In my 10+ years working in various editorial workflows, the ability to offer feedback on writing has been table-stakes.
Whether in newsrooms or on marketing teams, at public broadcasters or Fortune 500 companies, the writers and editors I’ve worked with have all taken the skill of giving (and receiving) useful notes for granted.
Learning to edit is something writers pick up while honing our craft. Although some people may seem like innate editors, we've all spent time learning this skill. Whether in journalism school (like me), on the job, or in classes, mastering the art of editing is part of being a writer.
And, as writers, receiving a heavily marked-up draft is just a part of the process.
“That’s cool, but I’m not a professional writer. What do you want me to do?”
— You, probably.
For my entire working life, I’ve usually been the assignment editor, writer, story editor, fact-checker, copyeditor, producer, and publisher on the majority of my projects.
If you’ve ever worked in editorial, you’ll know each of these are typically distinct jobs (and for good reason). After all, even just catching your own typos is hard enough, let alone questioning your own voice, tone, and execution of a piece.
If you haven't worked with a writer before, these jobs probably all sound the same. I assure you, they are not!
Much of what I'm collaborating on these days requires getting feedback from non-writers (like you!) on text that I've prepared for them. Because they've never done this before, they have no idea where to start. Completely understandable!
Instead of being pedantic about the different kinds of editing (honestly, who has the time?), my strategy is to give non-writers pointed instructions on how to be helpful when providing feedback.
And guess what? With a little guidance, they generally do a great job!
"Ok, so what kind of edits are actually helpful?"
I'm glad you asked!
First of all, it can be helpful to think of edits as feedback, not criticism.
The unspoken agreement of giving and receiving edits is that a) it’s not personal, and b) we're focusing on what needs to exist instead of what's on the page right now.
Second, our shared goal is making the writing better through collaboration.
Useful feedback does two things:
- Names what is working so it doesn’t get cut in a later draft
- Identifies what needs to change to take the work where it needs to go
Edits that do either of these things are helpful. Yay!
If your edits don’t do either of these things, you’re probably a Kevin — sorry, I don't make the rules!
10 tips for giving useful copy feedback (even if you’ve never done it before and aren't totally sure what to do)
AKA surefire ways of adding notes that do one of the helpful things noted above.
If you're ever asked to provide copy feedback, consider this a list of instructions for what to do next.
1. Before giving edits, ask, “What kind of feedback are you looking for at this stage?”
An experienced writer will typically tell you what types of editing are most helpful when they deliver a draft, but sometimes we forget.
If the writer hasn't indicated this, clarifying what they need from you at this stage makes the process faster and more satisfying for everyone.
2. Read the copy twice before making notes or suggestions
The first time, you're reading to see what is on the page.
The second time, you're using a critical eye and seeing what stands out or needs attention.
Add your notes on a third pass through the text.
3. Get very specific
Identify the exact word, phrase, or idea that isn’t clicking, or ideas to cut out.
Think “The word ___ isn’t appropriate for our brand,” not “This isn’t on-brand.”
More “This sentence is too long and confusing,” and less “This doesn’t make sense.”
4. Offer suggestions for what you want to see instead
Even if you feel like your idea is only half-baked, indicate what you want to see or needs to change in the next draft.
“Can we try a more playful tone?” gives more direction than “This feels flat.”
5. Don’t rewrite
You’re working with a writer — let them do their job.
Asking clarifying questions like “What do you mean by this?” or "What point are you trying to make here?" is more helpful than replacing what we wrote, I promise!
6. If you have more than two people giving feedback, consolidate the notes
Delegate the task of providing edits to a single person.
This makes it easier for the writer to know when all the notes are in and with whom they should be following up.
7. Track changes
If you must edit a draft, use “Suggesting” mode.
8. Indicate things you like
Leaving comments like “Love this” or “Good headline” shows the writer they’re barking up the right tree.
9. Provide examples
Show the writer what you’re looking for and indicate what, exactly, resonates with you.
Is it the tone? Structure? Length? Get specific, even if it means looking at what your competitors are doing.
10. When in doubt, cut it out.
This old chestnut from journalism applies everywhere. Err on the side of trimming anything that doesn’t quite fit.
"See, not so bad!"
— Me, definitely.
Of course, your mileage may vary with these tips depending on who you're working with. But, at the very least, you now have a sense of the kinds of edits that are genuinely productive.
Christine is the founder & principal of Flic Flac, a words-only creative studio.