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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