tangled strands

We live in a world of near instant feedback. We finish a book on Kindle; we are invited to rate it. We speak to someone at a help desk; can we stay on the line to rate them? We buy a product we’re not happy with; the negative feedback impulse is triggered.

But what happens when feedback is directed at us? What do we do?  Do we resist or receive it?

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines the question of talent and whether it’s innate or not. His final conclusion is that people become experts in their field through practice (10,000 hours minimum, if you’re wondering) combined with continual feedback from a coach or teacher. It’s the constant tweaking and improving – thanks to quality feedback – that allows these so-called talents to excel.

Over the years, I’ve been interested to see how different clients handle our feedback on their work. Whenever we edit clients’ English we use Track Changes so that they can see our modifications. We also write comments when we are unsure of the meaning of what is written, when we feel we need to explain our change, or where we feel providing the rule on which our edit is based is essential.

Clients fall into various camps:


No Track Changes – no comments please

Some clients request a clean document with no comments. This passes the responsibility onto us. I find this stressful, as I don’t believe we can take all their decisions for them and so we do usually sneak in a few comments.

I don’t think they are resisting feedback, I think they just want to publish their text as fast as possible with a minimum of post-editing input on their side.

More, more, more comments please

A client recently complained that we didn’t provide comments for every edit we made in her paper. Although I love the fact the client wanted to know why we were correcting her work, we are an editing service and not a personalised tutoring service.

This openness to feedback is excellent, and I politely suggested she find a writing mentor to help her on a more in-depth level.

Corrections and comments as a refresher course

We regularly work with an American professor who writes beautifully. He uses our service as a safety net before submission to a journal. He says our comments and corrections “serve as a nice refresher that improves my writing on later papers.”

No resistance from this writer; I believe that’s why he’s so good. I’m humbled by his desire to continue taking his writing to a higher level.

Don’t touch my style!

Working with a new native English client recently we were instructed “not to make any changes to my writing style as I won’t accept them anyway.” What did we do? We diplomatically put style suggestions in comments. Guess what? He accepted every single one of them.

There was resistance to the idea of someone else changing his writing and he needed to actually see the changes before he could allow his resistance to evaporate.


Systematic request for feedback

As someone who came late to writing, I have always sought feedback on my work. I was lucky to have a journalist friend mentor me for several years. It was tough at the beginning, being told to re-write sections or improve the links between paragraphs. But slowly I learned my trade and I still ALWAYS send my work for proofreading before publication.

I’m totally open to feedback – I think there is nothing more exciting than reading an improved version of your writing, even if you know you’ve had some expert help!

Vulnerability and ego

I think the big issue behind all this is vulnerability. Writing is such a personal thing, and asking someone to go in with a ‘red pen’ is hard. The easiest way to accept feedback is from someone more skilled than you. You need to trust and respect the person commenting on your writing and keep your ego in check when you get your paper back.

Feedback timing

And finally, we need to get feedback as early as possible in our writing process. Better the feedback from someone you respect – and who helps you improve your writing – than the negative feedback from the packs of online critics who think nothing of tearing someone’s article apart.

If Gladwell is right, then we all have many more hours of practice and feedback before we can even consider having mastered the art of writing!

Give me more!

Had enough of writing? Fancy focussing on your spoken English? Here’s a fun read!

How to Improve Your English Accent