red parallel lines on so many of my early papers.)  To many of us, feedback is something others do to us, and it feels punitive.

On the other hand, most editors have been (or still are) writers, and they know how personal words feel. In an effort to not hurt feelings, they give non-specific edits. The result: writing doesn't get better.

6 Rules for Giving Feedback on Writing

  1. Know your purpose. Your job as the reviewer is to make the writing more effective for the reader. Serving the audience is the common ground you and the writer share, and it's the foundation of your relationship.
  2. Identify opportunities, not problems. Too often, our feedback consists of correcting errors, but that narrow focus often keeps us from identifying and suggesting fixes for bigger issues with angle, voice, details, etc., that have a huge impact on the piece's effectiveness. Look for opportunities to make the writing better, not perfect (that's what proofing's for).  The questions to answer as you're reviewing the work is: What would make this better and what's missing?
  3. Assume the best. Find a few things that are good about the piece so you can help the writer do more of that. I'm not a fan of participation trophies, but I do think it's important to acknowledge that someone put effort in, or created a great lede, etc. The question here is: What's good about this?
  4. Teach, don't do. It's tempting to do the work of improving for the writer by reorganizing, rewriting or recasting the piece yourself. Unless there is simply no time for teaching, suggest changes and techniques for making them, but leave the work to the writer. This is how we get better, by doing. It also creates an opportunity for you to -- God forbid -- actually talk to the writer about the piece and collaborate on advancing it.
  5. Be honest and productive. Start your feedback with something good about the piece, then move onto what would make it better and what's missing. Leading with what works takes the sting out of the other stuff, and helps you avoid sugar-coating frank feedback that needs to be given. If a piece needs to be redone, say so and provide clear, actionable advice on how to get it there. Don't forget to offer support and collaboration during the process.
  6. Be considerate. Even if the work is unacceptable and puts you in a bind, try to be considerate. Again, not saying to act like it's all OK. But if you want to -- or have to -- keep working with this writer, the best thing you can do is be a considerate but firm editor. Investing in the relationship you have with the writer helps you both feel more committed to each other and to the process of turning out great writing. Plus, there's enough bile in the world right now. We can all use more empathy and kindness.

There rubric we use here at The Word Factory is called The Five Big Questions™, created by Steve Peha, author of Be a Better Writer (and my husband and business partner):

  1. What's good about the writing?
  2. What would make it better/what's missing?
  3. What's the main idea (and is it clear)?
  4. What does the writer want the reader to think/feel/do after reading?
  5. What questions will the audience have after reading and should those be answered in the story?

Anyone revising their own or someone else's work uses this question set to build the foundation for feedback. Specific comments or instructions are built on this framework.

When it's time to actually deliver the feedback, I rely on this rubric my Dad gave me for interacting with others:

  • Be Inclusive: Remember we're all in this together and we need each other to be successful.
  • Be Constructive: Give feedback that builds skills, competencies and relationships.
  • Be Results-Oriented: Focus on the goals -- creating stronger writers and better content.

Try these tips the next time you have to review someone else's writing.

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