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How NOT to review copy

When worried if your copy isn’t quite up to scratch just yet, here are some phrases you need to ignore:

I don’t like it.

I think that could be better.

This isn’t very good.

In isolation, these are meaningless and useless phrases.

They are reductive.

They only generate negativity.

When it comes to editing and reviewing any piece of copy, thoughts like this should never be uttered aloud anywhere near the copy itself. They should never be scribbled in the margins of a first draft.

If you show your work to someone who makes comments like these and nothing more: smile, say thanks, and then mark them off your Christmas card list and print out a reminder on A3 paper to never show them your work again and stick it in a prominent place in your home.

“The golden rule is you must never just say no,” explained Dave Trott to me once.

I pointed out to him the inherent difficulty in offering feedback without being too negative and wondered how he’s approached it over decades in the industry.

“You suggest an improvement or point them in a new direction,” he went on to explain. “You say: Here’s a way it could be better.”

And there you have it.

The fundamental rule when it comes to offering any form of feedback on a piece of copy:

If you’re unable to give an alternative suggestion, or at least provide a possible new avenue to explore, keep schtum.

It’s constructive criticism, but on overdrive.

You see, phrases like I don’t like it, I think that could be better or This isn’t very good are plain dumb.

They do nothing to establish a) the reason why the writing hasn’t landed with the reader or b) how it might be improved.

What’s more, if the person making these comments can’t explain why they don’t like a particular phrase or offer an alternative, it a) suggests they’re not the right person to be reviewing and editing your work and b) their feedback is merely their opinion, not a proper critical assessment of the work.

Sadly, we’ve grown up in a society where critical laziness runs rife.

In school, at work, and at home, generally we don’t look to help improve behaviour with reason, we just shout no, that’s wrong and then complain about the person who made the mistake when their back is turned.

When it comes to seeking feedback about your copy, you need to buck this trend. To do that, you should brief anyone who you’d like to consider your copy on the ‘what if’ approach.

It’s very simple.

When the person reviewing the copy hits upon a section they think should be elsewhere, or a phrase they think could be altered, they should frame the edit as a ‘what if’ question.

What if you moved B between A and C?

What if you wrote ‘tree hugger’ instead of ‘eco warrior’?

What if you deleted this sentence completely?

Reframing the criticism in this way forces the reviewer to give a clue as to why they’re suggesting a change and it frames the change as a possibility for improvement, not just a useless and negative criticism.

You will feel much less anxious about having your copy examined this way. It becomes much clearer it’s about improving the copy, not editing for editing’s sake.

If you feel particularly strongly about keeping something, even having considered an alternative, you can.

You don’t have to take every suggestion as gospel.

But more often than not, when you use this approach, the calm reasoning and helpful suggestions of the person collaborating with you lead you to make the changes anyway, happy the tweak was discussed and explored.

It’s how we try to approach things at The Fix and recommend you do the same.

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