Monthly Archives: May 2016

How to give feedback to a writer

May 16, 2016

Some things really put a dampener on my working day. Scary brown envelopes from HMRC. My printer eating a whole sheaf of paper in the five minutes before I need to leave, with handouts, for a presentation. And fluffy feedback. However… Focused feedback makes my little heart sing – and it helps me get a job done quicker, with a lot less back-and-forth with my client.

When you give clear, considered feedback on a piece of work, it’s much more likely that your writer will nail the next draft. But if you’re vague or unclear, they’ll struggle. For instance: if you highlight a headline and simply say ‘I don’t like this’, your writer will be left wondering: why? Is it too jokey? Too serious? Too technical, or just a bit too long? And until you’re more specific, you’ll both trudge despondently from one draft to the next, your writer sobbing: is this what you mean?

Please: don’t be one of Those Clients. Take a look at my tips on giving great feedback:

1. Start big, then zoom in

It’s easy for a writer and client to spend draft after draft tinkering with individual words and phrases within a paragraph, with the writer buffing and polishing until everything is just so. And then the client realises that, actually, the second paragraph should move to the end, and the stuff on the third page needs to come sooner… So everything needs reworking, and all that tweaking was a waste of time.

Always start by agreeing the big, structural stuff. Do you like the general shape of the draft? Is it missing something, like an intro paragraph, a case study, a video of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Boris Johnson chatting awkwardly in a cable car? Once your writer has sorted that stuff, you can happily move onto questions like whether your readers would prefer the word mellifluous or euphonious.

2. Don’t ask your whole extended family for their opinion

A designer recently told me about a private health company who wanted some print ads. First drafts done, the client decided it would be a good idea to ask a random handful of patients what they thought of them. This was, in fact, not a good idea. It resulted in unhelpful feedback – built entirely on personal bias – like ‘I don’t like pink’.

Only get feedback from those people in your team who really need to give it. After all, the more feedback you gather, the harder it is for your writer to collate and act on. And make sure your commenters are working to the brief, not personal preference. No, they may not like the headline, but if it’s linked to your latest campaign then it might be a good idea to use it.

3. Get yourself a moderator

I once got a document back from a client’s team. One person had highlighted a line, saying: ‘I like this.’ Another person had highlighted the same line, saying: ‘I don’t like this.’ It was hard to know what to do with that.

If there are several people in your team commenting on a draft, make sure there’s a moderator who’s going to collate and rationalise any contradictory comments. Otherwise you’ll be bombarded by phone calls from a writer desperately trying to work out whose comments carry the most clout…

4. Remember: tracked changes are the Devil’s work

Picture the scene. I’ve written a document about a financial product, which includes the line: ‘And you can increase your payments whenever you want to.’ When the client returns the document, the line has been changed to: ‘This dynamic product flexes to suit your changing lifestyle.’

Now, what do I do with this? Did the client cut ‘and’ because they don’t like starting sentences that way, or did they not even think about it? Is the ‘dynamic’ idea the same as increasing the payments, or are there other product features I don’t know about? Is the substance of the line actually any different, or does the client just like macho words like ‘flex’? I need a phone conversation to get to the bottom of it.

To make things simpler, leave your feedback as comments in the margin of the document – it’s easy to do in Word docs. Instead of making the changes yourself, explain why you want the words to change, like: ‘This makes it sound like the payments are the only flexible thing. But customers can change their investment options too.’ It means I know what needs to change, and why – and I won’t make similar mistakes elsewhere.

Oh, and one last thing: feel free to highlight the bits you like as well as the bits you don’t. Just because, you know. It tells me what to do more of. And it feels kinda nice too.

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Why asking for ‘a rewrite’ is A Bad Thing

May 13, 2016

Sometimes clients say they’ve got a website, or a report, or a speech, and the copy is OK – but it’s not in the right tone of voice. The ideas are there. But it just needs to be friendlier, shorter, simpler, or maybe all of the above. In other words, the client needs a rewrite. Oh, and since it’s only a rewrite, the job should be quicker. And cheaper.

This way, friends, lies strife. For everyone. Because, in so many cases, it’s not about how you’re saying it – it’s what you’re saying in the first place.

Last year, I worked with some other writers on a project for a global financial services client. This client wanted us to rewrite their website. They wanted us to use the content on each existing page, and rewrite it in a clearer, more conversational way.

And that’s exactly what we did. We rewrote a few ‘test’ pages, and – feeling pretty pleased with our work – sent them to the client for approval. We felt the tone was spot on. Which is why we were surprised when the client got in touch to say that they, erm, kind of hated what we’d done.

The problem wasn’t that we’d failed to make the original copy clear. The problem was that we had managed to make it clear – and, in doing so, we’d made it possible to see that the original content was rubbish. For instance, once we’d got rid of all the corporate waffle and silly jargon about the products being dynamic, flexible and customer-centric, and explained what the customer could actually do with them, the client realised: er, we can’t say that, because the product isn’t really very dynamic, flexible or customer-centric at all.

The pages didn’t need a rewrite. They needed a rethink. In the end, it took a HUGE amount of time speaking with product managers, marketing teams and other stakeholders, to agree what content needed to be on the page. And that was before we’d written a single word of the final ‘friendly’ copy. A quick rewrite turned into a much more complicated – and more costly – job.

Writing is thinking

The thing is, it’s pretty much impossible to separate words and ideas. I’m reminded of a quote from the very clever Lindsay Camp:

‘…when a writer runs into difficulties, it’s very rarely words that are the real problem. Almost always, confused and over-complicated thinking is to blame.’

And there’s absolutely no way of getting the words right without getting the thinking straight. Imagine your document as a house: a rewrite is a bit like painting the walls. But if japanese knotweed has played havoc with the foundations, no amount of Farrow & Ball is going to make you move in.

If your thinking is clear, your words can be too. But if you don’t really know what you’re trying to say, you can’t connect with your audience – whatever tone of voice you use.

My suggestion

Happily, the whole thing has an easy fix:

Project Managers – ask your writers to have a good look through the original documents before planning any rewrites with a client. And make sure everyone understands exactly what is meant by ‘rewrite’. Is the client really happy for your writers to use the existing content on the page, and no other content whatsoever?

Writers – when you’re looking at the document, ask yourselves: do I really know what this is trying to say? And is it saying the things it should say? Do I need to factor in some time to find new content, or can I just sweep away the abstract nouns and chop up the humungous sentences?

And, clients – remember never to skimp on the thinking time. It’s worth far more than friendly words.

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How to work with a writer on your new website

May 12, 2016

Website jobs can be tricky. Understandably, clients have questions like: what’s the optimal word count? How many SEO terms are acceptable these days? And writers get obsessed with juggling keywords, desperate not to sound like an over-briefed Mili-borg.

But step back from the detail. Because a good writer can help not just with the words on each page, but with the messaging across your whole site. It just takes some cracking project management.

There are so many people involved in creating a website – some planning the content, others building wireframes, others writing draft web pages – and so there are lots of places where things can fall through the cracks. For example: a writer writes a web page, and then passes it onto the designer. Then the well-meaning designer trims a few words to tweak the word count – and all of a sudden, the copy loses its clarity and character. Lots of hard work, unintentionally undone at a keystroke.

Here’s how I think everyone can work together more successfully:

  1. NEVER skimp on the planning

Which comes first? Design or content? Ah, that old chestnut. The writer often wants to see some designs first, to understand how many words to play with and how to organise them. But the designer  wants to see some words first, so they can think about how to fit everything on the page. It’s tempting to ask your writer to start scribbling, just to get the ball rolling – but if a writer starts writing before the page design or site structure is fixed, you’ll end up with a lot more drafts. And a bigger invoice.

So, start by planning the content across your whole site. Do you want just one homepage, or different homepages for different audiences? Do you need separate pages about your products and services, or just one to cover everything? And crucially: ask your writer to help you map everything out. A writer can think about how your story will flow from one page to the next, and how that might affect things like the menu headings. They can help you decide what messages appear on each page, and where these should point to.

Then, if you can, get an information architect to check that your plan makes for a sensible user journey. They’ll spot the subtle things, like whether you should reduce clicks here or add a page there.

This should give you a proper site plan, showing which messages you need on each page. You’ll be able to see whether a particular page is going to be text-heavy and complex or simple and clean. Only then can you start to explore how many different types of page, or templates, you need your designer to build – and the designer can also start to see whether you’ll need specific design elements: buttons, icons and so on.

Bear in mind: the writer hasn’t drafted a word yet. But they’ve given invaluable input into the planning stage, looking at the overall structure and the story you’re telling your reader.

  1. Review along the way…

When your designer knows how many types of page they need to design, they can create some rough templates. Once you’re happy with the rough designs, the designer can move onto the wireframes. And when these are done, your writer can really start drafting the copy.

Best of all, your writer will already have your content plan as a starting point – they’ll know exactly which messages to put on the page, and they’ll know where to signpost other content.

Once your writer has got some first drafts, your designer might like to review some of the design elements. For instance, now that the first draft copy is in place, they’ll be able to see: do we really need so many different icons? Do we need to create a new design element, perhaps to highlight certain things like bulleted lists or quotes?

I’d suggest that, at this point, you finalise the design elements, and afterwards give feedback to the writer. The writer can then use the updated designs AND your feedback to create second drafts. Of course, after this point you can do as many drafts as you like – but, by following this process, you can avoid any huge design change throwing the design out of whack, or vice versa.

  1. …And review again at the end

Once your site is up, do give your writer a bit of time to check everything and see that it flows properly. It’s one thing writing a site page by page, but it’s very different seeing it all working together – and having your writer walk around the site, making sure everything feels right as you click from one page to the next. This is a time for last tweaks and little touches that will make the user journey more comfortable.

And then you’re done. You can now launch your shiny new website, to much applause and acclaim.

I suppose I should add one final point: be realistic. The points I’ve outlined show how a project can work in an ideal world. But we all know how extra pressures like time and budget can get in the way. The main thing is that each person on the project needs to see the bigger picture – to look up from their designs and drafts, see how they fit into the wider process, and work collaboratively. It saves time, it saves money. And it makes the job a hell of a lot easier.

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What happens when your vision is unclear

May 10, 2016

Generally, I don’t much care for Facebook groups. There’s a group for our block of flats, and it’s mostly passive aggressive messages about dog poo in the communal gardens.

But then, in a PR and journalists’ group, someone shared this cracker of an article – and all was forgiven.

For those of you who haven’t clicked the link yet, the article looks at a PDF presentation that has been created and shared by a US startup. The presentation includes the kind of language that clients often feel they should include in their own work – jazzy adjectives like ‘powerful’ and ‘breakthrough’, big abstract nouns like ‘positive global impact’ and ‘massive global change’. The problem is, they’ve forgotten to explain what the startup actually does.

A reminder never to let ‘style’ get in the way of substance…

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A painful conversation

May 9, 2016

Not long ago, one of my friends had a hospital appointment with a consultant. She asked me to go with her for a bit of moral support.

Now, this appointment was a big deal. My friend had been in pain for months, and had already had several fruitless appointments and many frustrating phone calls trying to find the cause. So when we got to the appointment she was, understandably, quite stressed.

And one exchange in particular between her and the consultant really didn’t help matters.

Take care with words

My friend mentioned that she wasn’t happy with how she’d been treated so far. She didn’t feel like anyone had really listened to her concerns or understood her situation. The conversation went like this:

Consultant: So what you’re saying is…

Friend: I want you to treat me like a person.

Consultant: …you want individualised treatment.

Friend: Treat me like a person.

Consultant: Right. Individualised treatment.

Friend: Treat me like A PERSON.

It was fascinating – the consultant clearly thought he was saying the exactly same thing as my friend. But he wasn’t. He was talking about the treatment, the thing he could deliver. She was talking about herself, her experience, her life – she wanted the consultant to know that she was no longer sleeping at night. She wanted him to know the devastating impact that the situation was having on her work as a musician. She needed to know that he would react to all these things in a sensitive and sensible way.

The fact that each of them kept repeating their own phrase, as if the other hadn’t heard, showed that the two of them weren’t on the same page at all.

Use words to show your common ground

I’ve already written a bit about the jargony business-speak of medicine – and how one of our cleverest brain surgeons rejects it. And if you want to read more about how better communication in the NHS can save costs, achieve better results and make patients’ experiences better, then this report is a good place to start.

But there’s another thing to think about. I’m positive the consultant had the brains and experience to help my friend. But, for a moment, his language was stopping him from building the thing that is so crucial between two people, especially between doctor and patient: a good working relationship.

By revealing the way we truly see the world, our words either bring people closer to us or push them away. And whether we’re a brand manager or a brain surgeon, that’s something we can’t afford to forget.


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