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How to give feedback to a writer

By Audrey Aiken

Who needs to learn how to give feedback to copy writers?

More than likely, you do. In today’s environment, everyone is a content marketer, whether they have formal writing training or not. I’m looking at you, brand managers and marketing specialists. You might feel like the opposite of an expert in writing, but you find yourself in charge of guiding a junior in-house writer or project contractor. So what do you do?

A Google search for “writer feedback” will tell you to “keep it simple” and “be kind.” Or make it a compliment sandwich (sorry, but people are totally on to this now). What it won’t tell you are the actual words you need to say to transform meh prose into the kind of writing that will build trust, connect with your audience and translate to sales. But I will.

Why should you listen to me?

Because I’m a creative director at Thread. And at Thread, writing is what we do: all day, every day. We write stories big and small: eCom product descriptions, blog posts, campaigns, marketing emails, website and packaging copy, voice guidelines and overarching brand narratives.

As a creative director, I’ve reviewed thousands of pieces of copy over the last couple decades and have made a career out of telling writers stuff they need (but don’t necessarily want) to hear.

And before that, yes — I was the writer getting lots and lots and lots of feedback: some of it excellent and helpful, most of it so-so, and occasionally really terrible and confusing.

Why is giving feedback on writing so hard?

Because giving feedback (on anything) is just plain hard. It doesn’t matter if you’re a marketing director weighing in on copy or a good friend helping her bestie pick out a swimsuit. Someone is standing in front of you, half-naked (literally or metaphorically), and asking, “What do you think?” You’re on the spot! It’s enough to get anybody sweaty.

The irony is, if communication were easy, we wouldn’t even need writers in the first place. But it’s hard — it’s so hard that we desperately need their word-ly talents, and we desperately need to set them up for success with solid, meaningful feedback.

So how can you give more meaningful feedback?

Here are three steps anyone can follow when they get that sinking feeling that what they’re reading just isn’t working:

Step 1: Prepare.

Whenever you can, avoid giving feedback on the spot. You are not a mom receiving a handprint chicken from your 4-year-old on Mother’s Day. This work is not a gift, nor should it come as a surprise to you. I’m going to guess there was a brief and that you were likely in on it. At the very least, review that brief before the meeting to formulate a clear idea of what you’d like to see and why.

Or (even better), ask for the work a couple hours before you meet. This gives you the time you need to be specific, clear, direct and kind. Trust me when I say you cannot be all four of these things on the spot, especially under the expectant, deadly silent gaze of a writer. It takes a minute to figure out why something isn’t working, and another to figure out how to express it.

Please do everyone a favor and take those minutes in the quiet privacy of your own brain, ahead of time. Is it time-consuming? Yes. Is it easier to just show up and spitball? Also yes. But remember: A good creative director is really a coach. And coaching everyone around you to be better is your ticket to freedom.

Takeaway: Don’t try to give feedback on the fly. Show up prepared.

Step 2: Listen for the familiar.

Marketing writing is strange trickery because when we write things like “highest level of performance” and “state-of-the-art innovation,” they feel right. Or rather, they don’t feel wrong right away. That’s because we’ve heard them before (dozens and dozens of times before) and they land nice and comfy in our ears. They soothe and lull. Which is great if we want to put people to sleep, but if we want to wake the reader the hell up, we need to prune all of that comfortably familiar marketing language out of our copy.

Sometimes just cutting it is enough. But most often, you need to replace it with something else. That’s where most feedback goes wrong.

Takeaway: Find the stuff you’ve heard a million times and get rid of it!

Step 3: Give direction, not feedback.

First and foremost, resist the urge to ask a writer to “bring it to life” or “give it more color” or “make it emotional.” These cryptic comments, while ostensibly well-meaning, are the very words that cause writers to angrily snap pencils in half. They are feedback code for “This isn’t right, but I have no idea how to tell you how to fix it. You’re the writer, not me! Stop looking at me like that.” Remember: Knowing that something needs fixing is easy. Understanding how to fix it the right way is what separates you from evil dictators.

You can list a dozen reasons something isn’t working and none of them will be as helpful as a single piece of direction to improve it.

Takeaway: Offer specific suggestions on what needs to change, and how.

Let’s talk about direction.

Ok, now we’ve arrived at the actual meat-and-potatoes part of the feedback process: offering direction. Direction will obviously be tailored to your situation, but there are some themes to look for. Here are three pieces of direction that you should have in your back pocket, because I guarantee they’ll come up again and again (and again).

Direction #1: “Can you make this more specific?

Work with other people’s words long enough and you’ll realize almost every writing problem can be traced back to a lack of specificity. That’s because vague writing is faster, easier and usually not technically wrong. It’s first-draft writing. It’s what a writer can get away with when deadlines are pressing down and nobody is looking. It also happens to be a verbal tranquilizer to readers.

Oftentimes a writer will default to “improved performance” or “gorgeous pattern” because they haven’t slowed down to take a minute and do their research. They have an iffy grasp of how a product technology works or what the provenance of a design is, so they use generalities, hyperbole and fuzzy logic to smooth over that lack of understanding.

Ask your writer if they understand the thing they’re describing. Truly understand it, not just “I skimmed through a deck of features and benefits.” If they don’t, they should continue to ask questions until they do (Thread has an entire research department devoted to this). When your writer knows their subject inside and out, it gives them the confidence and inspiration to break out of boilerplate language. They’ll find it so much easier to come up with their own fresh metaphors and examples that will make sense of the thing for the reader.

Here are some examples:

Direction #2: “Can you make this sound more like a real-life conversation?”

There’s something about hearing the word “marketing” that sends some folks into a fugue state. They might be a captivating conversationalist at the dinner table: smart, interesting, quick with a joke. But give that same person a marketing objective and target demographic, and suddenly the words come out weirdly robotic, filled with never-would-I-say-this-at-a-party words like commence, endeavor and optimize.

Sure, we need to check the boxes of the creative brief. But that’s just the first draft. The real work happens when we go back for a second or third pass to make it looser, quicker and more like it came out of the mouth of an actual human person. Ask your writer to step away from the work and come back a couple hours or a day later. You can even suggest they read it out loud so they can hear their phrasing. Those icky car-salesman-sounding phrases are so much easier to dispose of with a little distance.

If you find these words creeping around in the copy you’re reviewing, here’s an easy fix:

Direction #3: “Is this what a [trend-setting teen/weekend backpacker/professional cook] cares about?”

It’s not enough for the copy to sound human; it needs to sound like the person who wrote it has used this product or service themselves. Don’t be a dad selling bras.

Building trust with consumers requires the kind of intimate, firsthand knowledge usually found over in the consumer reviews section. (In fact, 60% of people believe user-generated content is the most authentic form of content.) Any good writer understands that method acting is part of the job. You can’t just describe the product. You need to research the world that product’s gonna live in.

A writer needs to learn what it’s like to be a single parent who makes dinner seven nights a week or an ER doc who takes extra shifts during COVID-19. If the writing sounds off, ask the writer to go back and do their research: to read reviews, listen to podcasts and watch videos until they learn the vocabulary and get a firm hold on that world.

We write a lot of sports product copy here at Thread, and one of the first pieces of advice we give our writers is to make phrase lists before they start writing. It’s essentially mining the Internet for common idioms and sayings used by real coaches and athletes. You can do this for any field or industry. Once you’ve got a list of phrases in your back pocket, the writing becomes faster and easier, and the result is far more authentic.

Here are a few examples (a list will ideally include dozens of phrases):

Lists of helpful phrases for writing

Whether you’re a creative director, a brand manager, a marketing specialist or just a person with an opinion, being able to give writing feedback — and do it well — is a superpower. Smart, helpful direction not only makes creative work better and more efficient, it also knits teams together stronger and faster than anything else I’ve seen.

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Looking for more writing advice? Two of Thread’s in-house writers break it down, one a bona fide novelist, the other a product copywriting ninja.

Is better writing worth the sweaty armpits and considerable effort it takes to get there? KEEN Footwear thinks so. See how our writing helped move this brand’s content-marketing needle.

Are you a writer who hasn't received honest, clear, kind feedback in a while? Consider becoming one of Thread’s freelance writers. Our writers tell us that our feedback is some of the best in the biz.

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By Audrey Aiken
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