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DICK’S WRITING TIPS: Feedback Is Good For You Only If You Digest It

Richard Rothschild (Dick) has practiced public interest law for over four decades, and he’s picked up quite a bit of knowledge along the way. Here’s a tip Dick shared with attorneys in our network, broadened out for public use. For more of Dick’s Tips, check out parts one and two of his tips for brief writing!

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People may say they really like getting feedback on their writing. The same people may also say they really like the taste of kale.

In fact, what we all actually want to hear is that our work is brilliant, and that not a single word needs to be changed. So good feedback, like kale, can taste bitter… but like kale, it’s good for you (or so they say). At least, it can be good for you if you know how to approach it. There are three steps involved:

Step 1: Arrange the feedback.

Find somebody with a reputation as a good editor. Hopefully, that will be your immediate supervisor, but even if that is not the case you probably know someone who fits that description. Tell that person that you want to improve your writing skills and are looking for honest and detailed feedback.

Make sure that once you receive the feedback, you review and engage with the edits and comments. Alerting your editor that you would like feedback is an implied promise that you will follow up once you receive it.

Step 2: Write a genuine first draft, not a “rough draft.”

Do not slap together some random thoughts and call it a first draft. Make your best arguments as well organized and worded as possible, then spend a lot of time editing the draft yourself before handing it to the editor.

That does not mean the draft has to be great or won’t need lots of editing and comments. But it does mean that it’s the best work you are able to do at the time. Editors usually know the difference and are loathe to spend more time editing than the author has apparently spent drafting.

Even with your genuine first draft, expect a lot of edits. I’ve heard knowledgeable writing professors caution that too many edits on a first draft is psychologically counter-productive. They advise editors to make a few global suggestions, followed by successive drafts in a multi-week process. Unfortunately, in the real world, particularly in legal services offices, drafts rarely arrive more than a couple days ahead of deadline. Conscientious editors often have little choice but to make substantial revisions.

Step 3: Consciously interact with the feedback.

This is the most important step and perhaps the most difficult.

Let’s say your editor is Maria. What do you do when she sends back an edited document whose primary color appears to be red? Take a deep breath, and pick your ego up off the floor. Carefully read through the comments, which are usually self-explanatory, and the edits, which often are not. For each edit, there are three acceptable internal reactions:

  • “I understand the edit and why it’s an improvement.” Think of ways you can apply that knowledge. If, for example, Maria changed a sentence from passive to active voice, look for other sentences in the brief that need the same change.
  • “I don’t understand the edit and will ask Maria about it.”
  • “I understand the edit, but don’t agree with it and will present my case.” Perhaps knowing the substantive issues better than your editor, you might be right. As an editor, I like it when that happens, and will freely admit to the author that I was wrong. It shows that the author is thinking strategically. (Excessive smirking and end zone dances are discouraged, however).

The key is engaging with the feedback and working to improve, not just for the current piece of writing, but for future work as well. This process, and maybe some kale, will make you stronger. Your editors, and more importantly, your readers, will appreciate that.