…every time you are about to return a document with your constructive feedback, hold it against the standard measurement: Am I leaving this writer better than I found them?
Following last month’s discussion on the principles of constructive feedback and the importance of keeping your feedback truly constructive, this month’s article includes a checklist of things to keep in mind while giving feedback and some notes on dealing with feedback on your feedback.
Delivering Feedback: A Checklist
Now, finally, I suppose you actually want to know how to deliver feedback? Well, here you go. This list doesn’t cover everything, but it should give you a decent starting point. Keeping the principles in mind and avoiding the excuses for bad behavior, when you’re reading or editing a piece of writing and leaving your comments (and/or tracked changes) behind, check your work against this checklist to ensure as much as possible that you’re doing right by your writer. And more than anything, every time you are about to return a document with your constructive feedback, hold it against the standard measurement: Am I leaving this writer better than I found them?
● Am I tearing them down with any of my feedback? If I am, is it actually necessary and am I putting in the work to lift them back up?
● Am I lifting this writer up and leaving them better than I found them?
● If I’m criticizing something or pointing out an error, am I also providing a correction?
● Am I explaining the logic or purpose behind the corrections I offer?
● If I point out something abstract I think should be changed/improved, do I offer guidance on how to do so?
● Is my reasoning clear and sound?
● Can I back up my arguments with sources where appropriate?
● Is my criticism legitimate or is it truly just a matter of personal taste?
● Am I “beating any dead horses”—in other words, have I brought up the exact same point more than three times? If so, let them know you’re going to assume they get it, flag it in a simple manner (e.g., “Repetition/R”) only if absolutely necessary in the future or just correct it, and otherwise move on and stop bringing it up.
● What have I done to ensure that this writer walks away from this experience feeling empowered/inspired/excited?
● Have I challenged the writer to reach to new heights in their writing and given them a path to get there?
● Have I been clear on which of my comments are merely my personal thoughts/reactions/opinions and which should be taken into more serious consideration?
● Have I been careful not to impede on the author’s voice and personal style, even if it might not appeal to my own preferences?
● When delivering feedback that’s more critical, have I phrased it to focus on the writing itself, not the writer? (This is a small psychology hack adapted for editing. It’s subtle but it goes a long way. It follows the common psychology principle: “Challenge the behavior, not the person.” For example: “The sentence would be stronger if it was worded…” instead of “Your sentence would be stronger if you’d written it…”)
● Am I treating them respectfully, not condescendingly, as equals and telling them only the truth without being hurtful?
● Am I paying equal attention to the piece’s merits as I am to its faults?
● Am I making arbitrary changes?
● Have I attempted to include my reactions to the text from a reader’s perspective for the author’s benefit, not just from an editor’s or fellow writer’s perspective?
● Have I addressed all the areas that the author specifically requested?
Receiving Feedback on Your Feedback
If you’ve followed all of this advice and proceeded with the utmost caution and respect in delivering your feedback…well, I’m not going to lie to you and claim you’re guaranteed a good response. There’s one other factor to weigh in here, which I touched on earlier: people don’t always want honesty. Not even if they claim they do, not even if they think they do, and not even if they explicitly beg for it. Most people aren’t ready for feedback. Unsolicited feedback is almost always a terrible idea, unless you really know the person and are attempting to help them avoid making an embarrassing mistake, and even then be sure to always, always provide such feedback in private.
Fact is, no matter how sensitive or reasonable you are—and even if you’re only doing what was asked of you—the person on the other side of your feedback can still respond with defensiveness, anger, devastation, or they may not respond at all. It’s important to recognize that all of those reactions, fair or not, are their way of dealing and they have a right to deal however they need to whether you understand it or not. If someone lashes out, let it go and move on. If you can’t make them feel better or help them, let it go and move on. Don’t get caught up emotionally or get defensive yourself; exercise empathy and if you have to disengage, do so.
However, if you do your job well and can achieve that balance between honesty and kindness, delivering your feedback in a manner than empowers, encourages, and helps people grow, your chances of a positive outcome are very high. This is where lasting friendships and connections are made. This is where writers begin making leaps and bounds in their abilities, and the satisfaction you’ll feel in helping them reach those new heights will be more than worth the effort. Not only that, but I know of no better way of improving one’s own writing abilities than by teaching concepts to others. Editing for others and providing feedback forces us to put into words the things we often already know only intuitively, which makes us become more skilled with our own tools and in turn can push a writer to expand their knowledge base far faster and more broadly in a shorter period of time than they’d be able to otherwise. I always recommend to my authors that if they want to improve quickly, the fastest way to do so is to start beta reading and editing for others. By leaving people better than you found them, you’ll be better for it, too.