, no. Not Jonathan Franzen's famous book. I'm talking about the corrections we're impelled to make daily on other people's work.

Giving feedback is a big part of what we teach writing teams to do, so it's something I think about a lot. I've been chewing on this pretty hard lately, though.

A few days ago, I got two random emails correcting errors in two different published pieces. One felt helpful, collegial. The other, punitive, arrogant.

How to provide good feedback

The "helpful" correction was constructive and nonjudgemental: "You've got an extra verb in this sentence." It was delivered like the proverbial "you've got spinach in your teeth". The vibe was more "I thought you should know" than "you idiot, how could you let that happen?"

How not to give feedback

The not-very-constructive correction was two paragraphs long and full of asides and self-aggrandizing statements -- just to point out there was a misplaced comma and a non-traditional (but accepted even in the dictionary) verb form of a particular word. These are tiny errors that don't require -- nor warrant -- 312 words to correct. Clearly, the writer needed to show off his skills under the guise of "helping". Please.  Best of all, he made two glaring errors in his own email!

How to convey your feedback

Editors and other super-detail-oriented people  sweat the small stuff. And that's good -- we need them to do that. But when we're commenting on someone else's work, especially someone we don't know or when our help was unsolicited, we need to stop before hitting send and check off these rules for revising and editing:

  • The purpose is to improve readability, not show off our skills or make others feel bad.
  • There are no right or wrong answers, only what works and what doesn’t.
  • When we say that something works, we mean that readers understand the message and that we have achieved our purpose for having delivered it.
  • Revising or editing  should be driven by purpose and audience, not by ego or style.

How to make feedback effective

If you end up deciding to give your feedback, keep explanation at a minimum. Usually, just telling the writer what needs to be done, as in the first example, will suffice. If you think the author won't understand what you're asking, include a model, or make the correction yourself. But it's often better to simply offer to help them further if they need it. Definitely don't include your rationale. Instead of "educating", it comes off as condescending or defensive, and it makes you look smug.

Bottom line: Writing is a deeply personal thing, even if we're writing technical documentation or catalog copy. So be gentle and thoughtful when you correct.