Updated May 2023.

I write and talk about feedback a lot because I think most of us get it wrong.

  • We don't ask for the feedback we really need. (When I rule the world, I will decree an end to "let me know what you think" requests for review).
  • We don't give feedback that makes the piece and the writer better. (But, boy, do we revel in finding errors!)
  • We forget that feedback is more about the person giving it than anything else. (Because we filter your work through our lens.)

We need to give positive feedback so our teammates learn the traits of writing that work and start to feel successful and confident. Writers who feel beaten down respond in one of two ways:

  1. Phoning it in: producing lackluster work super fast
  2. Taking forever: producing lackluster work by thrashing around with endless revisions that don't make the piece better

...if you are known for faithfully delivering genuine, positive feedback, people will be less resistant to the negative.

Jill Geisler in a CJR piece on newsroom resolutions

Giving effective feedback makes your writers stronger and faster, increases job satisfaction (which reduces turnover), reduces time to publish, and yields content that gets results.

Here's how we do it in our own newsroom and with our clients.

handlettered "feedback"

How to give genuine, positive feedback

Faint praise is not what we're talking about here. Rather, we're looking for comments that help make the piece better by focusing on what's working now and what could be improved.

Three kinds of good feedback

Here at The Word Factory, we give and get better feedback by invoking what we call the 3 Big Questions.

1. What's good about it?

We start with something -- anything -- that is genuinely good about the writing. This isn't just to fluff up the ego before crushing it with critical comments. Content producers need to know what's good so we don't take it out of the piece.

EXAMPLE: On Friday, we had a call with a client to go over the first draft of a piece. Before we launched into the changes they wanted, I jumped in with "what shouldn't we change?" I could feel the client team mentally stepping back to get a different perspective. "The voice is spot-on." "We should keep the beginning and ending as they are." "The section on reasons to buy is great."

2. What would make it better?

The second piece of feedback we give is also rooted in genuine and positive criticism: What would make the content better? Taking this particular approach acknowledges to the writer that there's something to build on here and that we are committed working with them to put out a great piece. That helps writers feel supported (always nice), and more importantly, identifies areas to work in not just in this piece but in others.

EXAMPLE: In that Friday call, I moved us to a general discussion of what would make the piece better. The team liked the energy and pacing of three of the four sections, but the most technical section felt slow and plodding because of dense explanations of tax code changes. The editor and I talked about going back to the SMEs for plainer language explanations that we could use to match the sentence fluency of the other sections.

3. What's missing?

With the good and better feedback delivered, we have solid ground on which to deliver the harder news: what's missing. This is where we talk about things that can't be made "better" because they aren't even in there in the first place. That could be quotes from experts, data or details that support an idea, the right voice, a nut graf or strong ending, etc. It's especially important with "what's missing" to be as concrete as possible to increase the odds of moving the piece forward efficiently.

EXAMPLE: The narrative in the technical section told the story accurately, but the then-versus-now message wasn't clear. The client wanted to include a comparison chart rather than straight narrative to explain the changes. They even provided an example (always helpful!). We immediately saw how to solve the "make it better" problem with the "what's missing" solution: Create a chart by turning the paragraphs into a chart sections and the sentences into bullet points. This approach lightened the cognitive load of the information because we distilled the details into easier to comprehend chunks.

You'll notice there's not really a space for SPUG (my onomatopoeia term for spelling, punctuation, usage and grammar) comments and corrections. These errors can be fixed any time, of course, but it makes the most sense to fix them after you've addressed bigger issues like ideas, details, voice and organization. Why? Because all these revisions undoubtedly create more SPUG errors.

A new approach to feedback

Think about how it would feel if we approached feedback from this more constructive, positive and instructive process rather than the negative and often punitive approach of red-penning the crap out of a piece and pointing out every thing that's wrong.

Sure, if you really like chop-busting, my approach is going to be no fun for you. But for the rest of us, it's a winning strategy. We'll get more of what we want, build capacity and confidence so our team does better every time, and we'll be creating a culture of collaboration, learning and trust.

Try this approach to both getting and giving feedback. Definitely rely on it when someone says, "what do you think of this" or "can you take a look at this"? You'll offer and receive more actionable feedback faster, streamlining content creation, improving content quality and boosting writer and editor morale.

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