If you want (your team) to write better, start with your Google Docs comments

When I worked as an editor-in-chief at QuickBooks, I managed a team of two deputy editors and around a dozen writers. I was usually the last pair of eyes on an article, and whenever I edited one, I would keep a second document open. It had the very exciting title, “First draft standards.” 

If I noticed a prominent, or frequent, revision, I would obviously edit it (in suggesting mode) and comment on it in the doc. Like every other editor. But then… 

I’d copy and paste the comment into first draft standards, or I would write up what I just revised. In case you’re curious, here are the subheads of the first draft standards document:

1. Formatting

2. Break long paragraphs of text into shorter ones

3. Position your headline to be what people are searching for

4. Draw the reader in with the introduction

6. Be diligent and keep your numbered lists in order

5. Internal hyperlinking to our other articles

6. Write stuff that keeps your own attention (And don’t repeat list items)

7. Research

8. Spell check

I really did have two 6s in the document, though I made a joke out of the mistake. If I were my own boss, I’d make myself a first draft standards document with both those items at the top. 

(In case you’re curious, in the real doc, the first 6 was “Write for your audience,” and the second 6 was, “Paraphrasing vs. direct quotes.” The idea for the doc was great, but we called it a living document, which is the editor’s way of saying they’re practically never going to edit it.)

The point is this: Your Google Docs comments are a gold mine for how to improve as a writer or, if you’re an editor, how your writing team can improve. I’ve learned a ton as a writer and editor from the comments in my Google Docs. 

The only issue is, once a comment gets resolved, it’s really difficult to dig up. I’m a writer too, so I know for a fact that some writers will accepted suggested changes (with the occasional “Thanks!”) barely a millisecond after reading it. That means, the writer has to rely on one impression a passing comment amongst a dozen makes on their memory. 

That’s why I decided to start copying and pasting comments and suggested changes into a separate doc, the first draft standards, so that the writers, editors, and I wouldn’t lose the changes we were suggesting. At the very least, we wouldn’t have to repeat ourselves.

I was talking with my friend Rob, and we’re considering working on a better interface where you can see all your Google Docs comments and maybe even search through them. Right now, I’m thinking that ephemeral comments actually get in the way of improving as a writer, or providing feedback to your freelance writing team. Making them more accessible could help. 

You could also use these comments to, very easily, spin up your own voice and tone docs and brand guidelines. Documents like this. Or this. (John Moore Williams collected a lot of cool ones here!)

If you’re a writer driven to improve your craft (and make your boss or clients happier by following their comments and feedback more closely, so you don’t repeat the same mistakes!), or you’re an editor who wants to make it easier for your writing team to step up, please let me know if this idea sounds interesting.

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