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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