The SMART Way to Review and Edit Documents


“Good writing means good revising.” Those are the words of William Strunk Jr., co-author of the classic writing guidebook The Elements of Style, first published over a century ago. He’s right. An effective review and revision process is essential for producing professional documents that achieve their intended purpose.
But what does good revising mean exactly? A weakness in an organization’s review and revision process can lead to wasted time and subpar output (improve your organization’s review process with these tips). But what should individual reviewers do to improve their own output and provide more effective feedback to writers?
We recommend adopting a framework for reviewing that’s frequently used in project management and goal setting: the SMART paradigm. SMART is an acronym that describes five criteria that define goals and objectives that are more likely to generate better results.

The SMART criteria work perfectly for reviewers of documents.

  • Specific: To start, reviewers should define exactly what they’re reviewing for. We recommend creating a standardized checklist, a type of SOP, that specifies the X number of writing elements that will be subject to review. Writers should be given a copy as well, so they know what to expect. Then, feedback itself should be specific. Writers should never have to guess what the reviewer means by a given comment. For example, the comment “This needs to be better” is not precise enough. Does the writing need to be clearer? Shorter? Use different vocabulary? Be specific.
  • Measurable: When the SMART framework is applied to goal setting, this usually means the goal should be quantifiable or trackable in some way. In reviewing and revision, we would adapt this to mean that comments should be consistent and understandable. Different reviewers can have different roles, but all reviewers should comment on the same elements of the writing with shared agreement on the focus of the review. Then, feedback and comments should be written so the writers can quickly and easily parse them for meaning. That means ensuring they can be skimmed easily, include eye-catching keywords, etc.
  • Achievable: When reviewers provide comments, they need to make sure the writers can actually do what the reviewer needs them to do. For example, don’t ask writers to rework some data analysis on their own if they’re not trained and equipped to perform data analysis themselves.
  • Realistic: Closely related to achievability, realistic feedback must contend with logistical constraints of the project. For instance, can requested changes be made in a reasonable amount of time? In other words, don’t ask for major rewrites of a big project the day before it’s due. Some people also substitute “relevant” in place of “realistic.” Consider if your feedback is relevant to the purpose the writing is intended to serve. If it’s a report designed for private internal use, for instance, it’s unnecessary to make comments related to what customers might think.
  • Timely: The review process itself also needs to be timely. Don’t make writers wait so long for feedback that they forget about the project. If nothing else, writers need to know how long the review process will take so that they can plan their time wisely. These last two points – providing feedback that’s both realistic and timely – can best be accomplished if the review process is part of the writing process from the start and isn't something that's done only after the writer has completed the document.
Remember, in the business world, written documents are intended to achieve a particular outcome. The goal might be to make a sale, educate the reader, or otherwise achieve any number of desired outcomes. Keeping these five criteria in mind can help reviewers keep their comments and input tight, sharp, and focused. That makes the comments and input more useful to the writer, more helpful to the writing process, and more effective in producing desired results.

Ready to Learn the Tactics for Expert Reviewing? Your team’s time is valuable. So why waste it on an ineffective review process? Our interactive Better Editing and Reviewing Techniques course offers tips, tricks, and skills to make your team into more effective reviewers and revisers.

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