Giving and receiving feedback

Giving and receiving feedback on writing is hard. Both need your time, energy, and care. That may feel daunting. But we all want our work to be strong and it only gets better with feedback.

The beauty of the writing process is that it’s iterative — everyone (yes, everyone) writes crappy first drafts. The important thing is to share the draft, gather feedback, revise, and repeat. Even published content isn’t really “done.” It’s important to keep refining, and incorporating feedback from your readers is part of that process.

Here are some ways to approach giving and receiving writing feedback.

How to give feedback

Start by reading the piece in its entirety before editing or making comments. Though you may be tempted to give line edits on an early draft, resist this temptation! It’s likely that much of the text will change from draft to draft, so your line-editing work may be lost by the final draft. Focus on the central goal or message of the piece—not specific wording or stylistic decisions. If you find yourself needing to comment on structural issues or key messages, it’s probably worth setting up a meeting to talk through things.

As you read, think about the answers to the following questions:

  • Is it clear?
  • Is it easy to follow?
  • Are there any gaps or places you get lost?
  • How might someone feel after reading this?
  • Does it leave you with any questions?
  • Are there any places that could use a story or concrete examples?
  • Does it assume knowledge that the reader might not have?

Respond as a reader and tell the writer:

  • What doesn’t feel right
  • What doesn’t make sense
  • What isn’t working — and what is!
  • What you want to know more or less about, and why
  • What questions you have
  • What doesn’t reflect your own experience

Ask questions to help the writer revise:

  • Who is the audience?
  • Why does this matter?
  • What does this mean?
  • How does this help the reader?
  • What’s the most important thing for people to understand?
  • What do we want readers to do next?

When people ask for feedback, they’re looking for your thoughts on what aspects of their work could be stronger. Even as you offer kindly worded suggestions for improvement, it’s nice to comment on what’s working in a piece, too. Everyone likes to receive recognition for what they’ve done well. Plus, you don’t want them to unknowingly change what’s working — sharing positive feedback can prevent them from doing so.

Everyone needs feedback, even professional writers. Don’t second-guess yourself as the reader. You don’t have to have the solution or right answer. Ask questions, let the writer know if something doesn’t make sense, and tell them what you like. Finally, thank them for asking for your feedback. It’s not easy, and it shows that they care about the work and their reader.

How to receive feedback

It’s natural to feel timid about sharing your work, especially if it’s an early draft. But sharing work early in the writing process has great benefits. Your colleagues can help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your piece, which can help you narrow your focus and determine which sections need the most work. Likewise, your colleagues can point out interesting areas that you could expand on.

If you’re apprehensive about sharing your work, it can be helpful to label documents as drafts to help frame your readers’ expectations and perceptions. For example: ‘First draft: Giving feedback on writing.’ Sharing drafts with one person, rather than a larger group, can also help you ease into the process.

First, be clear about the type of feedback you’re looking for to ensure you get comments that are useful for the stage of writing you’re in. Here’s a summary of some types of feedback you can ask for and at what stage:

  • Collaborative: These are some initial rough ideas—feel free to dig in and change anything.
  • High-level edits: Observations about a piece’s general concept, structure, and intent — are most useful for early drafts. Are the big ideas coming through? Does the structure make sense? Is the flow logical?
  • Line edits: Better suited to later, more finalized drafts, whose ideas are fleshed out and which could benefit from some polish. How’s the voice and tone? Is the writing clear and consistent? What doesn’t make sense?
  • Copyediting: We’re about to publish this — are there typos or awkward phrases?

If your piece needs additional context, share it. There are all types of context that might be helpful: background information, strategies that have been tried in the past (and since abandoned), any legal considerations, audience needs or insights from research, or variations between our house style and a client’s content conventions.

If you have a deadline, be honest and realistic about it. And if you’re unsure about how long it will take your reader to give feedback, be honest about that, too — it’s OK to ask them whether your expectations align with their timeframe.

Lastly, show appreciation. Giving feedback takes time and energy. Thank the person for taking the time to read your piece and share their thoughtful observations. Consider sharing the end result with them so they can see how their feedback helped you.

Additional resources