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Getting reviewers' comments on writing at work, for most staff, feels like a trip to the woodshed. It shouldn't. In an office, we're not in school anymore. Those who review our writing are not our teachers grading us. Writing in the workplace is a team activity. The goal is to produce the most useful documents--of all kinds--possible. So, please slaughter my writing, please!

Quick story and a quick take-away, today.

Last week I was working for a couple of days with a large group of people who work in an office that writes reports. Publishing these reports is the riskiest thing this office does. Their reports will be scrutinized by Congress, by federal agencies, by national media, by special-interest groups, as well as interested citizens in the U.S.A. and, often, around the world. A lot of money is at stake, not to mention issues of safety and even keeping the world safe for democracy. (I don't exaggerate here.)

We were discussing Reviewing Others' Writing for two days. I realized very quickly that those who write draft sections of the reports judge their level of success or failure in writing by the number (and virulence) of the review comments they receive--often from more than a dozen internal stakeholders. The fewer comments received, the more successful the draft...or so staff believe.

But this belief is most likely a hold-over from college-writing classes. The fewer "corrections" the writing teacher made on the assignment, the higher the grade, and vice versa.

This behavior, in my opinion, is a travesty in college-writing classes (but that's another post). But it's extremely counter-productive at work, where there are usually many cooks in the kitchen coming, justifiably, from many different angles (angels???).

All hands on deck must be able to offer "notes" on whatever piece of writing is circulating through the review process. The trick is arbitrating among all the opinions and preferences.

Once at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), I asked a writing-training class how you best become a good writer at GAO. The first response was, "Accept all track changes." Funny, but something about that response rings too true.

A staff member writes a draft, probably with a small team's help, and that draft moves UP the chain of command. Obviously, the comments from the person highest in the organizational pecking order will prevail. 

Too many of us see "writing" as mainly a matter of personal preference.

It's not. 

Arbitrating among all the review comments provided from all internal stakeholders requires objective criteria for sorting out the cacophony of minds/voices and focusing on what's actually most valuable: whatever helps move the writing closer to its goal--publication.

While all review comments are food for thought, only those that are objectively useful should count in the end.

So what are those objective criteria for workplace writing that seek to remove personal preference from the equation?

[Read my textbook, Mastering Workplace Writing. Read my e-book, Mindful Writing at Work, for a thorough discussion. Or invite to work with your group.]

The short answer is SERVE THE READER--the person(s) who must read and validate or invalidate your writing. Know the techniques for generating USEFUL CONTENT, for building HELPFUL ORGANIZATION, for DESIGNING A SUCCESSFUL READING EXPERIENCE FOR YOUR READER, for ensuring A HIGHLY READABLE STYLE. (+ ESSENTIAL GRAPHICS)

These are matters of science by now, not personal preference.

Get all members of the small writing/research team and those on the wider office team on the same page with these objective criteria for writing and reviewing. Work on the writing using these concepts and the associated special vocabulary. Set up helpful processes (internal controls) to make sure writing starts as early as possible and grows stronger throughout the entire writing/reviewing process.

You owe it to your writers to give it all you've got when you review...even if that means slaughtering a draft. It's all for the common good. Anything that demonstrably moves the writing forward it good.

Let's all foster this collegial attitude of writing review. If necessary, please slaughter my writing, please!