Why giving better-quality feedback to freelancers means better project quality

It would be fabulous if editorial freelancers always submitted amazing work. But unfortunately this doesn’t always happen. Whether for reasons within the freelancer’s control or not, sometimes an editorial project manager (EPM) will be presented with work that is below the expected standard.

Bad feedback versus balanced feedback

In such situations, it’s easy for the EPM to jump to the idea that they need to send ‘bad feedback’ to the freelancer. However, this isn’t helpful to anybody. Firstly, it risks prompting an adversarial mindset on both sides. Secondly, it makes the ‘badness’ of the feedback the point of the communication instead of the content or the goal of giving the feedback.

So, instead of giving ‘bad feedback’, I like to think in terms of giving ‘balanced feedback’ – in other words, feedback that tries to understand the whole project context and to incorporate the freelancer’s point of view as well as my own.

Why bother giving better-quality feedback to freelancers?

Giving better-quality feedback to freelancers has three principal benefits:

  • For the freelancer: yes, sometimes freelancers are simply underqualified or lackadaisical. However, it’s also true that people have bad days/weeks/months, project issues snowball and tech problems always happen at just the wrong time. While each freelancer is ultimately responsible for the quality of the work they turn in, a bad project doesn’t necessarily mean a bad freelancer. Maintaining an ‘innocent until proven guilty’ assumption is both kinder and more constructive for the freelancer’s future growth.
  • For the project: keeping feedback balanced leaves the door open for honest, collegial discussions about what has gone wrong and, crucially, how to fix it. People who feel that they’re being blamed shut down and withdraw. The alternative is to encourage people to feel that although they made a mistake, their skills and experience are still valued. Then, they are more likely to offer solutions and share crucial details about the chain of events that led to the problem emerging.
  • For the EPM: striving to send balanced feedback forces me to reflect on my own working practices and learn from the situation. It keeps me open-minded and encourages me to practise humble leadership.

How to give balanced feedback to editorial freelancers

The process I follow is one that I’ve been using for many years. It loosely has seven stages.

1 Assess your own work first

When you’ve hired an editorial freelancer to carry out a specific job, it’s natural to expect them to complete that job without major issues. But, to do that, editorial freelancers need good-quality information from their EPM.

Therefore, my first step once I’ve identified a problem with a freelancer’s work is always to examine my own end of the relationship. For example:

  • Did I provide a thorough brief with clear requirements?
  • Did I allow enough time?
  • Was the pay enough for the level of work I expected?
  • Did I thoroughly research the freelancer first to ensure their skills would suit the project?
  • Did I let the freelancer know about any issues or past difficulties in the project so they could take this history into account?
  • Did I give the freelancer access to key stakeholders (e.g. the author) so they could ask necessary questions?
  • Did I truly make myself available to answer the freelancer’s questions – for example, by fostering an environment of psychological safety?

It’s possible that examining these points will reveal that, actually, the freelancer can’t really be blamed for whatever they got wrong. However, assuming it still appears that they are fully or partially at fault, I move on to the next steps.

2 Process and categorise the feedback

An info dump is not helpful feedback. Before sending feedback to a freelancer, I’ll always try to determine broad themes or recurring issues. It can be perfectly valid to send an entire marked-up proof to show a freelancer the issues you’ve identified. However, it’s most helpful if this is accompanied by a covering email that groups the issues and perhaps even provides some commentary on which were the most serious and why.

3 Ask, don’t attack

It’s easy to feel irritated and want someone to blame if you’ve just spent an unplanned extra couple of hours dealing with problems that should have been fixed or reassuring a client who is understandably unhappy about the quality of what they’re seeing. But, before I fire off an accusatory email, I always try to remind myself to stop and think.

What might I not know? What challenges might the freelancer have faced that were not their fault? Refer back to step 1 (assess your own work first) – it’s possible the freelancer will be able to provide a totally new perspective on one of these questions that I haven’t considered.

Also, might the freelancer have been struggling with a serious personal issue? In an ideal world, freelancers will always let EPMs know of any personal circumstances that might affect their ability to discharge a contract well. However, life is messy and this isn’t always possible, so compassion is a good default stance.

With the above in mind, where appropriate, I’ll frame my initial feedback as questions rather than facts or assumptions, on the basis that you never know what you don’t know.

4 Be specific

Related to step 2 (process and categorise), it’s important not to mistake being vague for being nice. Sending feedback (like receiving it) can be a really unpleasant experience, and there can be a natural inclination to skim over the details and waffle around the subject to avoid hurting the freelancer’s feelings.

But ultimately this doesn’t help anybody. Being clear with the freelancer – about the issues you found and why they caused a problem for the project – will enable them to learn and deliver a better service in the future (even if you won’t be a recipient of that service). Perhaps unless an editorial freelancer has shown egregious carelessness (which is very rare – we tend to be a conscientious lot), you owe them the chance to fully understand why they didn’t meet your expectations.

5 Come to an understanding

Ideally, the feedback process will result in you and the editorial freelancer each understanding the other’s perspective. This will vary with the situation, but the point is that you’re not just dispensing your divine wisdom on what the freelancer is doing wrong; you’re also listening in order to build up a full picture. In all likelihood, you’ll learn something to enable you to avoid similar situations in the future. And you’ll also be in a better position to understand how best to fix the problems in this specific project.

6 State what you expect to happen next

If the freelancer made a terrible mess and I don’t want them anywhere near any of my projects in the future, I might just be sending feedback for their information.

However, if I expect the freelancer to carry out remedial work, first I’ll check the contract or agreement to ensure this is covered. Then I’ll try to be precise about what I want the freelancer to do and by when. The more specific I’ve been (see the previous two points), the better equipped the freelancer will be to provide what I need. Remember that, for some reason, the freelancer didn’t understand what you wanted first time around. So, if you don’t change or clarify your instructions, you’re unlikely to get better results this time.

7 Re-evaluate for the future

Finally, when everything has been wrapped up with the freelancer, I always try to set aside a bit of time to take stock of what I’ve learned. How have my perceptions changed since I started the feedback process? Has it revealed any ways I can or should support freelancers better in the future? Has it revealed any holes in my workflows?

The best way to avoid issues is to plan for them. Going through a re-evaluation process can give you invaluable insights to help you run your projects more smoothly in the future.

The triple benefit of giving better-quality feedback to editorial freelancers

When you give balanced feedback to editorial freelancers, you’re doing your best to ensure a win–win–win situation. The project benefits because the atmosphere of honesty and openness makes it easier to comprehensively identify what went wrong and make a plan to fix it. The freelancer benefits because they receive the feedback in a constructive way that enables them to act on it by improving their skills if they choose. And you benefit as an EPM by taking every opportunity to learn from the process and make improvements for the future.

About Hazel Bird

Hazel is an editorial project manager, copyeditor and proofreader who works with businesses, charities, publishers, academics and students to make their projects happen. She was once described as ’superhuman’ and is still wondering whether this is a good thing.

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