Chapter 9: Feedback in the Writing Process
- Describe feedback as part of the writing process.
- Compare and contrast indirect and direct feedback.
- Understand internal and external feedback.
- Discuss diverse forms of feedback.
Just as you know that religion and politics are two subjects that often provoke emotional responses, you also recognize that once you are aware of someone’s viewpoint you can choose to refrain from discussing certain topics, or may change the way you address them. The awareness of bias and preference, combined with the ability to adapt the message before it is sent, increases the probability of reception and successful communication. Up until now we have focused on knowing the audience’s expectation and the assignment directions, as well as effective strategies for writing and production. Now, to complete the communication process, to close the writing process, we need to gather and evaluate feedback.
You may receive feedback from peers, colleagues, editors, or supervisors, but actual feedback from the intended audience can be rare. Imagine that you work in the marketing department of an engineering company and have written an article describing a new kind of water pump that operates with little maintenance and less energy consumption than previous models. Your company has also developed an advertising campaign introducing this new pump to the market and has added it to their online sales menu. Once your article has been reviewed and posted, it may be accessed online by a reader in another country who is currently researching water pumps that fall within your product range. That reader will see a banner ad displayed across the header of the Web page, with the name of your company prominently displayed in the reader’s native language, even if your article is in English. Ads of this nature are called contextually relevant ads. An example is Google’s Feedback Ad function, which incorporates the content of the site and any related search data to provide information to potential customers. If the reader found your article through the German version of Google, Google.de, the ad will display the Adwords, or text in an advertisement, in German.
As the author, you may never receive direct feedback on your article, but you may receive significant indirect feedback. Google can report the “hits” and links to your Web site, and your company’s information technology department can tell you about the hits on your Web site from Germany, where they originated, and whether the visitor initiated a sales order for the pump. If the sale was left incomplete, they will know when the basket or order was abandoned or became inactive in the purchase process. If the sale was successful, your sales department can provide feedback in the form of overall sales as well as information on specific customers. This in turn allows you an opportunity for postsales communication and additional feedback.
The communication process depends on a series of components that are always present. If you remove one or more, the process disintegrates. You need a source and a receiver, even if those roles alternate and blur. You need a message and a channel, or multiples of each in divergent ratios of signal strength and clarity. You also need context and environment, including both the psychological expectations of the interaction as well as the physical aspects present. Interference is also part of any communication process. Because interference—internal or external—is always present, as a skilled business writer, you have learned how to understand and anticipate it so that you can get your message across to your audience.
The final step in the communication process is feedback. It contributes to the transactional relationship in communication, and serves as part of the cycling and recycling of information, content, negotiations, relationships, and meaning between the source and receiver. Because feedback is so valuable to a business writer, you will welcome it and use strategies to overcome any interfering factors that may compromise reception and limit feedback.
Feedback is defined as a receiver’s response to a source, and can come in many forms. From the change in the cursor arrow as you pass over a link as a response to the reader’s indication, via the mouse, touch screen, or similar input device, as a nonverbal response, to one spoken out loud during the course of a conversation, feedback is always present, even if we fail to capture or attend to the information as it is displayed. Let’s examine several diverse types of feedback.
If you have worked in an office you may have heard of the grapevine, and may already be aware that it often carries whines instead of wine. The grapevine is the unofficial, informal communication network within an organization, and is often characterized by rumor, gossip, and innuendo. The grapevine often involves information that is indirect, speculative, and not immediately verifiable. That makes it less than reliable, but understandably attractive and interesting to many.
In the same way, indirect feedback is a response that does not directly come from the receiver or source. The receiver may receive the message, and may become the source of the response, but they may not communicate that response directly to you, the author. Your ability to track who accesses your Web page, what they read, and how long their visit lasts can be a source of feedback that serves to guide your writing. You may also receive comments, e-mails, or information from individuals within your organization about what customers have told them; this is another source of indirect feedback. The fact that the information is not communicated directly may limit its use or reliability, but it does have value. All forms of feedback have some measure of value.
You post an article about your company’s new water pump and when you come back to it an hour later there are 162 comments. As you scroll through the comments you find that ten potential customers are interested in learning more, while the rest debate the specifications and technical abilities of the pump. This direct response to your writing is another form of feedback.
Direct feedback is a response that comes from the receiver. Direct feedback can be both verbal and nonverbal, and it may involve signs, symbols, words, or sounds that are unclear or difficult to understand. You may send an e-mail to a customer who inquired about your water pump, offering to send a printed brochure and have a local sales representative call to evaluate how suitable your pump would be for the customer’s particular application. In order to do so, you will need the customer’s mailing address, physical location, and phone number. If the customer replies simply with “Thanks!”—no address, no phone number—how do you interpret this direct feedback? Communication is dynamic and complex, and it is no easy task to understand or predict. One aspect of the process, however, is predictable: feedback is always part of the communication process.
Just as nonverbal gestures do not appear independent of the context in which the communication interaction occurs, and often overlap, recycle, and repeat across the interaction, the ability to identify clear and direct feedback can be a significant challenge. In face-to-face communication, yawns and frequent glances at the clock may serve as a clear signal (direct feedback) for lack of interest, but direct feedback for the writer is often less obvious. It is a rare moment when the article you wrote is read in your presence and direct feedback is immediately available. Often feedback comes to the author long after the article is published.
We usually think of feedback as something that can only come from others, but in the case of internal feedback, we can get it from ourselves. Internal feedback is generated by the source in response to the message created by that same source. You, as the author, will be key to the internal feedback process. This may involve reviewing your document before you send it or post it, but it also may involve evaluation from within your organization.
On the surface, it may appear that internal feedback cannot come from anyone other than the author, but that would be inaccurate. If we go back to the communication process and revisit the definitions of source and receiver, we can clearly see how each role is not defined by just one person or personality, but instead within the transactional nature of communication by function. The source creates and the receiver receives. Once the communication interaction is initiated, the roles often alternate, as in the case of an e-mail or text message “conversation” where two people take turns writing.
When you write a document for a target audience—for example, a group of farmers who will use the pumps your company produces to move water from source to crop—you will write with them in mind as the target receiver. Until they receive the message, the review process is internal to your organization, and feedback is from individuals and departments other than the intended receiver.
You may have your company’s engineering department confirm the technical specifications of the information you incorporated into the document, or have the sales department confirm a previous customer’s address. In each case, you as the author are receiving internal feedback about content you produced, and in some ways, each department is contributing to the message prior to delivery.
Internal feedback starts with you. Your review of what you write is critical. You are the first and last line of responsibility for your writing. As the author, it is your responsibility to insure your content is
When an author considers whether the writing in a document is correct, it is important to interpret correctness broadly. The writing needs to be appropriate for the context of audience’s expectations and assignment directions. Some writing may be technically correct, even polished, and still be incorrect for the audience or the assignment. Attention to what you know about your reading audience (e.g., their reading levels and educational background) can help address the degree to which what you have written is correct for its designated audience and purpose.
Correctness also involves accuracy: questions concerning true, false, and somewhere in between. A skilled business writer verifies all sources for accuracy and sleeps well knowing that no critic can say his or her writing is inaccurate. If you allow less than factual information into your writing, you open the door to accusations of false information that could be interpreted as a fraudulent act with legal ramifications. Keep notes on where and when you accessed Web sites, where you found the information you cite or include, and be prepared to back up your statements with a review of your sources.
Writing correctly also includes providing current, up-to-date information. Most business documents place an emphasis on the time-sensitivity of the information. It doesn’t make sense to rely on sales figures from two years ago when you can use sales figures from last year. Neither does citing old articles, outdated materials, and sources that may or may not apply to the given discussion. Information that is not current can and does serve useful purposes, but often requires qualification on why it is relevant, with particular attention to a current context.
Business writing also needs to be clear, otherwise it will fail in its purpose to inform or persuade readers. Unclear writing can lead to misunderstandings that consume time and effort to undo. An old saying in military communications is “Whatever can be misunderstood, will be misunderstood.” To give yourself valuable internal feedback about the clarity of your document, try to pretend you know nothing more about the subject than your least informed reader does. Can you follow the information provided? Are your points supported?
In the business environment, time is money, and bloated writing wastes time. The advice from the best-selling style guide by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White to “omit needless words” is always worth bearing in mind.
Finally, a skilled business writer understands he or she does not stand alone. Ethical consideration of the words you write, what they represent, and their possible consequences are part of the responsibility of a business writer. The writer offers information to a reading audience and if their credibility is lost, future interactions are far less likely to occur. Customer relationship management requires consideration of the context of the interaction, and all communication occurs with the context of community, whether that relationship is readily apparent or not. Brand management reinforces the associations and a relationship with the product or services that would be negatively compromised should the article, and by association, author and company, be found less than truthful. Advertising may promote features, but false advertising can and does lead to litigation. The writer represents a business or organization, but also represents a family and a community. For a family or community to function, there has to be a sense of trust amid the interdependence.
How do you know what you wrote was read and understood? Essentially, how do you know communication interaction has occurred? Writing, reading, and action based on the exchange of symbolic information is a reflection of the communication process. Assessment of the feedback from the receiver is part of a writer’s responsibility. Increasingly Web-based documents allow for interaction and enhancement of feedback, but you will still be producing documents that may exist as hard copies. Your documents may travel to places you don’t expect and cannot predict. Feedback comes in many forms and in this part of our discussion we focus on answering that essential question, assessing interaction, and gathering information from it. External feedback involves a response from the receiver. Receivers, in turn, become a source of information themselves. Attention to the channel they use (how they communicate feedback), as well as nonverbal aspects like time (when they send it), can serve you on this and future documents.
Hard Copy Documents and External Feedback
We’ll start this discussion with traditional, stand-alone hard copy documents in mind before we discuss electronic documents, including Web-based publications. Your business or organization may communicate in written forms across time zones and languages via electronic communication, but some documents are still produced on paper. Offline technologies like a copy machine or a printer are still the tools you will be using as a normal course of business.
Letters are a common way of introducing information to clients and customers, and you may be tasked to produce a document that is printed and distributed via “snail mail,” or the traditional post mail services. Snail mail is a term that reflects the time delay associated with the physical production, packaging, and delivery of a document. Legal documents are still largely in hard copy print form. So too are documents that address the needs of customers and clients that do not, or prefer not to, access information electronically.
Age is one characteristic of an audience that may be tempting to focus on when considering who may need to receive a letter in hard copy form, but you may be surprised about this. In a 2009 study of U.S. Internet use, the Pew Research Center (Horrigan, 2009) found that between 2008 and 2009, broadband Internet use by senior citizens increased from 20 percent to 30 percent, and broadband use by baby boomers (people born 1945–1963) increased from 50 percent to 61 percent.
Socioeconomic status is a better characteristic to focus on when considering hard copy documents. Lack of access to a computer and the Internet is a reality for most of the world’s population. It’s often stated that half of the world’s population will never make a phone call in their lifetime, and even though the references for the claims are widespread and diverse, the idea that there are people without access to a phone is striking for many Westerners. While cell phones are increasingly allowing poor and rural populations to skip the investment in landline networks and wireless Internet is a leapfrog technology that changes everything, cell phones and computers are still prohibitively expensive for many.
Let’s say you work for a major bank on the West Coast of the United States. You have been assigned to write a letter offering a refinance option to a select, previously screened audience composed of individuals who share several common characteristics: high-wage earners with exceptional credit scores. How will you best get the attention of this audience? If you sent an e-mail it might get deleted as spam, or unwanted e-mail that often lacks credibility and may even be dangerous. The audience is small and you have a budget for hard copy production of documents that includes a line item for mailing costs. If the potential customer receives the letter from your department delivered by an overnight courier like FedEx, they may be more likely to receive your message.
In 2005, Wells Fargo Bank did exactly that. They mailed a letter of introduction outlining an opportunity to refinance at no cost to the consumer, targeting a group identified as high profit and low risk. The channels selected—print-based documents on letterhead with the mode of delivery sure to get attention—were designed to prompt a response. The letter introduced the program, highlighted the features, and discussed why the customers were among a group of individuals to whom this offer was being extended (Diaz, 2005).
In the letter, the bank specifically solicited a customer response, a form of feedback, via e-mail and/or phone to establish dialogue. One could measure feedback in terms of response rate; in terms of verification of data on income, debt outstanding on loans, and current home appraisal values; and in terms of channel and how customers chose to respond. All these forms of feedback have value to the author.
Hard copy documents can be a challenge when it comes to feedback, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible to involve them in the feedback process. It’s important to remember that even in the late 1990s, most business documents were print-based. From sales reports to product development reports, they were printed, copied, bound, and distributed, all at considerable cost.
If one purpose of your letter is to persuade the client or customer to reply by e-mail or phone, one way to assess feedback is the response rate, or the number of replies in relation to the number of letters sent. If your report on a new product is prepared for internal use and is targeted to a specific division within your company, their questions in relation to the document may serve as feedback. If your memo produces more questions than the one it was intended to address in terms of policy, the negative feedback may highlight the need for revision. In each case, hard copy documents are often assessed through oral and written feedback.
External Feedback in a Virtual Environment
Rather than focus on the dust on top of documents once produced, perhaps read, and sometimes forgotten, let’s examine document feedback from the interactive world that gathers no dust. One challenge when the Web was young involved the accurate assessment of audience. Why is that relevant to a business writer? Because you produce content for a specific audience with a specific purpose, and the degree to which it is successful has some relation to its value. Imagine that you produced a pilot television program with all the best characters, excellent dialogue, and big name stars portraying the characters, only to see the pilot flop. If you had all the right elements in a program, how could it fail? It failed to attract an audience. Television often uses ratings, or measurements of the estimated number of viewers, to measure success. Nielsen is the leading market research company associated with television ratings and online content. Programs that get past a pilot or past a first season do so because they have good ratings and are ranked above other competing programs. All programs compete with each other within a time slot or across a genre. Those that are highly ranked—those that receive the largest number of viewers—can command higher budgets, and often receive more advertising dollars. Those programs that reach few people are often canceled and replaced with other programs that have great characters, solid writing, and hopeful stars as the cycle continues.
Business writers experience a process of competition, ratings, feedback, and renewal within the world of online publishing. Business writers want their content to be read. Just as companies developed ways to measure the number of viewers of a given television program, which led to rankings that influenced which programs survived and prospered and which were canceled, the Web has a system of keeping track of what gets read and by whom. Perhaps you’ve heard of hits, as in how many hits a Web site receives, but have you stopped to consider what hits represent within our discussion of feedback?
First, let’s examine what a hit is. When a browser, like Internet Explorer or Firefox, receives a file from a Web server, it is considered a hit. Your document may be kept on our company’s Web server, or a computer dedicated to serving the online requests for information via the Internet. The Web server receives a request from the user and sends the files associated with the page; every Web page contains several files including graphics, images, and text. Each file request and receipt between server and browser counts as a hit, regardless of how many files each page contains. So let’s say you created an online sales catalog with twenty images per page, twenty boxed text descriptions, and all the files for indicating color, size, and quantity. Your document could have quite a few hits with just one page request and only one viewer.
Does a large number of hits on your document mean that it was successful? Not necessarily. Hits or page views have largely been discredited as a reliable measure of a document’s effectiveness, popularity, or audience size. In fact, the word “hits” is sometimes humorously referred to as being the acronym for how idiots track success.
Page views are a count of how many times a Web page is viewed, irrespective of the number of files it contains. Each time a user or reader views the page counts as one page view.
Another way to see whether a document has been read online is to present part of the article with a “reveal full article” button after a couple of paragraphs. If someone wants to read the entire article, the button needs to be clicked in order to display the remainder of the content. Because this feature can be annoying for readers, many content providers also display a “turn off reveal full article” button to provide an alternative; Yahoo! News is an example of a site that gives readers this option.
Jon Kleinberg’s HITS (hyperlink-induced topic search) algorithm has become a popular and more effective way to rate Web pages (Kleinberg, 1998). HITS ranks documents by the links within the document, presuming that a good document is one that incorporates and references, providing links to, other Web documents while also being frequently cited by other documents. Hubs, or documents with many links, are related to authority pages, or frequently cited documents. This relationship of hubs and authority is mutually reinforcing, and if you can imagine a Web universe of one hundred pages, the one with the most links and which is most frequently referred to wins.
As a business writer you will naturally want to incorporate authoritative sources and relevant content, but you will also want to attract and engage your audience, positioning your document as hub and authority within that universe. Feedback in the form of links and references may be one way to assess your online document.
With the introduction of online media, the speed of this feedback loop has been greatly increased. Public relations announcements, product reviews, and performance data of your organization are often made available internally or externally via electronic communication. If you see a factual error in an article released internally, within minutes you may be able to respond with an e-mail and a file attachment with a document that corrects the data. In the same way, if the document is released externally, you can expect that feedback from outside your organization will be quick. Audience members may debate your description of the water pump, or openly question its effectiveness in relation to its specifications; they may even post positive comments. Customer comments, like letters to the editor, can be a valuable source of feedback.
Customer reviews and similar forms of user-generated content are increasingly common across the Internet. Written communication is often chosen as the preferred format; from tweets to blogs and commentary pages, to threaded, theme-based forums, person-to-person exchange is increasingly common. Still, as a business writer, you will note that even with the explosion of opinion content, the tendency for online writers to cite a Web page with a link can and does promote interaction.
It may sound strange to ask this question, but is all communication interaction good? Let’s examine examples of interaction and feedback and see if we can arrive at an answer.
You may have heard that one angry customer can influence several future customers, but negative customer reviews in the online information age can make a disproportionate impact in a relatively short time. While the online environment can be both fast and effective in terms of distribution and immediate feedback, it can also be quite ineffective, depending on the context. “Putting ads in front of Facebook users is like hanging out at a party and interrupting conversations to hawk merchandise,” according to Newsweek journalist Daniel Lyons. Relationships between users, sometimes called social graphs, are a reflection of the dynamic process of communication, and they hold value, but translating that value into sales can be a significant challenge.
Overall, as we have seen, your goal as a business writer is to meet the audience and employer’s expectations in a clear and concise way. Getting your content to a hub position, and including authoritative references, is a great way to make your content more relevant to your readers. Trying to facilitate endless discussions may be engaging and generate feedback, but may not translate into success. Facebook serves as a reminder that you want to provide solid content and attend to the feedback. People who use Google already have something in mind when they perform a search, and if your content provides what readers are looking for, you may see your page views and effectiveness increase.
Interviews provide an author with the opportunity to ask questions of, and receive responses from, audience members. Since interviews take considerable time and cannot easily be scaled up to address large numbers of readers, they are most often conducted with a small, limited audience. An interview involves an interviewer, and interviewee, and a series of questions. It can be an employment interview, or an informational interview in preparation of document production, but in this case we’re looking for feedback. As a business writer, you may choose to schedule time with a supervisor to ask a couple of questions about how the document you produced could be improved. You may also schedule time with the client or potential customer and try to learn more. You may interact across a wide range of channels, from face-to-face to an e-mail exchange, and learn more about how your document was received. Take care not to interrupt the interviewee, even if there is a long pause, as some of the best information comes up when people feel the need to fill the silence. Be patient and understanding, and thank them for taking the time to participate in the interview. Relationships are built over time and the relationship you build through a customer interview, for example, may have a positive impact on your next writing project.
At some point, you may have answered your phone to find a stranger on the other end asking you to take part in a survey for a polling organization like Gallup, Pew, or Roper. You may have also received a consumer survey in the mail, with a paper form to fill out and return in a postage-paid envelope. Online surveys are also becoming increasingly popular. For example, SurveyMonkey.com is an online survey tool that allows people to respond to a set of questions and provide responses. This type of reader feedback can be valuable, particularly if some of the questions are open-ended. Closed questions require a simple yes or no to respond, making them easier to tabulate as “votes,” but open-ended questions give respondents complete freedom to write their thoughts. As such, they promote the expression of new and creative ideas and can lead to valuable insights for you, the writer.
Surveys can take place in person, as we discussed in an interview format, and this format is common when taking a census. For example, the U.S. government employs people for a short time to go door to door for a census count of everyone. Your organization may lack comparable resources and may choose to mail out surveys on paper with postage-paid response envelopes or may reduce the cost and increase speed by asking respondents to complete the survey online.
Focus groups involve a representative sample of individuals, brought together to represent a larger group or audience. If you know your target audience, and the range of characteristics they represent, you would look for participants who can represent more than one of those characteristics. As we’ve discussed in an interview setting, the interaction involves a question-and-answer format, but may also introduce other ways to facilitate interaction. If your company is looking to launch a new product, you may introduce that product to this select audience to see how they react. As a business writer, what they say and express may help you in writing your promotional materials. In terms of feedback, you may assemble a group of individuals who use your product or service, and then ask them a series of questions in a group setting. The responses may have bearing on your current and future documents.
Normally we’d think of focus groups in a physical setting, but again modern technology has allowed for innovative adaptations. Forums, live Webcasts, and other virtual gatherings allow groups to come together across time and distance to discuss specific topics. A Web camera, a microphone, and an Internet connection are all it takes. There are a number of software programs and online platforms for bringing individuals together. Anticipate that focus groups will increasingly gather via computer-mediated technologies in the future as the costs of bringing people together for a traditional meeting increase.
Feedback may be indirect or direct, internal or external, and may be mediated electronically in many different ways.
- Design a market survey that asks your friends at least three questions that have to do with their attitudes, preferences, or choices. Prepare and present your results, noting the number of respondents, and any characteristics that you requested or can offer, like age or level of education, for example.
- How does the online world affect the process of feedback on written documents? Does it improve feedback, or lead to self-censorship? Discuss your thoughts with classmates.
- In your opinion, are traditional print publications still viable with daily, weekly, or monthly publication cycles? Why or why not?
- Research online survey programs and review two competitors. Compare the features and the apparent ease of use. Which would you recommend and why? Report your results and compare with classmates.
Diaz de Leon, M. (2005, September 1). Personal communication.
Horrigan, J. B. (2009, June 17). Home broadband adoption 2009. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1254/home-broadband-adoption-2009.
Kleinberg, J. M. (1998). Authoritative sources in a hyperlinked environment. In Proceedings of the ninth annual ACM-SIAM symposium on discrete algorithms (pp. 668–677). Philadelphia, PA: Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. Retrieved from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=315045.
Lyons, D. (2008, October 20). Facebook’s roar becomes a meow. Newsweek, E22.
Strunk, W., Jr., & White, E. B. (1979). The elements of style (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Macmillian.