Are you getting enough writing feedback?

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Some writers feel as though they’re working in a black hole. Ask them the question, ‘Are you getting enough writing feedback?’ and they’ll answer with a resounding no…

Back in my freelancing days, I used to write the occasional piece for national magazines. I didn’t really enjoy writing then (I was in my I-much-prefer-editing phase at the time) but one of the magazines had me write about food. My interest in the subject outweighed my dislike of writing and the magazine and I had a happy relationship.

Until it came to editing. Not that I’m a prima donna. I’m able to separate my ego from my words and dicker with the text until I can give the editor exactly whatever he or she wants.

But this particular editor was obviously abashed by the concept of editing. Her voice was filled with hesitation and gaps and “do you thinks?” She was certainly reluctant to tell me what she wanted and she was so tentative and vague, I often had a hard time understanding exactly what she was requesting.

Not infrequently, I became embarrassed for her. “Why was she so hesitant to tell me exactly what she wanted?” I wondered. “Didn’t she understand how an editor’s job works?”

This sort of reluctance to give direction is something I see in the corporate world more often than I ever did in the media. (Funnily enough, it’s also often linked with bosses who insist on rewriting stories to their own preferences, without giving any instruction or guidance.) This does no one any favours.

Here’s an alternative approach:

I have a friend who used to work for a business consulting firm (no longer in existence because it was sold) called Thorne Stevenson Kellogg or TSK. The company put a priority on writing and developed guidelines that were quite different from the ones most associates would have used in college. Wisely, the company presented these guidelines in a booklet distributed to all employees. My friend — long gone from the company — still closely guards her copy of this.

Of course, every letter, proposal or report my friend and her colleagues wrote went through the normal partner review and sign-off process that is standard in most consulting and accounting firms.

But after the company had sent the report to the client, the writers then had to send a copy to a recently retired senior consulting partner. He marked it with a red pen, giving the writer detailed comments and feedback for improvement.

Interestingly, he did not address the technical content at all.  Instead, he looked to see if the writing was clear, the grammar accurate and the message communicated fully. When he thought something could be improved he suggested alternative wording.  “The feedback was always very constructive,” my friend reports.

But here are the two most fundamental points, and the reason, I think, that this editing program succeeded so wildly.

  • The consultant marked everyone’s work — even that of managing partners.
  • The marks were confidential and aimed solely at improving writing. They explicitly were not part of any performance review or bonus determination process.

Wow! These last two provisos blow me away. Think of the time, energy and money the company put into this process. This kind of aggressive “we’re-all-being-treated equally, dammit,” attitude is marvellously effective in underlining a company’s core values. The company clearly treasured effective communications and it showed it by making everyone participate in the let’s-improve-our-writing exercise.

Finally, they sealed the deal by separating performance from money. Despite what most of us think about motivation being entirely related to finances, lots of research has shown exactly the opposite. People work hard because they care about the work they do.  They care about the people they work with and for. And they want to become better at their jobs.

Is your company giving you any signals that it really cares about writing? Some of the clients I work with seem to be operating in a black hole. They don’t get regular feedback about their writing. They don’t even understand what their bosses want. They feel cut adrift.

A client of mine once took me aback when she thanked me for my coaching. “This is the first time I’ve been able to talk about writing since I started working here [as a writer],” she told me. Kudos to her company for making the conversation happen by hiring me.

But why weren’t they talking about writing (with their writers) all the time? At the very least, they could have set up writing groups so that writers could talk with each other. They could also have had a style guide and a repository of well written articles that writers could rifle through for inspiration.

And if they were really committed, they could have hired a professional editor or retired senior partner to give writers regular feedback. Writing doesn’t improve by magic. It requires diligent, knowledgeable work.

How do you get feedback on your writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by May 31/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Please, scroll down to the comments section, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.