10 document reviewing tips that will drive writers completely insane

Writers need help from all sorts of reviewers. If a writer at your workplace asks you to review a document, that’s your chance to make their life a living hell. Here’s how to do it.

First, some context: editors exist to help writers, but they need help from all sorts of other reviewers, like legal experts, technical experts, and bosses. Chances are, you’ll be put in that reviewer role at some point. When that happens, you can make the writer’s job easier — or you can well and truly destroy the writer’s productivity. Here’s are a few tips on how to make the writers you work with hate you forever.

1. Flout deadlines.

A good writer sends you a document with a deadline attached. But deadlines are just guidelines, as we all know. Make the writer track you down when you miss the deadline, say you didn’t notice it, and then hand in your review at the last possible moment. Don’t worry, the writer doesn’t have any plans for sleeping or going to their kid’s soccer game this weekend, their only reason for existing is to address your late review points.

2. Ignore instructions.

Writers will tell you what to look for — say, legal problems or adherence to company guidelines. Ignore that and review whatever elements strike your fancy. Because we all know that lawyers and technical experts are exactly the right people to pick up on split infinitives.

3. Write your reviews in handwriting on a printout.

You can ignore those newfangled reviewing tools like Microsoft Word markup and comments, because it’s more fun to scrawl notes illegibly on a printout. Make sure you do it in light grey pencil and leave it unobtrusively in a pile of papers on the writer’s desk. (Alternatively, leave it on their chair for a nice passive-aggressive touch.) Extra points for using flowing cursive on documents written by Gen Z writers who never learned it in school.

4. Dribble review comments in by email.

If an idea comes to you, send it immediately via a typo-filled email from a mobile phone. Then send another contradictory comment a half hour later. Expect an immediate response to each email individually and send at least a dozen. Indicate that you’ve finished your review, then send more comments two days later. Encourage other reviewers to do the same, so the writer has 100 separate emails to collate as they revise the draft.

5. Litigate strategy issues by document review.

Writers are especially fond of comments like “Why are we even creating this document? This project should have been cancelled last year.” Or “We need to make sure our piece uses the terminology we invented, even though corporate marketing has overruled us, because here is where we make our stand.” Writers love political battles, the more off-topic, the better.

6. Insist on last review, then blow the document up.

If you’re in a position of authority, tell the writer that you don’t have time to review anything until the final draft. Then, when you get that draft, send it back and indicate that it has fundamental problems that should have been addressed earlier, and insist that the writer start over again.

7. Make sure you contradict at least one other team member.

If you know your fellow reviewer Joan is a proponent of the Oxford comma, active voice, and eliminating jargon, take up a contrary position in favor of no serial comma, passive voice, and as much jargon as possible. The particular positions you take don’t matter, so long as you know that the writer will receive multiple reviews that contain contradictory instructions that are impossible to reconcile.

8. Be as equivocal as possible.

Writers love comments like “fix this” and “weak.” It allows them to exercise their creativity with no idea where the actual problems might be. If you must be specific, take both sides at once, with comments like, “Either cut this or keep it and move it up to the second sentence where everyone can see it.”

9. Recognize that length restrictions are made to be broken.

No matter what comments you suggest, make sure they make the document longer. That way, if the writer follows your instructions, the text won’t fit on a Web page, the tweet will be 500 characters long, and the brochure will cost more to print. More text is always better.

10. Focus on problems rather than solutions.

Have you found something wrong? By all means, point it out: “This violates FTC rules,” for example, or “This contradicts the plan that Abdul published last week.” But leave it at that. Writers are problem-solvers. They’ll figure out how to fix what you found. And no hints on where to find the missing information — that’s cheating!

Please feel free to add your own pet peeves in the comments.

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  1. Why should a reviewer put energy into thinking creatively when snarky copy-editing is always appreciated? “Look at that great deadline!,” Tom wrote flauntingly. “Or shall I flout your deadline instead?” (I know I’m throwing down the gantlet here.)

  2. #3 and #4 are my life. If I send a Word doc to eight colleagues (with “mark changes” already activated, maybe one (a lawyer) will edit in Word, save the document with a new file name (as requested), and return it by email.

    The rest will be a dog’s breakfast of handwritten comments and serial emails with no Subject lines. I even had a colleague mark changes in pen on a printout, take a picture of it with his cell phone, then text it to me. And we work on the same floor, less than 100 feet apart.