We’ve all had the experience before – someone says words in a way that makes it clear that they think you’ll know exactly what they mean, but you’re stumped. You are just not following what they’re saying to you at all.
This is one of the quirks of communication that everyone deals with at some point. Something can be so clear and obvious in your own head that you think expressing that to the person in front of you (or on the other side of that email) is easy, but what’s clear to you is confusing and muddy to them.
Writers know the feeling of being on the other end of that email well. Most of us have had multiple experiences of hearing feedback from clients that just doesn’t tell us what we need to hear in order to understand what the client means. It’s tricky providing feedback well, but having a good relationship with any writer you hire depends on it. And giving good feedback early on in the relationship will usually help them learn what you’re looking for, so you won’t have to do as much work later on.
To help you more effectively get what you’re wanting from a content writer’s work and keep the relationship positive between you, here are some tips on how to give good content writing feedback.
Read the whole thing.
To start, you want to make sure your feedback is accurate and that means taking the time to read over the entire piece of content they’ve submitted. And really read here – don’t skim.
It’s embarrassing for you and awkward for the writer if they have to point out that you’ve asked them to add a section that actually already exists further down the page or with a heading you didn’t recognize. On top of being awkward, it wastes everyone’s time and you both have better things to do.
Get to it quickly.
I know you’re busy, but if you sit on a blog post or white paper for weeks, or worse, months before sending your feedback, that particular piece won’t be fresh in you content writer’s memory. It’s both harder and less efficient to make good updates if they barely remember the piece by that point and the research they did for it. And some freelance content writers (this one included) will even put feedback deadlines in the contract, so you may miss your chance to get updates altogether if you wait too long.
So give yourself a deadline. Commit to reading over the piece and sending your feedback within a week of receiving it, and get it on your to do list even sooner if possible.
While it’s so obvious to you why the wording in that third paragraph just doesn’t sound right or the overall tone of the piece doesn’t work – your content writer can’t see into your head. You have to explain what you’re seeing to them in terms that make it clear to them how to make the changes you want.
Avoid general language.
Feedback like “this section doesn’t really work” or “this just isn’t clicking” only tells someone that you don’t like what you’re looking at. It doesn’t tell them why. Sure, your writer could re-write that section to be all new wording, but if they don’t understand what you don’t like about it, there’s a good chance they’ll end up just repeating the problem you didn’t like about it the first time.
Saying instead something like “the tone in this section is too formal” or “this sentence is too long, which makes it hard to follow” actually gives us something to work with when making changes.
Make notes and changes in the text itself.
This makes it possible for you to comment directly on specific wording or sections that demonstrate the issue you’re addressing. If you think some of the wording is muddy or confusing, point out specifically where you see that happening rather than expecting the writer to be able to figure it out. If you think there are claims in the piece that need to be better backed up with sources, point out which ones.
Being able to match your feedback with the particular parts of the content piece you’re talking about will help the writer see clearly what you mean so they know both the sort of changes you’re looking for now and how to avoid making those same mistakes in the future.
Provide examples of what you’re looking for.
Particularly when it comes to issues of tone and style, it can be hard to communicate exactly what you want with descriptive terms. If you can point to other blog posts or content pieces – either on your own website or elsewhere – that have the kind of style you’re looking for (or even better, if you have a style guide), it can go a long way to help a writer figure out the right approach to take.
Clarity is a big part of the good feedback equation, but respect is just as important. When you hire a professional content writer, you need to treat them with professionalism.
Negative feedback is ok, but tone matters.
That doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to provide criticisms. Anyone working in a creative field should have enough of a thick skin to take (respectful) criticism of their work. The line between constructive criticism and being insulting or mean should be clear to you. If it’s not, let someone else in your company be in charge of providing feedback and maybe consider therapy or communication classes to learn the difference, because it’s a pretty important life skill to have. I don’t mean that as shade, but as genuine advice.
Saying “this writing is awful” or “don’t you know anything?” isn’t helpful, but saying “this piece could really use some more work, could you take some time to do a little more research and find some data or case studies to back up your points?” is perfectly reasonable.
Keep things professional.
This relates to tone, but is worth saying on its own. Don’t yell at a content writer because you don’t like their work. Don’t insult their intelligence or use vulgar language to describe what you think of it. For the love of all that matters in this world, do NOT use racial, sexist, or ableist slurs in your response.
Every content writer you hire, whether they’re a freelancer or employee, is someone with a career and their own professional contacts. Know that if you’re the client or boss from hell, their other contacts will hear about it and it will come back to haunt you.
Remember: writing is subjective.
One of the really cool things about language is that there are a lot of right ways to say the same thing. Someone can have a writing style that doesn’t work for you, but it still perfectly good writing. Remember that your opinion on this subject is not the objectively correct opinion.
When you’re paying for someone to write for you, you’re allowed to have an opinion on the writing – of course you are. But don’t frame your feedback as though you know the right way to say things and your writer is clearly wrong for not choosing the wording you would have. If you do, you’ll come off as arrogant and patronizing.
Instead, approach your feedback as an exercise in helping your writer understand how to come around to your preferences for style and tone – or better yet, the preferences you believe your audience has for style and tone. After all, you may be the client, but they’re not actually writing for you.
A good working relationship with a freelance content writer can be extremely beneficial to your company and your content marketing program. Good feedback is an important part of being able to keep the writers you hire for the long term and get them to a place where they know how to deliver the kind of content you’re looking for. It’s worth spending a little bit of time, especially early in your relationship, to provide specific and respectful feedback to any writer you work with.