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Document Collaboration - A Modern Etiquette Guide

When we talk about written communication at work, I don’t think enough focus is given to what, for me, is the majority of written communication at work: document commenting. While I'll specifically call out doc commenting, these thoughts apply to any shared work space, like ticket writing/filing, or contributing to a shared work board, such as Trello.

These tools are such a critical part of asynchronous, remote working. It’s crucial to be able to work off the same document. However, it’s also often the opportunity to be the biggest jerk. I am fascinate by how often doc comments are passive aggressive, rude, or denigrating. And considering there are often many people looking at a document, it’s interesting how many people are willing to publicly throw that professional shade.

My golden rule of public doc commenting - start by giving the author the benefit of the doubt. It’s always easy to see a different way you would have mapped out the flow or storytelling, but that doesn’t mean your way is correct. Generally a quick once-over of the whole document before commenting does wonders.

Other ways to help you be the best contributor in a document come from asking yourself these questions:

  • What’s your relationship to the creator? Depending on your seniority, it might be OK that your comments are more top-level or based on the impressions conveyed by the slides. That’s what management is paid for, to make sure the message lands well.

  • Where in the process is the creator? An early draft may not be the time for copious grammar or small formatting comments.

  • How useful is my comment? Will it make the document materially better? (This is very much related to your relationship to the creator of the document.)

  • Who’s going to see this comment? Frankly, in a distributed workforce, assume everyone will see it, and let that be your guide for what to write.

  • Might your question be answered in later sections? This comes back to the benefit of the doubt, not assuming they are missing some big idea you think is critical until you are sure they’ve left it out.

What do you do to be effective and harmonious while working on shared communications?

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