How to provide helpful criticism to your copywriter

Criticism is often viewed as a dirty word — both among writers and among clients.

It’s a word that has such negative connotations around it that most of the business books I’ve read usually add the word “constructive” in front of “criticism” to lessen the negativity. The “constructive” part of “constructive criticism” should be redundant but we need that word to remind us of the real purpose of criticism.

As a copywriter, I’ve put out a ton of content to my clients and I’ve received back my fair share of criticism. Some of it was helpful; some of it was not helpful. So if you hire copywriters (or any other kind of freelancer, I suppose), here are a bunch of tips to help you provide criticism (constructive criticism!!!).

TIP#1. CRITIQUE THE RIGHT THINGS FIRST

When you review content provided by your copywriter, review the content in the following order:

  1. Make sure all of the content is there (i.e., ensure that the scope of the project has been covered).
  2. Make sure it makes sense. (Does the content flow the way you want it to? Is there a component missing from the logic?)
  3. Check for spelling and grammar. (Do this last).

Do your reviews in this order. Whether you have one review or multiple reviews, you should always review the work in this order. (So if you review once, go through the document three times in this order; if you have multiple reviews over a period of days or weeks, use your early reviews to review for completeness and your later reviews to review for spelling and grammar).

Sticking to this order will save you a ton of time! (Also, if you have multiple reviewers, be sure to pass along this information to them so they know what type of review they should be doing). You’ll avoid the surprisingly common problem of correcting spelling and grammar early then discovering just before you publish the final document that a key part of it is missing.

TIP#2. DECIDE — IS IT FIXABLE?

Nearly all documents will need to be reviewed and will probably require SOME revision. Expect it. But how much is too much? When you receive the document from your copywriter and you’ve started reviewing it (for content — see Tip #1) ask yourself how close the document is to what you want.

Is it really close? Is it really far off?

  • If it’s close, great! Keep reviewing and send it back to your copywriter.
  • If it’s really far off, contact your copywriter and talk to them about it. It’s not the distance from your vision that should be the concern; rather, you should figure out (with the copywriter) how much effort is required to get the copy closer to your vision. That is key and your copywriter will have an idea about how much effort is needed.

There have been some occasions when my work started really far off but a couple of revisions later it was totally in line with the client’s vision. There are other times when the work was far off and I knew, based on my experience, that I’d never get it aligned with what they want. In those unfortunate cases, the best thing to do is shake hands and part ways because no one will be happy if the project ever does end.

TIP#3. DON’T BE AFRAID OF GIVING COMPLETE CRITICISM

If you work with a copywriter who can’t handle the negative criticism as well as the positive then find another copywriter. Seriously. Don’t waste your time tip-toeing around to keep that diva happy. Of course, when you do have to give negative criticism, you can be nice about it (and I’ve been very fortunate in that regard — my clients have all been polite and pleasant). So remember that you are talking to a human being. But, with that said, don’t AVOID the negative stuff because you’ll end up paying for copy that you don’t like.

TIP#4. KEEP IT ACTIONABLE

The most helpful criticism I’ve received from my work has been detailed, clear, and something I can act on. The least helpful criticism I’ve received is “this needs work.” Period. No indication of what needs to be done or what parts need to change. When you review your copywriter’s work, ask yourself “how can this review help them improve the document?”

TIP#5. GET GRANULAR

Sometimes you might review a document and notice that the changes are “global” (across the entire document). In that case, it’s okay to put that criticism (perhaps) at the top of the document or in the email you send with the document. I’ve seen this, for example, with a brand name change or with things like “this sales letter is too ‘salesy'” — reviews that apply to the entire document.

But there are times when your critique needs to become more granular, which means you need to make comments and suggestions at the paragraph or sentence level. If you have a critique about a specific paragraph or sentence, put your critique by that specific paragraph or sentence.

TIP#6. BE SPECIFIC

Avoid vague, sweeping generalizations. Make your feedback as clear and specific as possible.

The most helpful criticism is one that goes through a document and indicates where work is needed, along with actionable notes (see tip #4). Highlight a part of the document that doesn’t work for you and talk about why it doesn’t work and, especially, what you think could make it work. (I don’t mean that you have to rewrite it for the copywriter but rather it’s helpful for the copywriter to understand not just that something is wrong but what will make it right). That’s the key to constructive criticism — you help by offering ways to fix the problem areas.

If something isn’t working for you but you’re not sure how to fix it, that’s okay. It happens and you can say so. But for the most part, try to be as specific as you can.

TIP#7. USE THE RIGHT TOOLS

Using the right critique tools can really help the copywriter complete the project faster.

One useful tool that a lot of my clients use is the commenting function in Microsoft Word. It is so useful! You can highlight words and phrases that you want revised. I LOVE getting documents that have comments all the way through and I just charge through those comments like a checklist — enjoying an immense amount of satisfaction when I finally delete the last comment. If you’re not using Microsoft Word or don’t want to learn how to use the commenting function then just type your thoughts but use a different fontcolor so that it shows up. That works great too.

TIP#8. MANAGE MULTIPLE REVIEWERS

My worst copywriting criticism went like this: I sent a document to my client. They reviewed it and sent it back. I made revisions. I’m moments from being done when my client says, “by the way, I sent your document to 3 other people and they just sent back reviews in these three individual documents.”

Hey, I don’t mind multiple reviewers but they almost always have conflicting revision ideas and it inevitably leads to discussions between reviewers that need to be hashed out among stakeholders before we can move forward. I’m not saying that YOU, as the client, need to avoid multiple reviewers or you need to manage it yourself. However, my advice is:

  • Let the copywriter know how many reviewers there will be.
  • Let the copywriter know when they can expect to get those reviews back and what to do if they don’t hear back in that timeframe.
  • Let the copywriter know whose reviews have the final say. (Thus, in a conflict, maybe your review is the one that is the “tie-breaker”).

These seem like small things but they will save HOURS and even DAYS of work and get your project done faster.

TIP#9. STRIKE A BALANCE BETWEEN YOUR EXPERTISE AND THE COPYWRITER’S EXPERTISE

Presumably you hired your copywriter because they are an expert at copywriting. And presumably you are an expert at your particular product or service. Between the two of you, you should be able to come up with pretty good copy. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it?

Well, there’s something else that happens sometimes. There are times when clients pass the copy on to someone else to get feedback. That’s fine except you need to keep that person’s expertise and motivations in mind when they are reviewing. Top copywriter John Carlton has complained in the past that one of his clients passed his sales copy on to their daughter “who is a lit major at college”. The problem with that is: Lit majors have a very different type of expertise than copywriters and most lit majors I know HATE copywriting because it definitely is not literary writing.

Of course you may want to pass the work on to others (especially prospective clients) for their feedback anyway but my point here is to be aware of their level of expertise and their motivations when reviewing and always take those reviews with a grain of salt.

NOW START CRITIQUING!

All copywriting work is a collaboration between you and your copywriter. These 9 tips can help you provide more helpful criticism to your copywriter, which will get your project to completion faster. And, it will be closer to what you envisioned and far more rewarding for everyone involved.

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