Build Writers Through Appropriate Feedback

Evening at the Sub-Prefect. (Albert Robia, courtesy oldbookillustrations.com)

When movies feature journalists, especially newspaper reporters, they often include the well-worn trope of the angry editor.

We all know the caricature: tie askew, shielded by a messy desk, targeting every reporter who crosses their line of sight for a dressing down. In their mind, every reporter has failed, every story needs completely rewritten, every photo trashed.

Just as with other journalistic stereotypes in movies, the angry editor has a foundation in fact. They exist, just as asshole bosses exist in every profession. But in today’s work world, assholes don’t get very far (at least, not as often).

As opposed to the angry editor, a good editor will build the skills, the confidence, and the creativity of those around him. Additionally, a good editor will have a sense of the type of feedback a person wants, especially when that person asks for feedback voluntarily.

In a non-journalism environment, understanding the type of feedback sought is particularly important because of the importance of organic content from employees and customers. Generally, people seeking feedback comprise one (or more) of the following five types.

The writer who wants to improve: The classic editor-writer relationship, where the writer wants the big picture critique. Typically, when I edit the first couple of drafts for a writer (or a person genuinely wanting to become a writer), I avoid copy editing and offer suggestions that appropriately challenge them to improve the story and prose. Allowing them to decide how they make those improvements will build their skills as well as their confidence, and also strengthen their trust in me as the editor.

The professional ready for publication: Think red pen. A word-by-word copy edit that also takes a hard look at minor details and ensures consistency in the story. Essential before publication, especially in print, use it sparingly when working with anybody still trying to become a writer. When done at the wrong time, a page covered in red ink (or purple or black) can prove debilitating.

The aspiring writer: These writers have larger goals for writing, but lack experience and often confidence. Interns and recent college graduates fall into this category, as do academics or technical writers who want to write for a general audience. They do best with big-picture feedback with a heavy dose of encouragement until they trust the editor enough to move into more direct and nitty-gritty editing. When handled well, they can grow into exceptional writers who work well with editors.

The hesitant writer: This writer will send an article with a lot of caveats, such as they “just wrote it last night.” They will apologize in advance for poor quality and insist they don’t expect publication. In this case, they want feedback that tells them to stop trying to write. Don’t give it to them. Instead, give them honest feedback about their effort — which often will be that their writing is authentic, personal, and engaging — and encourage, encourage, encourage. Hopefully, they listen to you as the editor, although sadly many will keep searching for somebody to tell them to stop. Eventually, they will find it, typically from a non-editor supervisor who prefers they stick to their “official” job.

The “child” writer: When a child draws a cartoon and hands it to their parents, they don’t want criticism and editing. They want validation. Many adults fall into the same category when they show people something they have done simply for fun. As an editor, it can be difficult not to “break out the red pen” every time somebody hands you something you wrote. But sometimes, you should simply acknowledge that they shared, with you, something they created. And sharing can be the scariest thing of all.

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Trust Requires More Than Words

The girl, the bike, the light, year one.

Every boss needs to control their employees, but many struggle to do so effectively. Too often, bosses give their employees freedom and trust and before they can say “No!” the employees have destroyed everything.

Okay … obviously satire. In today’s work environment, most leaders agree that giving employees freedom and trust will destroy a lot of things. Sometimes, those things will need fixed, but more often, the things employees break will actually improve make their lives easier, improve productivity, encourage innovation, and boost morale. 

Anybody in a leadership position will take steps to encourage independence and demonstrate trust. But many also cling to outdated rules or “business processes” that will discourage employees and negate their positive steps.

  • Rigid Hours: Instead of forcing employees to adhere to a strict schedule, allow them to set the schedule that fits them best. Additionally, don’t force them to ask permission every time they have to leave midday. This simple act of flexibility will send a clear message to anybody you supervise that you trust them to manage their time, or more generally, that you trust them to act responsibly, like an adult.
  • Butt In Seat: An even more extreme extension of the rigid hours, and even more debilitating to employee morale. Often, when I have to focus on writing, I’ll jump on the commuter train and ride it for an hour or two, and it will prove the most productive two hours of my day. Let your employees work where they work best.
  • Screen Monitoring: If you have kids in your house accessing the Internet, putting a computer in a common area you can see the screen makes sense. But you have adults working in your office. Let them set up their desk area as they want.
  • CC 2 CYA: Email has simplified a lot of things, including the ability to “loop” everyone into a conversation. Please, stop. If you’re a boss, trust that your employees can make decisions and communicate with others without your hand-holding. For everyone else, stop the “cover your ass” approach of CCing the boss(es) of whoever you’re working with on a project. Trust your peers to coordinate as needed with their boss, just as you will coordinate with your boss. Yes, conflicts or difficulties may arise that necessitate CCing the bosses, but once you stop CCing everybody you will find, refreshingly, you need it far less than you think. Use the CC, don’t abuse it.
  • No Accountability: This goes to the heart of trust and independence. Hold your employees (and yourself) accountable for their decisions and let them resolve issues on their own whenever possible. Many of the examples people offer about why they can’t trust their employees really stem from a lack of accountability. Alternatively, holding employees accountable tells them that you trust them to do their job without your micromanagement, but it also means you trust them to fix their own problems.

Photo credit: “The Girl, The Bike, The Light (Year One)” by Peter Heeling.

Playing on One String

Guns N' Roses playing live

For nearly twenty years, I’ve owned a guitar with a broken string. I never learned how to play that guitar because of that broken string.

Recently, in an interview on the WTF podcast, Slash talked about learning to play the guitar as a kid. Did he have a broken string? No. He had five broken strings.

Too many times, we create artificial barriers for action, creating, even living. We don’t launch our website because we need the perfect theme. We don’t start the podcast because we don’t have the right microphone. We don’t start writing because we can’t find the right pen. We search for the perfect bike, the perfect knife, the perfect tent instead of just riding, cooking, or camping.

These barriers become even more daunting, and more common, for creative pursuits. Your fear will manifest many arguments to stifle your creativity, many of them anchored in perfection. Ignore them and start creating.

A Story About A Story (As A Poem)

Telling stories while hiking

Today, I will tell you a story.
It may not inspire or entertain.
When compared to yesterday. Or tomorrow.
Or, it might. Inspire. Entertain.
Even more than yesterday or tomorrow.

Today, I will tell you a story.
Yesterday, I told you a story. A different story.
And tomorrow, I will tell you a story. A different story.
Than today.

Today, I will tell you a story.
One of many stories waiting.
For me to tell.

Today, I will tell you a story.
Only one story, today.
Yesterday. And tomorrow.
And every day.
Only one story.

Today, I cannot tell you every story.
But today, I will tell you one story.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
Than the perfect story.
For today.