feedback for authors

How to Provide Quality Feedback for Authors

December 19, 2019 by Milton Herman

5 min read

A study of judges found they were 65% more likely to make a favorable ruling in the morning or after a meal break. These were parole hearings with serious implications, yet their judgment was impacted by hunger.

This shows how feedback is fickle. Our mood, temperament, and biometrics all impact the sentiment and quality of our feedback.

Remember this whenever you’re asked to review someone’s writing.

Here’s how to take a strategic approach to maximize the value of your feedback, and gather useful feedback when needed.

Feedback Type and Purpose

Delivering feedback on written work is not the same as giving feedback on employee performance or a presentation. Make yourself helpful by first clarifying the type of feedback the author wants. These terms will vary, but there are generally three categories of feedback within the writing process.

Work-in-Progress Feedback - Authors who need help with a working draft won’t benefit from nitpicks on grammar or sporadic sentence adjustments. This feedback is about making sure their direction makes sense. Big, unanswered questions and overall structural issues should be identified. Think about what your inner voice is asking for and wondering about as you read. Discuss the author’s goal beforehand, then make sure the content aligns appropriately.

Formal Review - The next two stages are similar but there’s a key difference between a review and edit. A review assumes there’s more work to be done. The author has reviewed their own work but needs an outside perspective to validate their ideas. In many cases, authors can be trusted to implement feedback from a review then finalize without additional reviews.

Formal Edit - A complete edit is a final check to shoot for 100% accuracy. This type of feedback is required when typos, grammar mistakes, and other errors have serious ramifications. Feedback providers shouldn’t have to worry about catching logical gaps or missing information because the previous reviews focused on that. Certain types of documents or reports don’t require this type of review.

A common thread with every feedback type is it should be focused forward progress. Avoid the desire to say something to just to say it. Your input should help the author push forward regardless of what stage they’re in.

Feedback Delivery

The next consideration is delivery. The compliment sandwich or the kiss, slap, kiss method was developed decades ago as a tool for delivering employee feedback. It means the criticism (meat) is squished between two compliments (bread). Ideally, this allows people to be open to feedback and ensures they don’t take it personally. The counterargument is this approach undermines your feedback by making it sound scripted at best, fake at worst. Others like Ben Horowitz argue that senior employees just want the real meat of the sandwich without the kumbaya fluff.

This is probably true when it comes to employee management but positive feedback matters when it comes to documents and writing. It shouldn’t be phony or forced. It’s easy to identify at least one positive aspect from any piece of long-form writing. Writing is personal, so positive feedback must be a priority if you want the author to take the rest of your feedback seriously. In other words, don’t be a hater.

If you have nothing positive to say, there’s probably a bigger problem as the document might not be ready for review or feedback should have been provided sooner. Still, you should always word feedback to be constructive instead of directly negative. For instance, “Usually you have a really organized structure but this seems to be more all over the place,” (followed by specific examples).

How to Collect Feedback

As Yoda says, “you will find only what you bring in.”

The art of gathering feedback is just as important as delivering it. Having the mindset to encourage and accept feedback is the first key to starting any revision or editing process. There are some practical tips to apply after that.

Specific questions - Avoid asking general questions such as, “thoughts?” Identify sections of the document that you would like to improve or sections that took you longer to develop and might need extra attention.

Uniform comments and markings - Make sure your feedback providers are not making general comments without highlighting specific areas. Whether you’re working with paper hard copies or digital versions, make sure everyone is using the same annotation rules. Additionally, drill down into their comments to develop a clear understanding. Embrace the conversation.

Don’t rush - Most authors have a tendency to move quickly through a feedback session. It’s a missed opportunity if you don’t slow down and have a back-and-forth conversation with the participants. You might reconcile their comment by providing context which can be added to the text. Your peers can also provide ideas on how to improve if given a few minutes to think about the feedback at hand. It’s important to do this in the moment because the author and feedback provider will have a much harder time recollecting after the fact.


The main takeaway is that delivering and accepting feedback is a skill that requires development and strategy. A survey of 900 global employees found that 57% of them preferred corrective and constructive feedback. At the same time, neuroscientists and researchers have discovered that our brains are wired to protect us from negative feedback. We remember negative information vividly, but it’s common to alter the information if it doesn’t align with our self-image. On top of this, different personality types require different forms of feedback.

There’s no easy solution for providing quality feedback, but always appreciate the challenge it presents and strive to get better.

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