Dear Editor/Writer: The Beginning is Awful, and the Rest is Even Worse

This post was written by John White on Wed, 29 Jul 2009 12:39:19 +0000
Posted Under: managing writing project,review loop

Criticism for the editor-writerWhat kind of criticism do you give your editor-writer? What does he do with it?

This paper starts out awful and goes downhill from there.

I’ve never said that to a marketing writer, but it has a funny, ironical ring to it. I would chuckle as I clicked on “Send” to deliver news like that, fancying myself a proud successor to H.L. Mencken or Winston Churchill.

But even if your editor or writer can hose off the sarcasm, what will he do with the remark? It’s not very actionable  (another term to avoid) and your business goal should really be to give the copywriter the information necessary to write the piece you want.

Writing criticism we see

Is the first sentence (“Jack is a power architect”) needed?

An engineer asked this about the opening sentence to a case study. The interview with Jack had yielded very little interesting content, and so the writer took a chance on a this opening. Unfortunately, he bet wrong, and the engineer had no choice but to hate the rest of it.

I didn’t send it to the writer, but instead told the engineer to do one of three things:

  • Explain the rationale for not liking the sentence.
  • Suggest a better one.
  • Simply strike the line in the draft and ask for a different opening.

None of those options is complex, and each of them gives a marketing writer a point of departure.

First page was oppressive, second page picked up and gave me a slew of ideas…

I knew the writer wouldn’t know what to repair in an “oppressive first page,” so I had the product manager briefly outline what she wanted to see on the first page, given the slew of ideas that the second page generated. It took a re-write of the page and most of the technology essay, but the result was worth it.

It’s not what I had in mind.

This is nearly useless feedback. It’s like defending Nixon: “I don’t know what you can say, but you can’t say that. Try something else.”

If the writer had his way, you’d return edits in red so that all he had to do was accept the changes and tighten up the grammar a bit. It’s not necessarily your job to hit that mark, but try to meet the writer in the middle somewhere.

Give your editor-writer clear criticism

As a marketing manager hiring a writer, you need to keep your eye on the business goal of delivering useful content in your review loop. Clear, unambiguous statements about what you want to change and how you want to change it trump sarcasm and support the business goal of writing. Whether you’re acting as the gatekeeper and reconciling your company’s feedback for the writer (the preferred way) or coaching reviewers on how to give useful feedback, make your wishes clear.

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