Don’t just edit, teach: include a note to the writer with every set of edits
A writer asked you to review something. You’ve marked up a document or piece of copy with suggested edits. But if you just send it back, you haven’t done your job.
Because the writer will likely just accept or reject those edits without thinking too hard. And that’s a missed opportunity for both of you.
I recently did a workshop for a small organization where everybody writes and publishes. I looked at what they had published and found it excellent, and yet the principals were insistent that they had a writing problem. A bit more probing revealed that the principals, who were excellent writers and editors, were correcting the writers’ work and either sending it back or just posting it — and missing the opportunity to coach their writers. My advice was to send each set of edits back with a note that the writers could learn from. (This is the complement to the “reviewers’ memo” — the note that the writer sends to the editor asking for help.)
What’s in the reviewer’s note
The reviewer’s note should:
- Begin with praise. This is the well-known criticism sandwich that makes it easier to accept the flaws you’re pointing out. Try to be sincere with your praise, since everybody knows this method and discounts it.
- Leave the criticism in the note, not the subject line. Normally, I suggest that the subject line describe the main content of what you’re sharing. But a subject line like “Your writing is filled with passive voice” is not going to get your criticism the respect it deserves. I recommend something neutral like “My review of your marketing copy.”
- Criticize at the highest level where there is a problem. If the main idea is weak, don’t criticize the language. If the structure is flawed, start there, not with the placement of apostrophes.
- End with advice. It’s easy to critique. It’s not so easy to fix things. By giving the writer some useful advice, you end on a high note and help make the writer better.
Here are some examples, organized from highest to lowest level of the problems editors tend to find.
Alice, I enjoyed your piece tremendously. It really made me think about the problems in the healthcare industry because it hit so many of them so squarely in the text.
Unfortunately, I think you’re not successfully pulling it together. It felt more like a list without any unifying idea. You need one big idea that the reader can hang onto, and then you can connect all the rest of the problems to that.
If you want some help with the idea, I’m available for a brainstorm, and we might want to include Fred and Maria as well. I know if we crack this the rest of the piece will be much stronger.
Joseph, thanks for giving me the opportunity to review your memo. You have a strong idea here about organizational challenges and your memo is going to make a difference.
I think the difficulty with how you wrote this is that it meanders. It seems to me that you have three main points: that our process is weak, our communication is inadequate, and our leadership is muddled. Everything you say relates to these three, but you’ve mixed it all up.
In the marked up copy, I’ve suggested a way you could reorganize the text. You don’t have to follow this, but please use some similar strategy to organize your thoughts and you’ll be much more likely to have an impact.
Antonio, I was delighted to review your documentation for the new product. It’s thorough and well-organized and will certainly make customers more successful.
I noticed something about your writing that I think will interfere with its effectiveness. You use a lot of passive voice — I’ve marked it throughout the document. For more detail about passive voice, see this. Passive makes it harder for people to understand how things are actually happening. Here’s a quick tip: if you can add “by zombies” after the verb, you’ve written a passive sentence.
Fixing these sentences is pretty easy — figure out who the actor in the sentence is, then rewrite the sentence to put that actor at the start.
I had these problems, too — and I learned to cure them. If you fix your passive habit, the natural strengths you have as a writer will shine through.
Ellen, you’ve built a terrific marketing document here. It’s going to win over a lot of prospects.
One thing stood out, though. There’s an awful lot of jargon in here. These are words we all use around here, but I’m concerned that the audience for this document might find them confusing, and that will undermine our efforts to sell effectively. I’ve marked the jargon in my redline review copy, attached.
Here’s a trick I use to help with jargon: put a photo of one of our customers next to your monitor as you write. As you write, ask yourself, would she understand this language? If not, replace it with something simpler and more direct.
Fix that and the document will be much stronger.
Kris, thanks for sharing this report with me. The content is pretty close to perfect.
There are a fair number of grammatical errors in here — missing words, words with inaccurate connotations, misspelled company names, misplaced apostrophes, and that sort of thing. I caught as many as I could.
Before publishing this, I’d run it by a skilled copy editor. Merlina is fantastic at that; if she’s got time to review it, she’ll save you from those embarrassing errors.
This is easy stuff to fix. You’re in great shape once you do that.
What if you don’t use email?
As I was conducting my workshop with the organization I mentioned earlier, I had this startling exchange with them:
Me: Make sure you include a note along with your review when you send it back by email.
Them: We don’t use email.
Them: We edit documents in a shared space. Our communication is almost all on Slack. So we’re not emailing each other.
I had to think a minute, because all my advice is geared around people who communicate by email. But the most important point is not the email — it’s the note that goes along with the review.
If, like my client, you’re so advanced that you don’t use email, you can still take advantage of the reviewers’ notes I recommend here. Use whatever messaging system you prefer to share your high-level feedback. Another simple method is to create a paragraph of feedback and post it as the first comment in the reviewed document in MS Word, Google Docs, or whatever writing and editing system you use.
So long as you create that note at the beginning of your feedback, you’ll accomplish your goal, which is to make the writer think about the document and their own tendencies and learn something from the edit.
That’s worth it. Because in the end, you’ll create smarter writers, not just better documents — and you won’t have to fix the same problems in the next document they write.