5 steps for effective document review

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You’ve slaved away for weeks on an important document. You’ve researched and talked to people. You’ve worked hard to understand your audience, their needs and how they will use your work. You’ve carefully structured the content into sensible chunks and you’ve used plain language techniques as you’ve crafted the text.

But, will the document work? Will it achieve the goals you had in mind?

It’s time for the document review and test phase. Time to find out what other people think of your work. Or perhaps time to send it ‘upstairs’ for sign-off.

Too often authors simply e-mail the document around to colleagues in the office with a message like “I’ve written this. What do you think?” If they don’t hear anything back they assume it’s all OK. But a review process like this rarely provides confidence that the document will communicate effectively. In fact, such a sloppy document review process could be reckless writing. (Our writer training course can reduce costly review churn.)

All communication products should be tested well before release, just like any other product. (Why don’t we test information products?)

So, when you ask people to review a document focus on assessing how well the document will achieve purpose. Try these five steps:

1. Develop thick skin.

People may suggest improvements to your writing (and, by implication, improvements to your thinking). It’s easy to become defensive about the structure and words you have used. Don’t be. If someone finds your message is unclear then you need to improve it.

2. State your purpose clearly; explain your audience.

People can only provide useful review comments when they know what the document is intending to do, and who it is aimed at. When asking for review, explain who the document is for, and how you would like people to respond to your document. Judge the feedback you receive in the light of your purpose and audience.

3. Identify real users.

Representatives of your target audience are the best people to tell you how well your document will work. Anybody else is guessing (although experienced reviewers usually guess well).

4. Prepare document review questions.

Questions helps reviewers engage with the material. For example:

  • Does this document contain information or ideas that are important to you?
  • Can you easily find the information you need?
  • Once you find the information, can you understand it?
  • Does it tell you too much? Does it tell you too little?
  • Is the information correct? Could it be misleading?
  • Does it comply with the law (if relevant) and our internal standards (if they exist)?
  • Do you know what to do now that you have read this?
5. Make feedback easy

Tell people how to get their comments to you. Do you want them to talk to you about the document, email you some ideas, or insert their comments in your text? And tell reviewers when you expect their comments.

You don’t need to act on all the review comments. Exercise judgement – some comments will be helpful, some will not. Use feedback to improve your writing, but don’t be bullied by it. After all, it’s your document, so take ownership of it.

If you would like to prove your document has been written plainly, see PlainLanguagePro.