Managing reviews of your drafts is a pervasive problem. At my talk to PR professionals this weekend, only one person out of an audience of 150 said her review process worked well. Today, I’ll describe a key element of a disciplined process for soliciting, collecting, and combining reviews: the memo you send to reviewers asking for feedback.
The reviewers’ memo: an illustrative example
If you want to collect useful reviews without going nuts, here’s the type of email you should send to reviewers. (The numbers in brackets aren’t part of the memo — they refer to the notes below.)
From: E.C. Writer
To: Carl Hype, Marketing Manager 
Re: PLEASE REVIEW the attached Retirement Products brochure by Wednesday, November 1. 
Attachment: Retirement Products Brochure v4 EW. 
Your marketing reviews are always helpful in getting just the right tone in our brochures. The Retirement Products Brochure is nearly done — this draft is 2000 words. Please focus on the effectiveness of the marketing language in this draft. For me to able to use your feedback, I need to get it by end of day on next Wednesday, November 1. 
Here’s some information that will help you with the review:
- Purpose: After reading this brochure, professionals age 35 to 55 will understand our retirement products, so they will contact our account manager and think of us as a trustworthy financial partner. 
- Draft status: This is the final review before the brochure goes to copyediting. 
- Known problems: I’m concerned that the language is too dry and not persuasive enough. Also, I think this is about 25% too long. 
- Reviewers: I’ve sent this to Joe in Legal, Sally in Product Management, Carl in Marketing, Jens in Design, and Susan, who’s written similar brochures before. 
- How to provide feedback: Please use the track changes feature in Microsoft Word; suggest changes in wording and add comments where you have questions and suggestions. Reply to this email and attach your marked up file — add your initials to the end of the filename. You can also include general comments about the document in your email reply. 
- Deadline: For me to incorporate reviews, I need them back by end of day November 1. If you cannot make this deadline, please let me know as soon as possible. 
I’ll address all your comments and suggestions in the final draft. Thanks again for your help.
The elements of reviewers’ memo and how they work
Why do a memo like this? Because if you just fling a document at people and say “review this,” you’ll get a random, incomplete, and late set of comments — the same disorganized review process that two-thirds of business writers complain about.
I’ve carefully designed the elements in this simple little email to maximize the chances of a successful review, including writing it in easy-to-scan bullets. Here’s what these elements are and why they work:
- A separate email for each person. Yes, this takes more time, but not as much time as cleaning up the mess you get by sending a mass email to all the reviewers. Mass emails are a lot easier to ignore or misinterpret.
- Subject line that includes the content and the deadline. Your subject line should include a clear request to review, the name of the product, and the deadline. This makes it easy to spot, especially with “PLEASE REVIEW” in caps at the front. If you use the same subject line on all the review requests for this document, an email system like Gmail will collect them all into one thread.
- Attachment. Use a filename that makes the document easy to identify and differentiate from other documents, and includes your initials at the end. Turn track changes on just before you save the file. And try not to forget the attachment. (To avoid emailing files around, some people include links to documents in systems like Dropbox or Google Docs.)
- Personal note. This is the only part of the email that’s personalized to the recipient — the rest is the same in each email. It’s where you tell this reviewer what you want them to focus on, specifically — so you don’t get marketing suggestions from Legal. A few words about how this reviewer is helpful can go a long way towards generating useful feedback.
- Purpose, also known as target sentence. You did the ROAM analysis before writing this document, right? Here’s where you describe the results of that analysis in one sentence, so that your reviewers know what you’re trying to accomplish.
- Draft status. By sharing what stage the document is at, you make sure you get the right level of edits — big structural suggestions at the beginning of the process, or small line-edits near the end.
- Known problems. Reveal your worries. Your reviewers can help fix them. Concealing your problems only makes it more likely they’ll persist until later stages, when they’re harder to fix.
- Reviewers. Tell each reviewers who else is reviewing. That way the editor can focus on words, for example, and leave the marketing strategy to the marketing reviewer.
- Technical instructions. These simple instructions can save you hours of hassle. They ensure that you don’t get redline scrawl on paper or somebody just changing words without tracking those changes. Reviewers’ initials on filenames will help you keep the separate review drafts straight.
- The deadline (again). Yes, this is the third place in the email that mentions the deadline. That way no one can claim they didn’t notice it.
This email can’t fix your review culture — but you can
No email alone can make people do good reviews on time. Only your corporate culture can do that. Here are a few suggestions on how to improve that.
- Get your management to address the importance of reviews. A note from the boss about the productivity benefits of meeting review deadlines can help. So can a little talk with that guy who’s always a week late, or the woman whose reviews are always “This is just fine as it is, no changes needed.”
- Keep the reviewer list short. Five reviews are manageable. Ten aren’t. Pick a few key reviewers and make sure they do their jobs.
- Sandbag the deadlines — very carefully. This is a bullshit thing to do, so don’t do it . . . unless it’s the only thing that works. You could tell the person who is always two days late that the deadline is two days earlier than it actually is. Of course, he’ll probably catch on and undermine the effectiveness of your manipulation, which is why you probably shouldn’t do this.
- Talk to people. If a reviewer is particularly important or particularly problematic, sit down (or call them) and tell them how valuable their feedback is and what you’re looking for. When you get a useless review from someone, make a note and follow up well before the next document review request you send them.
- Say “thank you.” A quick response with something like “this is just the language I needed to make this sing” will make your reviewer feel good — and inclined to help you next time around. Thanking people who criticize your work is hard, but it’s a great habit to develop.
- Remember that it’s still your document. Reviews are suggestions. You don’t need to take them, but you shouldn’t ignore them. Read each suggestion and decide how best to handle it. That’s what writers do.
I’d love to hear your own strategies — let me know what works and doesn’t as you do deal with reviewers.