Giving and Receiving Feedback on Writing

This topic came up again because it was pointed out to me recently that I do not always take negative feedback about my writing as well as I could. Guilty as charged. Another challenge I faced in my early writing career was being unnecessarily harsh in critiquing others’ work. The following advice, then, is based on lessons learned the hard way on both sides of the red pen (“Don’t use red, that’s unfriendly!”). I hope that my readers will understand that I still struggle with taking my own advice as well as I should. Who knows? I might even learn something from this post.

Giving feedback

When people mean “feedback,” they usually mean providing negative feedback–criticism, in point of fact. Positive feedback is easy to give (and isn’t offered nearly as a writer would like). If you’ve got to tell someone that their work isn’t quite what you would like it to be, how do you do that without being a jerk?

  • Focus on the work, not on the person. Example: “This sentence should use ‘their’ not ‘they’re’, idiot.”
  • Maintain an objective tone when offering corrections on items that are, in fact, technically wrong. Indicate items that are technically or grammatically incorrect. Grammatical, spelling, or punctuation corrections can be handled directly via Track Changes in Word or other editing mechanism. Technical content corrections, too, can be flagged without a lot of editorial comment, simply by citing specific sources. Or, if you don’t know the source but are pretty certain that the content is incorrect, you might circle/underline the offending content and suggest something simple like “Verify.”
  • Where possible, explain your “vision” for the piece–what you would like to see–and allow the writer to rewrite with that vision in mind. It’s a lot easier on to get good results that way rather than giving the writer a long list of practices/words to avoid.
  • Again, maintain a non-insulting tone in your editorial remarks. “I don’t understand what is being said here–please clarify [whatever is confusing you]” works a lot better than “This sentence makes no sense.”
  • When addressing a writer’s style and word choices, consider how many of your changes are helping with clarity/correctness vs. how many changes are just because the writer is saying something in a way that you would not. If they are violating in-house style rules/guidelines, refer the writer to those for future reference.
  • If the writing is correct and saying what it needs to say, leave it alone.
  • If there are multiple, fundamental things done incorrectly or poorly in a document, sit down with the writer in person or on the phone and explain how you would like things done. Try to find something positive to start out the conversation with and end on a note of encouragement. You might be feeding the writer a gunk sandwich, but you can at least make the bread palatable, if that metaphor isn’t too odd.

Receiving feedback

Okay, let’s take this from the top, because (again) I don’t do so well at this myself at times:

  • Take a deep breath. Remember that your writing is being corrected; your whole purpose for existing is not being insulted for all eternity.
  • Accept technical (content) corrections as more-or-less gospel, especially if they’re coming from the subject matter expert. You might dispute how something is phrased, but if you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and it’s best to just accept it and move on.
  • Assume the best intentions when someone offers a critique.
  • Remember that your editor wants you to succeed. They are offering corrections to improve your writing, not insult it.
  • Primary message related to all of the above: don’t be unnecessarily defensive.
  • When it comes to stylistic matters, I am more likely to be prickly, so bear with me on this next point: if you believe your editor has changed your meaning because they changed a happy to glad (or equivalent), consider how much energy it is worth expending to fight a battle over what is, in fact, a synonymous word.
  • On the other hand, if every hint of style has been “corrected” or removed from your prose, it might be worth taking the time to talk to your editor about what you’re doing “wrong” or how s/he would like the words presented. This is easier in write-for-hire pieces than editorials, novels, or other personal publications. However, asking questions is a much better way to maintain or improve your relationship with the editor than being automatically defensive. I know, “Physician, heal thyself.
  • Likewise, if your editor’s reworded text changes the actual meaning of what you were trying to say, that is worth a question or discussion. Not a snit fit. Not an argument. Not a temper tantrum. Physician…

The stupid part about all this is that most of the time I’m pretty agreeable to editorial corrections, especially when it’s paid work. Where I need a layer of skin thickener is when I’m writing for fun/leisure or personal expression. Editors are (90% of the time) aware of this and try to make allowances (see “Giving Feedback” above). That doesn’t mean they’re going to accept every pushback from a writer just because they’re having a fit of pique.

I know: it can be damned difficult to dissociate your love for the content from the technical realities related to how a publication wants something presented. I struggle with this on a semi-regular basis. But, again, start with taking that breath, accept the corrections as a gift that improves your prose, and save the savage battles for more serious things like editorial comments that directly contradict what you meant or insult you personally. Those latter two items are worth fighting. Everything else? Breathe.

About Bart Leahy

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