We’ve also discussed the TAG concept of providing constructive feedback–Tell something positive, Ask a question, and then Give a suggestion. Even with all of this discussion, there are still a lot of ways feedback can go wrong.
Simply put, constructive feedback is adequate, succinct communication that both instructs and suggests improvement. It’s communication, right? How hard can it be? As a human, you communicate all day long with everyone around you in a million different ways.
So Why Is Giving Constructive Feedback So Difficult?
When giving feedback, you’ll often be given a set of copywriting resources and guidelines you’ll need to ascribe to as you line edit, which could be AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, or an internal style guide produced by the client. And, it can be easy to get caught up in these resources you’ve been given and forget to give feedback that is both empathetic and constructive.
There are three basic things that can go wrong when attempting to give constructive feedback:
- A basic miscommunication of the concepts and ideas themselves,
- a failure in tone,
- or a combination of both.
Three Things That Go Wrong with Constructive Feedback
Communication skills are the top copywriting resource we have at our disposal as writers, yet even with our great communication skills, miscommunication can happen.
In a basic miscommunication of the concepts and ideas, the one providing the feedback–or the feedbacker, if you will–is the one responsible for the message. In Communication 101, you may have learned this–the speaker is always responsible for the message. So, at the very beginning, when providing feedback, the onus is on you to be as clear as possible. This is not the place or time for innuendo, subtlety, or wishy-washy language.
This doesn’t mean that the message you’re conveying is delivered with stoic rigidity. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. You can clearly communicate concepts and ideas and still deliver them with empathy.
When you don’t deliver them with empathy, that’s what we call a failure in tone. Often, this failure is completely unintentional. You’re either moving too fast to think of building a little empathy with your writer, or your typed words come across brusquely unintentionally.
Knowing your writer well and having an empathetic relationship with them can help with your tone and communication methods, as well. What works for one writer might not work for another. Learning and adapting your editorial process and tone can only make you a stronger editor and can help develop the trust that your writers have in you and in your work.
Tone and Constructive Feedback
Here are three lines of feedback. In each of these cases, the editor is sharing an issue with the piece. Which one would you most like to hear regarding your work?
- This is way off. I don’t even know where to start. It seems completely off-brand. Please rewrite.
- You don’t have enough internal links in this piece. This is really frustrating for me to have to always remind you of this. Please, in the future, include at least 2-3 internal links in all pieces.
- Overall, the branding and link structure are great. I notice you have made a similar mistake involving bullet lists across multiple pieces, and I wanted to help you so you can avoid having to do the extra work in the future. Here’s a link to the rule I’m referring to.
In the first example, we lack the basic correction needed for what’s wrong with the piece. There’s instruction, but it’s vague. And the tone is definitely clipped.
In the second example, the direction is more clear, but the failure in tone is because it comes across as not only short but a bit snarky.
The third example gives a bit of praise up front, asks the legitimate question about the info that was omitted, and then gives the suggestion of including it with a request for a rewrite. Think of this kind of like a compliment sandwich, but instead of ending with another compliment, you end with a piece of kind, helpful advice.
The first is a basic miscommunication of the concepts and ideas. The second is a failure in tone. The third, in general, seems to hit the nail on the head.
Now that we understand how to avoid miscommunication and how to hit the right tone. Let’s talk about some best practices on the page when giving constructive feedback.
Using Technology as a Copywriting Resource
Gone are the days of red pen, scribbled illegibly in the margins, and snail-mailed the document back to the writer. I think we can all agree we’re past that. Your top copywriting resource for giving feedback should be technology. It doesn’t matter if you use Google Docs, Word, or Mac Pages, just as long as the feedback is easy to share, clear to process, and doesn’t destroy the original draft.
With that said, here are some guidelines for making your feedback the best it can be on the page for your writer.
The basic editing feature of any program used by writers is to track changes. In Google Docs, it’s called Suggesting and can be found under the Editing icon at the top right of your toolbar. In Word, you’ll find it under “Edit” on the top left of your toolbar.
Here are a few tips:
For copy edits, track changes can correct everything, including spacing errors, misspellings, grammatical mistakes, format, and deleting. It shows the writer exactly what you’re taking out and exactly what you’re putting in. This isn’t the place for full sentence or paragraph rewrites. In fact, providing feedback doesn’t mean rewriting at all. Many beginning writers falter here in assuming that their editor will rewrite their entire piece to “make it better.”
When tracking changes, don’t rewrite the writer’s work. If you find yourself typing completely new sentences, stop yourself. This is when you jump from copyediting to suggesting. And when you make suggestions, you do so in comments so that the writer can use this as an opportunity to try making a change on their own, rather than relying on you to rewrite it.
A comment is where you give praise, raise questions, and give suggestions. This is where TAG comes in: right on the page, in the margin next to the section of the piece you want to discuss.
If a sentence is overly clunky and your fingers are itching to retype it, a comment is where you suggest a revision. Something as simple as “this is clunky, can you rewrite?” is all that’s necessary. Side note: you don’t always have to go full-on TAG when line editing. Just keep your tone pleasant overall. You don’t have to handle a writer with kid gloves all the time.
Sometimes, you’ll need to coax or massage the offending piece a bit more by providing specific directions for improving the section or giving context for some of the suggestions you’ve made. You might also use comments to provide your writer with a copywriting resource to help them understand a mistake they’re making or understand a change you’d like them to make. Think back to the third piece of feedback above – it shares a resource with the writer to help.
A comment is also a great place to place your praise for the piece. A good tip to remember is that if you’ve edited an entire piece and not made one positive comment, read it again. Find where you can drop in a line or two of praise and do so.
Overall, providing constructive feedback doesn’t have to be a landmine that you have to navigate. It’s a tool that will help you grow as an editor, and frankly, as a person, too. guidelines as you line edit. Being a strong communicator eliminates miscommunication and helps you be a direct, empathetic leader.
Christina Rowell, Ph.D., is a content strategist at Content Workshop, Managing Director at Copywriter Exchange, and a former college writing instructor. She has over ten years of experience writing, editing, and creating content for healthcare, mental health, cybersecurity, and manufacturing clients.
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