Monday, September 28, 2009

Constructive Criticism: Be Specific, Be Kind

The correct use of punctuation and grammar is especially important when distributing marketing materials to prospects and clients. Improper use of punctuation and glaring typos can quickly turn a prospect's interests elsewhere. So I try hard to proofread anything before I send it out and often have a second set of eyes double check.

However, there are still times when something slips through the cracks. Perhaps we meant to type 'an' and instead typed 'and'; it may be we used a superfluous apostrophe. We get so excited about our topic that we type up that blog entry and post it and then we realize we made a typo. It happens to all of us and these occasional slips are not the end of the world, though we may feel they are at the time. But if our material often has they same type of mistakes, we may need to consider what we can do to change that.

As embarrassing as it is to have an error pointed out, I appreciate it when one is kindly brought to my attention so I can correct it and work harder not to allow the same type of mistake in the future. When a mistake is brought to my attention, it helps me stay on my toes and proofread my work with a more critical eye. In my coaching practice, I help other virtual assistants pay attention to the details of their written materials and when it's necessary to bring a mistake to their attention, it's with the goal of helping them present themselves in the best possible light to their prospects and clients.

Recently I posted an article on a local online paper and shared the news with many other virtual assistants (VAs). One of the VAs sent me a message to let me know of typos and grammatical errors she found in a particular paragraph of the article. Her message did not point out any specific errors and she concluded by saying perhaps I needed an assistant to help me proofread.

Since none of us like to have errors pointed out, my first reaction was to get defensive. But if there were errors, I did want to know about them so I could correct them if possible and be more careful in my proofreading in the future. So I pulled up the article so I could find the errors. When I couldn't find any, I asked two other people to review the article and they couldn't find the errors either.

Now I felt defensive and offended. Not only could we not find errors, this person had framed the message in such a way that it felt she was attacking me; not that she was trying to kindly help me. To make it even worse, the subject line of her email to me had a typo. I took a moment to calm down and thought perhaps she saw something we missed and I really did want to know what the errors were so I could fix them. So I replied and let her know how much I appreciate it when mistakes are pointed out so I could correct them. I explained that my husband had proofread the article and couldn't find the errors. I asked if she could give me specifics so I could correct them; otherwise, I stood behind my work. I chose not to point out in my reply that her subject line had a typo.

Unfortunately her reply stated that if I didn't know what the errors were, she didn't have time to go back and find them and point them out to me; that if I didn't see them, I should stand behind my work. This reply really made me upset. If she had been willing to give me specifics when I asked and I felt her motives were because she actually cared about me and my work, I wouldn't have felt so offended and upset.

After typing up a scathing response, instead of sending it, I deleted it. There's no sense in throwing mud around; no good purpose would have been served. Instead, I chose to write this blog post. My purpose in writing this post is to emphasize the importance of being specific and kind when offering constructive criticism.

How can you offer kind and specific criticism? If the roles had been reversed, here's how my message would have read:

Dear Mary (name has been changed),

I saw your article posted on your local online paper about the virtual assistant industry. Congratulations! The article was interesting and it's good to see more people becoming aware of the need for virtual assistants.

As a fellow VA I know you always want your marketing materials to be the best. I did note a typo in paragraph two (you typed 'and' when you meant to type 'an') and a small grammatical error in the third sentence (give specific example). I know how challenging it can be to proofread and catch everything.

Congratulations again on the great article!

Your fellow VA,


What are your thoughts on this? Was I too quick to be offended? How would you have handled this situation?

To every VA out there - Keep up the good work!

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