Evening at the Sub-Prefect. (Albert Robia, courtesy oldbookillustrations.com)

Build Writers Through Appropriate Feedback

When movies feature journalists, especially newspaper reporters, they often include the well-worn trope of the angry editor.

We all know the caricature: tie askew, shielded by a messy desk, targeting every reporter who crosses their line of sight for a dressing down. In their mind, every reporter has failed, every story needs completely rewritten, every photo trashed.

Just as with other journalistic stereotypes in movies, the angry editor has a foundation in fact. They exist, just as asshole bosses exist in every profession. But in today’s work world, assholes don’t get very far (at least, not as often).

As opposed to the angry editor, a good editor will build the skills, the confidence, and the creativity of those around him. Additionally, a good editor will have a sense of the type of feedback a person wants, especially when that person asks for feedback voluntarily.

In a non-journalism environment, understanding the type of feedback sought is particularly important because of the importance of organic content from employees and customers. Generally, people seeking feedback comprise one (or more) of the following five types.

The writer who wants to improve: The classic editor-writer relationship, where the writer wants the big picture critique. Typically, when I edit the first couple of drafts for a writer (or a person genuinely wanting to become a writer), I avoid copy editing and offer suggestions that appropriately challenge them to improve the story and prose. Allowing them to decide how they make those improvements will build their skills as well as their confidence, and also strengthen their trust in me as the editor.

The professional ready for publication: Think red pen. A word-by-word copy edit that also takes a hard look at minor details and ensures consistency in the story. Essential before publication, especially in print, use it sparingly when working with anybody still trying to become a writer. When done at the wrong time, a page covered in red ink (or purple or black) can prove debilitating.

The aspiring writer: These writers have larger goals for writing, but lack experience and often confidence. Interns and recent college graduates fall into this category, as do academics or technical writers who want to write for a general audience. They do best with big-picture feedback with a heavy dose of encouragement until they trust the editor enough to move into more direct and nitty-gritty editing. When handled well, they can grow into exceptional writers who work well with editors.

The hesitant writer: This writer will send an article with a lot of caveats, such as they “just wrote it last night.” They will apologize in advance for poor quality and insist they don’t expect publication. In this case, they want feedback that tells them to stop trying to write. Don’t give it to them. Instead, give them honest feedback about their effort — which often will be that their writing is authentic, personal, and engaging — and encourage, encourage, encourage. Hopefully, they listen to you as the editor, although sadly many will keep searching for somebody to tell them to stop. Eventually, they will find it, typically from a non-editor supervisor who prefers they stick to their “official” job.

The “child” writer: When a child draws a cartoon and hands it to their parents, they don’t want criticism and editing. They want validation. Many adults fall into the same category when they show people something they have done simply for fun. As an editor, it can be difficult not to “break out the red pen” every time somebody hands you something you wrote. But sometimes, you should simply acknowledge that they shared, with you, something they created. And sharing can be the scariest thing of all.

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