How to Give Writing Feedback — Thoughtfully and Effectively

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Whether you’re part of a writer’s group or manage a department of creatives, you may be called upon to give feedback about someone else’s work. It can be doubly difficult to critique someone’s work, especially if you like and respect that person. You don’t want to upset them or discourage them from writing more. On the contrary, you want to provide feedback that will challenge them to produce better work.

Most experts agree that it’s important to provide some positive comments along with negative feedback. Critiques without positive comments can be devastating to creative types, who are naturally sensitive about work that they’ve poured their heart and soul into. Negative critiques can make writers feel their work has no redeeming value, and they may be tempted to give up writing altogether. There is always something positive to find about someone’s work. A good editor will see it and won’t hesitate to share it.

So what’s the best way to handle critiques? How can you provide meaningful feedback that supports and encourages other people to produce better work without crushing their soul? Here are a few tips for giving effective feedback.

1. Read the piece thoroughly. If it’s a shorter piece, like an essay or news article, read it several times. Here’s how I like to assess a written work: The first time through, I read to get the gist of the story. During the second reading, I make notes about technical issues, like grammar, punctuation and run-on sentences. The third time through, I make notes about content issues. Are there confusing plot points? Does the story flow seamlessly, or are there sticking points where nothing appears to be happening? It’s usually during that third reading that the biggest issues pop out like a neon sign. If possible, avoid reading the piece right before meeting with the writer. It simply does not allow enough time to mull over the writing.

2. Find the story’s good qualities. Don’t just focus on mistakes and confusing content. Start with sharing the positive qualities of the story. Some managers and editors have used the sandwich method for critiquing a person’s work — couching negative feedback between two positive statements. According to the Grammarly blog, some editorial experts claim that this method isn’t effective in providing constructive criticism. I see nothing wrong with this approach, however. I suspect that its lack of effectiveness has more to do with not properly communicating constructive feedback.

Here’s how the sandwich method works:

“I love your story idea. I think it’s sharp and witty, and a lot of people will appreciate the humor. However, I noticed a tendency for run-on sentences. Perhaps you were thinking faster than you could write? Sometimes it helps to read aloud your story so you notice those run-on sentences. Once you fix those run-on sentences, I think you’ll have a stronger story..

You notice that I not only pointed out the weakness of the story, I offered a suggestion for fixing it.

3. Choose your words carefully. According to the Balance Careers blog, it might be helpful to begin statements with “I” rather than “You.” The “you” focus can be perceived as a personal attack, which you want to avoid. Focus on your own response to the story. Instead of saying, “Your story is boring,” say “I found the story boring in some sections.”

Be honest with your critique, but approach it with the intent of helping the writer improve their work. Always offer suggestion or tips, but refrain from directing the writer how to fix things. Respect them enough to give them space for resolving their own writing issues.

4. Provide detail… Don’t just mention the issue, but provide some detail. Don’t just say, “I thought your story was boring.” Explain why you thought it was boring. Was the entire piece boring to you, or just one or two paragraphs? Was there too much narrative when you were looking for more dialogue? Did the story need more conflict? Did the story move off on a tangent that was difficult to follow and had nothing to do with the story? The more feedback you provide can help the writer analyze their story with an eye on improving it.

5. …But don’t nitpick. You might notice a lot of things wrong with the story. In that case, for the sake of your working relationship, focus on only one or two things that the writer can easily fix. Remember, your role is to provide helpful, practical suggestions.

6. Call out recurring mistakes right away. If you have read several pieces by the same writer over time and notice that they tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, you need to call them out right away, suggests the marketing experts at Hubspot. Don’t just fix the problems for them without mentioning it. If necessary, make the correction and show it to them so they see how to fix it. The only way they will learn not to make the same mistakes again is to make them aware of them in the first place. The sooner you mention those errors, the sooner they can learn to correct them on their own.

7. Ask questions to guide the writer. According to Grammarly, when you ask the writer questions about their work, it gets them to thinking about how to solve their own writing issues. It guides them to resolve the issues on their own rather than you telling them how to do it. For example, you might suggest, “Is there a way to simplify this paragraph, perhaps edit it for shorter sentences? It might make the story easier to read.”

8. Don’t make it personal. Critique the work, not the writer. Set aside whatever personal feelings you have toward the writer and focus on the work in front of you.

Remember these are works-in-progress, not finished pieces. Your job is to provide feedback to help the writer improve their work and sharpen their skills. Think about those times when you’ve had your own work critiqued. How did you feel when you received feedback? Did you feel deflated and discouraged, or were you energized and excited about moving forward with your story? Be the editor you’d like others to be with your own work.

Proofreading: How to Develop an Eagle Eye for Your Own Writing

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As writers, one of the toughest things we will ever do is proofread our own work. If you’ve spent days or even weeks working on one piece, it can be easy to form an emotional attachment to it, especially certain words and turns of phrases that you invented. It can be difficult to look at your work objectively and let go of that emotional attachment. It can be difficult to pick up a red pen and circle misspelled words, typos and grammar mistakes. But proofreading is a necessary evil, like having a tooth pulled that’s been aching for days.

One of the most important skills a writer can ever learn is proofreading. Most experts believe proofreading can help you become a better writer. Some writers aren’t necessarily good proofreaders however. To improve your proofing skills and develop a keen eagle eye to spot pesky errors, follow these proofreading tips.

1. Set the work aside. If you’ve been working on a piece nearly non-stop for several days or weeks, your eyes have probably grown tired of looking at the words on the page. When you believe your piece is complete, set it aside before proofreading it. Give your eyes a rest. When you return, you can review your work with a clear head. Chances are, you’ll pick up mistakes more quickly.

2. Proof a hard copy rather than on a screen. Granted most of your work was done on the computer. That’s fine. But when it comes to proofreading your own work, I’ve always found it easier to review everything on a printed page. The printed page is easier to read and you are more likely to catch errors. You don’t always catch errors when you see them on the laptop screen. So print out your piece before proofreading.

3. Make several proofing passes. During each pass, focus on a different problem. Experts at Ragan Communications suggest reading for the overall message during the first pass. Subsequent passes will focus on sentence structure, grammar and syntax, spelling and work choices and so on.

4. Read it out loud. Reading the piece silently is one thing, but reading it out loud can help you determine sticky points in the content. Do you stumble over certain, difficult pronunciations?  Are some sentences overly long and complex? Reading out loud alerts you to trouble spots you may not have noticed before. Additionally, you can try reading the piece backwards, which forces you to focus on each word one at a time.

5. Have someone else proof your work. If you have difficulty separating yourself from your work, it might help to have another set of eyes look at it. That’s especially important for something like an email marketing piece or website content that will eventually be viewed by hundreds or thousands of readers. Another reader can confirm whether your words say what you intended.

6. Proof every version of your story. Wix Content blog suggests proofreading each version of the story as you write them. For example, if you’ve written five versions of your essay or feature article, be sure to proofread it each time you complete a new version. This might seem like overkill, but with each new editing pass, more errors can be introduced. Proofreading helps to avoid those errors.

7. Double check names. If you mention names of people, places, and products in your piece, make sure to spell them correctly. Especially double check company names as companies tend to merge with others or go through a rebranding phase, thus precipitating a name change.

8. Check spelling and punctuation. It’s okay to use a spellchecker to initially scan your work – it can certainly pick up some misspelled words – but don’t rely on it, say experts at Ragan Communications. The spellchecker doesn’t pick up everything and can’t discern the correct uses of some words, such as where and wear. Make sure you keep a dictionary and thesaurus handy too in case you need to look up a word’s meaning or spelling.

9. Check for accuracy. If you interviewed subject matter experts for your work, make sure you send them a copy to review before publication. Ask them to double check the spelling of their name too so it appears correctly. There’s nothing more embarrassing than sending out work that contains outdated, or unconfirmed and unsubstantiated information.

10. Double check links. If you’re reviewing copy for an online publication and your piece contains links to outside references, double check those links before posting it. Your editor or employer will thank you that you’ve taken the time to do that.

Whether writing is your career or your passion, understand that proofreading comes with the territory. When you follow some or all of these proofreading tips, your writing will shine with clarity and accuracy.

Tips for Self-Editing Interpersonal Communications

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Our personal communications is as vital to our success as our marketing and sales strategies, maybe even more so. The way we present ourselves to the outside world says more about who we are personally and professionally than any strategic plan. More often than not, what we do and say can either help our business or hurt it. For evidence of that, you only have to look at public figures like Roseanne Barr to see how swiftly things can change with one poorly thought out comment.

That’s why it’s important to learn self-editing techniques. Self-editing is the process of reviewing, revising and correcting your own communications. It is similar to the self-editing process for a manuscript, except it is geared toward social media, emails and correspondence, such as cover letters.

A poorly worded email can make you look ignorant, while a well-crafted letter written in an angry tone can make you look unprofessional. Neither one will help you achieve your business goals.

What you say – and how you say it – gives the recipient a clear idea of who you are. Further, what you say or write may not always be exactly what you mean. Ever write something that sounded fine in your head but when you or someone else read it back to you, it didn’t have the same meaning? Somehow the meaning got lost in the transition from your head to the paper or computer.

More important, what you write or say can have lingering and sometimes devastating impact. One poorly thought out tweet posted in a knee-jerk reaction can cost you clients and customers. In conversations, what you blurt out cannot be taken back. Ditto with social media and emails. Once it’s out there, you can’t get it back, and the damage to your business and reputation is already done.

We are all guilty of these communication miscues, but there are ways to refine our skills to prevent this from happening too often. I’m just as guilty as the next person, so I’ve learned from my experience to self-edit my interpersonal communications with the same attention to detail as any writer would a manuscript for publication.

Before writing that cover letter or email to an upset customer or responding to someone’s Facebook post, take a few minutes to follow these tips to self-edit your communications.

Step 1. Using a note pad or blank sheet of paper, write everything down that you’d like to say. Spill your guts. By putting it all down on paper, you won’t be in a position to hit Send or Post right away. If you’re angry, or upset or excited about a situation, writing your ideas down on paper first will help dispel some of that emotion.

Keep in mind that you will not use everything you write down in your final correspondence. But just like writing a novel, it will help you get all your ideas down first. Then you can edit it later.

Step 2. Set the letter aside for a few hours. Let it simmer on the backburner. Go and do something else for a while – head to the beach, play basketball, take a nap, watch a movie, anything to get your mind off the letter. Your emotions will simmer down by then too so you will be able to think more clearly.

Step 3. Come back to your letter after sufficient time has passed. I recommend at least a day if you are truly upset about something. Otherwise, a few hours will be sufficient. Review what you have written. Underline or highlight the important points you want to make that still ring true. Keep it to only two or three points however, so your final letter won’t be overly long.

Step 4. With a red pen, cross out the sentences and sentiments that do not belong, things you wrote in anger or excitement, or extraneous content that does not add value to your letter. Whatever is left can be reviewed and edited for appropriateness or to help you support your key points.

Step 5. Rewrite your letter, email or social media post with the highlighted information left over from your draft. Chances are it will be more concise and less emotional than before. That’s a good starting point.

Step 6. Review again for spelling, grammar and punctuation. Misspelled words shows carelessness and lack of attention to detail. It also shows you didn’t take the time or didn’t care to proof your work.

Step 7. Pay attention to the tone of your letter or email. You want to come across as professional, clear-thinking. Although if you are writing a letter to support a cause or persuade someone to take action, a little emotion may be necessary. But don’t overdo it.

Step 8. Avoid personal attacks. Focus on the issues you are writing about. There are ways to express dissenting opinions rationally and intelligently without resorting to personal insults, which only makes you look bad.

If in doubt about your ability to self-edit your personal communications, have someone you know and trust proof it for you.

This same process holds true for social media posts. Write down what you want to say on paper first, set it aside for a few hours, then come back to it. You may decide to tone it down, revise your comment or not post it at all. There is no reason to respond to someone’s comment on social media right away. Buy yourself some time and put thought into your response. What you say and write reflects on you, for good, bad or worse.

Self-editing is an important part of the personal communications process. By following these simple steps, you can communicate with colleagues and customers with greater confidence and integrity, and they will see you as someone with whom they want to do business.

How an Editorial Plan Can Help You Create Better Newsletter Content

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Newsletters are a valuable tool to help promote your business to clients and customers. When done well, they help keep your business top of mind so clients will contact you when they need your product or service. They also help you engage with your clients and customers on a regular basis — key when building a relationship with them.

But coming up with fresh content can be a challenge. After all, there are just so many ways you can write about decluttering your home or saving for retirement.

If you feel your newsletter content is getting a bit stale, here are a few ideas to rejuvenate your stockpile of story ideas.

  • Check out industry magazines and websites for stories that might be of interest to your clients and customers. Notice how they present information. Do they use graphics, photos or other images to enhance their material.
  • Consider adding infographics. Many businesses use infographics to present survey data in an interesting, more reader-friendly way. Infographics is one more tool you can use to make your content more interesting while getting your message across.
  • Sign up to receive newsletters from similar types of businesses, including competitors. Note what kinds of stories they are sharing. Are they covering different topics than you are, or are they writing about topics in a fresh and interesting way?

As you review these publications, take notes about what you like. There’s always something you can learn from what other organizations do.

Next, sit down and brainstorm potential story ideas. Feel free to borrow ideas from competitors, industry publications and the news headlines. If needed, hire a writer who can help you find different angles for old story lines that you’ve covered before. They can also help you organize your content for each issue.

It might also be helpful to think of a theme for each issue. For example, when planning the August issue, think of summer, vacations, the beach, and barbecues – and try to connect your articles to the summer theme. September might be an issue related to going back to school, so the newsletter might include articles related to education and learning. Having a theme adds a specific focus to your content, and because each issue has a different theme, no two newsletter issues will be alike.

Finally, start planning. The key is to think of content in blocks of information. Structure the newsletter in equal chunks and separate them by topic. For this purpose, use a simple template that includes blank spaces to fill in the month, the theme and three or four slots for story ideas. Below is an example:

Article 1: Message from you, the company president, vice president or CEO. The message can be brief, no more than 300 words, and can be written by the CEO himself or another representative of the company on his behalf. Be personable and conversational. Talk about any new changes at the company.  What do you want your clients to know about your business that they did not know before?  If your CEO or director is uncomfortable leading off the newsletter, use that first article to introduce a new product or service, or any major company news your clients might find helpful.

Article 2: Highlight a specific feature of your business, something that has been established for some time that people may not know about. For example, an apartment community might feature the reopening of the outdoor patio and swimming pool for the summer with gentle reminders for using it safely. Another idea for this article is to do a Q&A with a key member of the management team.

Article 3: Share a light-hearted, general interest story that your clients will appreciate. This could be a focus on neighborhood news, like a list of local street festivals, or tips for keeping pets cool during the hot summer months. For an apartment community, ask residents what they enjoy about living at their community.

If you really want to be organized, plan several issues at a time. By organizing your content this way, you can be sure you aren’t repeating stories.

Conclude each issue with a call to action. Mention any special offers, ask for feedback about your business, or end with a thoughtful, meaningful inspirational quote. Be sure to include your business contact information so clients and customers can reach out to you if they have questions.

Perhaps the biggest challenge many managers and business owners have about newsletter content is not that there are not enough ideas, but that there are too many. With so many topics and angles to work with, it can be difficult to whittle down the most important ideas you want to present.

Setting up an editorial plan for your newsletters will help you focus on three or four ideas for each issue that will help you engage with your clients, promote your business and present your name and company in the best possible light.