16th September 2015 eloudon


If somebody asks, “Can I give you some feedback?”, how do you feel? Ready for the truth and eager to make any necessary changes? Or sick with dread, knowing you’re about to get a sharp nip of criticism?

I thought so.

I’m leading three writing workshops in the next month, so I’m thinking a lot about giving feedback. I know that some writers will literally shake with anxiety when their writing is discussed. Why is it so hard to share our writing? Is it because we reveal something of how our own mind works every time we write? Or is it because we’ve all been judged again and again on our writing alone – by teachers, examiners, and potential employers or lovers? More rejection: who needs it?

If feedback on our writing is painful, we won’t write better, that’s for sure. Most of us tumble through a cycle of hurt, anger, and denial. Then we try to forget the whole miserable episode.

This month, then, in anticipation of the workshops, I’ve come up with eight rules – not for writers, but for myself and all the critical readers out there. I’ve been guilty of breaking all of them. Nonetheless, I know they work, and you might want to share them with the managing editors in your life.

  1. Meet in person with the writer. Feedback by email helps experienced writers working with professional editors. It doesn’t help anxious people trying to learn on the job. Put the document between you, to show that it’s a shared endeavour that you care about equally and are both responsible for.
  2. Do not write on anyone else’s document. I know. It’s hard.
  3. In the same spirit: when meeting with people, do not hold a pen in your hand. Let the writer take notes and make corrections. If there are basic grammar or spelling problems, point them out and verbally give examples or corrections, but again, let the writer make the actual changes. (It can help writers to keep a running list of errors if they make the same mistakes again and again.)
  4. Ask the writer what he or she wants feedback on. Make sure you address the writer’s concerns, even if they aren’t the same as yours.
  5. Let the writer know where you got lost or sleepy. Acknowledge that you might have had a low blood sugar moment, but suggest that they read those sections aloud and see whether they can write shorter, plainer sentences.
  6. Give feedback that’s descriptive and specific, with steps the writer can follow, rather than subjective. For example, suggest simply cutting a paragraph rather than saying that a section “doesn’t flow”.
  7. Tell the writer what you will remember best. You will be indicating where the writing is strongest, and people learn more from praise than from criticism.
  8. Give the writer time for a rewrite and offer to read it. If the writer does share a second draft with you, bear in mind that writers need to take risks as they develop, and the new writing can look messier at first. Have faith. Say three positive things you haven’t said before and encourage one more “tidy up” draft.

Yes, doing all this takes time and might leave some teethmarks on your tongue, but it pays off quickly for the writer and for you*. Soon you’ll be able to trust the writer to send things out without you having to “check it over”. You’ll have won a colleague’s trust, and you’ll have created a good vibe of collaboration and respect at work.

I’ll be back next month with fresh insights from the workshop. Until then, enjoy the journey!

*Of course, if the document’s being sent off to the Gates Foundation or 10 Downing Street that day, you may need to pick up your pen after all. Just be sure that you, too, get feedback on your writing from time to time. You wouldn’t want to make things worse, would you?





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