Giving and Receiving Feedback on Your Writing

This is a sensitive subject for many writers, me included, because our words are what we get paid for, what we take pride in, and why we do what we do for a living. How dare someone change them, correct them? Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I for one know that I need editors, badly. Writing is not easy for many people, which is why I have a job in the first place. But for those of us who find writing less of a chore, even enjoyable, the editing process can be a sensitive proposition.

I did not appreciate the value of a good editor until I got paid to write for a living. This would’ve been 1996, when I started answering guest letters for the Walt Disney World Resort. I had a lot of bad writing habits from my days of writing papers for English literature professors: verbosity, convoluted sentences, “scholarly” language…okay, so I needed some work. Training a coworker proved an excellent way to help me shake loose my bad habits.

Giving feedback was another matter. I started out doing some rather rude things, such as going after a coworker’s style. That was unnecessary and, quite frankly, rude (okay, so I still learn a lot of things the hard way). If the content is being conveyed and the grammar is being used correctly, I had to learn to leave it alone. If the word choices that someone makes are not mine, so be it. And it goes without saying that rude or snarky comments are unnecessary unless you have that kind of relationship with your editee (and I have a few like that).

Here’s the other side of feedback that’s hard to do: receiving it. In a professional setting, when I’m getting paid or on deadline, I generally let editors do their thing. I am not as gracious when my reviewer makes the content worse. This happened to me a couple years ago when an engineer took a serious hatchet to my work because it was not written in engineerese. Everywhere an active verb was used, he switched it to passive. If my sentences had been short, he made them longer. If I used a colloquialism or less engineerish term for a piece of the rocket, he reinserted the technical name of the widget. It was like hearing fingernails squeak across the blackboard. I was not amused.

If this had been a technical paper, for a technical audience, I probably would have pushed back only a little and let it go. However, in this situation, the engineer was making my job more difficult because I was writing a document that was meant for the general public, a non-NASA audience unfamiliar with the intricacies of aerospace propulsion engineering. I finally found a solution: I just decided to accept all his changes and start again with my translation efforts, informing my final customer of what I’d done.

The biggest challenge I faced with that particular reviewer was that he felt my writing wasn’t “correct” because it wasn’t written the way an engineer would write it. He perhaps did not understand that this was my point, my strength, my actual reason for being there. If engineers could write in a way that was easily understood by the public, NASA wouldn’t have hired me in the first place. I felt as if he was questioning the rightness of my work, and considered snarling something along the lines of, “When I have the impertinence to question your engineering, you can edit my writing style.” As I recall, I was a little more restrained than that, but I did explain that he’d made my job a bit more difficult that day and left it at that.

Aside from that, the last time I really got steamed about someone’s review of my work was with my parents, of all people. This was back in the early ’90s, before I’d started writing for the space business professionally. At the time, I was writing letters to theOrlando Sentinelabout space issues. I’d dash these things off to the paper and, due to their style or boldness or quality, they’d get published. Eventually I moved up from letters to full op-eds. One time I got one of these published and sent it off to Mom and Dad as a see-what-I-did ego moment. Rather than compliment me on the accomplishment of getting published or the quality of my thought, they both returned proofreading remarks. I was crushed, and more than a little angry.

Still, the matter taught me something about setting expectations up front with my editor. If I don’t lay out any requirements up front, a good editor is likely to dive in and tear about the document at every level. When it came to my parents, I made the following deal: “If I haven’t gotten it published yet, feel free to edit it or tear it apart as you see fit. If it’s already published and I can’t do anything about proofreading issues, focus on the content and tell me it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever read.” Okay, I can say that with my parents. With my peers, it’s not quite that personal.

As a professional writer, I can ask my reviewer to look at spelling and punctuation only. Sometimes I need a content or comprehensive review. Regardless of the level of edit I request, I need to thank my reviewer for their time and effort. Inevitably any corrections of errors they make will have improved my work. I need to accept any changes in the spirit of self-improvement. It sounds great on paper, and most times I can even think that way without grumbling. It is harder to respond that way when writing fiction or poetry, when I’m not just writing facts but trying to conjure my view of the universe. One thing at a time. 😀

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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