How to give feedback on documents

screenshot of a google docs comment

Collaborative, online writing tools like Google Docs, etherpad and Office 365 make it really easy to share documents and ask for feedback from anyone and everyone. Previously I wrote my advice on ‘Getting feedback on documents’ , but what about when you are asked to give feedback to someone? In this post I’ll run down how I’ve found it best to approach sharing my thoughts on other people’s work.

I’ve been through the process of adopting these tools in a few organisations, and noticed that although there are great benefits there are also some pitfalls. Shared documents often get people sharing drafts for feedback very early in the process. This can be very helpful, but it can also lead to problems when both parties aren’t on the same page with the stage the document is at and the kind of feedback that is useful. 

It’s really annoying when you spend ages considering and writing feedback on a document only to find out that it wasn’t really what the person sharing it with you wanted or needed. Hopefully they have read my previous article and framed their requests clearly, but if not there are some things you can do to make sure you aren’t wasting your time and are giving them what they need. 

Figure out what’s needed

If the person sending you the document hasn’t told you, first figure out what stage it is at. If it’s an early draft of an idea then they probably need advice on direction and general tone. If it’s a final draft that may already be set and they need input on details. Consider why they’ve shared it with you. If you’re the one who needs to sign it off then you’ll have your own views on the direction it should take, but perhaps they think you have a particular expertise or point of view that should be taken into account.

This is especially important if the document has been shared for feedback with several people. The more people, the more comments, and the harder it is for the author to action them meaningfully. Consider what your distinct contribution should be. What can you add that others cannot? One distinct piece of advice from you amongst a sea of suggested grammar changes will cut through best and be most useful .

Set aside the time

I find feedback requests tend to come via email, and when dealing with email I am often in the frame of mind where I’m just trying to clear out my inbox. It’s easy to jump right into the document with your mind on getting the task out the way and out of your inbox. Sometimes this is fine, but often decent feedback needs more thought. Consider how long you need to really do the feedback justice and set aside that time.

If you genuinely don’t have time to give the required feedback well then I find it’s better to apologise and turn down the request than just dash something off without giving it enough attention.

Read it through first

You’ve figured out what feedback is needed, so first you need an overview of where the document is at in relation to that focus. No doubt lots of details will be very obvious to you from the start, the smallest things such as spelling and grammar tend to be most immediately obvious. It’s so easy to get bogged down in commenting on things like this as you go, and they can distract you from any larger focus you might have. If you can, read the whole thing first, or at least get a good understanding of the shape of it. Your advice will be much more focused and holistic if you’ve done that.

Comment in appropriate detail

This really depends on your focus, but think about what is appropriate. If there are major structural issues to the piece then a single detailed comment to highlight and explain them will be most useful. If the author is making the same errors in language over and over then an explanation of the issue rather than correcting it every time will help them improve more effectively. Conversely, sometimes really detailed comments are needed, especially if it’s about to be published more widely.

Stick to the focus

Whether the focus was given to you by the author or you decided on it, stick to it. If you think the document is going to need another round of feedback for a different focus, then say so at the end of your comments. The author may well have had this in mind, and probably needs some time to work on the feedback you’ve given before then anyway. Drifting from the focus of feedback often results in getting types of feedback at the wrong time (spelling and grammar on an early draft, or already agreed fundamental content right at the end).

Check your comments

Do take some time to look back at your comments and check how they fit with the focus and the impression you want the author to get. You probably developed your view of the document as you went through this process so some of the earlier comments might need tweaking so the author gets the message you intend. I often add an overview to the email of my general thoughts and how I approached the feedback to help the author get the message I want them to about where the document is at.

 

These are my key stages in giving people feedback on their documents. I’ve found that they take a bit of time, but have generally produced well received feedback and had the influence I’ve wanted to on the work. If you’ve got other approaches that have worked please share them in the comments. The only drawback I can see of making your feedback really useful is you could be asked to give it even more frequently… 

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Also published on Medium.

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