Reading between the lines of maddeningly vague editorial comments
Every piece of business writing needs reviews. Some reviewer comments are specific and helpful. Here’s how to deal with the rest of them.
Feedback makes business writing better. A good writer may need to get reviews from technical experts, legal authorities, better writers, copy editors, or clients. But at the typical company, the feedback process is fraught with problems; in my survey of business writers, only one in three thought their process for collecting and combining feedback worked well.
When reviewers point out errors, correct your grammar, or identify redundancies, you’ve got just what you need: a direction to follow to fix what’s wrong. But too often, reviewers deliver vague and unhelpful comments that seem to point nowhere.
Once you get past the insulting nature of these comments, though, they can reveal a lot about what’s wrong with what you wrote. Remember the editor or reviewer’s job is to show you where the problems are; it is your job to determine how best to fix them.
Here’s your guide to the most maddening comments, what they actually mean and how to fix them.
Sometimes appears as: “Skipped this,” “Too long,” “Blah blah blah,” “Get to the point.”
Why it’s infuriating: It’s a slap in the face after all the hard work you put into the writing.
What it means: You’ve failed to keep the reader’s interest. This usually means you’ve gone on too long about a topic or have created a redundant set of arguments.
How to fix: Cut. More specifically, identify elements that aren’t essential to the story and delete. Find places where you can combine paragraphs or arguments into a shorter, more pointed way of writing. Consider cutting opening paragraphs to avoid burying the lede.
Sometimes appears as: “Confusing,” “I don’t get it.”
Why it’s infuriating: It makes you think the reviewer must be stupid.
What it means: You’ve confused the reader. Reread the indicated passage and look for elements that create confusion, such as jargon, unwritten assumptions, or unsubstantiated leaps of logic. This can also happen when you’ve added previous edits from multiple sources, rendering your prose incoherent.
How to fix: Clarify the argument, using less technical language. Consider breaking down the argument or the recommendation into clearly delineated steps.
Sometimes appears as: “Nope,” “I disagree.”
Why it’s infuriating: It’s insulting; nobody likes to be told they are wrong.
What it means: You’ve failed to be convincing. The reader has an alternate perspective that contradicts what you’ve written.
How to fix: There are two possible strategies. First, consider that you might actually be wrong; determine if there is evidence that refutes your argument. Alternately, shore up your argument with facts or footnotes, and present more evidence to fend off counterarguments. You may want to look into whether you’ve run afoul of some corporate or departmental policy that contradicts what you’ve written.
“Didn’t you just say this?”
Sometimes appears as: “Repetitive,” “Redundant.”
Why it’s infuriating: You obviously wouldn’t write the same thing twice, even if the reviewer thinks you did.
What it means: You did say the same thing twice, even though you don’t think you did.
How to fix: Keep the stronger version; delete the weaker. Or if you feel you must keep what you’ve written, clarify the differences in the two ways you’ve said it. Combine paragraphs making the same argument into one place in the document; use cross-references in other places.
“What’s happening here?”
Sometimes appears as: “Confusing.”
Why it’s infuriating: You just described something, the reviewer must be on drugs.
What it means: Your narrative is hard to follow. An excess of passive voice can create this result, because it hides who is actually doing (or is supposed to do) what.
How to fix: Rewrite narratives chronologically and in active voice, with the actual actors made explicit. Use concrete and descriptive words that make the narrative come alive.
Sometimes appears as: “Duh.”
Why it’s infuriating: This implies that the reviewer is smarter than you.
What it means: You think something is worth spending time on, but the reviewer has already accepted it. This comment can be a reaction to meaningless platitudes, like “We must work harder.”
How to fix: If what you’re written actually is obvious, delete it or just state it outright. If it’s more subtle than that, explain the subtleties. Resist the urge to spend even more words on a conclusion the reviewer finds obvious; any fix should be briefer, not longer.
Sometimes appears as: “Something wrong here.” “Hard to follow.”
Why it’s infuriating: It’s maddeningly nonspecific.
What it means: Sometimes, this means you’ve inadvertently deleted a word or edited a sentence in way that doesn’t make sense any more. In other case, you lacked flow while writing, so the sentences either go on way too long or don’t easily connect with each other. This can also indicate that you’ve changed tenses or points of view, or made some other shift that threw the reader off.
How to fix: Rewrite sentences. In some cases, it’s best to delete the “awkward” sentence or paragraph and rewrite from scratch, now that your mind is concentrating on it.
Don’t hate stupid reviewers
Reviewers’ job is to help you find problems. Some are just not expert at articulating what’s wrong, but if they had a problem with what you wrote, it’s probably worth considering why.
When their comments are too vague, you may need to go back and ask them what they meant. But as you can see from these tips, sometimes you can read their minds without that conversation. A good writer can get value even out of a vague and maddening review.
Here’s a graphic that lays out my suggestions for all kinds of criticisms, not just the vague ones.
Josh, what is your advice for responding to the person who is asked to “review for accuracy only” and sends back an article completely rewritten in jargon, passive voice and ponderously worded key messages? I need to learn a more tactful way to deal with these sources who try don’t seem to see the difference between a university paper and an intranet story aimed at highlighting employees.
Nancy, your question was so interesting that I turned it into my next post.