I was recently promoted and now I often have to edit or give feedback on my staff’s writing. Do you have any tips on how to do this?
One of the things I’ve noticed over my years as an editor and writing trainer is that people often get put into positions at work where suddenly they have to give feedback on other people’s writing, but they’ve never been trained on how to do it effectively. You can be a great writer yourself and still struggle with this – in fact, good writers often struggle more, because they often know by instinct that something sounds ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but can’t consciously explain why. So here’s a few tips for giving feedback to other people in a way that builds them up and helps everyone improve.
Use track changes
If you’re using Microsoft Word or a similar word-processing program, track changes is your friend. In Word, you can find this under the Review tab. In Google Docs, use the ‘Suggesting’ feature. This will show each change you make (they’ll show up either in the text or in balloons beside it, depending on your settings) and will allow the original author to follow what you’ve done.
Along with track changes, Word, Google Docs and similar programs also allow you to insert comments. Use this! Unless a change is immediately obvious (like fixing a typo), explain why you’ve done it. Don’t assume the author can read your mind. E.g. “I’ve made this change because our style guide says to write numbers below 10 as words, not numerals.” This will also help your relationship with the author, because people are much more accepting of changes when they understand why they’ve been made. Early in my editing career, when I was working in-house for a government department, the few times I had authors get upset about changes were because I’d failed to explain myself clearly. Depending on your workflow and tempo, you could also consider sitting down with the author and walking them through your changes face-to-face.
Look for solutions, not problems
I sometimes see documents that contain feedback from other people, and I can always pick the inexperienced or untrained ones because they highlight problems without offering solutions. A comment might say “Poor grammar” or “Sentence is too long” and leave it at that. This is deeply unhelpful. Always assume the author has given it their best shot and can’t see the issue – either because they’re too close to the text, or because they don’t realise it’s a problem, or because they don’t know how to fix it. Simply pointing it out without helping them fix it is a recipe for frustration all round – they might not know what they did wrong, and they might not be able to fix it in the way you want. Instead, fix the issue (i.e. offer a solution), and then explain (with specifics) why you did it. Instead of “poor grammar”, say “I changed ‘were’ to ‘was’ here because organisations are always singular.” Instead of “sentence is too long,” break it up then explain why you broke it where you did. This also helps the author learn and will help them become a better writer. An editor’s job is to help people solve problems – even (or especially) problems they didn’t know they had.
Only change what you need to
One of biggest things a new editor needs to learn is the difference between wanting to change something based on external principles (like house style, brand voice, principles of plain English, or grammar/spelling conventions) and wanting to change something based on your own personal preferences. The fact that you wouldn’t write it that way yourself is not a valid reason for changing something. Every writer has their own voice, even in dry workplace documents, and you should generally leave this alone, unless it really doesn’t conform to your organisation’s brand guidelines (the tone is too casual, for example). There are two big questions to ask yourself when you encounter something you want to change: Will the audience understand it as it is? and Can I justify this change with an external source? If the answers are ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ respectively, then go for it. Here are some reasons for making edits and the sources you can use to justify them:
- Spelling or grammatical errors (dictionary, style guide)
- Word choice, spelling, referencing style etc that doesn’t conform to your organisation’s house style (style guide, dictionary)
- Writing that doesn’t adhere to the principles of plain English, if your organisation uses them, or is generally unclear (style guide, forthcoming international plain language standard)
- Tone or voice that doesn’t fit your organisation’s brand (brand guidelines, style guide)
- Formatting or layout (headings, paragraph spacing etc) that doesn’t conform to your organisation’s style (brand guidelines, style guide)
- Factual errors (reliable online or other sources).
As always, explain why you made the change, so the author knows for next time.
A lot of people are worried about giving or receiving feedback on their writing because it can feel very personal, even adversarial. But it doesn’t have to be, and hopefully these tips will help you become more confident at editing others’ work in a constructive way.