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.

Why wouldn’t you want to be clear?

The obvious answer is – if you want to mislead. A fascinating study published in the US Journal of Language and Social Psychology suggests that when scientists’ research turns out to be fraudulent, the language is often a giveaway.

Two researchers at Stanford University, California, studied more than 250 scientific papers that had been found to be using fraudulent data. They then compared the style of writing with that used in the same number of papers that were sound. They found that:

"fraudulent papers were written with significantly higher levels of linguistic obfuscation, including lower readability and higher rates of jargon."

In business, unclear writing is also revealing. It suggests a lack of confidence. Studies of the language used in annual reports, including one we at Clarity carried out some years ago, show that companies that are successful tend to write annual reports that are shorter and clearer than those not doing so well.

Of course, a lot of unclear writing is not meant to mislead or cover up. It’s just that the writer hasn’t put in the work needed to make it clear. And it is hard work. But if you don’t do it, there may be a price to pay: your reputation may suffer. Readers may lose confidence in you and your organisation.

There’s more on this in an article called Research shows connection between content clarity and business credibility at Precision Content.

Wogan’s words

Tributes to the much-loved broadcaster, Terry Wogan, speak of his ability to communicate with millions as if they were his friends. Many also mention his skilful use of the English language.

When the BBC was taken to task some years ago for failing to police its presenters’ and reporters’ use of English, the campaigners made an exception for Wogan.

An obituary in the Telegraph remarked that Wogan, as an enthusiastic reader of PG Wodehouse, James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, could lay claim to a certain erudition. He himself said he was a bit lazy, but according to another newspaper, he just didn’t let on how clever he really was.

He came up with some wonderful phrases, but in my view a large part of his secret was that he mostly used simple, everyday words. A computer analysis of the language used by successful communicators, including Terry Wogan, found that they all used a high proportion of simple words that everyone would understand.

Read and enjoy the BBC’s page called Sir Terry Wogan in his own words.

De-clutter your website

Putting away winter clothes and getting out summer things makes me think, yet again, that I must get rid of some. Everything I don’t wear makes it harder to find the thing I want.

It’s the same with a website: every extra page or bit of information means work for you to manage and makes the site harder for users to navigate. So an annual de-cluttering is well worth the effort. Users will find what they want more easily and your site will be more effective.

Organisations that audit their websites often find that many of their pages are never visited. Many other pages are visited by people who don’t want to be there at all. They’ve been attracted by material that isn’t central to what the site offers and by words and phrases that are not specific to the site’s purpose.

In an article called “The accidental website visitor”, the web consultant Gerry McGovern says that, far from being an asset, these users are a liability to a website. Part of the solution is to reverse the search engine optimisation: remove general terms that are only vaguely related to the site’s purpose and use specific terms that exclude the accidental visitor.

Some organisations have discarded as much as 80% of the content of their websites and seen them improve dramatically. Users get what they want more quickly and are more likely to return. The organisation becomes more efficient when calls to customer services or the office are drastically reduced.

We are about to discard a whole section of the Clarity website. If you think we’re losing useful material, do let us know. However, if it’s not what you’re looking for, you almost certainly won’t notice.

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.

Lack of clarity masks incompetence

I’ve just had a most revealing exchange with my electricity company. They wrote asking me to read my own meter. In the block of flats where I live, this meant I would have to arrange for the managing agent to let me in to a locked room.

One sentence in the company’s letter puzzled me. It said: “We may also have a meter reader in your area that could call to do this for you”.

If they had someone who could read a meter, why were they asking me to read it and why did the letter say he or she “may” be in my area? Didn’t they know?

It turned out they didn’t know, because they had sub-contracted the meter-reading to another company. I discovered this after hanging on to the telephone for quite a long time to speak to an adviser. The automated system had rejected my reading because the agent had misread it, but that’s beside the point.

The last straw was that the meter reader had indeed been in my area, so neither the agent nor I need have bothered to do anything at all.

Yet another example of an organisation saving itself money and wasting our time instead. And yet another example of woolly writing that blurred the issue but in the end revealed the incompetence of those involved.

Summly, summaries and blurbs

If anyone needed proof of the value of summarising, Yahoo’s purchase of Summly for millions of pounds is surely it.

Summly is an app, created by 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio, that uses an algorithm to provide automatic summaries of news stories found on the web. Announcing the deal with Yahoo on Summly’s website, Nick D’Aloisio said

“As we move towards a more refined, liberated and intelligent mobile web, summaries will continue to help navigate through our ever expanding information universe.”

He developed the app to save time, having found searching the web on his mobile laborious. He was getting far more information than he needed as he revised for his history exam.

We all need summaries. Busy executives want a single page that gives them the main thrust of a long report. Web users want an idea of what’s in a site, a section or an article before plunging in. They don’t want to waste time reading things that aren’t relevant. Summaries or blurbs guide them through a site to what they want.

In our Clarity training courses, we cover summary writing and give people tips on how to do it. For example, select a single strong message and back it up with one or two telling facts. If you include too much detail, the reader won’t be able to take it all in.

Websites need style

Having a style guide is essential for a professional-looking website or publication. We at Clarity have written style guides for clients, usually big companies, but having one specially written is probably beyond the means of small and medium-sized businesses. For the rest of us, the best thing to do is to borrow someone else’s.

I recently came across the government’s digital style guide and thought it really good. After several months, it’s still in draft – alpha not even beta – which reinforces my view that compiling one’s own tends to be a never-ending task.

As well as the familiar advice about addressing the user as “you”, using simple language and avoiding awful phrases such as “delivering improvements”, it has helpful tips specific to websites, including search engine optimisation. For example, “Frontload keywords” in page titles: that’s web-speak for “put important words at the beginning”. The style guide gives the optimal length of a description meta tag, tells you how to code subheadings and so on.

Best of all I’ve seen so far is “This isn’t a dumping ground for information that doesn’t fit the other headings.” The phrase “dumping ground” is used more than once, recognising that too many websites are full of information that gets in the way of what users actually want. So “if you can’t find a place for it, don’t use it.” That’s good advice.

Lessons from the poets

On National Poetry Day, a poet appeared on BBC Radio 4 this morning to criticise what he called the daily abuse of language by politicians. Michael Horovitz said every politician should learn a poem and say it back before making any public pronouncement.

That should keep quite a lot of people quiet, but we might extend this rather startling advice to all of us who write as part of our job.

It is echoed in a lecture given some years ago by the Nobel Prize-winning author, Joseph Brodsky. In Brodsky’s words, “Poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation – especially one on paper. The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity.”

It reminds me of Matthew Arnold, another poet who came up with a wonderfully pithy comment on writing style. “People think that I can teach them style,” he said. “What stuff it all is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.”