How to give feedback on documents

Figure out what’s needed

If the person sending you the document hasn’t told you, first figure out what stage it is at. If it’s an early draft of an idea then they probably need advice on direction and general tone. If it’s a final draft that may already be set and they need input on details. Consider why they’ve shared it with you. If you’re the one who needs to sign it off then you’ll have your own views on the direction it should take, but perhaps they think you have a particular expertise or point of view that should be taken into account.

Set aside the time

I find feedback requests tend to come via email, and when dealing with email I am often in the frame of mind where I’m just trying to clear out my inbox. It’s easy to jump right into the document with your mind on getting the task out the way and out of your inbox. Sometimes this is fine, but often decent feedback needs more thought. Consider how long you need to really do the feedback justice and set aside that time.

Read it through first

You’ve figured out what feedback is needed, so first you need an overview of where the document is at in relation to that focus. No doubt lots of details will be very obvious to you from the start, the smallest things such as spelling and grammar tend to be most immediately obvious. It’s so easy to get bogged down in commenting on things like this as you go, and they can distract you from any larger focus you might have. If you can, read the whole thing first, or at least get a good understanding of the shape of it. Your advice will be much more focused and holistic if you’ve done that.

Comment in appropriate detail

This really depends on your focus, but think about what is appropriate. If there are major structural issues to the piece then a single detailed comment to highlight and explain them will be most useful. If the author is making the same errors in language over and over then an explanation of the issue rather than correcting it every time will help them improve more effectively. Conversely, sometimes really detailed comments are needed, especially if it’s about to be published more widely.

Stick to the focus

Whether the focus was given to you by the author or you decided on it, stick to it. If you think the document is going to need another round of feedback for a different focus, then say so at the end of your comments. The author may well have had this in mind, and probably needs some time to work on the feedback you’ve given before then anyway. Drifting from the focus of feedback often results in getting types of feedback at the wrong time (spelling and grammar on an early draft, or already agreed fundamental content right at the end).

Check your comments

Do take some time to look back at your comments and check how they fit with the focus and the impression you want the author to get. You probably developed your view of the document as you went through this process so some of the earlier comments might need tweaking so the author gets the message you intend. I often add an overview to the email of my general thoughts and how I approached the feedback to help the author get the message I want them to about where the document is at.



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Oliver Quinlan

Oliver Quinlan


Hi, I’m Oliver Quinlan. I’m a researcher, writer, educator and electronic musician. I’m based in London, UK.