9 ways to provide feedback to get the best out of your writers (and content)
Do you remember playing “hot and cold” as a kid (or maybe as an adult) to locate a hidden object?
“Hot” indicates you’re closer to finding the object and “cold”, the opposite.
These clues don’t only provide hints on how well you’re doing, but also serves to motivate or frustrate.
It doesn’t matter if it’s candy, a stuffed toy, or an elder sibling playing a prank on you and hiding an old sock for you to find. The word “hot” acts as positive reinforcement and a stimulus to keep going, while “cold” can be rather exasperating to hear — especially when you’ve gotten a few in a row.
As an editor in charge of writers, this same feedback mechanism is applied when you provide feedback to your content writers: encouraging them to keep doing what they’re doing when they’ve done something well, or guiding them back when they’ve gone off-track.
Here are two basic principles of feedback:
- Any feedback is better than no feedback. Just as in the game, it’s impossible to advance if you’re not hearing “hot” or “cold”. How would you know in which direction to go?
- Constructive feedback requires a good balance of both positive and negative. If you’re only giving feedback when something hasn’t been done right, you’re only saying “cold” to your writers without elaborating. They’ll know they’re doing something wrong, but they wouldn’t know what or how to improve.
In other words, positive and negative feedback are two sides of the same coin — both are needed for your writers to perform.
Or in the words of James Thornton, who leads a team of content writers at Typeform:
Constant feedback is the cornerstone of a great writing team.
— James Thornton, Inspiration Content Lead at Typeform
At Dear Content, we understand just how frantic day-to-day life in a marketing department can be as we’ve been on both sides of this coin.
Not only have we produced content for which we received zero feedback, but we’ve also hired external writers and failed to provide them with the feedback they deserved.
But we live, we learn, and since then, we’ve gotten so much better at it.
We’ve realised that feedback is key to determining the quality of the final product.
Just like in the game, we’ve had our own “hot” and “cold” moments before finally grasping the best way to relay our thoughts and comments to our content writers.
Above all, we’ve learned never to underestimate the power of feedback. It may seem superfluous or even futile, but it’s an essential part of the process that gets you closer to the quality you expect and to your overall objectives.
In this article, we’ll dole out advice on how to make the revision and editing process more fluid and tips on how to provide feedback to your writers to bring out the best in them.
1. Invest time
Unless you’re a full-time editor, providing feedback may not be part of your job description — or so you perceive — and you may find it somewhat uncomfortable.
A Harvard Business Review (HBR) study shows that more than one-third of managers find it uncomfortable providing negative feedback that the recipient may respond badly to.
But as the person who has assigned a writing task and who is responsible for overseeing that task, the obligation to provide feedback is implicit.
You owe it to your writers to give them feedback. The words and ideas that they so carefully craft deserve attention. I feel it’s a mark of respect to offer feedback on their writing.
It’s very rare to get direct feedback from readers, even with online content. This means being a writer can feel very solitary, like you’re pouring your heart out in a letter then just gets chucked in the sea.
— James Thornton
And while it’s tempting to launch yourself into the it-is-faster-if-I-just-correct-this-myself mentality, understand that feedback is an investment that promotes growth opportunities — both for the giver and the receiver.
Not investing in the time and energy required for constructive feedback will end up costing you dearly — more than what you avoided and “saved” to begin with.
By embarking on corrections yourself, you’re only giving the writer the “what”s and not the “why”s; all they see is “this is wrong” instead of “this is wrong because”.
Without the “why”, understanding what they did wrong will be pure guesswork. So they’ll either continue to commit the same error you decided to fix yourself or do it another way that may not be to your liking.
And that’s a completely normal reaction. They can’t read your thoughts. If there’s something that doesn’t quite fit, make it clear. It’s their “cold” trigger and guidance to understanding they’re doing something that’s not what you expected.
2. Give credit where credit is due
It’s human nature to only provide feedback when something goes wrong. The results we expect often meet or exceed expectations, and that’s been etched as a “default” result, and we see no need to show our appreciation.
It’s only when things go wrong that we feel the need to voice out. That’s limiting.
In fact, the same study by HBR shows that some managers are uncomfortable with giving feedback — even when they’re positive.
Positive reinforcement is equally as important (if not more important) as negative feedback and helps to guide and motivate.
Be it a fellow colleague, a writer from a content marketing agency or a freelance writer, all writers in the world need to know what it is we’re doing well for two very basic reasons:
- Knowing what you value and like about our work will help us to keep up the good work and improve.
- We’re still human and we do need validation every now and then to feel motivated.
Pro tip from James: If you manage a team of writers, have everyone give feedback on each other’s work. It’ll help everyone improve and ensures consistency in tone and voice if you’re all working for the same publication.
3. Consider your requirements beforehand
Need your writer to include links or information from a particular source? Perhaps specific keywords or keyword density to aim for? Or a certain style to follow?
No problem — as long as they’re aware of it beforehand. By that, I mean your specifying to them.
You could only get to it when you’re editing, but you could also provide these specifics upon assigning the task to save yourself and your writer the time and hassle.
Plus, if you’re working with freelancers or content marketing agencies, these requirements could affect the price that has been agreed upon and generate uncomfortable and unpleasant situations in which you hear:
“Unfortunately, because this wasn’t specified beforehand, we’ll have to charge extra for the extra time needed for these changes.”
“Because no specifics were provided, we assumed…”
Fret not. There’s an easy solution to all of this.
Create a document that specifies clear requirements for the piece(s) and share that with your writer before the project’s onset.
Besides avoiding wasted time, added cost, and uncomfortable situations, having this document can help you in two ways:
- It increases the chances of your expectations being met.
- It helps as a checklist during the editing process to see what has and/or has not been fulfilled.
And in the interest of being more efficient, instead of repeating this process each time, you could simply prepare a document with clear instructions that can be adapted to each content type.
Think of it as a mini-briefing and include information about the project’s phases, milestones, communication channels, and your expectations.
If the project is an important one (eg. a guide, ebook, or key landing page, etc.), this document would serve as a handy guide to ensure the work is completed on-time and on-budget.
Pro tip: When dealing with long-format content, agree on a structure and outline (and key messages, if that helps) of the piece beforehand. The clearer and more well-defined the sections are, the smaller the margin for error.
The last thing you’d want is for a 3,000-word piece to be way off the mark upon submission.
4. Define a process
Revisions, changes, doubts… these are all synonyms of “first draft.”
With that in mind, you’d want to establish a revision and editing process that’s as flexible and clear as possible.
But to each his own and your preferred channel through which the editing process is managed may not be the same as the writer’s.
You may prefer to jump on a phone call to convey your requests for revisions and changes. Or perhaps you rely on online tools. Maybe you’re even open to everything except emails.
Whatever it is, inform your writer.
The most practical option we’ve come across at Dear Content and one that we use on a regular basis is to have the writing and editing process all on Google Docs. Here’s why:
- You can highlight and leave comments directly at the specific sentence, word, or paragraph you’d like changed.
- Their comments feature is extremely easy to use. Simply respond to the previous comment as if it were a chat.
- Its “suggesting” mode shows the writer what it is you’ve edited exactly. He/she can then accept or reject the changes and leave comments.
- All changes are saved online and in Google Drive itself, which makes it easy to revert to an older version if necessary.
- If there are several people involved in the writing/editing process, you can assign a comment directly to an individual, who will be notified automatically via email of a comment he/she needs to resolve.
If there are too many changes or changes that aren’t as straightforward, a quick call may be a good alternative to annihilating the document with your edits.
Furthermore, consider the fact that your writer will probably have spent hours drafting the piece. So seeing a document drenched in changes can’t be very motivating. A phone call can often reassure and soften the blow.
Pro tip: You could leave quick comments in the document to pinpoint the areas you want changed and flesh out the details over the phone. This serves as a reminder both to yourself and to the writer.
Plus, since it’s all already in the document, this saves the writer from having to chase your words and jot down your comments at the same time you’re giving feedback.
5. Prioritise changes
You’ve received the first draft and are just beginning to read.
Right off the bat, you realise this isn’t what you expected at all. Your “cold, cold, cold” instincts take over and you nearly get a brain freeze.
You begin to think about the changes the writer is going to have to make (and how you’re going to explain them) and…
Not only will this happen to you, but also to your writer; receiving too much feedback at once can be extremely overwhelming.
Here’s where you need to be practical and prioritise.
But there’s so much that needs to be changed!
Yes, we get it. So prioritise by categorising your changes into two categories: “must-have” and “nice to have”.
In your first feedback session, always start with the “must-have”s. The nitty-gritties like swapping out a verb for another, including more images, etc, can be left for later.
6. Suggest instead of demand
No one likes to be ordered around and everyone likes to feel respected and their work valued.
The same applies for writers.
You can always “demand” a change: do this, do that, change this, change that.
But your writers will likely take it badly (who wouldn’t?), which creates an unpleasant working environment.
It’s normal to want to have things done your way. But it’s not so much what you say but how you say it.
Even though you’re asking for a change, forming it as a question or suggestion helps the writer retain a sense of value and keeps him open to receiving more feedback. It’s as simple as rephrasing, incorporating questions, and/or using the conditional form:
If you need to explain the root of the problem to prevent future mistakes, do it. But avoid assigning blame — what good has that ever done?
7. Adapt your feedback
Introverted, extroverted, direct, diplomatic, confident, insecure… The human race consists of many different versions of the mind.
It’s clear that we’re not all one and the same, but what we sometimes fail to consider is that our differences affect the way we receive the same kind of feedback.
It’s not just about giving constructive feedback and being respectful, but also customising your feedback to your writers’ personalities.
I like to tailor the way I deliver feedback to writers depending on the person and their personality.
For example, if I’m giving feedback to someone who struggles with confidence, I would frontload the feedback with great things I’ve observed with their writing before moving to the constructive stuff.
For more seasoned writers or folks I’ve worked with for some time, I feel freer to cut straight to the chase and give feedback on the areas for improvement in a piece of content.
Of course, always delivering feedback respectfully and from a place of caring for people’s development.
— James Thornton
In short, when providing feedback to a writer, go the extra mile by considering his or her personality and how phrasing things a certain way can help him or her better accept your comments and improve.
Be it your team of writers, colleagues, business partners, or even life partners, giving feedback the right way helps both you and them — a win-win situation.
8. Be as specific as possible
Precise and specific comments are the key to a smooth and productive feedback process.
What may be clear as day to you may not be what the writer is used to doing and may have a hard time grasping it.
When requesting for changes, indicate, as clear as possible, the change you’re expecting by answering the where, how, what, and why.
“This needs to be changed,” says nothing beyond your not liking it.
The more details you get into, the better: “This sentence here doesn’t quite reflect our tone, please make it less informal.”
If you didn’t already do so at the start, you could also send them other articles as a reference of what you expect.
But even then, be specific as to what they should be looking out for in the article or you’ll leave your writer wondering, “Is it the structure, tone, format, or angle that I should be following? Or everything, or…?”
Indicate as clearly as possible:
- What you want changed: this entire paragraph, this sentence here,…
- Why you want it changed: it’s too complex, it’s not accurate, it’s too long…
- What they should take away from the reference article (should you provide it): check out how they’ve explained it in the second page.
9. Put things in context
To do things well, we need to first understand them.
The best way for your writers to understand your doubts, concerns, and suggestions, is by providing a context.
For example, a crucial piece of information your writer will require (ideally before he/she begins writing) is related to your audience: for whom is the piece written?
If the content’s tone, style, angle, etc aren’t appropriate for your audience, explain why instead of just asking for the change to be made.
For instance, “I don’t think this sounds right” should not stand on its own. Back it up with context such as “there’s too much technical jargon that I think will be complicated for our audience to understand.”
(On that note, don’t forget that the content is meant for your audience. Try and get into their mindset during editing and feedback.)
This is an effort that goes both ways. If your writers require context to understand why you’re suggesting certain changes, you should also consider their context for having written it the way they did.
It wouldn’t hurt to question why they’ve chosen to write certain things in certain ways.
Whether or not their reasoning makes sense to you, you’ll have discovered something along the way — how your writers think, a new way of writing, etc.
Plus, asking them about their thought process ties in with the previous point of validating their efforts.
Don’t be afraid to be challenged, either. The great thing about writing is that it’s open to interpretation. Revel and delight in the joy of a discussion over paragraphs, sentences or even individual words.
Ultimately, it trains you and your team to think more discerningly when writing.
— James Thornton
Two-way communication builds a pleasant and democratic process and environment.
And there’s nothing more enriching than having shared opinions in a pot to supplement the exchange and experience.