How to get feedback on documents

Post it and pen

Getting feedback on your work is crucial. It helps you get it to where it needs to be now, and helps you improve for the future. Collaborative writing tools like Google Docs, etherpad and Office365 make it so easy for people to collaborate and feed back on documents, but how can you make sure you get the feedback you really need?

I’ve been a strong supporter of online, collaborative writing tools for years. I even used to use them back when I was teaching 8 year olds so they could learn how to write from each other. 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. Couple this with the fact that the tools make it so easy to get right into the small details of a piece of writing and you can have feedback that is too detailed to be helpful at the stage you are at.

There is little more frustrating and de-motivating that sharing a rough flash of inspiration for feeback on the direction of travel, only to watch your colleague sign into the document and start correcting your grammar before even reading the whole thing.

This can be avoided, and I’d like to suggest some steps you can take to set up the best environment for getting the feedback you really need.

Consider who should give feedback

It’s so easy to share online documents, it can be tempting to hit share and put in the name of anyone you think might have an opinion. This can get messy, particularly as they will all be commenting on the same document. It only takes one person to go off topic with their feedback to influence others to do so. It also takes up a lot of people’s time. Consider who would be best to feed back at this particular stage. You can always have other stages of feedback later when it’s moved on. Ask yourself who is going to help get the document to the next stage right now.

Make the purpose and audience clear

You were probably pretty clear about the purpose and audience of your document when working on it, but when you get into the detail it can be easy to lose this. Often people giving feedback won’t be as familiar as you, so explain to them in your request for feedback what you are trying to achieve with this document and for who. If you’ve done it well then this is probably clear in the document itself, but if you haven’t that’s definitely something you’ll be needing feedback on.

Share what stage it’s at

Is this an early idea that you want to expand and refine? Is it an outline that you will flesh out but want to decide the structure? Is it a ‘final draft’ that needs checking for tone, clarity and wording? Ideally people giving you feedback should be focusing on different levels of detail depending on the stage of the document, so make sure they know what that is. If they end up asking for more detail and it was only a rough outline that you were going to expand anyway then you have both just wasted your time. Tell them what stage it is at, and then…

Ask for the feedback you want (and that you don’t)

Just asking for ‘feedback’ without further detail is the surest way to end up with the dreaded comments all over the place on the detailed wording you’ve chosen. Share with your reviewer what your current thinking is about this document. Are there sections you are less sure about than others? Do you think one area needs attention? Don’t just leave those areas that are niggling at you to see if they discover them, tell them and ask specifically what they think.

Conversely, also set out what is not useful so they don’t focus on it and waste their time. If you know wording needs to be more nuanced and you plan to spend a lot more time on that later, then say so. If you have already agreed the structure with others and there is no leeway to change it, let them know. Without guidance people do tend to default to giving the feedback that is easiest to them, and that’s often detail and wording rather than more involved decisions about content and structure. Help them spend their time where you want them to by ruling out giving the feedback you don’t want.

Help the reviewer make time

This depends on your relationship with them, but at least try to indicate how much feedback you were hoping for. If they misinterpret the ‘quick look’ you wanted for a full copy edit then it’s likely to sit on their back burner for a while until they have enough time. Saying when you need the feedback by can help, as can asking them when they might have time to do it by (getting them to commit and helping you plan). I’ve worked with people who appreciated having an event put into a free slot in their diary with a link to the document and the request for feedback, but I’d figure out whether this is appropriate before being so presumptuous.

Respond to the feedback

At least say thank you. Even better let your reviewer know the changes you’ve made or the impact their feedback has had. If they feel like they’ve been valued then they will be better disposed to help you again in future. If you can, let them know about any particular aspects of their feedback that were most helpful, and help them to give better feedback in future.

Reflect on the process

Once you’ve grafted away at all the changes, and got to the next stage of the document, take a moment to consider how the feedback helped. If you had some feedback that was particularly insightful, consider whether you could explicitly ask for that kind of feedback in future. If some of it wasn’t so useful, perhaps next time you could frame your request more clearly. It’s easy for people to misunderstand what you were looking for. While it might be tempting to blame them for this, there’s often something you can do to make the ask clearer.


Collaborative and shared documents can make the feedback process seem quick and easy. However, this apparent ease can lead to scattershot feedback that doesn’t really give you what you need. Put a bit of work into considering what input you want, and framing the ask for it clearly, and you can make the difference between lots of comments that are of little help, and some key insights that enable to you take your writing to the next level.

In a subsequent post I’ll turn the tables and look at how we can give great feedback…


Photo Credit: marcoverch Flickr via Compfight cc





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