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Reviewing Objectively – Can it be Done?

November 23, 2010

Reviewing without a benchmark is like measuring sand dunes

How do you give helpful, constructive feedback about someone’s writing?  It requires objectivity which is difficult to achieve when it comes to writing style.  One person prefers short, sharp statements while another is given to longer sentences and a more academic style.  Then there is the vexed question of what is ‘correct’?  What does the house style guide say about how to punctuate bullets or use capital letters?  Is there a house style guide?  Can anyone find it?

At Freshword, we believe that a measure of consistency is extremely important both in order to achieve a professional standard and also so that reviewers can do an efficient job.  I am sure you have witnessed the time-wasting caused by a phrase that has been altered several times and then back again during the review process.

We therefore strongly recommend an easy to use writers’ guide with a champion whose job is to keep it up to date.  It should have an alphabetical list of detailed questions, such as typical abbreviations and how they should be used, as well as more general guidance on tone of voice. We can help you to put one together surprisingly quickly.

We also advocate a system that allocates measurable factors to the aspects of writing that affect readability.  To give you a flavour, Terry has devised a checklist of measures under headings such as:

  • Content
  • Structure and Sequence
  • Expression and Presentation.

Each of these covers a series of questions, such as ‘does the document have a clearly defined purpose?’ inviting the reviewer to assign a score out of ten.  This system helps the reviewer to do three things.

  • Assign a reasonably objective score to the quality of the document
  • Show the reviewee exactly how they can improve their score next time
  • Compare documents or compare notes with other reviewers.

Working with a system that is carefully tailored to the organisation provides a benchmark for everyone to measure against.  Over time it also helps people at all levels to see the value of meticulous reviewing.

To put it another way, reviewing without such a system is a bit like measuring the height of a sand dune in a high wind.  It is such a subjective process that writers have to learn the preferences of each line manager in order to get by – and then those preferences seem to change.  Managers, for their part,  have no way of assessing their own standards and can appear inconsistent from one member of staff to another.

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