giving feedbackby Jody Bruner

Have you ever had a colleague eagerly ask for feedback on a document only to have her face fall as you eagerly point out all the ways she could improve it? Why, you wonder, did she ask for help in the first place if she doesn’t really want it?

Most people–we’d even say all people–are sensitive about their writing. Our writing reveals so much about who we are that we don’t respond well when we’re hit by a barrage of criticism, however well-intended.

Receiving feedback has obvious benefits for the writer. It also has tremendous benefits for the reviewer. When you review someone else’s document it’s easy to achieve the objective distance you need to see how it can be improved. It’s far more difficult to achieve this objectivity with your own writing. And the better you get at looking critically at other people’s writing, the easier it becomes to look critically at your own writing.

In our writing courses, we include an opportunity to peer edit, once participants share a common language and criteria. Here’s how we recommend doing it:

1. Read the document twice–once for content and strategy, and once for structure, style and grammar. The first time you read it, you’ll notice style and grammar. The second time you’ll be more aware of the overall structure and strategy. Make note of the things that are successful, as well as the things you think could be handled differently.

2. Give the writer the good news first. There is always something positive to say and we learn a lot by seeing what we’re doing successfully. Also, people are more willing to hear your criticism if you first acknowledge their value.

3. Organize your critical feedback into two categories: global and local. The global feedback includes comments about structure, content and strategy. The local feedback addresses style and grammar. You may decide to withhold the local level feedback if the document needs to be restructured or rethought strategically, since chunks of it may need rewriting

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