What does writing feedback do? It may not be what you think


Posted Feb. 20, 2018

You might be surprised that one of the biggest roadblocks to excellent business and technical writing is inadequate feedback. In fact, half of the respondents to Josh Bernoff's 2016 survey, The State of Business Writing, indicated they wrestle with feedback problems at their organization. One reason is that many reviewers don’t fully grasp what feedback is truly for, or what it should do. Ideally, giving effective feedback and editing will prompt writers to think more critically about their writing and how to make it more effective. Unfortunately, most editing focuses on making superficial, incremental changes. The result is less-than-helpful feedback, like the following scenarios.

Reviewers make directive comments exclusively.

In our new “Technical Editing” course, we address feedback extensively and have participants edit and provide feedback on a piece of sample writing. Overwhelmingly, we find that comments are highly directive. Unfortunately, writers often interpret such comments as derisive, and such comments don’t ask participants to think critically about their writing. Instead: ask questions to get writers to think more strategically about their writing.

Reviewers make stylistic rather than substantive comments.

Often, feedback isn’t about improving the overall quality of a work; it’s about making the writing sound like the reviewer had written it. It’s one thing to ensure the writing is “on brand” for a company, but it’s another to strip away the writer’s voice without clarifying meaning or improving effectiveness. Instead: edit and provide feedback in line with the writing’s purpose, rather than its style.

Reviewers edit without considering the piece holistically.

Many reviewers start making comments immediately after they start reading, instead of thinking more broadly and holistically about the piece they’re reviewing. The result is that their feedback is piecemeal and fails to address the piece in its entirety.  Instead: again, consider the objective of the writing and align comments with that larger goal.

Reviewers comment without cause.

Sometimes reviewers feel like they must or should make some kind of comment, but commenting for its own sake wastes an enormous amount of time and energy. Think of it like delegating: you don’t hire people so that you can do their jobs for them. Instead: be able to justify every change you recommend.

Reviewers make all the changes themselves.

In the exercise we use for the editing course, one participant rewrote the prompt piece himself! And indeed, reviewers frequently decide it will be faster or easier to make any changes themselves, but this deprives the writer of valuable input that could help them improve and may leave them demoralized. Why should they learn to write if their supervisor will change it anyway? Instead: emphasize writing and reviewing as a collaborative effort.
Of course, following these feedback writing guidelines is easier said than done, which is why we launched our new editing course. If your team could use some help with the crucial editing and feedback process, contact us for more information.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.