Giving feedback on work documents: 9 tips

Penguin parent feeding child.

Peer review of business reports and technical documents is a time-honoured practice in the workplace. A few ground rules can help everyone — writers, reviewers, and readers.

 I’m not talking about a high level, formal review when every detail is thrashed out before final delivery. Nor about a scrupulous team writing process. Nor about your friend’s first novel.

 I’m talking about a colleague asking for your opinion on an early draft of a document.  Not editing, not proofreading, not collaborative writing, and not usability testing. 

1. Be clear about the type of feedback required.

If this is unclear, ask. You may find the writer wants you to check something very specific such as the structure, or the use of technical terms, or whether a certain policy is accurately interpreted. Don’t stray outside the brief. On the other hand, sometimes you notice something big that’s not on the checklist: if the writer is willing, do mention it.

2. Be kind.

Nearly everyone is sensitive about the quality of their writing, and no document is perfect, including yours and mine. Take care and be nice. You’re giving feedback to improve the document, not the writer. And you’re helping to build a safe and supportive workplace community.

3. Oral feedback is better than written feedback.

Written comments can seem far more directive and serious than you intended. When you have a face-to-face conversation, the writer can ask for clarification and many problems are instantly resolved. But if writers are too shy to question you, written comments can send them on a long path to nowhere.

4. Don’t overdo it.

Identify two or three really important points and discuss those. Don’t overload writers with picky corrections at an early stage:  they’ll get to the little things later.

5. Point to the bits you don’t understand. 

This is very helpful. Know that the writer will immediately explain the intended meaning — but that’s not enough! Remind the writer that it needs rewriting more clearly and simply:  it’s the writer’s job to make the meaning clear. 

6. Spot missing information (that’s far too easy)

And wrong information and redundant information (ah, dreams are free).

7. Don’t take over.

It’s not your document. By all means suggest solutions but don’t push: writers may feel threatened, and what’s more, may have a better solution in mind.

8. Don’t use Track Changes.

Well, OK, some teams can do this successfully on a little tiny document if they keep a tight rein on their urge to rewrite. But in general, Track Changes is not worth the tangle.

9. Reciprocate.

Everyone learns something new from the feedback process, and it can help create a culture of trust and support. 


Photo (c) Ben McAlpine. Excuse the pun.


Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine



Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine

July 09, 2014

Hi Michelle
This is a tough one. I would want to tackle this in person, face to face—not in writing.

I would ask a few questions such as, “What do you need from me at this stage?” “Who is the intended audience?” “Which is the definitive policy?” “I think this paragraph means … Is that correct?” “Now what is this paragraph saying?” Sorry to be so simplistic, but the aim is to get writers to spot their own errors and inconsistencies.

You might also drop a few hints, such as the huge payoff in clarity produced by shortening sentences. Then (in a perfect world) the substance and structure can be improved. Last thing to deal with is copywriting: grammar, spelling and layout are crucial but easy to fix at the end.

In my experience, everyone is pleased to pick up techniques and tips about writing better. But I know this takes time. Publication of a policy is a serious step, though, and delay is far preferable to releasing a policy prematurely.

Best of luck!


July 08, 2014

Do you have any advice for when you are asked to give feedback (of any kind) on a document (in this case, a company policy about to be published) and the writing is extremely poorly written, the policy itself is unclear and even the intended audience is not consistent.

Giving feedback on writing projects is something that I need to learn how to do well. If the writing is exceedingly poor – I really struggle.

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