So you’ve received written material from a marketing agency marked “For Review.” It might be a blog post, an email, a newsletter, a brochure, a technical article… Whatever.
And they’re asking for your notes.
Are you getting that sinking feeling in your stomach, like it’s high school English class and the teacher just asked for your on-the-spot analysis of a sonnet?
While you won’t be receiving any sonnets from us (most likely), writing notes can still feel like an arduous task. That’s often because you know something doesn’t work, but you can’t put your finger on why.
This can lead to a lengthy back and forth about a piece of writing, taking time from your budget that you would have preferred to spend elsewhere.
Something that can help? Learning how to give productive writing notes.
Let’s Break Down Writing Notes
We’re here to lead you out of the note-giving labyrinth!
When you break down a piece of writing into its basic components, you start to see how it all fits together. And then you can consider each dimension as a checkbox: Yes? No? A little? If no, how does it need to change?
Suddenly, instead of feeling a tornado of “This is bad, I hate it, but I also feel bad telling them that,” you’ve isolated the elements that don’t work for you and your business.
Most importantly, when we understand the specifics of what really isn’t working, it’s a lot faster and easier for us to improve it!
Let’s go through these elements one by one.
This is what’s “below” the words, the main idea and information in the whole piece or a particular section. Questions that hit on substance:
- Did we get the basic facts right? If not, what corrections do we need to make?
- Are we capturing the main idea of the piece (email, newsletter, blog post…)?
- Are we interpreting something you told us incorrectly? Help us understand better!
For example, if you wanted a blog post to address depression in teens, and you read a draft that’s explaining common mental health issues in teens, the copywriter missed the core substance of the post.
Perhaps some lines got crossed. Or maybe you look back and realize you weren’t that specific about the topic.
It happens! And it can be fixed. A note specifically calling out this misalignment can help refocus the blog post and make it about the topic you really desire.
Structure – big or small, smooth or awkward – can change the whole feel of a piece. This encompasses macro-structure, like the format of a piece, the order of ideas in the piece, and how it’s subdivided into sections. It also includes micro-structure, like the order of words in one sentence.
- Does a certain section feel too long? Too short?
- Did you suddenly realize that this needs to be a pamphlet and not an email?
- Do the section headers seem mislabeled?
- Is a sentence confusing? Disjointed?
In this case, highlight the sections that need reworking or rephrasing. If a copywriter knows that they got the substance right, but they just need to restructure, that can save substantial time in editing.
Be aware that if there are major structural changes, a shift to an entirely different format (as in the pamphlet example above), or additional design elements needed, these things will likely require substantial time to complete.
Sometimes a single word throws off a whole sentence for the reader. Or your business might prefer to use certain vocabulary.
- You may need to clarify that directive for a copywriter (i.e. “Say ‘clients’ instead of ‘patients.’”).
- You can also ask us to add those word preferences to your brand’s style guide.
Different writing pieces call for different tones, like the contrast between a children’s book and a New Yorker editorial.
If you’re a law office that deals with hard-hitting criminal cases, you probably need a straightforward, buttoned-up tone. A therapist’s email newsletter will likely want to sound inviting, nurturing, and empathetic.
Plus, different pieces for the same business may need tone shifts.
Here are some examples of tonal notes:
- “Can we lighten this up since it’s a holiday post?”
- “This is too conversational. I want it to read like we’re serious experts, so clients find us trustworthy.”
- “Is it possible to make this sound less formal?
Voice is similar to tone, but it gets a little more specific. Who is the speaker issuing words in this piece of writing? And who is the listener?
Do you want your posts to read like a therapist talking to a potential client? “I know that you might feel affected by the winter weather…”
An architectural expert explaining different types of columns to someone enthused about columns? “The main distinction between pillars is their ornate decoration…”
A legal firm offering advice to stressed folks? “We’re here to help guide you through the application process.”
If you clarify the voice, the copywriter will know to go through and change all those “I’s” to “we’s”, or to make it sound more third-person informative.
WHAT’S GOING RIGHT
Last but not least, not all notes have to be about correcting what’s wrong! It really helps to receive notes on what we’re getting right.
Then we can 1) keep doing that, and 2) build on it to develop creative writing and strategies that reflect your preferences.
Overall Notes on Giving Notes
There are many effective ways to deliver these notes.
You could write an email summary, especially if it’s about something broad like a tone shift. Google Doc comments work well when citing specific sections that need to change.
Since Google Doc saves version histories, you can also go in and make the edits yourself – the copywriter can always revert back to an old version if you change your mind.
Some clients work out systems with color-coded text representing different people’s notes.
However you do it, striving to communicate clearly helps everything flow. Also, both sides should allow for some forgiveness during note collaborations – because sometimes technology just hiccups.
And please: never, ever feel bad about giving us notes! Sure, gracious and polite notes always are appreciated, but any notes are constructive.
Ultimately, anything that an agency writes for you is just that – for you. If it doesn’t work for your business, the writing isn’t serving its purpose. A collaborative approach is the best way to get it there.