How to deal with pushy, misguided reviewers

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In my last post, I described what to do with document reviewers who say too little. But what about those who say too much?

Here’s a comment from last week’s post:

Josh, what is your advice for responding to the person who is asked to “review for accuracy only” and sends back an article completely rewritten in jargon, passive voice and ponderously worded key messages? I need to learn a more tactful way to deal with these sources who try don’t seem to see the difference between a university paper and an intranet story aimed at highlighting employees.

— Nancy

How to get useful reviews — and deal with unuseful ones

Nancy, I feel your pain. Let’s call your problem reviewer “Pushy,” since I think that describes the attitude you’re dealing with.

Based on your comment, I get the impression that Pushy — and potentially other similar reviewers — is not getting the message about what you’re looking for.

I’ve written about the reviewers’ memo that should go out with every request for a review, including a personal note that explains the purpose of your document, the audience, and what you’re looking for from that reviewer. You said you told Pushy to “review for accuracy only,” but clearly Pushy doesn’t understand — or chooses not to try to understand — what that means. While the reviewers’ memo is a bit of extra work, in this case I think the extra work could pay off, because it’s clear from your note that Pushy is a continuing problem.

But let’s assume that Pushy still isn’t getting the message and has sent you the article, ponderously rewritten. What should you do?

First, take a deep breath and remember the writer’s creed with respect to reviewers:

The purpose of a review is to show you where the problems are in your document, not to explain how to rewrite it.

Unless Pushy is your boss or in some sort of editorial position that has power over what you do, there is not a requirement to make the recommended edits. You asked for an accuracy review. Look through the comments and see if there are any cases where they indicate that your original article was inaccurate and fix those. Ignore the rest of the rewrite. This takes effort, but once you’ve freed yourself from the necessity to take the obfuscatory rewrites seriously, it’s work that’s less emotional.

Training problem reviewers

The solution I just described will deal with the document, but not with Pushy’s ongoing problem. So, how do you train Pushy to give more useful reviews?

Here are some ideas for you:

  • After the document is done, send Pushy a note. First explain the useful parts of the review and what you did about them, then mention the problem with the rest. “Thanks for pointing out that I’d gotten the order of the steps wrong, and forgotten to tell people what to do in case of error messages. That suggestion was extremely helpful, as were several of your other notes about accuracy issues. You suggested quite a lot of rewrites that I was unable to use, since we need to use different, more direct language in these intranet stories than in the university papers you typically deal with.” (Note the emotionally flat language — there’s no point in antagonizing someone to the point where they will no longer listen.)
  • Take Pushy to lunch. Invite a member of the business department who teaches writing along. Have a casual discussion about the differences in writing styles for different audiences and applications.
  • Give him a copy of “Writing Without Bullshit” with a note that says, “I just read this . . . I thought you’d find it interesting.”

In fact, just for you, Nancy, I make this special offer. Email me and tell me your reviewer’s name and address. I’ll send them a signed copy of the book. All I ask is that you tell me what happens next.

For the rest of you: if you’ve got a writing problem, send it to Ask Dr. Wobs. If it seems interesting, I’ll answer it and send you a signed copy of Writing Without Bullshit.

One response to “How to deal with pushy, misguided reviewers

  1. I am in a discussion group on facebook – mostly populated by professors in the humanities. They ALL need your book. I cringe to think what/how they teach in their classes. Reading their writing (obfuscations…) is mind-numbing. I would like to see clear writing valued in all contexts where ideas are exchanged, not just business. Would be nice to see your book make headway in those circles as well.

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