How to Offer Meaningful Feedback to Writers in your Organization

As part of an upcoming telesummit I’m hosting the week of July 25th called Unlocking the Secrets to Clear Writing, I recently interviewed Kimberly Joki, community manager at Grammarly.com.

Grammarly.com

Grammarly.com's software follows a model from which managers can learn.

 Grammarly.com is a software program designed to help writers improve their English grammar. And as we talked about how the software program worked, I realized how much managers could learn from it.

Essentially, Grammarly.com follows loosely along Bloom’s taxonomy of cognition to help users study grammar and retain what they have learned. Kim does a great job explaining how that works. I’d like to recap that part of our discussion and show how it could apply to managers who are trying to develop their staff to become better writers.

The first step in Grammarly.com’s system is for a user to upload a piece of writing into the system and ask the software to run a grammar check. Kim explains that rather than correct the grammar for them, the software then yields a set of error cards highlighting and explaining any mistakes in the document.

Think for a minute about your own process. When an employee gives you a document, do you “fix” it and send it out the door? Do you make the corrections in track changes and send it back to them (knowing that they’ll hit the accept all button.) Or do you actually take the time to highlight the changes, meet with your staff, and explain what you’re changing and why?

In terms of the Bloom scale, the error card in Grammarly.com (or your personal feedback) offers further instruction, which hopefully yields understanding and offers the opportunity for application.

Or the software programs allow the opportunity for the student to engage in discussion with other users, which hopefully yields understanding and offers the opportunity for application.

In the same way, managers should be providing real feedback and dialogue with their employees through collaborative writing sessions, monthly or quarterly reviews, and peer writing groups.

Next in the Bloom scale is analysis. Kim explains that Grammarly.com offers that through the 150 points of grammar, style, and usage that it checks for. Teachers are trained to break writing assignments into specific goals and often use something called rubrics to measure outcomes and success.

Managers who want to train their staff need likewise to be trained in the component parts of writing from organization, argument, modes of discourse, all the way down to the finer distinctions between grammar, style, and mechanics. And they need to offer feedback analytically if they want their writers to progress.

In that process, writers themselves grow into offering feedback as well, which cements the learning. Users on Grammarly.com have the opportunity to do that on the discussion board, where they can offer answers to other users who have questions.

Managers can provide similar opportunities by hosting brown bag lunch sessions or establishing bilateral peer groups. Any given staff member should have two writing partners, one who is more advanced and can offer instruction, and one who is less developed and offer the chance for the staff member to flex his or her teaching muscle.

Finally, the Bloom scale includes evaluation. The Grammarly.com discussion board frequently sees debate about grammar questions, such as the recent debacle that was the Oxford comma. Kim explains how that kind of dialogue keeps people returning to the site long after they’ve become proficient, because so many of us recognize how important clear written communication is to our global culture.

What techniques have you found effective in training your staff? And what tools did you use to study grammar?

To hear our conversation and more like it, please register for the telesummit, Unlocking the Secrets to Clear Writing. The telesummit will air the week of July 25th and includes 10 writing specialists. We hope to help you think more deeply about the process and practice of writing clearly. Participation is free, and you can register just by entering your name and email address when you visit http://corporatewritingpro.com/ulreg.html

 

Comments

  1. Wow!

    This is pretty awesome. I’ve never taken the time to think how a manager can strategically install a plan to help strengthen the writing skills of their team. The technique you describe here sounds almost flawless.

    If there is one thing that I’ve learned about writing it is that not all personalities click. What would you suggest if a manager ran into personality conflicts in one of their groups?

    • Thanks Jermaine–In working with writers over the years, I have noticed three distinct types that I affectionately call Professors, Dropouts, and Students. And I have developed strategies for working with each.
      Professors tend to be verbose, but they’re too abstract, long-winded, and don’t ultimately say what they mean. Managers should let them talk, but then show them what they have actually written, and show them the discrepancy between what they said and what they wrote.
      Dropouts say things like “but I did it the way you said,” or “just tell me how you want me to do it.” So do that–give them a list of changes to make and send them on their way. They are not interested in personal development or growth. (Here in the south, we say–don’t let the screen door hit you in the bottom on your way out!)
      Students are genuinely interested in their own growth as writers. They will take to heart whatever advice you can give. And they are absolutely delightful to work with. Nurture them like the precious treasures they are.
      Hope that helps, and thanks for asking. It’s always good to speak with you Jermaine, best wishes–Michelle

  2. Kate Fall says:

    I came here through LinkedIn, and after reading your blog post, I have to wonder what authority is being used. When the software marks something “wrong,” where does the trainee writer look it up? Little, Brown? The idea would be to teach the writer to use the resources available, I would think. I don’t see how the software does that. When I trained editors overseas, I always explained to them both why their mistakes were mistakes and where to find the correct answer for future reference. Your blog post doesn’t address the second part of that equation, although it might be in the software itself.

    • Kate–you make a good point. It is in the software itself. Grammarly has developed its own handbook and the error cards that pop up have the explanation on it. My point in the blog post is that managers who are responsible for developing staff need themselves to be better trained as writing instructors. After working with business professionals who are very good at what they do but who don’t have a lot of writing training, I would say that professionals in a wide range of disciplines need to return to their grammar handbooks and reeducate themselves so that they can train others.

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