How to deal with feedback / comments on your writing without smashing your computer up

The Problem

My job involves a lot of writing and one of the most frustrating tasks I encounter is making changes to pieces of writing based upon feedback / comments from other people (much as I appreciate their advice of course!). I think there are a few reasons for this, and I also think they can be overcome with a few tricks.

Problem 1. Feedback is like a really crappy to do list

As the ‘Getting Things Done®’ author David Allen often reminds us, even our own to do lists are often vague and don’t represent real actions i.e. you read the ‘to do’ item, and you still don’t know what … to do. For example, suppose you have a project to retile the bathroom, and on your to do list is just ‘Bathroom’. You read this and, since no actual action comes to mind, you feel naturally averse to it and you procrastinate — repeat daily until you’re left wondering how you’ve done nothing on the bathroom in a month. The ‘next action’ might actually have been to call a builder to get a quote, or perhaps to research online some DIY stores which have the kinds of tiles you need. If you actually had ‘Errand: go to DIY store and get tiles’ on your to do list instead of ‘Bathroom’ you would have been much more likely to actually do it.

Take that, boss. That’ll teach you.

Now, when we send our work off to someone for comments, what we are effectively doing is asking them to write a to do list for us to get the write up to the acceptable standard required. If we often can’t write good to do lists for ourselves, what do we expect when we let someone else write one for us (when they aren’t going to be the ones who actually have to do the things)? In my experience even the most thoughtful reviewer of my work will only have given concrete action steps such as ‘Add a caption to this figure’ in a small proportion of their comments, and generally only for the simplest ones. More often you will get things like ‘This section feels out of place here’, or ‘I think this could flow better’ and you’re left thinking ‘OK, but what do I actually need to do about that?’ or perhaps just inarticulate frustration (see image above). Unfortunately, I am exactly the same when I provide reviews for other people — coming up with concrete actions is time consuming and difficult — it’s the writer’s job, and this isn’t going to change.

Problem 2. Writing is complex

Even worse is that the work that a comment requires is often not confined to the portion of the write up in which the comment is written — a piece of writing is a large, complex and interwoven thing with different sections dependent upon each other, and so often comments require either a grand restructuring or at least have ramifications for multiple sections, which can in itself be overwhelming.

Problem 3. Comment functions make for crappy to do apps

Adding another level of frustration, commenting functions seem to have been set up for the needs of the commenter, with little thought given to the person who has to enact them i.e. they lack the features of to do list programs (e.g. being able to tag, sort and organise them). There are often also an overwhelming number of comments, and, in their natural format, you cannot see them on a single screen (they’re spread out over many pages), and so your brain struggles to process them as a whole, and it’s all too easy to go into panic mode about how much work there is to do and what the nature / structure of that work is.

The Solution

OK, so, how do we fix this? The main way I am going to propose draws quite heavily on the ‘next action’ concept in Getting Things Done®, and is not far from how you would sort out an overflowing, messy to do list.

Step 1. Do the small stuff

The first thing is to go through all the comments and do any that, by lucky happenstance, happen to be both written in such a way that when you read it, your brain immediately knows what to do (like ‘add a caption to this graph’) and will take less than, say, five minutes. Just do these now, ignoring all the other comments. If you reaaally don’t wanna do them right now, fine, just move to the next step (we’ll come back to these in step 3), but the reason we do this is because the sheer number of comments can often be overwhelming in and of itself, and so getting all these small ones out of the way not only provides small wins for your motivation, but gives you less comments to sort in the next step.

Step 2. Extract the scary ones

The next thing to do is to extract all the comments which are either structural (i.e. refer to large structural changes needed in the write up), or relate to more than one section. We have to do this because these comments will tend to interact, contradict or be redundant with each other, so they need to be processed and integrated as a whole. I suggest you take these to whatever tool you like to use for brainstorming, and effectively use these as ‘notes’ and completely rewrite your own set of structural ‘actions’ based upon these. Now, be brave and delete the original comments from the write up. If you leave them your brain will still think there’s something to do there, and keep worrying (‘We’re on top of it brain, chill’). If you find comments during this step that relate to a different portion of the write up, but only to that portion (e.g. the commenter thought of a point later on but couldn’t be bothered to go to the right place to make it), delete it from where it is, and move it to the right place (i.e. remake it as a new comment), but don’t include it in these extracted structural comments.

Nearly there … peace is coming.

Step 3. Deal with what’s left

What you should now have remaining are small and medium sized tasks which were not phrased very helpfully by the commenter, such that an obvious action did not occur to you (i.e. weren’t dealt with in step 1 — ps. if you didn’t want to do step 1, just deal with this here). What you now need to do is ‘reply’ to each of these comments within the document (you’re not actually replying to the commenter, don’t worry, this is just for your purposes) with the ‘next action’ required to actually make the change that the commenter wants to happen (or at least, progress towards that goal — it may require multiple action steps with the first being e.g. ‘Read paper Y’). If you really want to know a lot more depth about next actions I have to recommend that you read the Getting Things Done® book (I recommend this wholeheartedly either way), but the test for whether you’ve devised a good next action, is that when you read it, your brain will immediately feel ready to jump into action (it knows what to DO), and you will feel no ‘resistance’ (actually you still might feel some if it’s an undesirable task e.g. speaking to an unpleasant boss, but you won’t get that same mental block as you do when you have a poorly defined action). Remember that ‘email to ask further clarification from X on this’ is a perfectly reasonable action if you really don’t know what they want (Often they will have forgotten, and then you don’t have to do it, mwahaha!). Store these up and email them all at once.

Finally, depending on how many of these actions you have, you may want to extract them to an external to do list, where you can sort them by length of time, difficulty, will power required etc. The test for whether you should extract them is simply whether you are feeling resistance / overwhelmed by them. If you think about dealing with all of them and your brain is just like ‘Nope, facebook’, extract them to a program designed to deal with such things (I recommend Dynalist, as I do for almost all things). You might be surprised at the power of re-representing them with some structure. For these third types of comments, I recommend leaving the original comments in place as you might forget what section certain actions relate to otherwise.

OK, that’s all. Enjoy your peaceful mind.