How to give feedback that’s fabulous, not ferocious

Our professional editors have been there, done that. When editing documents, they know that changing words or structure is only part of the story. They’ve learnt to give writers feedback that helps rather than harms.

Image, teddy bear with bandages.

Help, don’t harm when you give feedback. Image by Pixabay / / CC0

Feedback can be used for good or evil. Giving fabulous feedback can help you:

When someone has asked for your input, it means they value and respect your opinion. Don’t abuse this trust by using feedback to:

Image, ice skaters racing.

Lead by example and support your writers to improve. Image by Visit Lakeland CC BY

Communication outside the document is everything. Without it, you can end up with confusion, a big mess, and damaged relationships. Our editors have seen useful tools like tracked changes and comments go horribly wrong. Here are three common scenes.

The bloodbath

Writers are expecting a thumbs-up, confirmation of key messages, or some other small changes. But when they open their document, they are confronted with a screen of horror. This is demoralising and frustrating — and a waste of time if the document wasn’t ready for proofreading or editing yet.

The conflicting feedback disaster

Writers send a document to one person for review and they send it on to a group of people — who all come back with different changes, different versions, and often conflicting advice. The writer has to somehow collate all the changes and figure out whose comments take precedence.

The publication nightmare

We know of one writer who was relieved to see no change to her web copy and happily published the content. Only then could she see all the changes that had been hidden by how she viewed tracked changes on her screen.

Here’s how to help rather than harm

On the surface, reviewers use tracked changes and comments because they’re great tools. You can make changes, suggest changes, ask questions, keep a record of changes, and be transparent.

But how we give feedback can affect the reader’s experience, our relationships with writers, our reputation, and the whole culture of an organisation.

We’re human and can all be sensitive about receiving feedback. Remember how it feels and give your own feedback with care and sensitivity.

Just because technology makes it easy to make changes doesn’t mean you have to. Avoid confusing or overwhelming people with changes just because you can.

Start off well

Be sure you know what the writer wants you to do. Have a conversation, or at the very least check by email. This will:

Track only what you need to track

If you have a good relationship and a clear process, you don’t need to track things like formatting, common style errors, and large structural changes that you’ve talked about before. You can let them know when you return the document about these types of changes. This will avoid a wall of red abstract art when you return the document.

Use comments well

You can use the comments tool in different ways. You can:

Image, group of hands doing a fist bump.

Collaborate on behalf of the reader and everyone wins. Image by Rawpixel / CC0

Comment with kindness

Compare these types of comments and notice the difference between being insensitive and being thoughtful.

Too complicated. Simplify.

I’ve suggested a slightly more concise explanation here to make your main point stand out more clearly. See what you think.


Your reader won’t understand this. Explain.

This term may be new for some of your readers, so I’ve given them a brief explanation. Can you please check it clearly captures the correct meaning?


I thought we agreed to change this?

I’ve updated this section based on what we agreed when we talked last week.


Image, roaring tiger in the snow.

Comments don’t need to be ferocious. Image by Pixabay / CC0

You’ll notice the more thoughtful comments are longer and they include the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’. They also demonstrate collaboration, and respect for the writer’s expertise. If you show writers how to improve, you might not have to make so many comments next time.

Check your tone again after editing

Our editors also say that when they’ve finished editing, they go back and check all their comments for the right tone. When you’re in the thick of the job you might be more abrupt. You can go back and check you’re being constructive and kind — and that you’re not going to damage your relationship with the writer.

Keep communicating when sending the document back

Getting back to the writer with your feedback is another opportunity to keep talking. Bring the human touch. Tell people what they’ve done well, remind them of earlier discussions and decisions, and keep the focus back on the reader. Let them know why you’ve done what you’ve done and keep the door open for more collaboration.

They’ll know you took care of their words as if they were your own.

A clear writing standard can help everyone write consistently.
A style guide can help you produce professional documents with consistent presentation.
Our peer review and editing workshops are packed with expert advice and opportunities to practise.

What are your tips for giving fabulous feedback?

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