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How to Give Feedback on Writing

On Saturday I received a glowing email from Scott in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, who offered several compliments on this blog. Among the detailed praise were words I loved reading: “well worth my time,” “exceptionally well written,” and “thank you for the considerable effort that you put forth in maintaining your blog.”

Thanks, Scott! I really enjoyed the positive feedback and attention to my work.

Scott also pointed out an error in one of my posts. And in later email he pointed out two more typographical errors and a word choice that didn’t make sense to him.

If Scott had written to me out of the blue (Translation: in an unexpected message from a stranger) and first pointed out my errors, would I have paid any attention? Would I have appreciated his criticism? NO!

Scott knows the secret of how to give feedback on writing:

First develop a positive foundation, one that is strong enough to withstand the weight of constructive feedback.

Human beings need to feel respected before they can accept criticism. Business writers are human beings. It’s essential to treat them the way you would enjoy being treated.

If you are a manager, supervisor, or editor, or in another role that requires giving feedback to people on their writing, consider these suggestions on the etiquette of feedback:

  1. Point out effective aspects of the work, not just negative ones. On printed documents, point out at least one good feature per page. Even when a document contains many problem areas, comments like these are helpful and appropriate:
    Your tone is perfect–it’s warm without being informal.
    –These bullet points are clear and very easy to skim.
    –You have done a fine job of avoiding jargon. Excellent!
  2. Suggest changes rather than heavily editing a document or rewriting it yourself:
    This long paragraph contains a lot of great information. Breaking it into shorter paragraphs might help your readers find the information faster.
    –A summary of the key results would probably be useful to the senior executives.
    –I’m not sure the title reflects what is in the special report. Can you think of a title that tells what’s in it for the reader?
  3. Ask questions that will help the writer think about the effectiveness of the document.
    What do you want to accomplish in this section of the report?
    –Have you covered all the important points in the first screen?
    –Do you have specific data that might convince readers?
  4. Communicate negative comments only to the writer–not to others–whenever possible.

Do you have other suggestions, tips, or guidance on the proper way to comment on writing? Do you have examples of criticism that hurt or helped? Please share them.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.