Writing Feedback: “The Beginning is Awful, and the Rest is Even Worse”

Writing feedback for your B2B marketing writers

What kind of writing feedback do you give your writers? What do they do with it?

Have you ever wanted to tell a writer something like this:

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. If I did say it, I can imagine myself chuckling as I clicked “Send” to deliver news like that, the way somebody like H.L. Mencken or Winston Churchill might have done.

But it’s not very helpful criticism, is it?

Even if your editor or writers managed to ignore a remark like that, what would they do with the remark? It doesn’t give them much information about what you want them to fix. Your business goal should really be to give the copywriter the writing feedback necessary to deliver the content you want in the way you want.

Writing feedback we see

1. One of our writers interviewed a customer for a success story we wanted. In spite of the writer’s best efforts, the interview with the customer, Jack, had yielded very little interesting content. Without much to go on, the writer bet on an attention-getting first sentence: “Jack is a power architect.” When our engineer reviewed the draft, he had this criticism:

Is the first sentence really needed?

Thus, the writer’s bet didn’t pay off, and the engineer saw no alternative to disliking it. And most of what followed.

Instead of sending that feedback to the writer, I asked 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 was complex, and each of them gave the marketing writer a point of departure.

2. One of our product managers reviewed a white paper and offered this writing feedback:

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

I knew that “oppressive first page” would strike the writer as, well, oppressive criticism without much useful guidance. So, given the slew of ideas that the second page generated, I asked the product manager to outline briefly the kind of first page she wanted to see. It took a full re-write of most of the paper, but the result was worth it.

3. One writer asks for trouble. When she submits her drafts, she always writes “Let me know if this is what you had in mind.” The product marketing manager wrote back:

It’s not what I had in mind.

This is nearly useless feedback, but the writer asked for it. Vague complaints are never as good as clear writing feedback.

Give your editors and writers clear criticism

What kind of criticism works best?

Bar none, the best thing for reviewers to do once they’ve received a draft from a writer is to enable change tracking, then modify the text as they want to see it. Once they’ve finished, they should return it to the writer, who will make a second pass for consistency and proofreading.

That can be a lot of work, and not every reviewer wants to put that much effort into it. But it’s the best way to take something written by somebody else and ensure that it conveys the meaning you intend.

As a marketing manager working between writers and reviewers, build the kind of review loop that serves the business goal of delivering useful content. Clear, unambiguous statements about what you want the writer to change and how you want to change it support the business goal of producing content better than snarky comments do.

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.


Author: John White

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a content marketing writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Content Marketing Writer.”