Your stomach sinks as you imagine having to listen to a complete destruction of text into which you (or your technology writer) put so much time, effort, and creative thought.
But knowing several strategies for handling feedback can make this situation both positive and constructive for moving the project forward.
Strategy #1. What is the problem, really?
Go ahead and have that conversation with the subject expert to identify what is really "wrong" with the document. Perhaps it truly is a large problem -- a wrong focus, inaccurate interpretation of input, or a change of direction that requires a rewrite. Or perhaps the reviewer has just minor comments, but feels more comfortable explaining them in a conversation instead of marking the text. You won't know how big the "problem" is until you ask.
Then you can apply the next strategies.
Strategy #2. Is it a matter of taste?
As the author H.G. Wells dryly noted, "No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft." Especially if the comments are vague and directed more to the text's presentation than content, ask the reviewer, "Is this actually an error or your preference?"
Strategy #3: Has something changed?
Maybe the only problem with the draft is that it just doesn't reflect the latest product information or changes in marketing strategy. In this case, it's easy to identify how the draft can be revised to reflect the new information.
Caution: Some technical experts use drafts of white papers or press releases as the way to work through their fuzzy thinking about messages, target marketing, competitive positioning, or other factors. This behavior becomes evident when the reviewer insists on completing the revisions directly, then misses deadlines because the new draft "isn't quite ready yet." Or, the reviewer burns through the writer's time as if it was an endless resource, producing multiple new drafts that never seem to get closer to approvable text.
Actions you can take in this case:
Put the project on hold until the reviewer can provide clear, firm input.
- Realize that the subject expert really wants to be the writer and accept whatever he or she produces, making only minor copy changes if needed.
- Appeal to a higher power: Ask the person's manager or a company executive to move the project back to your control.
Strategy #4: Is the right writer assigned to the project?
Sometimes it's not the subject expert, it's the writer. Even when the writer is you (sorry about that) it is important to recognize that a given writer may not always be the best match for every project. Lack of technical knowledge about the subject matter, a writing style that doesn't fit the message, or just a personality mismatch between the copywriter and the subject expert may indicate it's best to assign the project to someone else.
Strategy #5: Do you need to take a stand or be a referee?
Especially when a draft goes through multiple rounds of review, with the comments getting more confusing and frustrating, it may be time to stop trying to make everyone happy. Instead, assert your authority as the content marketing expert and make the changes that you think best for the document. Or, if multiple reviewers are providing conflicting comments, decide whose comments to accept or ask them to reach agreement and provide a single, clear set of changes.
Which strategies have you used to handle problem drafts and cranky reviewers?