The art of feedback: 12 essential lessons

I have spent the past ten years writing daily for different clients, including jet reviews for the Robb Report, computer games stuff for Wired magazine and, for the last five years, corporate work for Microsoft, HP and others.

I have had a *lot* of feedback. In this article, I want to distil lessons from that experience so that you, dear reader, can give great feedback and get better work.

  1. Read like a reader. I’m not writing for your boss, I’m writing for a customer who doesn’t know much or anything about your company or its products. Forget what you know and think about them when you read copy for feedback. Does it answer their questions? Does it tell a story and flow from one point to the next? Does it include any company jargon that they might not understand? This mindset will help you give the best feedback.
  2. Read the whole thing first. I can’t tell you how often I get feedback where people leave comments such as ‘don’t forget to mention feature x’ when, in fact, it’s covered in the following paragraph. Writers cannot include all the key points in the headline and the first paragraph. They have to prioritise and structure content. So your job is to read the whole thing before you say something is missing. But it’s absolutely fine to say ‘feature x is more important than feature y, so move it up the running order’. This is good feedback.
  3. Read it again. I recommend reading everything three times. Once, quickly, as a reader. Second, more slowly, as a client, looking at brand police issues and key messages. Then, third, from the end backwards to the start, looking at the detail such as typos, grammar etc. (If you’re into that stuff.) This is the best way to give rounded, comprehensive feedback.
  4. Give feedback, don’t rewrite. I have had a few clients who just change copy rather than explain what they didn’t like about the first draft. This doesn’t help me understand how to do it better next time. Also, I tend to view this kind of feedback as sacrosanct. I assume that my client has a good reason for wanting those words and I don’t change them or, if I have to correct some grammar or something, I feel I have to give a detailed explanation. So, my preference is to get comments explaining what you like or don’t like and then rewrite it myself. Of course, correcting product names or other details this way is absolutely fine.
  5. Use Track Changes and Comments. The best way to edit text is with Word Track Changes and the best way to comment on something is with Word’s comments feature. That way I can go through the whole document and make sure that I look at every bit of feedback. If you prefer to write directly into the text, you can use a different colour or [square brackets] or the magic marker ‘TK’ to mark your changes, but really, it’s so much easier with Track Changes.
  6. Explain yourself. Tell me why you want a change. Over time I will get a better understanding of what you like and how to write better for you. This is the purpose of good feedback. I call it ‘train the owner, not the dog’ (with a hat tip to Barbara Woodhouse).
  7. Understand good and bad writing. Take a look at Seven types of bad writing.
  8. Educate about the brand. Every company has different, sometimes obscure rules about product names, trademarks and so on. I really like to learn this stuff and to get it right in my text (although ultimately, of course, my clients have final responsibility for it). So good feedback starts by sharing your company guidelines and giving constructive explanations of changes in my copy.
  9. Beware the Stockholm syndrome. Have a look at my article: Writers are from Mars, Clients are from Venus.
  10. Remember the brief. It can be helpful if you look back at the brief before you give feedback. Remember what the piece was trying to achieve, who it is aimed at and so on and refer to the brief in your feedback. For example, if the piece was aimed at business people, you can legitimately challenge overly technical language.  (You do have a brief, right? Read Better briefs for writers and How to work with writers for more on this.)
  11. Don’t edit by committee. Sometimes I get feedback from three or four people at the same time and, if it conflicts, I have to figure out whose feedback has priority. Eek! It’s much better for you, as a client, to review and collate everyone’s feedback so I get a single version of the truth. It’s also much more efficient for everyone if I get one round of feedback, instead of five or six rounds as each stakeholder sends in their comments. Many writers charge for additional rounds so this can get expensive. (I don’t, within reason)
  12. Give praise and encouragement. I try to leave my ego at the door but good feedback also includes praising the stuff you liked and explaining why. This is a great way to encourage a writer to consistently deliver their best work for you. It’s free and highly effective.

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5 Responses to The art of feedback: 12 essential lessons

  1. Andrew Munro May 19, 2011 at 6:40 pm #

    This rather drips with frustration, but I have a great deal of sympathy. We share some of the same customers, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I recognise the issues.

    I would add just one other: Stick to your own deadlines. Almost without fail, clients miss their own deadlines for providing feedback.

    Andrew

    • Matthew Stibbe May 20, 2011 at 6:13 am #

      I’m not really frustrated. Most of my clients give good feedback most of the time. This is a distillation of ten years’ experience with bad feedback and I’m trying to help people avoid the bad and do the good. Your point about timeliness is well-made. I have had a few projects where I have waited months for feedback only to get a ton of it and a client asking ‘can you turn this around tomorrow, we’re really short of time!’ In these cases, I’m tempted to say that a lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine. But of course, I can’t! :)

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