How to Give Feedback on Writing in the Workplace

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Egos can be fragile

It’s important to remember that your colleagues may not be as confident on the inside as they seem on the outside – imposter syndrome, anyone? – so you need to tread carefully when you give feedback on their writing.

They’ve submitted their writing to you in the hope that you’ll say, ‘You missed a comma in the last paragraph, but other than that, it was great!’

But what they fear you’ll say is, ‘This is terrible. I can’t understand what you’re on about!’

The truth is that you probably need to make a comment somewhere in between.

Tread carefully when giving feedback

The first piece of advice I’d give is to tread carefully.

Think about how much experience the writer has with the subject, how confident they are with English and  how experienced they are with formal writing. Of course, not all business writing is formal, but if your colleague is feeling the slightest bit nervous about submitting their work for review, they may feel that their career is on the line.

I had one client tell me that every time they sent in their section of the board report, they felt like they were writing a job application or sitting an exam. This meant they wrote much more formally than they needed to, and often got themselves tied up in knots trying to write about topics they knew inside out.

Taking a step back and thinking about the writer will help you to frame your feedback around their needs.

Tips for giving feedback on writing in the workplace

So, how can we give valuable feedback on writing in the workplace? Try these four tips.

  1. Ask the writer if there is anything specific that they would like feedback on.
    This gives the writer a sense that they are in control of the process and allows you to focus on the areas they are worried about.
    Of course, if every second word is spelled incorrectly, then you might say something like, ‘I haven’t done a spell check yet, but thought I’d leave that to you for the final draft.’
    This lets them know that they need to do this step, but also means you don’t have to do this time-consuming task.
  2. Ask the writer who the audience for the piece is and what they want the reader to do once they’ve read it.
    This is a really valuable step to take yourself whenever you write something, but by asking your colleague this question, you are allowing them to focus their thoughts on the document’s intent and this will help you identify areas that need refinement.
  3. If you are using Track Changes in MS Word, try to make your notes short, rather than extensive and save any longer points for a covering email / other note.
    Receiving a document that is a sea of red is daunting to even the most experienced writer, so if your colleague is a bit nervous about seeking feedback, it’s likely to be unhelpful.
  4. Keep your comments positive / offer a solution.
    Instead of saying ‘The piece jumped around a lot so I couldn’t follow your argument,’ try, ‘I think if you moved the second last paragraph further up the document, your argument would flow better.’
    This gives the author something specific they can do to improve the document and may guide them to further improvements.
    Just saying it doesn’t work can be overwhelming feedback.

Giving feedback on writing in the workplace is often fraught with unnecessary worry, but by taking a methodical and thoughtful approach, you can make the process a positive one.

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