In Ghana, a country the size of Oregon located near the equator along the western curve of West Africa, the official language is English. There are up to 80 native languages spoken in Ghana, but the unifying language is ours, left to the Ghanaians by the British.
Therefore in the education system, Ghanaian school children are taught in English, and it brings learners together when it comes to language, concepts, and ideas. Yet the English used in a classroom is limited, as one can imagine, and many English words simply don’t translate into Ga, or Twi, or Fante.
The word “feedback” is one of the words that means a host of things to the native English speaker. Yet in Ghana, none of the dialects have a comparable word.
Why is this?
A native Ghanaian explained it like this: to correct or criticize someone is to expect their behavior to change immediately. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if they like the way it’s delivered or if it changes the behavior long term. The goal is a change of behavior right now, period. This is the same within a family as it is in a classroom, in business, or in government. It’s a top-heavy, dictatorial approach, to be sure, but there’s no question that it’s effective in its own way.
Constructive Feedback is a concept that is different from any other type of communication. So different that it doesn’t even exist in some other cultures. It’s not because other languages don’t communicate instruction, or criticism, or praise.
Of course, they do.
It’s because there’s a subtle art to constructive feedback that is a mix of all of those concepts. And maybe that’s why we so often get it wrong.
The word constructive means “to serve a useful purpose.”
Merriam-Webster’s official definition of feedback is “the transmission of evaluative or corrective information about an action, event, or process to the original or controlling source.”
Let’s keep going.
The word criticize means “ to consider the merits and demerits of, and judge accordingly.” It also means “to find fault with; point out the faults of.”
Praise? That’s an easy one: “to express a favorable judgment of.”
Constructive feedback encompasses all of these concepts.
As creators, we know what all of those words feel like. Praise feels great! But it’s not always helpful. Criticism feels terrible, whether the feedback transmitted is technically correct or not. Constructive feedback is a combination of helpful praise and painful criticism, a mix of instruction with long-term goals that serves a useful purpose.
Now that we merge what they mean with what they actually feel like, how can we learn to receive feedback as a copywriting resource to help us eliminate recurring mistakes? How can we correct future tics and behaviors and still feel good about our work–even if a member of our writer community delivers it in a way we don’t like?
Start by identifying and classifying the feedback you are receiving.
If it all feels negative, don’t take it personally. Just tell yourself, “this person may not understand constructive feedback, but I do. I can take from this what is useful to me without my feelings getting involved.”
Now that you understand the basics of constructive feedback, let’s talk about the three steps to take in identifying and classifying the feedback you receive.
Step One: Don’t take copyedits personally.
If it’s not standard practice for your editor to show you your mistakes, ask to see your line edits. Get used to seeing your own mistakes. Learn from them. Get better at what you do, and get used to receiving this most basic level of feedback.
Know the stylebook that your editor uses–whether it’s internal to your client or if they use AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, or any other style guide. As your editor reads and edits your copy, the grammar fixes will range from everything from typo correction, punctuation fixes, and word choice suggestions. Copy edits–or line edits–are the editor’s first line of attack. They are seeking mistakes, and for that, you should be thankful. After all, don’t you want your published work to present as perfectly as possible?
Remind yourself that your editor is a professional and that they’re likely making these changes to your work based on their own experience and the style guide they ascribe to. Copy edits can be quick–but your editor is human, too. It’s okay to question a copy edit if you see something that seems like an error itself.
Now, I’m with you. I’ve seen copy edits that look like a red pen party. Don’t get overwhelmed by the visual, and just dig into the work and repeat after me: copy edits are not personal.
Also, keep in mind, to maximize feedback as a copywriting resource, It’s best to review all the edits for a given project in one sitting.
Step Two: Understand the difference between rules and preferences.
Beyond line edits, your editor will make comments that are either rule-based or preference-based. Once you learn to ascertain the difference, you can digest and process the feedback more efficiently.
A rule-based edit or correction means that your grammar, punctuation, word choice, or sentence structure is–sorry to tell you–flat-out wrong. In addition to grammar rules, these include improvements that objectively make your project likely to perform better for organic searches and better engage the reader as well.
A preference-based edit means that there is a better, cleaner, more concise way of organizing this sentence or paragraph, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. If you have a reason for how you worded it the first time, such as adherence to the brand’s tone or audience, discuss it with your editor. They may end up agreeing with you, or they may stick with their original suggestion based on their preference. The important thing is that you understand the difference.
- A rule-based edit: “Submerge” does not carry the same connotation as “drown.”
- A preference-based edit: “The concept might be better in two sentences instead of one. Please rewrite.”
Step Three: Get to Know Your Editor
Getting to know your editor doesn’t mean simply working with the same person within your writer community for a long time. It means that you can almost hear their voice over your shoulder when you’re writing. It means you stop and double-check a grammar rule. It means when you proof-read your own work, you catch the mistakes that would drive that editor crazy.
And yet, as with any other relationship, it’s bigger than that.
Writing–including copywriting–is about a relationship on the page between the writer and the reader. An idea created in the writer’s mind is put onto the page for the reader to decipher and interpret for themselves.
There can be a magical twist when the writer and the editor have a cohesive, shared goal. There’s a bridge of empathy between the writer and editor that can help shape words and a piece of work into something that achieves its goals because a team is working together toward a shared success.
So be sure to thank your editor often for the service they provide you and the strength that relationship brings to your business.
True constructive feedback has one goal: to improve the body of work. But let’s face it–you’re not always going to get it in a constructive manner. By learning how to receive feedback, however it comes, is a skill that makes you a better writer. Developing a relationship with your editor will make you both better. And learning to see your own shortfalls can only make you stronger.
- Don’t take copy edits personally.
- Understand the difference between rules and preferences.
- Get to know your editor.
These three steps will help you become a stronger content creator.
My Ghanaian friend marveled at the concept of feedback, and he spoke of it often. “How can it be,” he would ask, “that someone can correct you solely for the purpose of making you better, not to beat you down? This is the world I want to live in.”
It’s the world we can live in, too.
Being a member of writer communities like Copywriter Exchange means giving as much as receiving. And that’s why giving great feedback is one of the best copywriting resources available. Join our community today!
David J Ebner is the President of Content Workshop and an advisor to Copywriter Exchange. Before all of that, he was a freelance copywriter. David is the author of Kingmakers: A Content Marketing Story, a book designed to help writers leap into the content marketing world.