How to give good feedback

Boss tells writer: I have a few minor changes that will ruin everythingMy wife, Aileen, is a theatre practitioner – she writes, acts and directs – and in that world all feedback has to be given, in the words of Alan Bennett, with lashings of love and praise. For writers, it’s a bit less luvvy but clients who give good feedback get better results. I have written before about how to work with writers and here are my tips for giving feedback:

  1. One person owns the feedback. Sometimes clients will need to gather feedback from different people – legal, product managers, technology experts etc. – but only one person should filter, prioritise and give this feedback to the writer.
  2. Les absents ont toujours tort. This means ‘absentees are always wrong’. Give stakeholders a deadline for feedback and if they miss it, they don’t get to add their feedback. It’s your job to manage your feedback process. The most efficient way of updating the document is to do all the changes in one go. Drip-feeding changes is counter-productive.
  3. Work out what feedback is for. Classic failure modes include: product managers rewriting a piece of text so that it reads like a technical spec or reintroducing all the impenetrable jargon that I have struggled to clarify. The brief should have clarified who is the audience and what language is appropriate for them. It’s fine to say ‘this bit of the text won’t work for an teenage audience / an IT audience / a general readership because…’ It’s also fine to spot factual errors or typos. In fact, this is the point.
  4. Use redlined documents as a last resort. My experience is that if you give someone a Word document and ask them for feedback, they will send back a redlined document in which they have rearranged the running order, changed the words, added a lot of copy (over and above the word budget) and reverted to their own jargon. This is a huge mistake – they didn’t hire me to write something they would have written. What’s missing from this process is the chance for me to explain why I have written what I have written and the chance for them to explain to me what their priorities are and what I have misunderstood. The best way to do this is to have a conversation. The best feedback I get is over the phone.
  5. Feedback time isn’t writing time. Sometimes people ask me to come up with new copy while I’m talking to them. Like most writers, I guess, I need to sit quietly and try different things and let the muse guide me. When giving feedback, you may have to accept that you won’t get revised copy in real time.
  6. Share style guides and brand guides. If you have them, I can use them. It’s my job to get trademarks and brand names right. But you need to tell me what they are. For some jobs, I’ve even bought and downloaded corporate fonts and recreated elaborate document templates so that my writing ‘looks’ right. A good writer should take this stuff seriously.
  7. Be specific. I love clients who can tell me WHY a bit of text isn’t working. Examples of good feedback: ‘it would be great to have an example here,’ ‘I didn’t really follow the argument in this paragraph. Can you simplify it?,’ ‘This misses the point. This is the message we need to get across…’ Also clarification of the audience and what they can and can’t understand often helps refine the work.
  8. Explain what works too. Tell writers what you like, what worked and why. This is important. But not for ego and vanity. It’s part of the learning process. It helps them figure out the changes that they need to fix stuff that isn’t working.
  9. See feedback as part of the relationship. Nearly all my work is repeat work for existing clients. Naturally, the more I do for someone, the more I understand their products, their priorities and their style. Good feedback reinforces this and helps me become more efficient at delivering the right copy. My objective, of course, is to deliver copy that needs no editing or feedback. The more work I do with someone the easier this becomes.
  10. Listen to the writer’s feedback. A good writer is a professional, like a lawyer or an accountant. They have experience from other projects that may be relevant to yours. Sometimes, I find myself counselling a client against a particular request because I know – from my own experience – that it will be counter-productive. A good example is that some clients feel that their text needs all the latest industry buzzwords to make it credible. Sometimes (rarely) this is true. My experience is that jargon-free business English is much more credible and compelling. This is a fight that I have quite often.

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7 Responses to How to give good feedback

  1. Owen Lystrup July 31, 2006 at 7:52 pm #

    I like number 5. It reminds me of a client I am working with right now on a presentation.

    Each time we get together to organize things, not write, the client wants me to figure out which phrases and which jargon sound best. And each time I tell the client, “Let’s get organized first; then we’ll figure out what sounds best.”

  2. Roman Rytov August 1, 2006 at 12:06 pm #

    Great list. We’ve discussed recently this topic. David Maister posted “getting good at GETTING feedback” and I put my thoughts on the other side of the coin here: http://roman-rytov.typepad.com/miles/2006/07/seeking_and_pro.html

  3. Pamela Slim August 1, 2006 at 9:21 pm #

    I have lived through the opposite of #1 in more cases than I care to admit. When I was designing global training programs for large corporations, I often found myself in the role of lightning rod/mediator for different factions of the organization who couldn’t agree on anything.

    I finally learned to do careful planning with new clients in advance to ensure that we had a single point of contact for feedback who had (and this is the critical thing) actual decision-making power in the organization. Often the client who brings you in is not this person, so work with them to find out who is before you put pen to paper and go through 32 excrutiating stages of drafts, only to end up something so incomprehensible or watered-down that you don’t want to attach your name to it.

    One moment I am not proud of … walking through a document line by line in a live meeting with a global management team and fielding 12 different opinions on edits. Agonizing is too mild a word to describe it.

    This post should be required reading for anyone hiring a writer. Amen to you.

    All the best,
    -Pam

  4. Roy Jacobsen August 3, 2006 at 12:45 pm #

    This is gold. Thanks for posting it.

    Can’t recall the number of times I’ve handed someone my carefully polished draft to have them return it laden with jargon and gobbledegook, rearranged, and with the formatting “improved” (without the use of styles, of course).

    I may have to steal this and append it to all of my proposals.

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