Image copyright Min Cooper, reproduced by permission
1. Keep a sense of proportion. The number of criticisms people can make about your writing is not a sensible measure of ultimate success. As the American humorist James Thurber famously wrote: ‘Don’t get it right, get it written’.
2. Negotiate before writing. Many of the difficulties that arise once the first draft has been written do so because all those involved still have to agree what it’s all about. With any major piece of writing, make sure that all those involved agree, preferably in writing, on what you are trying to say, to whom – and how you will judge your success.
3. Encourage balanced feedback. Try to encourage a culture in which those who are asked to comment on writing are expected to say what they think works – and what they think needs changing. They should not be encouraged to go through the text in nit-picking details – and any red pens used for this purpose should be destroyed.
4. Look for the positive. Anyone who writes will make mistakes, and we can always do it better. But the question to keep asking is this: has our writing achieved the goal we set out to achieve? All else is noise.
Six common feedback phrases – and what they really mean!
‘Didn’t you learn grammar at school?’
What kind of school did you go to anyway?
‘Everyone know you can’t start a sentence with And or But.’
My school was much better than yours.
‘I found it difficult to follow your arguments.’
Haven’t you heard about paragraphs?
‘I’m not quite sure I understand your drift?’
Did you listen to my brief?
‘You should write more concisely.’
This is long and boring
‘I think you are being patronising.’
Goodness! You have written this in clear English. It could be dangerous.
1. Make sure you know what the writer is trying to achieve and who the audience is. Unless you understand this, your comments will be on matters of detail, not substance.
2. Be balanced. Don’t just go through looking for errors and shortcomings. Tell the writer what he or she has done well.
3.Don’t make endless minor changes. If someone is not very good at spelling, don’t just circle the offending words; advise them to put their writing through a spell check.
4. Don’t assume that what you were taught at school was correct. A common complaint is that writers have started a sentence with a ‘But’. But look in any reference book and it will tell you that this is perfectly acceptable.
5.Don’t use a red pen. This sends all kinds of signals, and in particular takes people back into the classroom. A pencil is a much softer option – amendments can easily be rubbed out. Remember you are making changes, not necessarily corrections.
6. You are not the target audience. All your comments should be based not on the principle ‘Do I like that?’ but ‘Is this right for the audience?’
7. Give yourself feedback on your feedback. When you are finished ask the question: ‘Have I helped the writer – or demoralised them?’