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How to write feedback to make a connection

One of the things I love the most about working as a writing coach is providing feedback on people’s written work. I love delving deep inside their words, getting a feel for their rhythm, tone, style, their patterns of speech. I love figuring out how their words could be even clearer and punchier, how cutting away some of the verbal clutter or restructuring the text can create an instant, powerful impact. And I love working out how to construct my own feedback to the person who’s invited me in to their writing space to share their thoughts, their feelings and their words.

I’ve been thinking about some of the things I try and do when I’m writing feedback - and that it might be useful to share these with you. (Of course my feedback is on people’s writing, but I think the same principles apply to other areas of endeavor.) My ingredients of constructive feedback include:

A relentless focus on the positive People already spend too much time beating themselves up. I often have to work hard to get people used to the idea that their words, their writing, is of value. I will always pick out the positive features of a piece of writing

Recognise the positive intention I try and figure out the positive intention behind the words. It’s another positive hook to focus on, and allows me to identify practical ways to adjust the language in order to deliver on the intention

Acknowledge subjectivity Feedback can only ever be partial, based on your knowledge, skills, experience, perspective. I try and say things like “if I were writing this I’d try and do it this way round…” rather than a more directive “you should” (“shoulds” don’t tend to help anyone that much)

Share your reactions This follows on from feedback being subjective. If a piece of writing has moved me, affected me in some way - even if it’s just a short sentence, a turn of phrase, a most powerful word - I’ll say so. (This alone can forge the most powerful connection)

Be specific I think this is why I love giving feedback. It forces you into the detail - what specifically has gone a bit skew-iff with this bit of writing? What specifically did you like about it? Which words specifically struck a chord with you? And again, playing those specific words back can create a strong connection between you and the other peerson

Be constructive People are looking for ways to improve. Don’t criticise and pick holes - look for ways to help someone become even better

Be honest A client asked me recently if I’d be honest in the feedback I gave them. My answer was yes, of course. That doesn’t mean I’ll be blunt, or pick holes in their writing. I might want to get to know them (and their writing) a little better before we got down to the bare bones - because it might be that what they need more than anything is positive feedback, suggestions and confidence-building

Put yourself in their shoes That’s about finding the positive intention, what the writer was trying to convey, and feeling your way into their words. For example if someone is always writing exceptionally long sentences that might suggest that they’re lacking a little confidence in expressing the point, or don’t (yet) believe that it’s okay to use short sentences.

Build on strengths Everyone’s writing is different (just as everyone’s contribution at work is different). There’s no point trying to build an identikit worker or writer. My aim is to build on, encourage, inspire the writer within to realise the power of their own words

Mean it Feedback is a way of forging a most powerful connection with someone else - their work, their words, the intention that’s driving them. It won’t work if you don’t mean it - but it sure will if you do.

Can you help me add to this list of ingredients? What kind of positive feedback works for you? What do you build in when you’re offering feedback to someone else?

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Comments

  1. Robert Hruzek says:

    This is especially good, Joanna! I particularly liked “Share your reactions” - something I’m still learning to do - and “Be specific” - which, come to think of it, is something I just did! :-D

  2. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Thanks Robert. For me, all blog comments are a form of feedback - which is how we can end up making such powerful connections through these little comment boxes :-)

    Joanna

  3. Vernon Lun says:

    Joanna, this is an amazing piece. Probably because there is so much of you in it. Everything you’ve said here, I’ve witnessed in your comments on my blog.

    There’s definitely magic here! :)

  4. Terinea Weblog says:

    Some good and simple advice Joanna.

    Hope all is well?

    Jamie

  5. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Hi Jamie, thanks, and yes, all is well - just got caught up in a few things which means I couldn’t make it last Friday - hope to be back this week. Speak to you soon

    Joanna

  6. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Vern, thanks so much for these words. I’ll treasure them!

    Joanna

  7. Jeanne Dininni says:

    Wonderful post, Joanna! All excellent points for providing constructive feedback! And comments are definitely one of the situations where putting these principles into practice can make such a difference! Displaying “great good humor”-and sometimes just plain humor-can also be helpful.

    Jeanne

  8. a writer's woolgatherings says:

    This is a great list! I am all about making connections through feedback, both positive and negative. I really don’t like to be a Negative Nelly, so I try to offer helpful suggestions in the cushiest way possible. I am a BIG fan of comment cards! Also, I *love* to help support others through my blog(s). When I find a service or product I like, I’ll be a customer for life and I’ll sing its praises. I don’t view this as a business tactic, but rather one person reaching out to another. I’ve managed to build a *small* following on my blog because, I feel, I am genuine. I’ve never been the most popular girl around, and that’s okay. I certainly have a great network of friends and contacts that I am sure, given time, will continue to grow.

  9. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Jeanne, you are right. Blog comments are a prime example of feedback (and it’s why I love blogging - I love getting comments, but I love giving them too). I’m probably on the cautious side with humour - unless I know someone pretty well - due to the dangers of misinterpretation. But it’s probably not my natural writing style anyway (although I am gradually learning to lighten up!)

    Best wishes

    Joanna

  10. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Ah Melissa, you are describing the art of authentic feedback - and reminding me that I missed authenticity off my list. I’m sure your blog (and reputation) will grow and grow, organically, if it is based on such sound principles.

    Joanna

  11. Ah Joanna, We’re Still Listening - Liz Strauss at Successful Blog - Thinking, writing, business ideas . . . You’re only a stranger once. says:

    [...] How to write feedback to make a connection [...]