Sometimes a friend will ask me to review something they wrote and offer advice before they publish it.

When giving someone a critique on their writing, I try to think about what level of feedback best fits the scenario. What does the writer want at this stage in their writing? What is the most valuable kind of feedback I can give based on the amount of time I have?

There’s no way to provide feedback without dedicating some time. I try to work out if I actually have time spend and in what time-frame I can get back to them.[1]

If I can get it done, I’ll give the person who has trusted me with an unfinished piece of work some options. I let them choose how they want me to respond by giving them these three options:[2]

  1. Conceptual feedback,
  2. Structural feedback, or
  3. Copy editing.

1. Conceptual feedback

Does the idea work? Does the point come across? How clear is the message?

This is definitely the quickest to provide. It might take a couple of readings of the piece. Sometimes it’s really clear that the structure doesn’t flow or that the idea is sound but the arguments are all in the wrong place. Sometimes the work starts with one emphatic statement but winds its way to another at the end.

Conceptual feedback usually involves a lot of conversation with the writer. I’ll ask them a lot of questions about what they really want to say. I’ll also have some opinions about what the most interesting point is.

If there isn’t an interesting point and we both agree on that, I’ll suggest just not doing another draft. There are always more ideas to move on to.

2. Structural feedback

Are all the ideas in the right place? Is there anything missing? Most importantly, what chunks can just be removed?

We’re trying to make the writing as lean as possible while still having the most impact.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is cross out whole paragraphs. If it’s repeating information or not adding to the argument, get rid of it.

We’ll talk about the point of piece and the best way to reveal the facts to make the piece as compelling as possible.

3. Copy editing

Is there good sentence hierarchy in each paragraph? Which sentences can we tighten-up? Are there any spelling, punctuation or grammatical errors?

This gets into the very fine details of the piece. When everything else is in place, I’ll go through every syllable, move some words around, delete or add commas and shake my head at hyphens that should be en or em dashes.[3]

My aim here is to make the text as tight and unambiguous as possible. The sad truth is that Microsoft Word’s squiggly green lines are correct: passive sentences often weaken the writing. I shift words around like pieces on a four-by-four Rubik’s Cube. Yes. I’m that nerdy about it.

The writer (who is hopefully still my friend at this point), chooses which changes to keep or dismiss.

And then we’re all done. They publish the piece, get praise from their peers and I get naches from watching them succeed.

  1. That’s if I’m being thoughtful/mindful. Sometimes I’ll just say “yes” and then it will sit there, hounding me until I resent it and try to avoid conversations with that person. ↩︎

  2. I take this opportunity to apologise to all the people I failed to actually use this method with. I’ll send you my review shortly. ↩︎

  3. Sometimes it’s a stylistic choice about whether to use an em or en dash. Sometimes it’s just plain wrong to use one of the other. ↩︎