Vague writing feedback revisited

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writing feedbackLast week, I wrote about the challenges of managing vague creative feedback, and provided a couple of thoughts on how to bring such situations to resolution. The good news? That post was based on writing feedback on a real-life freelance project, and the next step went smoothly. Woohoo!

How did I move the client from uncertainty to approval? Pretty simple, really. But you need a little more backstory than I provided last time.

Rethinking a Writing Feedback Cycle

The text I provided had been through two rounds of revisions without major rewrites. In fact, the content had been approved for uploading and design. The problem came when the client saw it live on the beta-test page, the design of which had also been approved.

From the client’s comments, I interpreted that it wasn’t 100% about the writing, which had technically been given a thumbs up. It had to do with how the beta-test page looked. The text seemed long and blocky, without enough variety. (I had cautioned about this during the draft stage, but the client was insistent on including everything.) In the meantime, the designer needed to take a different tack, too. Since the first layout was a no-go, he secured approval on a different website template that the client liked.

My solution was to provide the next writing draft in a rough layout, using the word counts from the new template. That enabled me to provide the client with some visual cues.

  • I created a simple, landscape Word document with text boxes and using font sizes to indicate headlines and subheads.
  • I pasted in the text that had been approved then quasi-rejected, with a few modifications. This included adding subheads with SEO keywords and chopping everything into smaller chunks.
  • Finally, I noted maximum word counts that would fit in a given area.

In other words, essentially the same content, but a different presentation.

It’s Not Always about the Words: Visuals Matter

Here’s the takeaway: I took the comment “I’ll know it when I see it” very literally!

Although we as creative freelancers pride ourselves on being able to visualize what text is going to look like based on cues such as [head], [subhead], [callout], [photo caption], etc., not all clients have that skill set. Anything you can do to help them make the connection is going to make life easier for you. In this case, creating a visual reference provided the leverage I needed.

I must add a caveat here. In my magazine days, it was frowned upon to give unapproved copy to the art department. (Actually, you might get stabbed with an X-Acto knife—graphic designers don’t enjoy wasting time on something that might change dramatically.) For that matter, as editors we preferred the control that Word gave us compared to the more-daunting task of executing edits within the design software without screwing up the layout. The later in the process you execute significant edits, the more you’re exposing yourself to errors.

Other Strategies to Consider

A few of the comments made in the previous post can help you address writing feedback that’s unhelpful, vague, or not easily implemented:

  • Lori noted the importance of asking leading questions at the beginning of the project, then using the answers as a way to refocus things during the revision process.
  • Sheila recommended offering a self-critique—point out something that you objectively think is weak, and fix it.
  • Mark suggested giving the client two options, and thereby letting them exert some control.

In the comments: What are some of the writing feedback tricks you’ve employed to move a stalled freelance project forward?

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  1. says

    Super point about visuals, Jake! I had a client hire his friends for that very reason. I gave him a revised sales letter, per his direction and his answers to my questions. During revisions, I saw feedback that had various initials next to them. I asked him what those meant (assuming acronyms or really bad abbreviations).

    They were the edits done by his friends. Six of them, to be exact. I gave him a cordial, but frank response about how I was there to please him, not his friends, and that I’d be happy to please them, but it would cost more as I had to run it by so many more people.

    His response was to pay me and tell me, very kindly, that he was taking the advice of his six friends instead because “I trust them.” He paid me and put me on his mailing list.

    Their edits consisted of taking the original copy and adding pull quotes. I’m not kidding — he wanted a graphics treatment, not a rewrite.

    Sometimes, they really want a designer and don’t know it.