Giving, and receiving, expert feedback on web copy

Approvals, sign-offs, stakeholders, feedback and other horrors

When you write corporate web content, a lot of approvals and sign-offs stand between your first draft and the big shiny “publish” button. I usually need 3-5 “stakeholders” to be happy with my work, but I’ve heard horror stories about companies with as many as 11 points of sign-off. Adding more people to the mix almost never improves quality, but you can keep crappiness at bay if everyone (including you) understands their role.

Their are plenty of blogs out there where writers reel off instructions to reviewers (Bad Language’s “The Art of Feedback” is one of the better ones), but that’s only half of what we need. Yes, it’s important to give reviewers a few pointers. But it’s just as crucial that you, the writer, know what you need to do too.

You need to be a team, and understand each other’s roles. Here’s what I suggest writers ask of approvers – and what we writers have to do in return.

Be a team of experts

Reviewers: Let your expertise focus your work

Everyone in the review process is an expert in their area, responsible for something that no-one else is (otherwise they shouldn’t be there). Writers need the expert opinion of reviewers, but we don’t want the legal department to reorder our work or the marketing team to mess around with the small print. My guidelines for reviewers say:

Spend your time giving us feedback from your specialist perspective. Share your expertise with us, and show us where our copy doesn’t meet your expectations. Leave general editing to people with a full understanding of how web writing works.

People usually like this instruction. It makes their job easier, smaller, and better defined. And here’s what I offer them in return:

Writers: Be a trustworthy expert

As much as you trust your legal reviewer to know the law, they trust you to write quality, acceptable copy. You need to understand their concerns and see how your draft needs to change. No matter what changes they request, you’re going to write a redraft that satisfies your reviewers and fulfils all the requirements of good web copy (readability, SEO, consistency of tone, etc).

Know your craft, and be ready to explain it. For example: “I couldn’t use the exact phrasing you recommended because it didn’t fit our brand voice”, or “Yes, we need to explain that point, but it’s covered in this other page which we can link to rather than repeating ourselves here.”

You’re a specialist. Make it clear that when you fix problems you have more on your mind than just the issue the reviewer sees.

Where your jobs start and end: Reviewers comment; Writers write

Reviewers: Describe problems rather rewriting the content

As a reviewer you don’t need to care about every aspect of the content you’re working with. Spend your time looking for things that your part of the business can’t live with. It might be something like:

  • Legal: there are words with a particular legal meaning that shouldn’t be used in general copy
  • Product managers: a description of a product misses, or mis-describes, a feature
  • Marketing: there’s a chance to phrase things in line with a current campaign.

Don’t rewrite anything when you find a problem. Instead, point the issue out and describe your concern. (If you find the same mistake or issue more than once, you only need to explain it the first time). This should be faster for you, and easier for the writer.

Of course you can suggest new words, but always give comments first.

Why writers prefer comments

A good comment tells the writer what the problem is. Then we can weigh it up along with comments from other reviewers, fix the copy, and learn for next time.

Why rewritten copy frustrates writers

Rewriting copy can seem like an easy fix, but the final version has to be acceptable to other reviewers, to web best practice, and to corporate and web guidelines. Unless you’re familiar with all of these things your new words will probably create as much of a problem as they solve.

Multiple stakeholders can leave writers to cobble together an acceptable compromise from overlapping redrafts of the same content with no idea what problems actually need fixing. It’s even worse if a sequence of reviewers sees each others’ rewrites rather than the original draft.

Writers: Leave your ego at the door. Listen. Learn.

Feedback from reviewers isn’t always easy to receive. The process is a negative thing, because people are looking for what you’ve done wrong. (They’ll ignore everything that you did right. That’s just the way it is.)

Make sure you completely understand all the comments from your reviewers before you start on a new draft. Look past the bits that seem like insults or nitpicking and get to know what your reviewers are thinking and why. Ask follow-up questions.

Once you understand why something’s not right, don’t just fix it and move on. Look for similar pieces of text and fix them, too. Let whatever the review teaches you inform other work that you do.

Good reviews take time

Reviewers: Read the copy carefully, and more than once

We need expert, informed reviews of our work, which means that you need to know the copy that you’re commenting on. Read it once to get an idea of its order and structure before you start commenting.

Reviewing takes time. It’s not as quick as a normal email reply. It’s not a meeting you can turn up to unprepared.

Writers: Give reviewers time

We have to give reviewers time. If you need something live by Friday, don’t expect approvals to start and end on Thursday.

Find out as early as you can who you’ll need approval from. Let each person know how much copy you’ll write, and ask how much time they’ll need. If you have to, reduce your schedule as well as theirs.

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One thought on “Giving, and receiving, expert feedback on web copy

  1. “Adding more people to the mix almost never improves quality” – this is the truest thing I’ve read today. I advise my clients to try to appoint a single internal ‘editor’ and ‘project owner’ for large projects to manage internal feedback and set expectations but the worst problem comes when the most important stakeholders, usually the boss, doesn’t get involved in the process at all until the very end. They don’t know the brief, the previous choices, the agreed compromises. They just barge in a micromanage the hell out of it. They probably read somewhere that Steve Jobs was an obsessive asshat microcontroller but the difference between Steve Jobs and them is that Jobs had some track record, some experience and some understanding of where he wanted to go. He didn’t meddle for meddling’s sake. In case you can’t tell, I have just gone through committee editing hell on a project and I’m feeling the pain!

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