It doesn’t matter if you’re on a magazine’s payroll or if you’re helping out a friend of a friend with his website copy—as a writer, you’ll need to answer to somebody for your work, more often than not.
The thing is, these relationships do sometimes come with a bit of feedback, and some people are better at giving it than others.
Trust me, it’s no fun reading an e-mail with a list of things you’ve done wrong, even when you put your heart and soul into it. But receiving feedback and amending your work doesn’t need to be a helpless process. You, too, have a say as a writer.
Of course, you should always cater to your clients’ demands to the best of your abilities, but what happens when the feedback isn’t exactly constructive? Don’t lose your cool, for one.
Here are some of the more common obstacles I’ve faced in my writing career, and the solutions that’s worked for me. Perhaps it could do the same for you.
Before we start, let me just share a similar experience that took me by surprise. My personal favourite being a translation work from Malay to English. “This looks like something from Google Translate,” the person wrote. “Who writes ‘managed to snag a medal’ anyway? Utterly terrible and unacceptable!”
Now, I have to preface this by saying that my client wasn’t particularly adept in English (I paraphrased the above sentence), and that it was obvious that her feedback was also tinted by her own subjective views.
The easy thing would’ve been to carry out the changes she’d proposed, and botch what I thought was a pretty decent article. But I chose to stick to my guns, a task made much easier once this person’s colleagues hopped in and talked some sense into her.
So you see, sometimes you can be criticised through no fault of your own, and it’s times like these when you should have some problem-solving tips at hand. Let’s start with a typical demand.
Can you do this by today?
Sometimes it wouldn’t even be a question. This demand is especially prevalent in industries like journalism, where you’re expected to have a story ready before you leave the event hall. If you’re the one who picked the job, then the onus is on you to match their expectations.
But what if you’re just another writer in the corporate communications department? Or maybe you’re a freelancer who’d just received your brief the day before. What do you do then?
Tell the truth. If you can’t get it something by a specific time, then be truthful to your boss instead of trying to meet their unrealistic deadlines and ending up with a half-finished assignment on the due date.
Yes, it’d suck to admit that you can’t meet their expectations, but people are usually more forgiving of a delayed deadline than someone who didn’t meet it. Also, this ties to a second point regarding deadlines, and that’s to always ask your boss when they need something done.
This is especially important when your boss has the tendency to throw you random mini-tasks in the midst of larger projects. Say, for instance, you have to revamp the copy for an entire website, but halfway through it, your boss asks you to prepare a social media post.
You don’t want to be focusing on the big project, only to receive an e-mail from the boss asking you why the social media post isn’t up yet.
When you ask them when they need something done, it allows you to prioritise your work, as well as come up with a counter deadline if you have too much on your plate. It also stops them from harrying you for deliverables before they’re due.
Don’t take this for granted. Always ask them for a deadline.
This is not what we’ve discussed
Have we established that writing is subjective yet? It goes without saying that your relationship with your boss or editor will matter more than your writing prowess. Seriously, I’ve seen decent writers get harangued for their work, and I’ve seen super crappy ones given all the best assignments.
But who am I to judge? My preferences are subjective too, aren’t they? You know what that means? It’s that you should only work under someone you can deal with. This is something that will never change, despite your best efforts. So if you find yourself wishing your boss was someone else, then it’s time to look for a different job.
But when it comes to them giving you subjective reasons to change your work, then a good way to protect yourself is by having justifiable reasons for every decision you make.
Maybe you chose to highlight a room’s size because you thought that it would be relevant to readers, or maybe you included a pun in your title because you know your target audience would appreciate it.
Either way, what you do doesn’t matter as much as why you did it, as long as you have a good reason for it. It might or might not be accepted by your editor, but it does quell their tendency to criticise you once they realise you’ve put some thought into it.
Do it again
The amending stage can differ from company to company. It could even differ from boss to boss. Sometimes, the piece you’ve worked tirelessly on with your head of department could be totally rejected by the CEO. In these times, it’d be prudent to deal with them through e-mail, just so you can get their requests in black-and-white.
If you’re a freelancer, you should already have discussed the number of available amendments you’d entertain before taking on the job. As a full-timer though, you won’t be as lucky, and you’ll have to see each job through.
And the best way to do this is by asking this question: “If I do (insert your proposed amendments here), will it address your concerns?”
Do not be satisfied with feedback such as “make it flow better” or “just give it a happy feel”. Probe them with suggestions of your own, such as proposing the use of happy words such as ‘joyful’ and ‘bask in the fun’, and see if they’ll work with that.
Remember, your goal here is not to confront them, but get both of you to share a similar perspective. So keep the “I’m the writer here” attitude at the door.
Writing is sometimes a people thing
After having written for a living for nine years, I’d like to think that it’s my craft that’s gotten me this far, but I’ve realised that every writing problem I’ve ever encountered was settled through discussions rather than the amendments themselves.
And maybe that’s what we should do as writers. We do sell words for a living after all, both non-verbal and verbal. So perhaps we should stop looking at our job as simply putting words in a PDF file, and start thinking of it as an entire experience.