5 Ways to Serve Up Effective Feedback

When I was a kid, I had a contraption I used to help me practice my tennis skills during the summer. It consisted of a stationary base that I sat at the end of the driveway. Attached to the base was a flexible bungee-type rope, and attached to that was a tennis ball. I would hit the ball. The ball would bounce in the road, and thanks to the bungee it would return to me. I would repeat the process ad infinitum.

Giving Feedback

Image credit: Anthem Sports

I thought about that contraption today when I decided to write about feedback. Since I began editing for my current employer, first as a freelance editor in February and now as a full-timer, I am back in the business of giving feedback after a few years on the sidelines.

In my case, it’s a combination of giving feedback and negotiating details of our production process. It’s not Wimbledon, but it’s important to me and to my employer that what we send out in to the world doesn’t commit a fault.

Once you’re on the feedback court, here’s how to have a great game, set and match.

Direct is best

In our work, time is of the essence and the items on which we are collaborating are short. Since all of my communication occurs virtually (i.e., over Slack or email), I have the advantage of being able to send a message the recipient will be able to keep for future reference and the disadvantage of not presenting the feedback in person. Anything vague threatens to dilute the clarity of my recommendation.

The US Tennis Association says “[D]own-the-line shots are often more effective offensively but are more difficult. Crosscourt shots are easier … but also have the greatest margin for error.”

In editing, as in tennis, down-the-line shots (i.e., being direct) often work best.

Hesitation detracts from success

Once an issue presents itself and has proven to be something that needs to be addressed, hesitating to discuss it has the potential to hurt all parties involved. The person who needs the feedback doesn’t have the benefit of knowing what they need to change, and the more time elapses the less they will recall the situation in the first place. It also takes up bandwidth in your brain as the giver of the feedback, and who wouldn’t want to clear that kind of thing out to avoid mental clutter?

Tomaz Mencinger of TennisMindGame.com said quick reactions give a player “more time to get to the ball, make the right decision, balance yourself … and perform your stroke properly.”

In the giving of feedback, too, hesitating to say something can deprive you of a winning point.

Building Trust Matters

As a freelance worker in the four years between leaving Healthy Kids (May 2014) and starting my current position (September 2018), almost all of my work-related conversations have occurred over email, Slack, Facebook (one of my employers coordinated everything through a secret Facebook group before moving to Slack) or Basecamp.

Now that I am responsible for giving feedback to others and negotiating the fine points of grammar, style and various operational issues with other team members, I am reminded every day of the importance of learning to trust each other.

People who love grammar can be a bit wrapped up in its importance (ask me how I know), and unfortunately even in a world dominated by the AP Stylebook, there are still gray areas and people who mean well but simply have a learning gap or strong opinion or some other hurdle that presents itself when trying to iron out an area of disagreement.

Building trust is not always easy (it’s why I am a proponent of trying to help people get to know each other outside of the narrow confines of their assigned tasks), but ultimately it leads to a higher quality product.

I want anyone who gets feedback from me to know it’s about the specifics of the question, not about them as a person, to perceive my comments as a springboard to being better, not an attack meant to quash their confidence or success.

Writing about what makes the best doubles tennis partners, Bill Previdi of the US Professional Tennis Association said, “The willingness and desire to do more than your fair share, to share the credit and the blame, and to stay calm under pressure are the keys.”

No one on a team is going to succeed without communication, on the court or at the keyboard.

Accuracy is paramount

Be specific when discussing something that would best be done differently in the future. Although Karen Hertzberg’s How to give feedback that’s constructive, not crushing is about manuscript critiques rather than the type of editing I do, this point is true regardless of the type of content:

…your job is to determine whether the writer accomplished what they set out to do.

I like that outlook, because I think most writers, editors and copy editors bring a lifetime of accumulated knowledge about language in general, as well as personal convictions about what comprises effective writing, to their work.

It is important to bring into focus the mutual goals of the publication or entity involved when giving feedback.

And in my environment, although the ethos is “pristine editing,” I always remind myself that the ultimate reader may be opening their newsletter as they ride the train in the morning, or as they gulp down their coffee as the day’s demands start to weigh in. It needs to be intelligent yet digestible.

A ball that lands outside of the lines doesn’t help a player score. That all starts with that player’s choice of how to serve or return. Ditto for editing — what I do to make the feedback clear has much to do with its effect on the outcome.

Accepting and Integrating Feedback is Important Too

Many of the best leaders and supervisors have coaches themselves. Remember the contraption I discussed at the beginning of this post? I could have stood in my driveway for five summers, hitting the ball on the bungee until the bungee wore out and snapped, and not become a better player.

There was no one there to tell me anything about my swing, my reflexes, my approach.

“Everyone needs a coach,” said Bill Gates in this TED talk. (Take the 10 minutes to listen to the talk; Gates has a point.)

No tennis player worth their salt did it without being coached, inevitably meaning they got lots of feedback. That’s true in editing and relating to colleagues too — seek out those who can help you do a better job and be a more effective team member.

(Note: The recipient of the feedback has to be receptive too, of course. That could turn into a whole other post, so I won’t pull on that thread right now, but if someone is resistant to feedback, try to work with them on the “why” of that. Accepting and acting on feedback is pretty fundamental (to their ultimate professional success and your product’s quality level).

The Post-Game Ceremony

Here, I need to digress from the traditional post-match ceremony, where there is a winner and a loser.

Virginia Wade said (according to this website):

It’s difficult for most people to imagine the creative process in tennis. Seemingly it’s just an athletic matter of hitting the ball consistently well within the boundaries of the court. That analysis is just as specious as thinking that the difficulty in portraying King Lear on stage is learning all the lines.

Delivering feedback in a professional, respectful, constructive way is about so much more than “learning all the lines.” It’s also about helping everyone win and making each player have a  share of the spotlight.

Giving Feedback


Stronger Connected

“Oh my gosh, how can you stand that billboard at Franklin and Tennessee?” asked my coworker, who called me while stopped at the intersection.  She was referring to this:

This is an example of grammar that, while not technically incorrect, is just awkward. According to the Columbia Business Times, “Stronger Connected” is a trademarked slogan developed as part of communications giant CenturyTel’s 2009 rebranding to CenturyLink.

The slogan generated 18 responses on the http://www.dslreports.com/forum/r23428650-Grammar-Question site, many of which questioned whether “Stronger Connected” is grammatically correct. Two of my favorite comments were:

I think they should have chosen a less confusing wording. (from nwrickert)


I agree that more gooder grammar would have certainly been the case here. (from John Gault)

Gooder or not, my mind wants to tinker with this wording. Although it is less concise, I would go with “Be more strongly connected to what you love.” The problem with my mind’s revision is that it may not be true to CenturyLink’s intent, which is (possibly) that I feel that I would be STRONGER (i.e. more fortified) if I could easily and affordably connect to what (or who) I love.

Here in Tallahassee, we have another member of the “Stronger Connected” family, on Capital Circle Northeast:

The “Stronger Connected to What You Love” sign was obscured in September when a Leon High School (across the street) took it over (literally, our Principal was sitting up there on the ledge along with the Athletic Director) as part of the run-up to Leon’s Poker Run to fight cancer. My friend Susan, who teaches math at Leon and is a serious language lover to boot, said she was sad to see the “Stronger Connected” billboard reappear – she said it irritates her every time she sees it on her way to work.

Wouldn’t you love to have been in on the brainstorming sessions that resulted in the creation of this slogan? If this is what merited the outlay of valuable advertising funds, I wonder what slogans didn’t become contenders!

Ken McMahon, Vice President and General Manager, said “The message is that together we’re stronger. We believe in connecting people to what matters most, and that is to each other. Our connections are easy, accessible and affordable.”

“Stronger connected” is quirky enough that it has us talking; but not compelling enough to make me feel positive about the brand. In CenturyLink’s 2009 Annual Report, page one says “Stronger Connected,” page two is headed “Stronger,” and page three is headed “Connected.” (Pages four through twelve cover all of the other typical “annual report” stuff.)

Something tells me that “Stronger Connected” is one merger CenturyLink could have done without.

Wordless Wednesday

The Big Green Pen sincerely hopes each and every familie feels welcomed!

(As a proud Florida State University graduate, I bleed garnet and gold,
but this makes me see red!)

The rest of the story ….. as of 7/31/10.
I had a cordial exchange with Guy Moore, who owns Garnet and Gold (and who is a former English major)!  He was a great sport about having this little “familys” issue front and center on my Wordless Wednesday.  At Florida State, we may not always get it right the first time, but we do know how to fix our mistakes.  Here’s to you, Garnet and Gold:


Wordless Wednesday

We have gotten increasingly accustomed to knowing how long we are going to have to wait for things. 
Call customer service, and you’ll know there are four people ahead of you with a wait time of approximately 3 minutes.
Get in line at Space Mountain, and anticipate a wait time of 20 minutes from “this point in line.” 
Order “The Girl Who Played with Fire” from amazon.com, and receive several emails predicting when your book will arrive.
That’s why I was surprised (and amused) when, upon powering up my office copier Sunday, it told me this:
Our copier is a realist with good grammar (it’s really easy to confuse “a while” and “awhile”)!
Honesty and good grammar:  two things that are difficult to duplicate.

Wordless Wednesday

Things that make @biggreenpen dissolve in purple puddles.
You all know I rail against typos and spelling errors, but sometimes it just doesn’t matter.  At the Leon County Relay for Life this weekend, the sign below was propped up against the luminaria bags honoring “Little Mamma Harris.” 
Angle, Angel, Anelg, Anleg……..I could care less. 
(And given the illustration, maybe somehow the illustrators actually meant those geometric things.)
She was loved.

When the going gets though, the though get going.

Some people sing with the voices of angels.  Some people run long distances quickly.  Some people coach athletic teams to win, season after season.  Me, I see typos.  As several of my previous Wordless Wednesday posts attest, many letters are being written on objects that do not move while perfectly good letter-writing paper goes unused.  Thank goodness Mrs. Bowen, my sixth grade teacher, gave us students the hint that “stationary” has an “a” in its last three letters to remind us of an “anchor,” something that remains still.  “Stationery,” on the other hand, is used for writing letters. 

My nickname at Healthy Kids has been “The Big Green Pen” for many years now.  Because I use a green felt-tip pen when I edit letters, and because I am, to put it mildly, generous with the green ink, the nickname is permanent and has become my identity on Twitter (@biggreenpen) and among my proofreading/copyediting clients. 

There are a few of us at the office who enjoy language, and appreciate language used with precision and care.  Therefore, when I see something egregious (like the recent “Flordia”), I send out a quick email with a “Big Green Pen Challenge.”  When my coworker, Niki Pocock, participated in the most recent “Big Green Pen Challenge,” she included in her response a link to a blog by Bob Gabordi, Executive Editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, in which  Bob discusses why answering his phone is always an adventure.  As part of his blog, when he refers to a caller who questioned whether the Democrat still utilizes proofreaders, he wrote:

Losing those people huddled in the back proofreading pages was part of the price we paid for technology. These days, newspaper pages go straight from the newsroom’s computers to metal plates that go on the press. Fewer eyes are looking for typos and minor grammar flaws.

Between my initial reading (on Friday) of Bob’s blog and logging on to http://www.tallahassee.com/ this morning, two typos jumped off the page (first case) and screen (second case).  It was time to e-mail Bob.

In my e-mail, I expressed my hope that there can be some happy medium between those non-existent “back of the room” proofreaders and “a journalistic organization resigning itself to an attitude of “we’ll catch what we can, but errors happen.” 

I pointed out the on-line lead for the well-done “print exclusive” article about the fiscal difficulties faced by the LeMoyne Center for the Visual Arts.  The text stated:

The recession has been particularly though on the
LeMoyne Center for the Visual Arts, a Tallahassee
nonprofit that’s been around for 47 years.

I also pointed out that the header to a very informative article in yesterday’s Democrat, which described how to prepare for the sport of triathlon, was titled this way:

Break in new gear as part of pre-race preperation. 
Arguably, neither of these errors did any damage.  The recession is still hitting Lemoyne; athletes still need to break in their gear to get ready for triathlons. 
I once proofread a friend’s resume.  I’m pretty sure the friend’s career might have gone a whole different direction if the friend’s original representation of her “Master’s in Public Administration” had not had its “L” in “Public” replaced before distribution. 
For examples of typos that have done more than annoy, visit Eye for Ink’s Typo of the Month page.  You can even subscribe to receive a new “particularly embarrassing or expensive” typo every month (if you can stand it!). 
When my new smartphone started anticipating my words for me, so that, for example, I could start typing “let’s get lu….” and the phone would pop up with the options of “lunch” or “lucky,” I started tuning in to the types of technology that have become an expectation of my 10- and 13- year old children.  There is very little thinking involved; your message can be composed and sent in a flash. 
But getting “lunch” and getting “lucky” are different.  I imagine there are many people out there I might want to have lunch with, but only one I plan to get lucky with!
In the final paragraph of my email to Bob, I said, “However, if we parents do manage to get our kids to read the newspaper (one can always hope) or if a teacher requires students to read an article in the newspaper for a class-related assignment, I think it is important that the writers/publishers have made every effort to show that they care about the “small considerations” of spelling and grammar in addition to the “big considerations” of what they have to say.”
Bob responded within two hours of my original e-mail.  His response e-mail, in which he assured me that typos “drive me utterly insane” (yay! a kindred spirit), he also pointed out that the “online editing process is different … than the print process.”  He discussed the “nature of writing and editing so quickly for the 24-7 news cycle” and commented that, “such errors have always been a problem for newspapers.”  Bob said that, “Newspapers have long been called the first draft of history ……. Now, with the Web, perhaps print is the second draft.  But in either case, we have never faced more intense deadline pressure than now and I would not be surprised if our typo-error rate is not higher than in previous generations.” 
In closing, Bob wrote, “there is anything but a casual attitude or reaction to such errors in our newsroom.  If I gave that impression, it is a false one.” 
I really appreciate the e-mail exchange I shared with Bob, and the articulate, explanatory nature of his response.
Writing, proofreading, and editing have always been a big part of my life.  Sometimes it has been professionally compensated; other times it has been on behalf of a cause that I love.  When I left the Holy Comforter book club tonight, thinking about next month’s book, Half the Sky, it occurred to me that quibbling over “it’s/its, heel/heal, peek/peak, and other grammatical no-no’s,” while important to preserving the integrity of the written word, is a true luxury compared to the life and death struggles the women featured in the book face from the moment they are born. 
To tell the story of the women featured in “Half the Sky,” though, and other stories meant to inform, convince, and reassure, requires attention to language and detail.  It is that attention to detail and drive to be accurate that I seek to keep alive by protecting the way in which language is used. 
Maybe I’ll “get lucky” and this blog won’t have any errors.  Anyone want to “get lunch” and calmly discuss?

Wordless Wednesday

@biggreenpen is seeing RED again:
True, it’s “citizen journalism,” but it’s still important to know your correspondence materials apart from your objects that stay in one place!
And, since it’s more important to respect the lives lost during the Nashville flooding than it is to quibble about spelling, I won’t make you all guess about what the error is (like I usually do).  Here’s a picture of the shop referenced in the article, as the flood waters encroach:
Here are a couple of ways to help Nashvillians cope with this disaster:
Text REDCROSS to “90999” to give $10
Visit the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee to donate or get information
You can remain stationary on your couch and drop friends a note on stationery letting them know you helped!