Using principles to give feedback on writing

A number of years ago I worked with a very talented senior elearning designer who delivered brilliant work themselves, but could drive juniors to tears with feedback on their work. Project documents, storyboards would be returned after review with track changes in Word – full of red lines and changed words and sentences. Separate from the fact that this was very discouraging, it did not help junior designers to grow in their abilities. The changes were all made for them, improving the work but with little explanation on how they could improve that work themselves the next time.

Subjective vs objective writing feedback

Every writer is different and unique. We all have our ways to turn sentences and favourite words we use. But that is subjective, our own “style”. Feedback on business documents, storyboards and other work-related writing needs to be objective. There could be structural concerns, audience or purpose are not well addressed, or a section merits elaboration, maybe an extra example to make something more clear. So how do you provide that feedback to someone in your team, or a subject matter expert you work with, without just changing what they wrote? How do you coach them into better writing and provide value with your feedback? In short – can you tell them why things need to be changed rather than just changing them? One of the participants on a recent Information Mapping course expressed it well: “I knew that some things needed to be changed in my documents before this training, but could not say why. Now I have words for it and it guides me in making things better”.

Principles and guidelines

A simple Google will guide us to basic principles for great graphic design: there are guidelines for use of colours, fonts, the balance of a layout and the use of whitespace. The Information Mapping methodology (IM) gives us that same clear vocabulary for writing – how to write clear and structured information for readers. One of the pillars of the methodology are the six research-based principles.

I have listed them very briefly here.

  • chunking: split up your information in manageable units
  • relevance: put similar information together, ranking it in importance
  • labeling: make clear titles, that cover the content at a glance
  • consistency: use similar terminology, structures, grammar … in similar content
  • integrated graphics: integrate visuals in the text, rather than separating them out
  • accessible detail: make sure your reader can find all details easily, or skip them if they are not relevant to them.

How to use the IM principles for feedback

The principles of IM make it easy to point out to another writer why a certain part of text needs to be changed, or reconsidered. Instead of changing what someone wrote, you can point out a problem, stating a principle. For example, inconsistent use of terminology – comment on it, saying “You are using word A here to indicate the same thing as you used B for a page back. Think of consistency and check your document on the use of this terminology.” Another example can be relevance: you can indicate one or more parts of the text, suggesting to move them together to help the reader as they are related in content.

The advantage of using these principles for feedback works two ways: you help the person you are providing feedback to by giving them indications of why something needs to be looked at, instead of just asking for change. On the other hand it helps you to formulate feedback clearly, and think about it consistently. You can ask yourself: “Why do I feel it needs to be changed? Is it a subjective thing?” If yes, leave the other writer to their style or provide a brief suggestion in the comments. But if it is a principle of well-structured writing they err against, you have a clear objective reason to point out the need for change and you can use a principle to guide them toward better writing in the future.

Would you like to know more about the Information Mapping methodology?
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