How to give feedback on someone else’s writing

Helpful criticism is one of the best ways of improving someone’s writing, but how to be critical without offending? The answer for some is not to give feedback at all, which is a lost opportunity for the writer.

We all tend to feel that our writing represents us and are easily wounded by someone taking issue with what we’ve written. We are likely to react defensively and then we don’t listen. However, there are ways of giving feedback that are not merely accepted but welcomed.

You can be critical of someone’s writing as long as you are seen to be on their side – wanting to help them get their point across, rather than simply finding fault. Any criticism should be balanced by an equal amount of support.

The key is to be factual, not judgmental. So if you say “I had to read that sentence three times before I knew what you meant” or “I found those long paragraphs a bit daunting”, you are stating facts. Instead of “That’s the wrong word”, you can say “I was confused by that word”. Again you’re stating a fact and you can go on to ask the writer how they might put it differently. They will often come up with something much better.

As writers, we should welcome criticism. Writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant has a useful article on how to handle it.

Epic writing and reading

Did you hear the late Seamus Heaney’s reading of Beowulf on Radio 4? It sounded wonderful. I only vaguely followed the story, but that didn’t matter. It was still lovely to listen to and made me want to read it.

Epics and sagas were meant to be listened to. Most weren’t written down until much later, but they had to sound good for their message to be heard.

Today’s messages are usually composed the other way round – written first and spoken later, if at all. The results are often disastrous. You can’t follow the story, you don’t understand half of it and the message does not get through.

When you’re writing, one of the best ways of testing what you’ve written is to read it out loud. If you stumble or put the stress in the wrong place or run out of breath, you can be sure your reader will find it hard and you will have failed to communicate.

We recommend reading aloud in our training courses. Try it next time you’re writing something important.

To write well, play to your strengths

Do you think of yourself as a bad writer? When I was at school I certainly thought I would never earn my living by writing. But here’s some encouragement from a writing coach whose newsletters I enjoy, Daphne Gray-Grant.

In a recent blog post, Daphne points out that writing involves many skills, not just one. But instead of making this an obstacle to success, she spurs us on.

“Surely”, she says, “you can find some part of the job that you enjoy.” You may be good at explaining technical things in simple language or describing things vividly. You may have an ear for quotes. You may be able to find something funny in almost any situation.

Daphne goes on: “There are many different skills that go into writing. Focus on the one(s) you’re good at and fake the rest. With more practice, you will get better. We all have different gifts… If we focus on what we can do, it’s easier to become better at everything else.”

I agree. Writing isn’t one skill that you’re either born with or you’re not. It’s a craft that can be learned with practice, reading and training. Do more of what you’re good at and you’ll get better at the rest.

Collaborative writing

At its best, collaborative writing can result in something better than any of the writers might have produced alone. At its worst, it can be a horribly painful and undermining experience.

It goes like this: you write your draft report, then you send it round to all the other interested parties. They change what you’ve written, add bits of their own and send it back to you. You swallow hard, tweak it again and send it back for another round of changes. And so it goes back and forth, till your original is unrecognisable and the fight goes right out of you.

So here is a five-point strategy to help you manage the process.

  1. Send your draft as a read-only electronic version. That will prevent others from plunging in and tracking their changes all over it.

  2. Attach a separate sheet for feedback. Frame the questions so they elicit clear responses: for example, are the messages clear? is anything missing? is there anything you would like to change and, if so, why?
  3. Pick your battles. Concentrate on getting the main messages right.
  4. To resolve disagreements about style, grammar or punctuation, refer to a higher authority: your house style guide, if you have one, or a trusted external one such as Clarity or the Guardian style guide (http://www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide).
  5. If you are the owner of the document, make sure you can live with the final result.

What is your experience of collaborative writing? Maybe you have some tips to add.

Don’t write – talk

I was about to start coaching Steve (not his real name). He looked nervous, waiting to hear what I thought of the writing sample he’d sent me. I’d only known him for ten minutes but I liked him: he was funny and straightforward.

Unfortunately, his writing was terrible. It was a speech for his boss, the head of a think tank, full of phrases like “business architecture restructuring” and “building a financial escalator”. Still, I’ve helped people become coherent before. We started working on some exercises, using techniques that have worked for other clients.

After two sessions we were in exactly the same position. He seemed to understand what I said, so why couldn’t he improve?

An idea occurred to me. Steve had told me that he felt he was less educated than his colleagues. I think he was unconsciously making his writing ‘difficult’, and therefore sound clever, to compensate. So for the next session, I took my dictaphone with me. I asked Steve what one of his more mystifying paragraphs meant; recorded his answer, typed it and printed it.

It was good: brief, concise, mentioning the most important points first and backing up assertions with real-world examples. True, it’s unlikely his boss would want to swear quite so much in a speech, but fixing that took a couple of minutes. Redrafting the abstract, complex, jargon-rich writing he’s been producing till now has taken hours, and never produced a good result.

Now we have something. We’ve found a way of getting Steve to write the way he talks.

Feedback is good for you

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last…”

Believe it or not, that’s how the original version of this song began. That’s how the writer wanted it to begin.

It had been commissioned for the Judy Garland film “Meet Me In St Louis”. The producer of the film pointed out that it was rather lugubrious. The writer, being a writer, fought to keep his version of the lyrics – his vision as it were.

Eventually, the writer, Ralph Blaine, relented. He went away and came up with:

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light…”

The rest, as they say, is history. And the writer ended up a very, very rich man, thanks to that one little change.

So why tell this story now? Well, for a start, Ralph Blaine died a couple of weeks ago and this story featured in most of his obituaries. More to the point, it illustrates the power of good feedback.

Too often, when we’ve written something, we’re tempted to consider it done and hit the “Send” button just as fast as we can. But it’s always a good idea to test what you’ve written – to try it out on someone else. It’s easier, and sometimes less painful, not to ask for that second opinion.

So, next time you’re tempted to skip this vital step in the writing process and to hit that “Send” button right away, think about Ralph Blaine and what a difference one little piece of feedback made to him – and his bank balance.

Good and bad interviews

After two days at the Hay Festival of Literature, I found myself thinking about the difference in quality of the interviewers of the authors. The format is for each author to be interviewed by another writer, who then invites questions from the audience and chairs the discussion. One interviewer I thought very good and another very bad. I’m not going to disclose names, but the difference in quality of interviewers affected one’s opinion of the authors and the value one got from the various sessions.

A good interview, though not necessarily as formal as those at a literary festival, is an important part of preparing any substantial piece of writing. Asking questions that elicit the right information can make the difference between, say, a good report and a poor one. Asking the right questions requires you to find out about the person you are interviewing and, by being sympathetic to them, to get the best out of them.

Asking good questions is the foundation of most writing. So being sympathetic, while remaining purposeful, is a skill worth cultivating.