Using Feedback to Succeed More Quickly as a Writer

7 minute read

After you submit your copy to the client, it’s time for the next step in the writing process — receiving and using feedback to improve your work, and your writing overall.

Feedback can be helpful or hurtful, something you look forward to or something you dread. But more importantly, it can help you improve your skills and make you more successful as a copywriter.

Two experienced copywriters got together recently to discuss writing feedback and all its ramifications with Digital Copyriter members: Heather Robson (Digital Copywriter’s managing editor) and Nick Usborne (a copywriter with over 40 years of experience). When Nick became a digital copywriting pioneer more than 20 years ago, he already had two decades of copywriting experience under his belt. They recorded their entire conversation, and you can listen to it here.

Heather led off by pointing out there are three ways to get better at writing:

  1. Read more and read broadly.

  2. Write more.

  3. Get feedback, particularly from competent writers or people who are part of the audience you’re trying to reach.

Nick admitted he struggles with number three.

“I’m not very good at getting feedback,” he said. “I’m an insecure writer, but it really does depend on who is offering the feedback.”

Practice Self-Awareness

When Nick gets feedback from someone he doesn’t know, or someone who’s not experienced at copywriting, he gets a little defensive.

He also recognizes that he can’t judge the feedback objectively when he feels that way, so he tries to stay self-aware and recognize when those defensive feelings crop up.

He also explained that high-quality feedback doesn’t always come from other writers. “Some of the people who’ve given me the best advice weren’t writers themselves,” he said, citing an art director he worked closely with at the beginning of his career. “He was a great observer of writing. I always listened.

“I know someone can look at my writing and see a part ready to be improved,” Nick continued. “I love it when someone I respect helps me out that way, but if I think someone isn’t worthy to critique my copy, I go into defensive mode, and it’s not really helpful to me or anyone else.”

Heather agreed, telling us about a copy editor for a client she worked with who was good at critiquing her work and pointing out what could be stronger. Still, she sometimes found herself fuming at his criticism.

“Eventually, though, I’d realize if he’s asking those questions, I must not be clear about what I’m trying to say, and I guess I should go back and review it,” she said.

Then there’s the possibility the person is simply wrong, Nick pointed out. Some clients critique the copy just because they think they should, or as a show of power or authority. “We need to find the balance. Sometimes you shouldn’t listen, and [should] push back and explain why,” he said.

When you get into the habit of really examining your own copy to see where you can punch holes in it, it becomes easier to recognize when a criticism is well founded.

Love the Craft of Writing

“If you love writing, you want to be the best writer you can be, whether it’s fiction, sales copy, web content, or whatever,” Nick told us. “That opens the door to allowing others to help you.”

He told Heather about “a beautiful lesson” he learned from the art director he’d worked with early in his career.

“He explained we get the brief from the client and we’re going to deliver on the expectations. Then we’re going to do a little bit more so we exceed their expectations. Then we’ll do some final tweaks and edits that no one else will even notice, and we’re going to do that because we love this stuff.

“He taught me to love and respect the craft and to want it to be really good,” Nick said. “He also taught me that writing is part of the design.” Nick went on to explain that the words work within the design and it’s important to consider how things look as well as how they read… and that in an ideal situation you’d work closely and collaboratively with the designer on any given project.

Delivery Matters

Some feedback focuses on the writing, and some focuses on the writer’s character. How do you handle feedback from someone who makes it personal?

Nick described dreading feedback from a former client who brought in a personal element. He felt there was a passive-aggressive element to it, and it made him anxious.

At the same time, he respects honest feedback and doesn’t expect the client to “wrap it up politely or be politically correct. If you’ve got something to say, then say it. I’m a big boy.”

Client Likes and Dislikes

For Nick, some of the hardest feedback to deal with is when a client says he likes or doesn’t like something in the copy.

Nick doesn’t care what the client likes, and he’s told clients, “‘I’m not writing it for you. I’m writing it for your audience. Give me feedback on how you think this will work for the audience we’re writing for. I want to know if it will achieve the outcome we’re looking for with the audience.’

“There’s a difference between what the client wants to say and what the prospect needs to hear,” Nick reminded us. You need to present details, but maybe at the beginning of the sales copy, you need to simplify.

The best feedback is aligned to the outcomes you and the client want to achieve.

If you’re having a hard time receiving feedback, ask yourself whether you’re reacting to the feedback because you’re reacting to the person giving it or because you don’t feel it’s good feedback.

Pushing Back

A lot of writers think it’s their job to take and apply the feedback, but sometimes you need to push back.

The next question Heather asked Nick was about how a writer, especially a newer writer, can develop the confidence to calmly make their case when they think it’s important to push back.

If you’re in a pushback situation, it can feel as though you and the client are antagonists, but it’s important to remember you’re not.

Nick recommends letting it sit overnight. He explained, “If I find myself getting defensive, I try not to respond that day, because that gives me time to figure out if I’m right or they’re right. Even if they handled it badly, do they still have a point?

“As a writer, you need to take responsibility for this part of the relationship,” he advised. “Your client is not a professional writer or ‘feedbacker.’ And when you do find a client who gives good feedback, you need to cherish that.”

While pushing back against feedback is scary, Heather added, “I always try to remember that giving feedback is scary, too.” She suggested thinking of the client as your audience and asking yourself, What are they going through? Where is this feedback coming from?

When Heather decides pushback is appropriate, she tells the client, “I have a different take on that. Would you like to hear it?”

If they don’t, then “I’m not interested in battling with them,” she told us.

The situation is easier with long-standing clients, but with newer clients Nick asks permission, saying, “Do you mind if I give you some pushback on that?” Then he explains why he feels pushback is necessary.

He tries to set up his response so the client gets “a bit of a win.”

If the client wants to continue in their own direction even after Heather pushes back, she goes along with it. Afterward, though, she’s careful to summarize their discussion in writing. “I want the documentation so if they come back later and complain it didn’t perform the way they wanted it to, I can say, ‘I know, I told you that,’” she explained.

When he works with large companies, Nick sometimes gets documents returned with comments by several different people. “The inevitable result is, it’s absolutely worthless.”

“We’re not in 100 percent control when we’re working with clients,” Heather added, “so you have to accept that and do your best.”

If you’re working with a client and always find yourself uncomfortable at the feedback stage, find a better client, Nick advised.

Good Clients Make You Better

“Good clients make you better continuously,” Heather said.

Good feedback opens your eyes and helps you become aware of things throughout your career. A former copy chief pushed Heather to challenge her instinct toward diplomacy. He taught her that “it’s okay to take a position and defend it.”

“To this day,” she explained, “I ask myself if I’m taking a position I believe in and leaning into it or if I’m trying to hedge.”

Nick expanded on the long-lasting benefits good clients can provide.

“You can make your entire career on one great piece of work with a great client. One hundred good pieces of work will be invisible to the industry.”

If he were starting out as a freelancer today, Nick said, he would work harder to find the very best clients, those with whom he could develop strong relationships. Additionally, he pointed out, “You’ve got to love the company and the product or service to be at your best.”

You can write professional copy for any company, but your best work will always come when you work with the ones you love.

When you love the company, the product or service, and have a strong relationship with the person you’re dealing with, you’re more receptive to getting feedback. You’re more likely to get good and helpful feedback you can apply to that job, and then also apply it to other clients and other work in the future.

When you find the best clients and products or services you love, it resonates through your entire career.

Solicit Feedback

If a writer is early in their career and not yet getting feedback from clients, where can they find it?

Heather likes to find good readers — those who read with a high level of comprehension — who will tell her where her copy starts to lag, where it’s not making a strong case or the logic falls apart, or where it starts to lose them.

“That won’t necessarily help you hone your craft from the marketing side, but it will help with pacing, flow, and ease of reading, which are all important to holding on to your audience,” she said.

Nick reiterated the need to take responsibility for the feedback process as a writer, and noted that “it’s very empowering.”

It’s not always comfortable, though, so you need to be willing to feel some discomfort.

To get the most out of feedback, remember that…

  • the best feedback comes from clients you have a strong relationship with when you’re self-aware.

  • you’ll do better work when you love your craft, the company, and the product or service.

  • it can be uncomfortable.

  • when you take charge of the feedback process, you’ll feel empowered.

  • it’s okay to push back, but know when to stop.

  • better clients make you a better writer.

Finding people who can give you good feedback is a fast way to improve your skills. That makes it well worth the effort.