Making the most of reviews and critiques

RotoruaIf there’s one thing new technical writers can struggle with, it’s accepting critical feedback from reviewers.

When you’ve labored over a piece of writing, done your best to provide accurate information, kept your end-user in mind, and thought about the document design, it can be difficult to hear that you’ve made mistakes or the customer wants something different.

One of my first assignments as a technical writer was to create a setup poster for a printer. Having a particular love of symmetry, I created a beautiful poster, with two columns of equal widths. When I’d finished it, I took it to my manager. She took one look at it and said, “Yes that’s good, but perhaps you could use three columns instead of two.” Hmmmm, I thought. But I prefer two columns! So I made the other changes she suggested and presented it again. “How about using three columns?” she suggested. And a third time. Finally I did a version with three columns, and she was right. It looked much more balanced and was easier to read. Lesson learned!

Maybe you’re not as stubborn as I used to be, but if you are, here are some simple suggestions for making the most of review comments and critiques.

1. Approach feedback with a good attitude

Remember that reviewers are trying to help you write the best documentation possible. You and your reviewers likely both want the writing to be accurate and clear, so don’t take comments as criticism, and especially don’t take them personally. This can be difficult when reviewers have a penchant for using ALL CAPS. But ultimately, however harsh their comments sound, they really do just want to help.

2. Read all the feedback before you start making changes

When you receive feedback, you might want to dive into your text and make changes right away. Try not to do that. Reviewers can sometimes change their minds as they go, so if you read all the feedback from start to finish, you might find that they mention something early on and then decide it does not need changing by the end of the document.

3. Separate feedback into two types – technical accuracy and personal preference

Sort the feedback so that you can tackle the technical accuracy comments first. If there are disagreements about technical details between reviewers, you’ll want to sort these out before you start making changes to your document.

4. Start with technical accuracy feedback

With technical documents, accuracy is generally more important than writing style, so I recommend addressing technical issues first. If you have written that the software should be installed and then the printer connected to the computer, but actually it should be the other way round, it’s more important to fix the order of the steps than it is to change a wording preference. If the steps are in the wrong order, end-users will have trouble setting up their printer, leading to more support calls, and costing the manufacturer more money.

5. Make the best use of personal preference feedback

Feedback that is more about writing style can also be a real opportunity for you to grow as a writer. Look through the feedback and decide which comments resonate with you. If you immediately agree, then you’ll want to make those changes. But what about the things you don’t agree with? These are things to consider. You can talk to the reviewer and get additional details. This might be enough for you to change your mind and agree to make the change. Or you can discuss why you don’t think the change is a good idea, clarifying your own thinking, and letting the reviewer know that you respect their opinion, but have a good reason not to do as they suggest. Also, you can talk to other technical writers on your team, or discuss it with your manager.

6. Thank your reviewers

Really! Send an email to all the reviewers thanking them for their feedback, or thank them in person next time you bump into them in the hall. Everyone likes to be appreciated for their work, and reviewers are no different.

Your turn. Any tips on dealing with critiques and feedback?


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Photo via Flickr user mcaretaker

One thought on “Making the most of reviews and critiques

  1. Thanks for these tips, Jenny. Critical feedback is difficult to deal with especially if you’re opinionated. Each step was clear, straightforward, and actionable. Thanks again. 😀

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