how should you decide which battles to pick at work?

A reader writes:

I have a question regarding workplace conflicts.

I am currently a junior staff member and much of my job involves writing. The thing is, such work tends to be very subjective, and lots of people claim that they have a good eye for design, taste, or writing. I always have this conflict with this manager (not my direct manager). She tends to have very specific ideas about what writing should be like, for example using sophisticated writing (think Harvard Business Review), while I tend to use casual language (think Buzzfeed).

We had differences over a writing project that happened to involve one of her products. I wrote a long form article and sent it to her just to fact-check. She came back and said that it was too casual, and she wanted it to be more specific and formal.

While I have no issues with filling in content gaps, I was not too keen on using formal tone, as I believe that content should be accessible and reader-friendly, not dry, sterile, and bland. I did not back down, and kept rationalizing with her.

Ultimately, she sent it to our Communications head, who commented that my writing needs to be mellowed down and not sound overly casual. It was short of saying that it needs to be formal. I assume it was for my benefit as well, since such work tends to be subjective, even though there are brand or corporate guidelines to stick to, and there may be some leeway I can use.

I can accept this — to try to hold back on being too casual — but I stand by my principle for writing for the mass audience. I gave it some thought, and have decided to reply that I will tone it down, but I will still try to make my writing more digestible and accessible for the mass audience, including using plain, simple language. I will also maintain that my writing will not be overly formal, lest we bore our audience.

More broadly, how do you decide what battles to pick? What kind of situations warrant escalating, and when will you let things go? In my case, I felt that things would have turned out better had I gone along with the manager’s comments and not voiced my disagreement, but at the same time, by giving an inch I fear that she will take a mile in the future, where she wil dictate my writing style, when it’s quite subjective.

I am curious to understand your thought process on this, and what factors you use to assess what workplace conflicts are worth engaging and dragging out, and which you will let go.

Well, let’s address this specific situation and then talk about those questions more broadly.

Ultimately, it’s your employer’s call what kind of work they want. If managers above you are telling you that they want more formal writing, then that’s their prerogative, even if you feel strongly that they’re wrong. It doesn’t matter that “good writing” is subjective. It’s still their call.

To be clear, a good manager will want to hear that you have a different point of view. A good manager will welcome dissent, take genuine interest in viewpoints other than her own, and truly consider input that’s different from her perspective. But ultimately, she may make a different decision that the one you want her to make, and she has the standing to do that. At that point, you need to decide if you can live reasonably happily with what you’re being told to do, or whether you feel so strongly about it that this isn’t the job for you.

What you can’t do is to continue to argue about it over and over, and you definitely can’t just do it your own way anyway.

At absolute most, you can sometimes say something like, “I feel really strongly about this because of X and Y. Would you be willing to allow me to try it my way on an upcoming low-stakes project to test out how it goes?” But if the answer is no, you can’t just ignore that and continue to do it your own way. This is the nature of having a boss.

Now, let’s talk about your broader questions. The same principles apply: When you disagree with your employer about something, decide how important it is to you, speak up if it’s important, and then decide if you can live with the decision if it’s not one you like.

In deciding whether it makes sense to push back on something, you should take a few factors into account: how much you care about it and how unhappy you’d be if nothing changes, how much standing you have to push back (how senior you are, how much your work is valued, how well positioned you are to have special insight into the topic, how much political capital you’ve accrued and spent on other things, and frankly how much people like you personally), and how receptive the person you’re approaching is to input. For example, if your company plans to change some software that you’re the main user of and it’s going to add significant time to your work, it makes sense to push back. If you’re a summer intern who thinks the company should change its dress code, it doesn’t.

And again, if you do decide to speak up and you don’t get the outcome you wanted, in most cases you can’t keep arguing something over and over. If you do that, at a minimum you’re likely to get a reputation for being a pain in the ass who doesn’t understand how hierarchy works, and they may even decide they’d rather replace you with someone who’s easier to work with.

I think there’s an underlying belief in your letter that it’s okay to keep pushing and pushing if you’re right, but work just doesn’t work that way. There are people above you who are in charge of making decisions, and part of your job is to accept and execute those decisions (again, after voicing your viewpoint if there’s an important difference in perspective). If you disagree strongly enough, you can always leave — but you can’t stick around and just keep telling them they’re wrong and they should do it your way.

(Important caveat: If the issue is very serious — something like unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment, or illegal labor practices — that changes the calculation. You should always default to speaking up in those situations. And in those cases, it will often make sense to amplify the power of your voice by speaking up with others, as a group.)

Here are some related posts that explore different aspects of this:

how to disagree with your boss and keep your job

how to disagree with your boss in a meeting

when should you go over your boss’s head?

can your employer do that? probably, but you can still discuss it

what to do when your employer is breaking the law

{ 476 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. 42

    This is not a battle to pick. The boss and company are the ones who get the last say in what their public voice sounds like. Write for yourself in whatever stylistic voice you wish, but not for your employer.

    Reply
    1. Snark

      Bottom line, this is the answer. yeah. No, this is not a hill to die on, this is not something to endlessly push on, and if your boss expects you to write to a house style and you push back against that….there’s a lot of writers who’d be happy to write with a formal tone. Not only is this not the hill to die on, if you attempt to charge up it, you will die on it.

      Reply
      1. KarenT

        This, exactly. There are loads of companies that would rather be HBR than Buzzfeed. And it’s not always a question of good vs better, but what’s appropriate for your audience. And your manager and the communications manager are in the best position to assess that. I know as writers we are often concerned with our voice and our style, but a company gets to decide what its voice will be.

        But don’t think of this as a bad thing–it’s an opportunity to learn a new writing style. Accessible, approachable, writing is great but formal writing is needed in many circumstances.
        I do have to wonder if your writing style is more casual than you think, based on the comparison to buzz feed, but that’s hard to assess from your letter (which did not seem overly casual at all).

        Reply
        1. Ego Chamber

          “I know as writers we are often concerned with our voice and our style, but a company gets to decide what its voice will be.”

          I think this is the thing that’s got LW’s hackles up: she perceives this as the company trying to change her style when it’s really the company dictating their own style.

          Ideally, you work for a company or client whose style matches yours, so you don’t have to do a lot of adjusting, but when you’re writing work for hire—and if you’re writing for a company, that’s exactly what you’re doing—your voice doesn’t matter because you’re not writing as you. Try to think of it like ghostwriting.

          And stop trying to fight the company style guide by exploiting whatever leeway you think you’re seeing there, rules-lawyering the corporate guidelines is a huge sign that you really might not be a good fit for this job. (Which isn’t a bad thing! If you’re not a good fit, look for a better fit. Maybe try to find a company that doesn’t use such formal language.)

          Reply
    2. Elemeno P.

      Yes. If anything, this is a fantastic opportunity for the LW to gain experience in a completely different writing style.

      Reply
    3. Second Lunch

      I’m also in writing. One thing to remember is that part of your job is to pay attention to branding. If your manager/director says that a more formal tone is needed, that’s the style requirement.

      That being said, try to make suggestions that align with your view that things should be user-friendly. Can sentences be shorter? Are messages redundant? Are there words being added just for the sake of being “formal”?

      E.g. One of my pet peeves is when people write things like “The X reaction took place as a result of Y…”. This can easily be condensed to “X happened because of Y”.

      Reply
      1. Working Mom

        Definitely agree with this. As a reader, I can appreciate that certain articles / products / projects may require a different approach. However, I absolutely agree that there is nearly always room to make writing more concise. It does bug me when I read something that is overly wordy – especially when it’s clear the author is trying to use as many big words / buzzwords as possible. Just say it, already!

        Reply
          1. Catalin

            Precisely! I’d like to know what ‘formal tone’ is in the OP’s POV. Shakespearian monologue? Yes, that’s inappropriate and unhelpful. Simply using the right words in a grammatically correct manner with appropriate punctuation isn’t necessarily something I’d consider ‘formal tone’.
            To me, overly formal tone includes such features as, “To whom it may concern/Dear sir or madam” and overuse of the term “One”.
            Finally, yes, there is a certain amount of subjectivity with some kinds of writing, but in a business setting there are generally set standards we’re expected to uphold and managers are generally more likely to understand the organization’s voice and norms.

            Reply
            1. bridget

              Some “formal” styles I have used to conform to the house style are things like “do not use contracts” or “do not start a sentence with ‘but’ or ‘and.'” I think both of those things are perfectly grammatical and often make writing more effective and readable, but they do read as less buttoned-up.

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                1. Specialk9

                  I knew what you meant after a moment, but it still made me laugh. Especially with the post about people wanting free content for exposure.

            2. Jennifer Thneed

              Thank you! I’ve learned the hard way that descriptions are so subjective as to be almost useless, while actual examples are useful. And OP didn’t give us any examples, just her judgements. “Sophisticated” doesn’t actually tell me anything about formality, you know? It’s a word that is often applied to decor and clothing.

              And the OP didn’t tell us who her audience actually is. That’s pretty important, in figuring out what your “voice” should be. It’s the first question I always ask when I get an assignment.

              My main goal in my professional writing is plain & simple English, because I want to be understood. That is possible with polysyllabic words! It’s the tortured sentences, dependent clauses, excessive semi-colons, parenthetical additions — those are too often used when people want to appear knowledgable. (This is one reason why I advise people to read their drafts aloud, because you’re more likely to hear the awkward constructions.)

              Reply
          2. Allypopx

            Not at all! I write at work with a very formal tone and you can still insert style and even wit here and there. I find the assertion that formal tone is inaccessible to be a little condescending, actually.

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            1. Jesca

              I can only write in formal tone. Everything I have written since college (and even then as it was mostly analytical and research papers) has been pretty direct formal writing. I think it would be nice for me to explore more non-formal tones, but I do not have that opportunity. I think as said above, OP can really take this time to learn to do what you are saying!

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            2. boo

              For a fantastic example of this, see the delightful Judith Martin, AKA Miss Manners (when she was still the sole writer.)

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              1. moss

                see also the recent decisions upholding the injunctions against the travel ban. A lot of landmark decisions are witty and interesting.

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                1. Lindsay J

                  Yes. I was not a fan of a lot of the decisions that Scalia handed down, but I do like his acerbic wit.

                2. LBK

                  One of the recent decisions re: the transgender military ban was also pretty great. In formal judge speak it basically said “Are you effing kidding me with this?”

            3. NW Mossy

              The British news magazine The Economist is famous for this – their house style is straightforward and no-nonsense, but dry wit sneaks in through their headlines, captions, and the occasional bit of snark in the copy. It’s a big part of why I read it avidly every week.

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          3. Optimistic Prime

            Yeah, I was coming to say this. Actually I popped over to HBR because I’ve never really read them extensively, and I actually don’t think the writing style on most of their articles is either overly formal nor dry, sterile and bland.

            And although I do appreciate a conversational tone of writing and use it in my own work writing style, Buzzfeed is way too casual for most settings.

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          4. Ego Chamber

            “Formal writing doesn’t have to be “dry, sterile, and bland”.”

            I agree with you in theory, but one of the hallmarks of formal style, as explained by people who don’t know a whole lot about any kind of writing, is to beat the personality out of the thing until it lacks any sense of humanity (and always use the biggest words you can so people will know you know big works). It shouldn’t be like this, but too many people seem to think that if they’re connecting with a piece of writing on a personal level, that makes it too casual.

            Source: Every college professor I ever had who wasn’t specifically teaching writing. :(

            Reply
            1. Aurion

              Perhaps, but OP is a writer. They shouldn’t be limited by the misconceptions of people who don’t write for a living.

              Reply
      2. Lead Technical Writer

        Also speaking as a writer (in case my handle didn’t give it away, heh), writing in a business setting always comes down to 1) Corporate policy, 2) Managerial/Division requirements, and 3) Audience.

        OP, in my daily job I have to translate software into a variety of documentation for a variety of audiences – User Guides anyone off the street with a sixth grade education can follow, Administrator guides someone who knows what an IP address is can follow, System Configuration guides someone who is familiar with the concept of a network can follow, Networking guides someone with a CISCO certification can follow, API documentation a Software Developer can follow, Requirements Matrices that a non-technical and a technical program lead can follow, etc.

        Since our work falls under the Department of Defense (DoD), I have to use incredibly strict documentation templates. I also have to use lexicons agreed upon by our customers, our Software Developers, our Quality Assurance folks, our Cybersecurity folks, and our Trainers (talk about goat rodeos…). Since I’m a Tech Writer, I also follow best practices in the field – Microsoft and IBM Manuals of Style, Society of Technical Communication screenshot recommendations, etc.

        However, I never feel like my work is boring, stilted, or dry. It’s a wonderful challenge to come up with clear, direct, simple sentences that describe very technical concepts to a sixth grade reading level. Finding screenshots that serve as storyboards for the (vast majority) of visual learners in my audience improved my writing enormously. Formal writing can speak directly to an audience without resorting to Buzzfeed-style casual language. In fact, in a business context where formal language is expected, using Buzzfeed-style language can come across as condescending to the reader.

        Alison’s points on picking your battles are spot on, especially since you’re a junior person and still presumably feeling out corporate environments and expectations. I’d add that if you’re using gut feelings to justify your decisions – which I think you did based on your statement “as I believe that content should be accessible and reader-friendly” you should back those feelings up with facts when you bring concerns to a boss. It’s a lot easier to have a decision go your way if you have numbers.

        Reply
        1. designbot

          Yes! The one place I think LW *may* have some standing here is #3, audience. I do think in this situation it’s perfectly fair to say something to the communications director like, I’ve been assuming an audience of X, and this direction feels more suited for an audience of Y. I’d really love to sit down sometime and make sure I’m clear on who the audience is for the different types of communication here.
          This will not win her this battle, but it will show that she’s not just coming from a place of personal preference, that she’s thinking about the job in a bigger way, and pave the way for smoother interactions going forward. She’s been absolutely correct to think about who the audience is, but it may be that she’s not entirely correct in her assumptions about that audience. Or if she is correct, then this is the conversation where the communications director may realize that and give her support.

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          1. Jesca

            This is a really good idea as well. I think maybe the OP could learn something from having this conversation in this manner with the manager as well! Maybe she doesn’t realize that something less formal will come across as too glib, condescending, or even offensive to the reader base – no matter how SHE views that base herself.

            I know I definitely write for different levels of understanding. If I am writing a manual for professional engineers, it will use very specific terms and be heavy on engineering specs. If I am writing for a general customer, the tone, writing style, and the way the information is presenting will be entirely different. But if I gave the latter to even a certified tech? They would likely find it condescending.

            Reply
            1. designbot

              Right–maybe it’s for a broad audience, but the brand needs to take a position as a source of professional expertise, and buzzfield-style can undermine that. Or maybe the audience is less broad that she assumes, or while it is broad it needs to speak to the top of the audience not the lowest common denominator for some reason.

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            2. RaccoonLady

              Yes to the informal possibly seeming condescending! I’m in the veterinary health profession, and one of the big talking points right now is about how veterinarians (and probably human medical professionals) need to work on communicating medical ideas to clients at their level without sounding condescending. There’s a difference between accessible and informal. If you go too informal you risk sounding condescending or like you don’t know what you’re talking about, and either way you are going to lose clients!

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              1. SarahTheEntwife

                Human medicine, too! I’m still annoyed at the emergency room doctor who said they were consulting with the “heart doctor”. Dude, you can see my medical record and employer. You can safely assume I’ve known the word “cardiologist” since age 5.

                Reply
                1. Ego Chamber

                  Sure, but any time your job involves interacting with a lot of different people with widely varying educational levels, and you have a very short time with each of them, it’s hard to do it right consistently.

                  When I worked credit card customer service, we talked to clients who were doctors and lawyers and college students and SAHMs. Even the people who worked for banks didn’t reliably understand credit card basics, and most people will get upset if they have to ask for an explanation of a “jargon” term.

                  Fwiw though, I have no medical training, no advanced medical knowledge, and no medical professionals in my family, and I still know “cardiologist” means “something-something heart stuff,” so I’m kinda curious what the previous interaction/blow-up was that made the ER doc decide to do that.

                2. Lexi Lynn

                  I don’t know the situation, but if I was in the hospital and was expecting visits from a cardiologist, neurologist and internist (because they don’t know if the nausea is from a concussion or could it be a heart attack), I’d probably appreciate shorthand of heart, brain, digestive system doctors so I wouldn’t need to think so much.

                3. JessaB

                  Yes it seems annoying to hear heart doctor, but if the doc is in a rush it’s better to be very clear, because a lot of patients who do NOT know what a cardiologist is, will not ask because they’re intimidated by doctors in general. Also people who are ill or are in distress, even though they have really good vocabularies and are up to date on all the latest medical stuff, may NOT in the moment, be all that coherent. I’d rather a doctor go for immediate clarity than worry that I either didn’t get it because of lack of education or because I was too out of it.

          2. Specialk9

            Since OP has already dug in their heels to the point of having been corrected by both manager and comms director (!!) and didn’t accept the correction, I’m worried that they will read your comment and say “see I can go argue some more!” OP, DO NOT argue any more on this. The only acceptable messaging with your boss that might save your job is this: “I’ve been reflecting on what you and X said about tone, and I realize that I was being short-sighted and not receptive to your direction. I’m sorry for that and I’ll really work on being more receptive to input.” And then – and only then, and only if the offended manager (because your manager IS offended) is visibly and verbally warmer to you – you could ask for their hard won wisdom about why the more formal style works for this kind of communication and audience. With humility. Lots of humility.

            Because job searching is hard enough. Job searching for writing jobs, more so. Job searching for writing jobs after you’ve been fired and have offended your references? Yikes.

            Reply
        2. Engineer Girl

          I came here to say the same thing. You write differently for different audiences. Buzzfeed level style is usually too informal for many formal work communications. So in this instance the OP was actually in the wrong.
          I write very differently for my engineering level white papers Vs a post on my non-engineering blog. Both styles are targeted to my prospective auditence.
          My personal die on this hill standard:
          • It will damage the product (and I’ve notified the chief engineer)
          • It will significantly damage the reputation of my company (especially with our customer)
          • It will cause harm to another
          • It will cause a significant schedule slip (and then I’ve already notified the chief engineer)

          Note that these are all high stakes issues.

          Reply
      3. Fiennes

        Yes — there is no such thing as the “one true style” of good writing. A Buzzfeed article shouldn’t read like a legal brief; a legal brief shouldn’t read like a wedding announcement; a wedding announcement shouldn’t read like an email to a vendor. Professional writers need to have breadth of style–and, even more importantly, the understanding that different tasks require this.

        Maybe LW’s boss truly is wrong about this, but as Alison says, it’s the boss’a call to make.

        Reply
    4. Artemesia

      This. The person who constantly refuses direction is not going to get promoted and is going to be on everyone’s list for the next layoff. You need to revisit the concept of ‘boss’ here. It is good to advocate for needed change; it is necessary to take no for an answer. And it would have been politic to make this change in tone incremental i.e. rather than going directly to a colloquial tone that irritates management, move the writing slightly in the direction you want to go e.g. drop passive voices, use verbs instead of adjectives, use accessible vocabulary but still have a professional tone similar to what they now use. Going directly to folksy or buzzfeed especially after they have rejected this is inviting a firing for not being able to take direction. Since you jumped in with both feet and then have made a nuisance of yourself about it, I would move back to formal and make minor changes to be more accessible and then revisit this down the road.

      Reply
      1. Escapee from Corporate Management

        Artemesia is correct, OP: your job may be at risk. Moreover, if you send the response as you describe , your job may not even exist. Your Comms Director (two levels above you? three levels?), told you to follow the lead of the manager who is already senior to you. You are parsing words if you think she is saying move a little. She is telling you how to do your job. Do it as directed. No, you may not be happy about this. But it isn’t your choice. You presented your point, it got rejected, now move on.

        Here is some guidance on picking battles: if you are ignoring managers and directors, then this is not a battle to fight.

        Reply
    5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      Also, please don’t send that email!! It comes across as litigating a closed issue with a hint of petty, self-righteous insubordination (I’m not saying that’s what OP is—just clarifying that it can easily read that way to a manager who has already taken time to field this).

      Reply
      1. SheLooksFamiliar

        Exactly. This is not a time to claim, ‘I will meet your guidelines, but I’m still going to put my personal spin on things – so everybody wins because we all get what we want.’

        They told you what they want you to do. Please, just do it. Find another way to be ‘true’ to your preferred writing style, and if that means find another job, please do that, too.

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        1. Agatha_31

          Yeah it’s an email that’s going to come across as “I will grudgingly do what you tell me to, but you’re still wrong.” Not the sort of tone you want permanently associated with your name.

          Reply
          1. Specialk9

            The email isn’t even agreeing to do what Boss and Boss Of All have said, though! OP is *still* doubling down on not doing it their way!

            “I can accept this — to try to hold back on being too casual — but I stand by my principle for writing for the mass audience. I gave it some thought, and have decided to reply that I will tone it down, but I will still try to make my writing more digestible and accessible for the mass audience, including using plain, simple language. I will also maintain that my writing will not be overly formal, lest we bore our audience.”

            Youch. I’m assuming OP already sent the email, so I’m waiting for the update. My prediction: but why was I fired??

            Reply
            1. Akcipitrokulo

              TBH I’d read that as “I am not a skilled enough as a writer to be able to use a range of language registers”.

              Reply
    6. bookish

      Absolutely. I don’t think this is a case of “writing is a subjective art” at all – it’s a case of the LW writing too casually for the company they work for. The boss has made it clear they want a formal tone and more polished, professional language – while I’m getting the impression the LW wants to write in the same style they use to text or tweet. This company isn’t Buzzfeed.

      LW, my worry for you is that this writing style makes you/your work look immature, vapid, uneducated, not reputable. A big part of the concern is also that you don’t see that the writing for this job needs to be on a different level and you’re arguing that yours is better. Different projects call for different styles and that doesn’t mean you’re Compromising Your Artistic Integrity. Maybe you need to seek a company with a better branding fit?

      Context: I’m an artist in my 20s, so I wouldn’t consider myself stuffy and completely understand the subjectivity of art, and how annoying it is for people to weigh in when they don’t have your training or background in the field. But this is a question of the vibe they want to convey. I will always respect that for a project I’m working on. (Example: someone asks to change a font because they want something that conveys a more serious tone? I change it. Someone asks to blow up an image that will be too pixelated if it’s presented larger? I tell them why I can’t do that.)

      Reply
    7. Sfigato

      Agree. Your boss gets to control the tone of company communications, not you. And while you may want a more informal approach, she could be very right that the more formal approach is what is appropriate for how they communicate. And even if she’s wrong, she’s the boss, so she gets to say. I’ve had to edit professional documents for most of my career, and there is always a difference between how I’d prefer to put things and the style of my employer. One employer tended towards the overly enthusiastic, another was boringly technical, another overly academic when a more informal voice arguably would have done a better job of conveying what we needed to say. In all cases, I wasn’t the decider on how we presented ourselves, so I went along with company style even if I disagreed. I’d recommend you do the same.

      Reply
    8. Specialk9

      Oh my gosh yes, I’d fire you! OP, you do this one more time, expect to get canned. Seriously.

      I still writhe inside with embarrassment over pulling this once as a junior person on a team. I was used to being sooooo smart in school, and hadn’t figured out the limits to *that* yet. I was given edits to incorporate, and I thought my task lead was wrong on a grammar edit, so just skipped one edit. She thought I was careless (and I had juuust enough self preservation to realize that was a better answer than ‘I think I’m smarter than you, boss, so howsabout we use some semicolons around here already, k?’) and she never trusted me again. Like I didn’t get to work on some seriously cool projects because she thought I was careless and she needed someone she trusted.

      After I became a task lead and then PM, I would be so pissed if some newbie ignored my instructions because they assumed they knew something I didn’t, with no work experience. Push back occasionally, fine, but sometimes just bloody well do what I say till you earn your stripes.

      All to say, OP, you are far from alone in having a strong opinion on the right way to do things. And you may even be right! But you don’t have the standing to insist or ignore boss orders.

      Reply
      1. JessaB

        Yes and it’s totally different to say “hey boss, on this edit here, I honestly think it should be that way, is that okay?” if you’re new. Ignoring it though, at least you got to cover yourself when the boss complained. It’s better to ask than ignore.

        I wonder, OP, have you read company documents similar to what they want you to produce? Is this a style you’re willing to write in, because like others have said, this is a hill that can kill you.

        Reply
    9. taco_emoji

      I feel like some people don’t understand that they’re replaceable. OP, it’s a free country–you can fight whatever battles you want! But you’re not special. If dealing with your pushback is more of a pain for your higher-ups to deal with than firing you and hiring somebody else, they’re going to do that.

      Reply
    10. FTW

      I love by the saying that you have to show that you know (and can follow the rules) before you can break then.

      In a way, it is building credibility and the depth of experience to pick your battles.

      Reply
    11. Djuna

      This is so true. Some companies don’t have a house style, they have varying degrees of corporate formality. Setting a house tone, or radically changing the existing one(s) gets met with opposition all the way up and down the org chart.

      How do I know this? I work for a company that has morphed from having a passive, qualified-apologies-only, quasi-legal tone to one that is looser, clearer and a heck of a lot more transparent than it used to be. There were many battles to get us to where we are now, but the change was driven by our boss with the approval of those all-important C-suite types. Key to all of this was that we were moving toward being more in line with our advertising and brand identity. Also didn’t hurt that we had years of capital banked from doing it everyone else’s way without objection. When we pushed back, because it was such a rare thing, people listened.

      OP, your boss knows the company, their audience, and their requirements too. If everyone is telling you that your style won’t fly, chances are they’re right. Radical change needs buy-in at all levels, and buy-in requires trust – which you won’t have if you’ve already gotten yourself a name for objecting to all the things. You won’t always get to write the way you want. Heck, sometimes you won’t *ever* get to write the way you want at work. Decide for yourself whether you’re okay with that or not, but don’t waste energy and/or burn relationships by continuing to argue for something that it’s clear no-one but you wants.

      Reply
  2. AdAgencyChick

    You see stilted, your boss sees professional. You see appealing, your boss sees too casual. The beauty of writing is that there’s room for lots of different styles in the world.

    There are other organizations out there whose preferred style is more like yours. I would suggest, if it’s going to chafe you not to write in the voice you want, looking for a job at one of those places.

    Reply
    1. Sarah

      I’m not the OP, but I am wondering how you transition to applying for an informal-style writing job, if your portfolio is full of overly-formal pieces your current employer requires? Would they likely need to write their own pieces on the side that better fit the tone of their desired company?

      Reply
      1. Lead Technical Writer

        As a hiring manager, I want to see examples of you writing for a variety of audiences. So if you have to follow strict templates, do you have examples in which you used those templates for a technical audience and a non-technical audience? I’d also want to see a cover letter that used a slightly dressed-up version of the company’s tone – it’s my first proof that you “get” the corporate audience.

        Reply
      2. AvonLady Barksdale

        I had the opposite issue. The pieces I’d written for work (granted, I’m not a writer by profession, but I’ve written reports and articles) were rather informal, casual, “light”, etc. My current company has a much more formal style. Part of my hiring process was writing a report, and I dug back into my archives to find something more formal– I used a report I wrote in graduate school. If I had to go the other way, I might offer to write a blog post or an article on an agreed-upon topic.

        Reply
        1. Specialk9

          Exactly. It’s not hard to start a blog, if you’re a writer. Then you have full control over content and tone.

          Reply
      3. publicista

        What you could try to do is take a piece that you wrote for work already in the “overly formal” tone you mention, and write it how you WOULD if you could use a more informal tone. I think that would help an employer with a different style see how your work translates to different tones.

        Reply
      4. Manager-at-Large

        I’m not sure about including actual work product in your portfolio – seems like much of that work product would be for internal use only or categorized as confidential.

        However, if you build a portfolio of documents similar to what you write, except for FictionalCompany, then you could also write the same document using different voices or styles to show that you are versatile and can adapt your style while communicating the same information. Or take content like a new software release and write different documents like internal announcement of new feature, public release notes, press release, website article, company blog post.

        Reply
        1. Ego Chamber

          This varies a lot from company to company, so the best idea is to check the handbook policies.

          If you’re writing internal documents, things published on the company intranet, anything confidential, that kind of stuff usually has an NDA around it—but if you’re hired somewhere specifically as a writer (or a “creative”), it’s pretty standard to be able to use documents you’ve written as portfolio pieces, especially if these were eventually published publicly, or used in an ad campaign, or sent to customers as emails.

          It would be stupid to take a job where you couldn’t talk about your work or accomplishments after you leave, and most companies recognize this, just like most companies don’t forbid employees from providing professional references.

          Reply
        2. Ego Chamber

          And most potential future employees don’t give half a f#ck about a portfolio full of documents for FictionalCompany. They want examples of actual work produced, that was vetted by someone else and then approved for use in the real world.

          Source: It got a lot easier to get writing jobs once I had a single post published on a company’s blog I could link to than it was with a portfolio of writing samples that hadn’t been published anywhere.

          Reply
  3. Malibu Stacey

    “And again, if you do decide to speak up and you don’t get the outcome you wanted, in most cases you can’t keep arguing something over and over. If you do that, at a minimum you’re likely to get a reputation for being a pain in the ass who doesn’t understand how hierarchy works, and they may even decide they’d rather replace you with someone who’s easier to work with.”

    I wish I could anonymously send this to about a dozen people I have worked with over the years. In particular, I have one counterpart who will argue her point during team calls by asking the same question a few different ways hoping she gets a different answer.

    Reply
    1. Infinity Anon

      Pushing back on the type of voice to use to the communications head seems like a very poor decision. She has now been told by both the manager in charge of that project and the communications head that she needs a more formal tone and her response is that she will make it a little less casual but won’t make it too formal. That doesn’t seem like a good thing to say to the communications head if she wants to keep this job.

      Reply
      1. Snark

        Yeah, it’s been escalated high enough that it’s now going to drop back on your desk with a thump. At this point, OP does not have the latitude to push this one harder.

        Reply
      2. Kathleen Adams

        The OP seems to be giving…unwise weight to the fact that the communications head didn’t actually use the words “needs to be formal.” But she nonetheless said, according to the OP, that it should “not sound overly casual.”

        OP, there is certainly a lot of room between “not overly casual” and “formal,” but nonetheless, you’ve apparently been told that your writing, at least on some projects, needs to be less casual – that in a word, it needs to be more formal.

        You need to accept that. Really.

        You may be generally right, but you need to realize that it’s possible that these two managers know the market better than you, and it’s also possible that while casual writing is great for some projects, for other projects, it’s a bad idea.

        It could be that this isn’t the right place for you. But something you might want to think about is that as a writer, you really need to develop your skills in all sorts of writing. So good luck, and have fun with that! Really.

        Reply
        1. Snark

          Yeah, I pinged on the semantics-lawyering there too. No, OP, do not try to litigate this based on the semantics of not actually using the word “formal.”

          Reply
          1. Ego Chamber

            Has anyone ever (in the history of ever) seen a not-terrible outcome when someone decided to follow the letter and ignore the spirit, or rules-lawyer to that effect?

            In my experience, it’s always ended with either that person leaving/being told to leave or the company making sure all future policies are 12 pages long when they could have been 12 sentences, just to try to account for *every possible misreading.*

            Reply
            1. SusanIvanova

              Rarely, when it’s used to draw attention to bad management or a slacking-off co-worker. “I’m doing exactly what the manager requested” or “coworker said he’d handle it all himself”.

              It really does depend on the people whose attention you’re trying to attract being reasonable and just unaware.

              Reply
            2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

              Certainly not in functional work places. The best outcome (for the rules lawyer) that I’ve seen is being ignored.

              Reply
        2. Nolan

          Also, it’s important to note, OP, your day job does not need to be a true expression of your personal style. If you want to be a Writer, you can still do that and be as creative as you want on the side. This job pays the bills, so you should follow the guidelines set out by management, and if you want to stretch out your Writer Muscles, take on a personal project in your spare time. I think there’s a common trap that artists/creative types can fall into where they think the work must always be an expression of them as an (insert title here). But you can absolutely be a working artist and use your craft to do humdrum work for your company to pay the bills and support more creative endeavors on the side.

          Reply
          1. Elizabeth West

            Yes yes yes. Nearly every published fiction writer I know has a day job. Do some of them write in the job? Sure. But it’s different. Personally, I’d be happy to have a writing-related position even if I didn’t get to put things like “Barm the Beast slapped the crazed wolf off his shoulder with a fist as big as a ham” in the office. I can do that on my off time.

            Reply
              1. Ego Chamber

                Seriously. Sometimes I wish I was mercenary enough to pursue relationships with a focus on financial stability, instead of always being attracted to creative types like myself.

                Reply
      3. k8

        yeah, now is definitely the time to beat a strategic retreat . . . the manager is probably pissed enough already, no need to rile up the head of communications as well!

        Reply
    2. Juli G.

      So much. My former boss who was so fantastic at so much of his job could not stop himself from doing this and… he’s my former boss.

      Reply
      1. Girasol

        That’s what I was thinking, except that for me 40 would not have been too late. When it comes to emotional intelligence I’m rather behind the rest of the class.

        Reply
    3. Sfigato

      One of my mantras is “No is an answer.” Meaning, you can ask the question, but the answer might be no, and you have to accept that. I’m trying in vain to teach that to my kid.

      Reply
  4. Infinity Anon

    It sounds like the OP is not a good fit for the company. If they like a formal tone and she wants to use a more casual tone, then maybe she should look for a company that will appreciate her style of writing. Chances are that this company is not going to change their opinion on the type of writing they want, especially when it is something very subjective.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      At the same time, I think OP needs to slightly tweak their expectations of working for pay … to be honest, you need to internalize the message that it doesn’t matter what you “want” to produce, if someone else is paying you it’s all about what *they* want to pay for.

      Reply
      1. RVA Cat

        This. The house style is Above Your Pay Grade. A big part of working for someone is going along even if you think they are wrong. Just realize that because they have made the decision, they are responsible for it. It sounds like you are having a hard time letting that sink in.

        I also see a subtext of generational conflict here. Please don’t assume the more formal style will bore your audience just because it may bore you.

        Reply
        1. Kathleen Adams

          Yes, I also (perhaps unfairly) get a strong whiff of “These middle-aged people don’t know how to communicate with us younger folks.” Perhaps that’s true…but perhaps it’s also true that even if a more casual writing style is better part of the time or even most of the time, there *will* be times when a more formal writing style is better. There is no one single “correct” degree of formality. Different projects require different degrees of formality, different degrees of complexity, etc. It’s important that the OP realize that and not take on “Casual Writing Now!” as a cause or something.

          In any case, the right way to write it is the way the boss says to write it.

          And finally, it’s important that the OP develop a variety of writing styles, if he/she hasn’t already. And that includes more formal styles.

          Reply
          1. Artemesia

            I was struck by the insistence on writing as subjective. To some extend that is true but the subjective judgment of the boss is the one that wins. I have also worked with lots of people on writing and there is a lot of bad writing much of which sounds ‘casual’. I have no idea if the OP is a skilled writer or not but just because you really really prefer something doesn’t make it better.

            Reply
            1. Ego Chamber

              This struck me too. Just because something is subjective doesn’t make your subjective preference “right” or even “just as valid”—it’s actually more likely to bite you in the ass if you take a job working for someone else and your success or failure is entirely subjective (that sounds like Hell to me).

              Reply
          2. Hestia

            You know, even if the letter writer is 100 percent correct and the boss is 100 percent wrong–it really doesn’t matter here. The boss told him/her to be more formal in tone, the writer disagreed, expressed that and both the boss and the communications head shot down the disagreement. There is nothing more to be said here.

            Reply
            1. Lil Fidget

              I would agree, if the OP still has really strong feelings here, their remaining option is to start looking for writing jobs that are looking for a more casual tone.

              Reply
          3. aebhel

            I also got that whiff (am a younger folk myself, if that makes a difference).

            OP, especially when you’re a junior person, you should generally default to the assumption that the person in charge of a project knows what they’re doing. It doesn’t matter if this person is not specifically your manager; they know the tone they want for their project, that’s the tone you should produce. Pushing back on something like this should have ended at suggesting your preferred style and offering to try it out on a low-stakes project.

            And yes, writing is subjective. Your job as a paid writer, though, is to produce the kind of writing that your managers want to see, not what you believe to be preferable. Your own assessment of ‘quality’ writing is just as subjective as the manager’s, and since she’s in charge, default to her assessment.

            Reply
            1. RVA Cat

              I also think that if the writer is fairly new to the work force, it’s hard to get out of the School headspace. This is not a disagreement between peers about how to do a group project.

              Reply
      2. Mike C.

        You need to be very, very careful about this sort of outlook. This leads to doctors prescribing drugs their patients don’t need or analysts fudging numbers to meet quarterly expectations.

        The customer is not always right.

        Reply
        1. sunny-dee

          No, but the customer’s goal is always right. The OP is still junior and hasn’t proved that she has a good grasp on either their target audience or the ability to adapt styles and tones. Still, once the OP is more senior, it is totally acceptable to say, “you want to accomplish A, but doing B won’t be as effective at that as C.” But the point is that you have to know what the customer is trying to accomplish to begin with, and then provide expertise on how to do that.

          The problem with doctors pushing antibiotics unnecessarily (for example) is that their goal is to shut the patient up, not serve their needs.

          But then again, this is also a freaking writing project, not pneumonia, and if a customer decides they really want everything done a certain way and refuse to hear otherwise, then you just do it.

          Reply
        2. Observer

          There is a difference between “the customer is always right” and “the boss gets to make the final decision.”

          Also, there is a difference between “If I do this, I will endanger someone’s health” (inappropriate prescriptions) and “This is the way I think it should be done, but there is no risk to anyone’s health or safety.” (The op’s situation.)

          Reply
          1. SarahTheEntwife

            Even if the LW is so correct that her boss’s love of overly-formal writing is going to drive their business into the ground…that’s the boss’s hill to die on and the solution is to get a new job, not keep trying to change the boss.

            Reply
        3. Infinity Anon

          The customer is always right on subjective matters though. Your examples are of someone asking for what is objectively wrong. The letter righter even admits that what they are asking for is not objectively wrong it is just different than what she thinks would be best.

          Reply
          1. Mike C.

            Right, this is the sort of distinction I wanted folks to consider when taking the idea of “if someone else is paying you it’s all about what *they* want to pay for” into account.

            Reply
        4. Specialk9

          That’s a really weird analogy.

          Comparing to doctors…If writers had to spend two decades of their lives learning the equivalent of anatomy, med school, resudency/internship, and boards, then yeah actually the writer’s informed professional opinion *would* have a great deal of weight.

          Just because some advanced professionals fall prey to some seriously warped perverse incentives that permeate the industry… Does not mean this young writer should ignore their boss. It’s a really bad analogy. (And usually you have great ones, Mike C! So not critiquing you personally.)

          Reply
          1. Mike C.

            I’m just saying that this advice shouldn’t be generalized to the workplace as a whole. There are lots of times where junior people are supposed to push up against management or clients. This isn’t that time for the OP.

            I only picked a doctor because I’m only trying to show that such examples exist, not that the educational or professional requirements exist. I can certainly point to plenty of other examples – I only have a BS, which is going to be similar in education and certification to many professional writers out there, and there are plenty of times where I have pushed back against the methodological directions of my management.

            Reply
            1. Specialk9

              Oh yeah, the advice here isn’t “you should never push back and you have nothing to offer”, far from it! I suspect AAM readers trends toward people who care about self-improvement and honing expertise. Our advice here is geared toward explaining that refusing to accept management corrections is not conductive to continued employment. :D And a lot of us have *been* OP and wish someone had explained this stuff to stubborn young-us.

              Reply
      3. Nolan

        This. If I approached a painter and commissioned them for a painting of some majestic horses for a girl’s bedroom, and they returned to me with some My Little Pony fanart because they think the girl would like it better, well that’s not what I asked for, so their opinion doesn’t really matter. The company had said that they want a formal tone, and if OP continues to use an informal voice, they’ll find another person to meet their needs.

        Reply
        1. Ego Chamber

          To be fair though, if you commissioned a painter for a painting of some majestic horses for a girl’s bedroom, and all that painter had in their portfolio was a sh!t ton of MLP fan art, you’re at least as much to blame on that one as the painter is.

          My point is that OP’s company seems to have made a misstep in hiring, or else OP has some formal writing in their portfolio that they shouldn’t be showing, if it isn’t a style they want to use.

          Reply
      4. Fiennes

        I’ve found the only way to push back on this kind of thing is not by claiming that a style of writing is inherently “better,” but by taking a look at the audience and comparable things written for that audience. If the boss really is insisting on a style of writing that’s wrong for the project, LW would need to come back with other specific examples or similar writing on similar projects, with demographics, with design constraints, etc. These are the points where a legitimate case could be made.

        And if the boss still doesn’t get it? Then you still write it the boss’s way.

        Reply
        1. RVA Cat

          What is “better” also isn’t absolute, it is dependent on purpose. I mean, a Lamborghini is better engineered car than my Chevy SUV, but the Lambo is a two-seater and I have a family.

          Reply
  5. Snark

    The other issue is, know your audience. “The mass audience” is not a monolithic thing. There’s a reason the Harvard Business Review is sterile, bland, and formal, and that’s because its audience associates that tone with credibility. The environmental assessments I write avoid highly technical language and concepts, because they need to be understandable to a general public audience who might want to comment. Buzzfeed tends to be colloquial and warm, because it targets a younger audience who prides themselves on not being formal. And publications have a particular tone – every damned Cooks Illustrated article sounds like it was written by Chris Kimball, because Chris Kimball established a tone and approach and every article is edited ruthlessly to that model.

    You may personally have strong feelings about how you want to write, but your publication likely has a style and level of formality that its readers have come to expect, and getting all Buzzfeed on them might backfire. Sometimes, readers don’t want colloquial and casual.

    Reply
    1. Tamz

      This! It’s not about you and your idea of ‘good writing’. It’s about your audience and what they expect. If you had some credible market research that showed your customers preferred and were more likely to purchase from organisations that write in your style, that’s an argument you might make. But this idea that there’s one way to talk to ‘the public’ is totally false, and shows that you’re more naive than you think you are as a writer.

      Reply
      1. Snark

        I wasn’t really going to go there, but yes….if you think there’s a one-size-fits-all tone to take writing for the entire mass audience, you’ve got a bit of seasoning to acquire before you start calling shots on tone. Sorry.

        Reply
    2. Arjay

      Yes!
      The overall tone and branding may be set, but there could be room for some creativity depending on the media and the audience. Maybe blog posts or newsletters don’t have to be as formal as, well, more formal documents.

      Reply
      1. Snark

        And, importantly, there’s also a certain workmanlike satisfaction in doing really good work within the bounds of house style and tone. Formal needn’t be sterile and bland. You can still craft elegant, clean, creative writing, writing formally.

        Reply
    3. Purplesaurus

      I write for healthcare workers who would probably revolt with pitchforks if I started common-manning their language to appeal to a general mass audience. Put the scary food tube in the tum-tum!

      Reply
    4. Marillenbaum

      Exactly! As someone who reads (and loves) both Buzzfeed and HBR, I go to them for different things. Harvard Business Review is formal, but formality isn’t inherently inaccessible–it can still be clear and comprehensible. I wouldn’t want to write like a Buzzfeed article for a white paper, while I might do it for my personal blog. It’s about time and place.

      Reply
      1. Ann O'Nemity

        I think it would be highly enjoyable to read a HBR article written in Buzzfeed style, and vice versa. But just once, for humorous comparison.

        Reply
    5. Fictional Butt

      And I think it’s important to recognize that it’s not just a case of readers going “harrumph, I am a Serious Person and I demand Serious Writing.” The tone and style you use affects the reader’s ability to understand and utilize the information you’re conveying– and it doesn’t always flow in the “simpler is better” direction. I personally avoid Buzzfeed for news because I actually find their casual tone to be confusing and too vague when they’re discussing complex subjects. I abandoned another website that I loved because they adopted a similar style.

      Reply
      1. Dust Bunny

        I bought a sewing book published by somebody whose blog I had been following . . . and promptly returned it because the writing in what she said she hoped would be the new go-to all-purpose sewing manual was so bloggy and informal that it was, yes, vague and of questionable accuracy. Sorry, but for some things, I want crystal clarity even if it’s a bit dry.

        Reply
        1. Trig

          RECIPES. This is me with recipes.

          I want to know how to make the thing. Just tell me how to make the thing. I do not need it to be an interesting story to make the thing. Do not give me ten casual paragraphs about how you chose to make it because your kid scraped her knee and your great grandpa Alphonsicus used to make it for you and he used fresh marjoram for the garden so the smell always reminds you of him and this one time he also made a pork belly sandwich so check back tomorrow for that recipe and don’t you just love fall the leaves are so nice and the yellow really ties in well with this recipe.

          Reply
          1. SarahTheEntwife

            Yes! I like reading memoirs about food, and I like reading recipes, but the two need to be very clearly separated so that I’m not scrolling through three pages of anecdotes at the grocery store because I forgot to write down what kind of sugar to get.

            Reply
          2. Kathleen Adams

            Oh, dear Lord, Trig – you’re kind of scary good at that. Last spring I was searching for a nice general formula for overnight oats, and the amount of fluffy-wuffy syrupy sentiment I had to wade through in order to find out the correct proportion of oats to milk to yogurt (or whatever) was mind-numbing. And they alllll did it. I mean, the recipe I eventually tried went on and on and on about how these overnight oats with peaches had the same flavors as her grandma’s peach pie (while being lighter on “the tummy,” BTW – blech), but I tried it anyway because a simple, non-sentimentalized recipe was so hard to find. (BTW, I did not expect it to taste like peach pie, which is good because it most definitely did not. It was OK, but it was not like any peach pie, grandma’s or not, that I can imagine. I mean, it had *oats* in it, for cryin’ out loud.)

            But to draaaaaag myself back on topic, yes, there are many times when conversational writing will do more harm than good. Recipes are one of those places.

            Reply
          3. a1

            I *HATE* this. Show me the damn recipe! If you want to wax poetic and splice in a thousand pics and videos, do that after. I really hate scrolling a dozen pages down just to see the ingredient list.

            Reply
            1. Specialk9

              Yeah, totally get the annoyance, but… It’s free content that they spent hours to days on. We can flick a finger four times to get to the free recipe, so they get the necessary site metrics.

              Reply
          4. Falling Diphthong

            *sobs* My people. These are my people…

            My laptop fritzed Monday evening just before I was going to start making dinner, but I discovered that I could pull up my linked shakshuka recipe on my phone. I JUST WANT TO KNOW THE SPICES. You don’t need to set up the “1 tsp cumin” reveal with an elaborate sense memory conveyed over multiple screens.

            Reply
          5. Anion

            That drives me NUTS. Look, honey, I just want to see if this should bake for forty minutes or an hour. I don’t want or need your life story and 8×5 close-ups of measuring spoons full of salt.

            Reply
          6. Scarlet

            Omg that’s a MAJOR pet peeve of mine! It’s not so bad when you’re on a laptop, but most of the time, when you’re looking up the recipe while cooking, you’re using your phone or tablet, and it becomes SO unwieldy to have to scroll through pages and pages of sentimental BS and a crapton of photos of the same plate from different angles (when they post photos for every stage of the recipe, it can actually be useful, but most of the time, it’s just 5 photos of apples and 10 photos of the apple pie).
            I’m seriously wondering who reads the “personal” bits on recipe blogs. I’m reading food blogs for the food, not for the blogger’s family life and personal memories.

            Reply
      2. Woahh

        I had to do that with Autostraddle. Previously my go to for super in depth queer political issues, now so informal and with such a particular tone it doesn’t do its job as well, imo. So much depends on the writers.

        Reply
        1. Fictional Butt

          DUDE! Autostraddle was literally the aforementioned “website I loved” that I abandoned! I didn’t want to name-and-shame it because I thought I was the only person in the world who felt this way. I feel so vindicated right now!!!

          Reply
          1. Woah

            Haha it can be a small internet sometimes! I also thought I was the only one who had abandoned it. I wonder if there’s more of us out on the net, wishing for good queer coverage!

            Reply
          1. Get a Haircut

            I felt like they were really honing on on who they wanted their audience to be- and that I’d sort of aged-out of it, I guess. Still haven’t found a good replacement.

            Reply
            1. Fictional Butt

              That’s totally it, and it makes me so sad.

              I remember when I was first realizing I was queer, and I had no idea how that fit in with the rest of my life, and someone introduced me to Autostraddle. It was a huge eye-opener for me, because back then they had so many people writing in so many different authentic voices. Queer women who lived in rural areas, queer women who worked in conservative industries, trans men, people who didn’t conform to any gender, queer women in the military, queer women Republicans, queer women in the National Park Service, older queer women, younger queer women, disabled queer women… I remember this huge shocking moment of “oh, wow, all these people are queer and living their lives and they’re ok and I’ll be ok.” There was a complexity of thought and experience that was really vital.

              Then all of a sudden, practically overnight, every Autostraddle writer was writing in the same voice and it was the voice of someone who has a master’s degree in gender studies and bakes a lot of pot brownies (do they still do the weekly pot brownie recipes? How many of those do you need?!?) and hangs out with their cat watching Orange is the New Black. (Which is fine, if that’s how you’re living your life. Go you!)

              It actually made me feel really isolated. I’d thought that I was ok being me and that other queer women would accept me and that I could live my life the way I wanted, and now all of a sudden I was told that there is One True Way to be a queer woman and it involves owning a cat and wearing snapbacks.

              Anyway, this is a super long off-topic comment that is just me pouring one out for the old Autostraddle, I guess. I’m just genuinely worried about where the confused queer ladies of today are finding community. Maybe the Autostraddle archives still exist :/

              Reply
              1. Specialk9

                That so perfectly captured something I’ve never experienced in a way that makes me feel nostalgic for Autostraddle of old too! Great writing.

                Reply
    6. I woke up like this

      Yes. I am wrapping up a PhD in Writing Studies, and I really want to push back on the claim that all writing is completely subjective. Genre, purpose, and audience all co-mingle in dictating appropriate form and style. So my dissertation style, although accessible and (hopefully) engaging, is different than my blogging or Twitter styles. Because different rhetorical situations call for different things.

      I’m a huge proponent of plain language, but even with that approach, there are wildly different approaches. You can use plain language without defaulting to a Buzzfeed style (my favorite academic writing does this—presents complex theoretical concepts in accessible AND professional style).

      So, sure, good writing is subjective, but that doesn’t mean anything goes in every situation! It means as writers, we get to explore variety while we still strive for a style that matches the genre, purpose, and audience of a particular piece.

      Reply
      1. TeacherTurnedNurse

        As a writing instructor, when my students complain about a grade because “writing is subjective,” my response is typically “Good writing isn’t subjective; good writing is flexible.” Good writing can conform to the situation and purpose.

        Reply
    7. Antilles

      Excellent point.
      Relatedly, the audience even changes within the same industry. I’ve published paper in formal industry journals that we then rewrote for magazines (like the kind you’d see in a lobby). The topic is the exact same, but the writing style and information presented is completely different because the intent of the writing is different – a highly technical journal demands technical language, precision, and tons of details because people need to be able to judge the quality and impact of the research; a monthly magazine needs to be quick and breezy since people expect to just skim through it to get a 50,000-foot view of “what’s new in our industry”.

      Reply
      1. Falling Diphthong

        There are times to use “people are saying” or “people believe,” and there are times that will get you laughed out of the room if you don’t append a footnote with the documentation to back up that claim.

        Reply
    8. nani1978

      I came here to say this, as well. What I think might help a bit (from my experience crossing a learning gap in this area early in my job as well) is adjusting who OP thinks of as the audience.

      OP, I think you are focusing a bit too heavily on developing your voice, and not considering your audience. The negative feedback you are receiving is from people with the ultimate say over the distribution of the written materials you are fighting hardest about, correct? A manager whose product you are discussing, and the head of Communications? Right now, they need to be your audience. While you want to make your materials accessible to the wider world or industry, or whoever the end-reader-consumer is, right now, your job is to write to the specifications of the product managers (the managers of both the item being discussed as well as the communications produced by your company). When you develop that style to more mutual satisfaction, you can expand the audience outward and adjust your writing accordingly.

      You might feel this advice is lousy, but consider that you clearly take pride in your writing and seem to want to develop it as a craft. If you were writing novels, you’d have an editor; if you were writing for children, you’d adjust your language, etc. Even if you have a preferred style, it strengthens your skills to develop different voices based on the differing needs of the audience.

      No matter what you feel about the brilliance or idiocy of the managers redlighting your work, though, don’t go over their heads. It’s a trope. You will grow so much more and be much more respected and listened to if you try to understand and accommodate feedback now and as you progress through this and other positions. I wish you well!

      Reply
      1. Snark

        Absolutely. You all read my writing at its most casual. But I bet if I posted something I wrote professionally here, you’d recognize some of the flavor. Your voice is not just your tone.

        Reply
    9. Curious Cat

      Came down to say exactly this! My work involves writing for physicians and I’ve learned to adapt my work to best fit the tone and style for that particular audience. I also find it important to keep in mind that while they are my words, I am not the one communicating with the physicians – I am communicating on behalf of my company. My audience sees my company’s name on the work they read, and that’s what’s most important.

      Reply
    10. Jennifer Thneed

      Totally off-topic, but Mr. Kimball is no longer at Cook’s Illustrated. I haven’t subscribed for awhile, so I don’t know if their tone has changed. I do know that I got tired of his editorials. But we have an awful lot of cookbooks from regular authors.

      (He’s got a new, different magazine about food now. Milk Street, I think??)

      Reply
  6. Murphy

    I’ve struggled with this in the past as well, but eventually I’ve been able to accept what’s just not my decision to make. Sometimes it’s worth it to make my objection known, once, but then make it clear that I will do whatever higher ups decide. Though, as I’m the coordinator of white llamas, if it’s a white llama project, that’s when I’m more likely to argue more strongly for my opinions, as I’m the one actually doing the work and I have the most knowledge of how those projects function. My boss is thankfully receptive to this.

    Reply
    1. sunny-dee

      This. I have definitely “argued” when a point was unclear or if they were trying to do something that would not accomplish what they want to accomplish (e.g., trying for a long whitepaper to reach an audience rather than a series of articles on DZone, or trying to simplify a technical doc to be more accessible to a nontechnical audience). But, ultimately, they are my customer, and my job is to share my expertise and then make them happy.

      It was kinda rude but incredibly useful advice on my first tech writing project. A senior tech writer told me, “remember, you’re a wh*re. You’re doing it for money, and it’s your job to give your client what he wants to make him happy.”

      Reply
      1. Specialk9

        That’s about the ickiest analogy. I even agree with the concept – decades of consulting under the belt here – but ick. I’m so glad nobody said that when I started, or I’d have stopped. Ick.

        (And btw, many sex workers specialize: do what works for them, in some fairly narrow bands of content perhaps, and let customers come to them, or not. So I’m not even sure how great that analogy is.)

        Reply
        1. sunny-dee

          When she told me that (we’re both women), in context of the conversation, it was hilarious. Then a few months later, I was telling the story to a friend and just went, hmmmm,.

          I get what’s she was saying, though. Kind of like the OP being convinced that her Buzzfeed style is just the bee’s knees, a lot of writers just fall in love with their own words or become obsessed with their own creative vision. Sometimes that’s okay, but for most professional writing, you need to be able to check your ego (and sometimes your narrative voice) and just do the job to spec.

          Reply
          1. Specialk9

            Oh, it was a woman saying it? Ok that eliminates one of the big ick-factors for me, imagining that conversation! Still…

            Reply
    2. Foreign Octopus

      This.

      I pushed back on a unilateral decision made by my ex-boss to change how we llama hunters found llamas. It made our job ten times more difficult because the hunters were all pulling from the same pool of llamas and sometimes calling the same people twice in one day (one memorable occasion, we all called the same person within the space of an hour for five separate things, that was fun).

      I went to the boss, told him my concerns, and he told me that we were going to keep doing it that way. I chose to leave because of how difficult it made my job (there were other reasons, this was just the straw) and I did cite the change to llama hunting as one of the main reasons I left. I enjoyed that conversation, perhaps more than I should have.

      My point is, I didn’t keep arguing the point. The boss made a decision I disagreed with and instead of arguing and arguing against it, I left. The other llama hunters tried to work around the obstacle the boss had placed in their way because the decision, however ill-advised, had been made.

      Reply
  7. sunny-dee

    Noooooo. Just … noooooo. I write professionally, and I write for a variety of different things — technical manuals, articles, press releases, blogs, whitepapers. You cannot just insist that your audience wants Buzzfeed style casualness, because if it is a professional document, they absolutely do not. The reason for hyper-formality in technical documents (for example) is because the preciseness and dryness actually makes it more clear and authoritative. Even for articles, it really depends on your audience; a casual tone may be great for developers, but it is really inappropriate for C-level or business decision makers. If you just decide that all of your documents are for a “mass audience” that needs a casual tone, then you will be wrong because that is not always going to be your audience, even when writing the same kind of thing for the same company.

    Now, it is still possible to use simple, clear language and a natural style without being casual, informal, or slangy. Focus more on your corporate style guides, because it sounds like you’re disregarding them. That will give you an idea of the tone you need to set, and then you can develop a natural voice that still presents itself the way that reflects your company and brand.

    Reply
    1. Falling Diphthong

      Also a writer, also cringed reflexively at Buzzfeed as the Ur style of all communication.

      Tone is absolutely a normal thing for someone to ask you to adjust. More formal, less formal, don’t use ‘we’, break this into smaller sentences–none of that should cause you to blink.

      I’ll occasionally push back on content questions, if I think something is misleading or hard to follow. Buzzfeediness is not the hill to die on unless the assignment is explicitly to sound like Buzzfeed. Which, as many people are pointing out, is not some universal standard of good writing.

      Reply
      1. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws

        I associate Buzzfeed’s style with hamfisted use of slang more than I associate it with broad accessibility, to be honest. I think slang is great when it’s organic, but half the time it sounds like they write their sentences then go back and look for opportunities to shoehorn in “shook” and “AF” or “shook AF.”

        Reply
        1. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws

          To clarify: I love Buzzfeed, I just don’t know why their writing style would be a thing to strive for in all contexts.

          Reply
      2. aebhel

        Right. Buzzfeed is an accessible and desirable style for Buzzfeed’s audience, but not everyone is in that audience. Even the people who read it don’t necessarily want everything to sound like Buzzfeed.

        Reply
      3. Louise

        I have to assume LW is referring more to Buzzfeed News than their clickbait-y stuff. Buzzfeed News has actually done some really fantastic investigative journalism recently, so I don’t think it’s totally something to turn one’s nose up at. Not to say that makes it the correct writing style for the job (I think LW’s manager has made it pretty clear that it’s not), but I do think Buzzfeed’s more serious journalism doesn’t get a fair shake because of all of the “10 llama-themed teapots that will make you cry!” pieces.

        Reply
    2. CaliCali

      And here’s the other thing: BuzzFeed’s style ITSELF changes based on context. From a BuzzFeed news article about the election outcomes today (and I checked; the byline was all BuzzFeed staffers):

      A former Trump White House official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, blamed Gillespie for not using the president more. The former official noted that Jill Vogel, the GOP candidate for lieutenant governor in Virginia who was outperforming Gillespie, campaigned with Bikers for Trump and with Corey Stewart, the far-right, Trump-like candidate whom Gillespie narrowly beat in the primary.

      This tone is the same tone you’d find in the NYT or WaPo — it’s news writing. The article itself follows the inverted pyramid structure (most important items upfront) and is constructed with 1-2 sentence paragraphs. Style is about more than tone.

      Reply
    3. oldbiddy

      I’m a scientist and part of my job is to help the graduate students in my group learn how to write papers. I freqeuntly have to remind them that much of their audience are not native English speakers, so they need to avoid colloquialisms like “holy grail’, etc. They can write like they speak for the first draft, but then they need to edit out a lot of filler words and colloquialisms.

      Reply
  8. CaliCali

    LW, as Alison alludes to in her first paragraph, I think you’re conflating subjectivity with flexibility. Sure, almost all analyses of things like writing style (short of Flesch-Kincaid and metrics for analyzing level) are fairly subjective, but the takeaways are the information you have to work with. If two people’s opinions are that your writing style is too casual for your workplace, you have to adjust your writing accordingly.
    Also, “I believe that content should be accessible and reader-friendly, not dry, sterile, and bland” is a judgment statement on more formal language that you’ll likely need to unpack a bit. As you develop in your professional writing career, you’ll learn how to make your writing engaging and compelling in a variety of tones. Being relatable and breezy with casual language can be easy, but coming across as an authority or expert while STILL being accessible is hard. It takes practice. But you’ll figure out, chameleon-like, how to adjust to what’s necessary. The real creativity is in working inside your boxes, not trying to blow them apart.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      I agree, I felt like OP was putting a little too much stock in “writing is subjective.” Hmm, that may be true, but not really if you are a staffwriter and your boss is saying your writing is not working for them.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        Right, “subjective” doesn’t mean “my boss can’t say I’m wrong.” I think it’s not so much that the OP believes writing is subjective (she believes pretty clearly that her boss is wrong, after all) as she believes in the individual writer’s ownership of her work. And that’s not a thing when you’re paid staff. You don’t own it legally, you don’t own it stylistically, you may not even get your name put on it.

        Reply
  9. EditorInChief

    I’m an editor in chief at a digital media company. My site has a distinctive and specific tone and voice, and I expect my writers to follow it. If I ask you to modify your writing style, I expect it to be done. If I keep getting pushback I’ll give you one come to Jesus talk, then you’re fired. I don’t need a difficult writer when there is an endless supply of writers looking for work. I think you’re not a good fit with this company.

    Reply
    1. Academic Library Specialist

      This. We create a quarterly newsletter. I had a report who was all about casual language and multiple exclamation points. The newsletter content was her responsibility. Despite meeting with her about how our “house style” is more formal. Despite numerous edits and discussions, the constant pushback was exhausting. She did go to my supervisor complaining that I was interfering with her engagement in her position as I was blocking her creativity. She no longer works at our institution.

      Reply
  10. Velvet Goldberg

    The OP recognizes that writing is subjective and yet, it seems like she believes her opinion is objectively the right call. There’s a dichotomy here that does not pan out. You can’t acknowledge that writing preferences are personal and then argue with someone that their writing preference is wrong.

    Reply
      1. MuseumChick

        Well, we cannot really know that. We don’t what the product or intended audience is. Only that A Manager and the Communications head of this company both have told the OP that her writing is to causal. I don’t think its a stretch to assume both have more experience at this company than the OP and know what is best for their audience.

        The OP sounds a lot like those young, eager, well meaning new grads who come in thinking that their opinion is super-duper important and get miffed when they find out that in the working world, no its not.

        Reply
      2. sunny-dee

        Not necessarily, because the OP isn’t talking about an intended audience, she’s talking about a “mass” audience. Which is not really a thing for most professional writing.

        I’d also be hard-pressed to believe that she’s done an audience analysis to back this up. If she had data (you’re trying to target this for C-level, but 90% of our downloads are for entry-level analysts), then that would be a very valid point to make. But, “this sounds stuffy and I hate it,” is not a reasonable evaluation of the audience.

        Reply
      3. Snark

        It is within the range of possible reasonable judgement, but there’s a reason she’s a junior staff member and the communications chief is the communications chief. Their judgement is not necessarily equally informed with experience.

        Reply
      4. Observer

        Actually, it’s not a reasonable judgement for a junior writer to make when the communications director says otherwise. ESPECIALLY since the OP also indicates a “one size fits all” mentality that it really antithetical to good communications.

        Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think the thing is, it doesn’t matter if she’s right or not. She could be objectively 100% right, with a panel of experts backing her up, and her boss can still tell her to write a different way and then she’d need to do that. (After appropriately expressed dissent, of course.) Workplace disagreements don’t always get resolved based on who’s inherently correct; hierarchy can trump that.

      Reply
      1. Velvet Goldberg

        I agree. I guess my point is that she’s arguing both sides of the coin. By stating writing is subjective, but then arguing that her writing style is more appropriate, she’s negating her own argument. That said, absolutely true that sharing a well-thought opposing viewpoint doesn’t guarantee things will go your way. So, perhaps a moot point.

        Reply
  11. MuseumChick

    Oh boy. To put it bluntly, in general, your opinion at work does not matter. What matters is what your company wants, and more specifically, what those above you want. That doesn’t mean you cannot voice opinions but it also mean you should NOT continue voicing that opinion once you have been told no. This is a really had thing for a lot of people new to the work force to learn (and some never really do).

    OP, you say that: “I gave it some thought, and have decided to reply that I will tone it down, but I will still try to make my writing more digestible and accessible for the mass audience, including using plain, simple language. I will also maintain that my writing will not be overly formal, lest we bore our audience.”

    Please do not respond this way. It will not come off professional. At all. Rather, it will make you look like you are still trying to die on this hill.

    Reply
    1. RVA Cat

      …and they will be happy to oblige you. Replying that way is not only choosing to die on that hill, it’s calling in the airstrike on your own position.

      Reply
    2. Czhorat

      I think “your opinion doesn’t matter” is perhaps a step to far; a good employer should want your opinions, and overall should expect you to approach assignments mindfully.

      They also will expect you to understand that you don’t get the final word, and at some point have to stand down and accept the company line.

      Reply
      1. Mike C.

        I’m with you here. A whole lot of us are subject matter experts. I’ve had managers tell me they want data analyzed a certain way and I’ve had no problem pushing back and telling them that the relevant statistical tests don’t work like they way they want or that I’m not going to cherry pick data.

        Reply
        1. CaliCali

          I think the difference is that she hasn’t built up enough credibility to be a true SME in this realm. They have a communications head who is ostensibly the SME for the writing style of the organization — not her. And the communications head isn’t coming out and saying she’s WRONG; she’s saying that she needs to adjust to the org’s specific style.

          Reply
          1. Czhorat

            There’s no reason to not give an opinion, so long as it is both respectful and supported by the facts as you understand them.

            I have seen organizations change house communication styles after receiving input from staff who may have been too junior to make those decisions themselves but who do have a measure of knowledge which makes their opinion valuable.

            Reply
            1. aebhel

              Sure, and if OP had stopped with giving her opinion, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. Input is good. Staff should be encouraged to give input, especially if they have a unique perspective on the subject.

              The problem is that she wants her opinion to be given equal or greater weight than that of the manager actually in charge of the project, and that’s just… not how it works.

              Reply
          2. MuseumChick

            This is what I was getting at. And, as Alison said in a comment above, it doesn’t even really matter if the OP is right and has all kinds of data to back her up. Her company has made clear what that want. If she keeps fighting it will not turn out well for her.

            Reply
          3. Mike C.

            That’s certainly an important distinction. I just see a lot of comments treating this idea of “don’t fight against what your boss wants” as a very general and seemingly fast rule. Yeah, it’s a good idea for the OP, but not in all cases.

            Reply
            1. Specialk9

              I think we’re being so rigid in this instance because she *did* voice objection, over and over, using whatever data and subject matter knowledge she has, AND got a top-level review of the disputed question, and is still refusing to comply and is explaining why she’s right and they’re wrong. Our advice would be more nuanced if she had written in at the first stage (I disagree with my manager’s take, what should I do?) instead of at the current stage (you aren’t still employed there, right?).

              Reply
        2. Specialk9

          Exactly. But I suspect that those of us who stayed employed long enough to become SMEs had to learn hirrarchy and pragmatism at the very least. I’m the company-wide SME for my area, and I will absolutely push back with my boss (who is in a different field) at times… But carefully, and based on solid reasons (intl standards, data, published best practices) not just “I’m right I’m right you’re all wrong”. And if at the end of the discussion(s) he puts the definitive kibbosh on something, it’s done.

          Reply
  12. Czhorat

    I have what you could generously refer to as a unique writing style; I at times lean towards the formal and, perhaps, stilted. At other times I literally use baseball analogies in my technical blogging. For good or ill, it is my voice. You, I am sure, have your own. It’s what makes each of us valuable as a writer.

    That said, if my employer wants a different tone or style it is up to you to accommodate so long as the end result is something professional which you can proudly claim as your own. If their changes result in something in which the by-line would hurt your personal brand then it’s time to fight harder. If not, consider it a collaboration between you and the organization and carry on.

    I also believe that it is appropriate to bring up anything stylistic such as this once, and give reasons why you take your position. Your boss will either agree, agree to a compromise, or reject your suggestion. Unless, as Alison said, the issue is one of safety or of civil-rights issues such as ADA accomodation or sexual harassment, then you probably need to step back and accept that not everything will be done to your preferences.

    Good luck – it sounds like you’re approaching this well.

    Reply
  13. Amber Rose

    She may not be your direct manager, but she’s A Manager, which means she still holds greater sway than you who are junior. And even if that weren’t true, your job is not just writing but also getting along with the other people in your company. It’s her product, which means it’s her call in the end, and that’s going to be true of other managers you’ll work with, some of whom may have the same stance on writing style.

    If you give yourself a reputation for being a pain and not representing products the way people in the company want them to be represented, you may soon find yourself out of a job.

    Reply
  14. AndersonDarling

    When I started working, I would get prickly when my boos told me to do something I didn’t agree with. But I eventually learned that my boss is asking me to do something silly/unusual because of a reason and she shouldn’t need to explain every reason to me.
    Decisions are made on higher levels and a 4 hour meeting doesn’t need to be summarized before I print a report on green paper. In this case, it sounds like marketing has dictated how to communicate with the customer. It was probably an expensive, long research project and the managers all know the outcome because they sat in a dozen development meetings.
    You can push back once, and if the manager doesn’t want to get into it and just asks for the same request a second time, you gotta let it go and trust their reasoning.

    Reply
    1. Sack of Benevolent Trash Marsupials

      I think this is the key – I think we have all been there when we were first starting out. I would argue that until you have been in the workforce for a longer than a couple of years (3-5 years post graduation may feel like a long time, but you are still very junior at this stage), you shouldn’t pick any battles at all, safety issues excepted. You are most vulnerable during your first few years in the workplace to believing you know better than your organization’s leadership, and also to being replaced if you become more of a hassle than you are worth to the company.

      Reply
    2. Allypopx

      Yep. There’s a lot that goes into decisions that would be impossibly time consuming to have 100% transparency on, that’s why there’s people whose job it is to make those decisions and everyone else has to trust them. Some transparency is good, and feedback is good to hear, but once you’ve pushed back and been shot down, it’s done. You’re being paid to produce a product, and this is the product they want produced. If you don’t do it, someone else will.

      As a manager, I do push back on my boss quite a bit on behalf of operations or my employees, but if he asks me to do a task I do it. He wants all my spreadsheets to be in comic sans and have a really convoluted layout? Fine. I will. I’ll grumble to myself the whole time, but I’ll do what I’m being paid to do.

      Reply
  15. Justin

    I’m not sure which battles to pick in the abstract, but I wouldn’t pick this one.

    There is a valuable to HBR type writing and a value to Buzzfeed. You seem to work at a place that prefers the former. Now, if you had some verifiable concrete proof that writing more formally was harming the business, and were a bit more senior, I could see it.

    (That said, as a reader of both HBR and Buzzfeed, I don’t actually find HBR to be overly formal. They use plenty of colloquialisms and such, even amidst the business jargon. Not that I need to defend them, but there is good formal writing and bad formal writing.)

    Reply
  16. Christiana

    I write for companies. I totally get where you’re coming from. As content strategists and copywriters, we have established best practices like write at a 5th grade reading level, write accessibly and not too formal, and several other practices that we want to uphold in our jobs. but it also depends on the job. if you’re at a financial firm and your content is for other financial advisors or you’re selling B2B enterprise level software, you will have to skew a bit more formal. if the writing you’re producing is for consumers or small businesses, you can definitely go more informal. Recently I wrote an article for a financial advisor firm and we got feedback like “don’t use contractions in your writing.” But my main point of contact there is in marketing and she agrees with our more accessible writing style. If you stay at this job, you need to start surfacing research and case studies from the internet about reading levels, about writing conversationally. put together powerpoints with your findings; about the effectiveness of content written at lower reading levels. present it to your managers. if you’re in content marketing, look at NewsCred as a good source. You can’t just say “this is how we should write and i know because i’m a writer.” writing is subjective, but if you produce this research, you can make it objective. if you have the freedom to do this at your job, you also should put together a style guide and a voice/tone guide that codifies your point of view. put footnotes in the guide to this research, too. write examples of too-formal language and then re-write it to your language. you need to make this more official, and then maybe you’ll start to get buy-in. but research research research. if your company has a market research team, or user research budget, you can test your language too. if your department has budget you can also work with NewsCred to get freelance writers in place and NewsCred can offer you many free resources on how to champion content marketing in your org. also when you write something, even if it’s as short as a marketing email or an error message for a website, provide rationale in the same Word doc for why you wrote it the way youd id.

    Reply
    1. Christiana

      Also I’m not associated with newscred in any way, they’re just a source i’ve used in the past and i’ve been their client before. they have a very established blog about content marketing, with tons and tons of research.

      Reply
      1. Sack of Benevolent Trash Marsupials

        I have to say, if OP were my direct report, and after repeatedly arguing the point with both me and the Communication Director, started producing Style Guides or PowerPoints full of such ‘research,’ she would be fired, because it would be clear to me that she is Not Getting It. But this would be great advice if the OP were actually a marketing manager or was in any way responsible for the voice of the company, but sounds like she’s way too junior to be doing this research and making this case.

        Reply
    2. Snark

      “if you have the freedom to do this at your job, you also should put together a style guide and a voice/tone guide that codifies your point of view.”

      This is not a case for junior staff to make. If I got an exhaustively researched paper from a junior report re-litigating a call both I and my boss had both weighed in against, I would not entertain it. I would probably, in fact, fire them, because clearly the whole hierarchy thing is not their strong spot and I need them to do their jobs, not research all the ways they think I should be doing mine.

      Reply
      1. Artemesia

        This reminds me of the intern who created a petition about the dress code after being told what the dress code was and ended up getting herself and most of her peers fired. You have to know when to fold them in the workplace. And for a junior person on a question of judgment like this, it is after being clearly told once after you have made your case, that they want it done differently.

        Reply
      2. Damn it, Hardison!

        I had a temp employee once who wrote a memo to me (with standards research to back it up) as to why the higher ed institution I worked at should change how they formatted phone numbers on the website. This was in response to asking to update contact information, and after we had a conversation about why the phone numbers were formatted in that way (because it was the university’s style). That memo got filed in the circular file, and the temp’s contract was cut short when I suddenly “no longer had any work” for him.

        Reply
        1. Jen

          I did a feedback meeting with a candidate who didn’t pass an interview, who arrived with a full packet of ‘best practices for interviewing for competitions from (fed dept)’ literature and other information to push his point of Why I Should Reconsider. He also sent us a 2300 word email after the 30-minute meeting I had with him to reargue Why (our dept) Should Reconsider. In that email he attempted to provide extra details in response to the questions he had failed (not allowed unless we let all candidates do it), and he even got one of those questions wrong.

          I’ve saved his email for the entertainment value, but he’s been thoroughly black-listed by our department.

          Re: the letter-writer… I, too, work in Communications and I write for a living, edit other people’s work, and write for a huge variety of audiences and venues (everything from media responses to keynote speeches to articles and beyond). This is absolutely not your hill to stand on – if your manager is telling you to change the tone, you need to change the tone. You can write formally and still write in plain language. You can write formally and still be interesting (check out Jonathan L Howard for fiction examples – he’s brilliant). As others have said, you’re not considering your audience, and ‘the general public’ is too broad an audience to try to target. Listen to your manager and follow his/her directions, or expect to be shown the door.

          Reply
          1. Jen

            Oh yeah, forgot to add – in response to the candidate’s packet, I thanked him for sharing it and simply reiterated, “this is how we do things here.” We have HR at the table, we follow their advice and guidance, we’re doing things by the book — it’s just not the book he liked (or brought with him). The things he complained about, like us not looking at him because we were busy taking notes? That’s SOP in our field’s interviews, and he was told at the outset that was how it would be.

            Reply
          2. Snark

            “He also sent us a 2300 word email”

            I’d be tempted to see how far down he’d dig, at that point. I’m really more of a visual person; could you demonstrate Why I Should Reconsider using interpretive dance and a kazoo?

            Reply
            1. Jen

              Oh, he definitely tried to smarm and charm his way through the feedback meeting. I knew before it took place that he was a sales-type, and that’s definitely what that meeting was. That’s why I set it for 11:30 – lunch gave me a semi hard out to wrap up!

              If nothing else, I discovered that all of the interpersonal communications skills I’d studied but wasn’t sure I’d retained did exist inside of me, and they all came out under duress. How I handled that meeting is actually one of my proudest professional moments, and my only regret is that no one internal was there to see it! (I’m kind of known for having opinions, speaking my mind, and swearing like a sailor.)

              Reply
  17. ZVA

    I agree that the definition of “good writing” is subjective, up to a point, but this isn’t just about whether your writing is good, OP — it’s about whether or not your higher-ups think your style is appropriate for the company. That may be a somewhat subjective judgment call, but it’s theirs to make, not yours.

    It sounds like your communications head has told you very clearly what the company’s needs are (for your writing “to be mellowed down and not sound overly casual”). If you haven’t yet sent that email, I would reconsider it — it sounds like you’re pushing back. I think you need to simply say “OK, will do” and do it!

    Reply
  18. Wannabe Disney Princess

    This is not a battle to pick. This is a battle to run into blindfolded, hoping that screaming and a water pistol will fend them off.

    I’ve picked battles with management (and upper management, depending) before. One was a policy that I thought was stupid and was going to triple the amount of time needed to complete each task. I focused on the tripling the amount of work and proved it was untenable. I did not, however, fight over another policy that I also think is ridiculous but has practically zero impact on me other than I see no point in it.

    To boil it down: one was worth leaving other, the other wasn’t.

    Reply
  19. High Score!

    OP, it sounds like you and this company are just not a good fit. Do things their way and make everything as professional as possible and keep a professional attitude.
    While you’re doing that, Get your resume out there and find a better fit. There’s no right and wrong here, just a bad fit.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      It’s also possible to build up trust by doing what they want well, and THEN saying, “you know, my professional advice if you want to reach X mass audience” (and by the way … do they?) “would be to try a less formal style.” Alison’s suggestion of trying this on a low stakes project first is a good one. But you only get that opportunity AFTER you show that you can take direction and have good judgement as to what the company is looking for.

      Reply
  20. Star

    I’m an editor. Many of our authors write for many different publications, and occasionally we’ll have an author who doesn’t like our house style (which is not only rather formal, but has very specific requirements about information to be included, the chronology of the text, etc.) and will push back on the requirements. It can be frustrating, and there are some authors who we haven’t approached about future work because we know that working with them will be frustrating for all parties. Our house style may not appeal to everybody, but it exists for a reason.

    OP, everybody who writes has a style they prefer, and obviously there’s nothing wrong with your more casual tone – but there’s nothing wrong with a drier, more formal approach either.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      I think this is a good perspective for OP to hear. If your boss feels this way, OP, what is the point of you trying to slide a more casual tone under the radar? That’s not what they want and they have a reason for what they’re doing, even if you don’t understand or agree. (Now, if they’re constantly saying, ‘we need to reach a wider millennial audience! Why aren’t they reading our published journal articles in which the methods section is twelve pages long?’ then there could be the opportunity to DISCUS S their goals and how they might achieve them, if you are a trusted expert in this area – but I didn’t get a sense of that in this letter).

      Reply
  21. KHB

    Does adopting a formal tone necessarily mean your writing can’t also be accessible and reader friendly? Without more details it’s hard to tell, but it seems to me like there might be a way to satisfy everyone here.

    Reply
    1. Mazzy

      Yes I think mentioning your main points and key information at the beginning of the article and paragraphs is much more important. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read articles on the internet – formal or not – and thought “what was the point of that?” Or left thinking “that was all opinion” because I couldn’t find any solid points or facts. Didn’t have to do with being formal or not

      Reply
      1. KHB

        Right. If “formal tone” just means they want strictly correct grammar and no colloquialisms or slang, you can do that while keeping a simple vocabulary, straightforward sentence structure, and good information organization.

        On the other hand, if they actively want you to load your writing up with unnecessary ten-dollar words and convoluted sentences because they mistakenly think that those things make them sound smart, that’s another matter.

        Reply
        1. Artemesia

          I have done a lot of formal writing and I would be surprised if this is the case. Most editors prize clear direct prose and this kind of writing is very accessible to an audience.

          Reply
          1. KHB

            But not everyone with an opinion on writing style is a trained editor. I used to clash a lot with my PhD adviser (a chemist) over what she thought was my overuse of what she called the “passive tense.” Some people just like to dogmatically cling to “writing rules” that they’ve picked up somewhere along the way – the active voice is always better, never split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition – and so they come up with “corrections” that are very often NOT improvements over the original.

            Reply
            1. Emily Spinach

              Many people misunderstand what passive voice is, and many correct it as a way of making prose sound less abstract or less “wordy” because it’s the easiest element of those effects to identify. In some scientific and technical writing it can be difficult to avoid, though.

              Reply
              1. Decima Dewey

                Passive voice is also useful in business writing, as when you want to document that A Very Bad Thing happened, but don’t want to quoted as saying that it was all the fault of the person you’re telling this to that it did.

                Reply
              2. Akcipitrokulo

                I like using passive voice. I’m a tester, and it is really important for me to be able to write about what went wrong without the implication of blame which can be attached to active voice.

                Also when I was a student, passive voice was used a lot when writing reports as the person doing the experiment is not relevant in most cases. “The chemical was added…” is much more appropriate than “I added the chemical…”

                Reply
      2. Mazzy

        That being said, I’d never last in an office where everyone thought they had an eye for subjective things, like style, art, or writing. It would drive me nuts. I like dealing with objective information!

        Reply
    2. LQ

      It was interesting that the OP mentioned mass audience and accessible because a buzzfeed style article wouldn’t be in a lot of ways. Especially if you are going to start talking about documents that need to be translated into other languages, read and understood by esl readers, people without great reading skills, or read to them by a text to speech reader. A lot of the “casual” that comes from that is actually harder to read and understand because it is thick with words that are made up, slang, untranslatable, unreadable by text to voice, and other problems. I would say Buzzfeed is way less plain language than HBR generally. And that may be a part of their calculation.

      These things are often more complex than we give them credit for and I’d suggest to OP really tuning in to listen to see what the reasons are for that specific tone, and not focus simply on one aspect of it but tone comes from a bunch of things. And if there are any documents about tone, audience, etc really dig into them and try to understand that from the users. It will help either identify if the org is simply not a good fit, or if there is something the OP is missing.

      Reply
      1. Fictional Butt

        Right. A problem that I’ve found with “casual style” writing, like on Buzzfeed and Autostraddle as someone mentioned above, is that it’s actually usually written for a very specific type of reader. It’s as if the writer is writing to their friend, and so if you aren’t the friend– if you don’t have the same background knowledge about the subject, or the same general life experience and education, or the same assumptions, or the same slang– it can be very hard to follow. It’s less accessible, not more.

        Reply
      2. Writing manager

        Yes, I came here to say this. OP, it’s hard for people to understand casual writing if English isn’t their first language. If your audience includes such people, don’t do that to them!

        Reply
  22. Fictional Butt

    OP– I think one thing to keep in mind is that “writing for a mass audience” doesn’t necessarily mean being casual or even simple. For one thing, who is your “mass audience”? The New York Times and People magazine both go out to mass audiences, but they have very different writing styles. Different readers prefer different styles, which is why different publications exist– you aren’t making your writing more “one size fits all” by using a simpler style.

    Reply
    1. Wannabe Disney Princess

      And lots of people read lots of different publications. For example, I read Buzzfeed. I also read Washington Post and The New York Times. From time to time, I read gossip sites (they’re like my junk food so bad and yet….). I don’t WANT to see the same style on all of those. I can comprehend in depth, formal writing about the intricacies of the latest tax bill in Congress as well as the casual writing about the latest millennial tweets that slay.

      Reply
  23. freelancer

    I’m a professional writer/editor, currently freelance, but with many years’ experience working for nonprofits. I’ll echo what other commenters have said and stress that you should do what your boss is asking. I’ll also add that this will ultimately be to your benefit, even though it doesn’t seem like it now. Learning to write in different styles will only help you professionally. You may even learn to take pride in learning to parrot a style that doesn’t feel natural to you–this is a skill in itself. Why not approach it as a challenge? I’ve done many kinds of writing that I never thought I would want to attempt, and as a result, I have a much broader range of experience and I’m more marketable now as a freelancer. Even if you don’t want to be a writer full-time, this kind of flexibility will serve you well in your work life. Also, if you are still junior, you have much to learn! Take the time to learn it now, and then when you are more senior, you’ll have more standing to push back at times when that is really required. You will not make a good impression if you keep insisting that you know more than the bosses about what type of writing works “best.”

    Reply
    1. boo

      100% agreed. The largest improvements in writing I’ve made in my adult life have been when necessity required me to write a whole lot of things I would never have done independently. Nothing morally reprehensible, just genres that I’d never worked in; styles that didn’t come easily to me; projects that required me to come up with what seemed like an infinite number of metaphors for body parts I am naturally inclined to call by name, rather than compare to swords* and flowers.

      Anyhoo… Doing those things expanded my range, and gave me new perspective on what had previously been my comfort zone. Do as you’re told on this one, not because your boss is right, but because in ten years, you will be a better writer because of it.

      *I have one word for that particular metaphor: OUCH!

      Reply
  24. Naomi

    OP, you’re right that writing quality is subjective, but that’s a double-edged sword here. Formal writing isn’t objectively better than casual, but casual isn’t objectively better than formal, either. They’re both preferences, and when you and your manager have different subjective preferences, your manager gets to pull rank. Maybe you’re right that a casual tone is more suitable for the work you’re doing; I don’t have the context to judge that. But I’d advise you to let go of the idea that this is a hill you have to die on.

    Reply
  25. FD

    I think where you’re getting tripped up is that right now, you see it as your boss getting hung up over one single piece of content. However, if all the other pieces your company produces are formal, and yours is more casual, yours might not fit in properly. To make it fit in, they might need to produce other pieces that are also more casual. They’d have to produce guidance on ‘how casual is too casual’. They may alienate some of their customers who expect a formal tone. There are actually a LOT of things to consider before changing a company’s writing style.

    I find a great way to think of disagreements at work as like rocks that can be moved. Some rocks are big. Some rocks are small. In work, you have a lever you can use to move those rocks. In general, the lower down the ladder you are, the smaller your lever.

    In general, the more other things are affected by the change you want to make, the bigger a rock it is. You also have a limited number of times you can use your lever; they wear out over time. You can improve your lever by being a good coworker, developing a reputation for competence, and having a generally good attitude.

    Reply
  26. Project Manager

    >>I think there’s an underlying belief in your letter that it’s okay to keep pushing and pushing if you’re right, but work just doesn’t work that way. There are people above you who are in charge of making decisions, and part of your job it to accept and execute those decisions (again, after voicing your viewpoint if there’s an important difference in perspective). If you disagree strongly enough, you can always leave — but you can’t stick around and just keep telling them they’re wrong and they should do it your way.

    This is correct. I have removed people from my team (I don’t have firing ability, but I can kick them off a desirable project if I’m managing it) because they refused to accept my decisions. I have also been the one who protested and then had to execute a decision I disagreed with, and I’ve also had to seriously consider at what point I was prepared to resign because a decision was so technically wrong that I couldn’t execute it. (In that particular case, management saw sense in the end.)

    Another point to consider, LW, is that as a junior team member, you likely don’t have the full perspective on your work. As an engineering PM, I often have to accept a solution that isn’t the technically best solution because of cost and schedule constraints that are largely invisible to my team members. In your case, the intended audience may not be who you think they are, or there may be high-level agreement on the image the company wants to present, etc., etc.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      The other thing is that being right isn’t an inherently important thing; it’s not, as Aaron Sorkin said about the truth, some all-fired holy thing. You can be right about any number of things wherein a fight about the thing will cost you more than the value of the rightness, because the value of rightness is often incredibly minimal.

      Reply
      1. Damn it, Hardison!

        Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective? I have to ask myself this question a few times a week.

        Reply
  27. Lady Phoenix

    It sounds like you have an issue with the organization itself with the writing style. It sounds like they WANT to cater to folks who enjoy formal writing versus the custumer base that reads buzzfeed.

    You can make your case about having a more inclusive audience, but be prepared for your company to go, “No. We like how we have things now and that includes a more formal writing style.”

    It is from there that you have to decide: do you want to change your writing to fit their needs, or do you want to work for Buzzfeed or a company with similiar writing style?

    You may have to turn in your resignation then and find something more like Buzzfeed.

    Reply
    1. Not a Real Giraffe

      I’ve seen Buzzfeed brought up a lot in the comments, and while I get why its name is being called out, I think there are lots of levels of casual between what I assume OP wants to do and what Buzzfeed does.

      (For example: there’s a level of familiarity and casualness that I use when writing an email to my boss than there is when I email our CEO. The email to my boss isn’t full of slang or pop cultural references, but just wouldn’t be as formal as an email I’d send to our chief executive.)

      Reply
      1. Myrin

        As far as I can see, it’s being brought up in the comments because OP brought it up first:
        “[Manager] tends to have very specific ideas about what writing should be like, for example using sophisticated writing (think Harvard Business Review), while I tend to use casual language (think Buzzfeed).”

        Reply
        1. Not a Real Giraffe

          The funny part is that before hitting “submit” on my comment, I even scrolled back up to the article to make sure I hadn’t missed a specific reference to Buzzfeed. Talk about lack of critical reading skills today!

          Reply
  28. insert pun here

    Without some data on audience engagement (clickthroughs, letters-to-the-editor, social media shares, whatever), I don’t think that you can argue for less formal writing. Some audiences do want formal writing in certain circumstances. If you want to make this argument to your boss, you need to be able to back it up with something more than just your gut instinct.

    I think the exception would be if you are producing content intended for both a professional/learned audience of subject matter experts as well as general readers/interested amateurs/non-experts. In that case, I think there is an argument to be made for producing less formal content for the latter audience… though you would have been in a better place to make this argument before pushing back about this. (Since we don’t know what kind of business this is, this may not even be applicable. But I work in an analogous situation, and we definitely adjust tone based on who we think the audience for a piece of writing is.)

    Reply
  29. ragazza

    Did my coworker send this? She’s constantly arguing she knows what readers want even though our type of business requires a more formal tone–we’re not selling cars. She did this so much at least one team has stopped working with her.

    Reply
    1. YarnOwl

      I used to have a manager in my current job who LOVED to use cutesy wording and phrases (especially alliteration, she was CRAZY about alliteration) even though we work in the insurance industry. It was so embarrassing as the department’s dedicated writer to have things go out that she insisted on that were totally inappropriate to the purpose.

      Luckily, our “clients” are the salespeople in the company, and they would usually shut that down in anything they were involved with, and after a while everyone sort of realized that it was her doing it, but it was still so awful to deal with! I was so relieved when they let her go.

      Reply
      1. Rusty Shackelford

        I had a coworker like that too, and we still have to re-do an occasional old document to “remove the Wakeen-isms.”

        Reply
        1. YarnOwl

          We have to do that too! Every once in a while we will come across something we don’t use often (she was let go less than a year ago), and we will say, “This has Jane written all over it.”

          Reply
        2. Nolan

          My company overhauled our user manuals several years ago. One of my colleagues was originally assigned to write a large part of it, but was eventually let go because his work there ended up highlighting some severe deficiencies in the rest of his work. All his sections were written in the “high school book report I didn’t do the reading for” style, and while I did redo all his pages, I still sometimes find weirdly worded passages that we missed in the original rewrite.

          Reply
          1. ragazza

            At least your companies realize the issue. Everyone at mine thinks this woman is a brilliant writer even though she has a tenuous grasp of grammar and vocabulary.

            Reply
  30. Birch

    It seems like LW is conflating quality with style. There is objectively “good” quality writing, but whether a certain style is appropriate or not in a certain situation is the subjective part. There’s also objectively “good” quality graphic design (compared to something else–quality doesn’t exist in a vacuum), but both quality and style have to be dictated by higher-ups. If they choose something, whether it’s objectively low quality work or subjectively a different tone, it’s still what you have to do. We had a situation in choosing a new logo where some more senior members of our group had the idea that they were good at graphic design (they are obviously, terribly, objectively not) and were telling our actual graphic designer things that everyone could see were bad ideas. In the end, the graphic designer came up with several options and we voted. Luckily, that choice was democratic and the better quality option won by a landslide. However, if the higher-ups had decided that they should get the last word, we would all have to live with it, including the graphic designer herself. That’s how hierarchy works. It’s too bad when higher-ups don’t take advice from the bottom, but it’s also not great when the lower ranking people refuse to follow the hierarchy over stuff that isn’t worth the fight in the end.

    Reply
    1. Purplesaurus

      This is an excellent point: quality vs. style. I’m probably one of the only three people on earth who doesn’t like Jane Austen’s style, but I can’t argue that isn’t quality writing.

      Reply
    2. peachie

      This is a great point and a great analogy (the graphic design thing). I do some graphic design work–lots of flyers and other text-specific items–in my current role, but it’s not the main part of my job, nor do I do the vast majority of graphic design for my organization.

      That means that I can’t just do whatever I want or whatever I think looks good. There are certain style guidelines–some explicit, like official font/colors and logos; some implicit, like what information we include, what sorts of graphics we use, and what the overall ‘tone’ of the final piece is–that I have to follow. When I stray from that, I’ll get comments from my superiors and have to adapt what I have so it coheres with our usual style.

      What those limitations DON’T mean–and where I think you may be getting caught up, OP–is that I have to make everything exactly the same, or that everything I create has to be based on an existing template, or that there’s no room for creativity and trying to improve upon and/or adapt what we’ve done in the past.

      In fact, having an awareness of what our brand image is allows me to be more creative than I might be otherwise; I have to try to think of how I can make my materials well-designed in a style that I like and am proud of while still living in the realm of who we are as a brand. Having those ‘restrictions’ in place takes so much of the pressure off you! You don’t have to make ALL the decisions! You can focus on making the best decisions within that framework!

      What I’m getting at, OP, is that you can follow all the rules and guidelines of your organization and still actually write. It’s not not a creative endeavor just because you’re not making all the decisions. Even if this job doesn’t end up being the right fit for you, it’s a lesson worth learning that being able to adapt your personal style to what’s needed or requested (a) is going to be necessary for jobs in which you’re writing content, and (b) doesn’t take away the option of creating a final product that you’re happy with.

      Reply
  31. Kathleen Pierce

    Suggestion: Ask your boss if she’s willing to let you gather demographic data, assess content performance against goals, survey users, and do A/B testing. As Alison says, in a head-to-head fight you will lose. Increasing ROI is a fight where everyone is on the same side working towards the same win.
    If you get permission to do any of this, you MUST let go of your preconceptions about what register is best for this audience. Be dispassionate, ask unbiased questions, and keep your focus and communications on what’s working for the company.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      As someone said above, if OP is junior I would strong suggest putting all their energy into trying to produce content that fits with the House Style at this point – not continuing to try and push and make the case for their style. That is above their paygrade to argue and I agree, if someone kept pushing back and then came at me with a powerpoint, I would fire them asap. There are lots of writers out there who are eager to help me produce the kind of content I want.

      Reply
  32. Florida

    OP, I have had this EXACT same problem in my career. I think writing should be based on how easy it is to read (8th grade level and below) and casual (write in the same voice you talk).
    I discussed this forever with people. I told them the Wall Street Journal was written at an 8th grade level. I showed them evidence, as in actual published research, that for the type of projects I was doing less formal writing was more effective than writing like a dissertation. This was a hill I was ready to die on.
    Ultimately, I lost this battle more than once.
    So, I agree with you wholeheartedly in your position on writing. But Alison’s advice is sound. If the Communications Director makes edits to your writing, you can make your case once, but that’s it. I know it’s hard – especially when you know you are right.

    Reply
    1. neverjaunty

      But you’re not right. It’s simply not true that everything ought to be written at an Nth-grade level, or that writing should always sound just like talking. The LW is trying to have it both ways – claiming that writing quality is subjective but her opinions on writing are objective and it’s a matter of “principle” – because she prefers to write in a Buzzfeed style. There is nothing in the letter that suggests that the specific project is something where the LW knows better than the Communications Director about the correct style here.

      Reply
      1. Artemesia

        The worst writing I have read is young people writing like they talk who are not terribly well read and so talk awkwardly. I am sure we can all think of current public figures whose talk we would not want to write like. If one is inarticulate then ‘writing like you talk’ is going to be dreadful. The second worst writing is the alliterative writing you see in things like church bulletins or in Rick Steves travel writing. Nothing quite so grating as cutesy and rhyming.

        Reply
        1. Falling Diphthong

          Few things are more boring, poorly organized, and hard to follow than the transcript of an actual conversation.

          Reply
          1. Elizabeth West

            Oh hell yeah. People jump all over the place when they talk. Fiction writers cannot write dialogue the way people actually speak. You can’t include all the ums, errs, you knows, likes, etc. or all the tangents. The reader will put the book down and never come back. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

            Reply
      2. Florida

        I was being a little bit facetious when I said that. My point in saying that is that in a scenario like this one (one involving an opinion rather than a black/white fact), both sides are positive that they are right. It is easy to think, “I should argue this because I’m right.” But the other side is just as right as you are. So even if you are positive that you are right, you should make your case once, then let it go.

        Reply
    2. k8

      “especially when you know you are right”

      but IS she right? i’m not sure it’s quite as black and white as you seem to think . . .

      Reply
      1. Florida

        You are correct. It’s not black and white, but OP is sure she is right (at least that’s my impression from the letter). So even if OP is positive she is right, she should make her case once, then drop it.
        When you think you are right (which both sides do in a subjective situation), it is very easy to get use that as justification to continue pushing your case. My point is that that is not a good reason to continue pushing your case.

        Think of it like this. You think the key lime pie is the best type of pie. I think apple is the best. We are trying to decide what is the best pie to serve. After we discuss, sometimes people start to believe their opinion is a fact. Sometimes they will even say things like, “The fact is (then offer an opinion) there is nothing more American than apple pie.” (OK, despite the phrase, that’s not really a fact.) But we are both 100% positive we are right in what the best pie is. My point is that no matter how right you are (or how right you think you are), you offer your case once, then drop it.

        Reply
        1. Alli525

          But a normal human should be able to distinguish between the concepts of “I have a favorite ____” and “My favorite ____ is the right and correct _____.” It is incorrect and irrational to believe that just because you have a favorite thing, that it is the Right thing. And especially when you’re in a hierarchical business setting, there is no “Right” except what your boss(es) have told you is Right. An entry-level person’s “Favorite” has nothing to do with what’s “Right.”

          Reply
          1. Florida

            I agree that normal human beings SHOULD be able to distinguish between my favorite and what is right and correct. But you don’t have to be in the workforce for long to realize that there are many people who cannot (or do not). They say things like , “The fact is that our teapots are superior to anything our competitor makes.” OK, that is not a fact. That is an opinion. But there are plenty of people who think if I call it a fact, it becomes a fact. You will find this at almost every level of the organization. It is not reserved exclusively for entry level employees
            I agree with you that this is irrational. It is 100% irrational. But you are dealing with human beings with emotions, not robots. People are not always rational.

            Reply
  33. NW Mossy

    OP, you’re right that you’re facing a significant decision point in your work, but it’s not the one you think it is. Your example isn’t really about picking battles – it’s about how you decide to take feedback when you disagree with the substance of it. That has huge impacts to your standing in the organization, which in turn helps you build the capital to advocate successfully for your point of view.

    As a junior employee, one of the best things you can do to build standing is to be intentionally and relentlessly open to feedback and willing to change up how you do things. It marks you as someone who’s a good listener, easy to work with, trustworthy, and able to shift with changing priorities. I know these sound like cliches and “doesn’t everyone do that?”, but truthfully, enough people miss the mark that your hitting it will add to your credibility.

    Taking feedback you don’t agree with is HARD. It’s one of the hardest things for professionals to learn, especially if you believe strongly that you’re good at what you do. You’ve got a key piece of understanding already in that you get that this stuff can be subjective. The next step is to recognize that you can bend to meet someone else’s subjective preference and still be you at the end of the day. You’re still bringing you into your work even if you incorporate someone else’s suggestions. And sometimes, you’ll even end up looking back and thinking “Yeah, that boss was right to say that.”

    Reply
    1. Specialk9

      Boom!
      “As a junior employee, one of the best things you can do to build standing is to be intentionally and relentlessly open to feedback and willing to change up how you do things. ”

      This. And see, a whole page full of good writers who generally agree, and this right here encapsulates it.

      Reply
  34. L

    DUDE — DANGER ZONE. THIS IS NOT WORTH IT. I also write for a living, and trust me: the “right” way to write is the way your boss wants, end of. You fear the boss “dictates your writing style” — uh, YES, that’s how it works. I’ve had bosses that insist on their own unique (and also wrong) punctuation ideas, and I’ve had to go along. Another boss threatened to fire me for not putting two spaces after a period, which I understand is a convention left over from 1970s typing classes. Another didn’t care about content as long as I jammed in a bunch of marketing jargon buzzwords. That’s the job. I guarantee your boss is probably baffled that you’re fighting this as hard as you are, and you risk developing a reputation as difficult.

    I sense you are concerned about your creativity and your “voice,” which I respect. But compare your situation to session musicians — they are all highly skilled and no doubt have their own ideas, but they get PAID to show up and play in whatever style the boss of the day wants. Ditto for graphic artists, muralists, and yeah, writers.

    Good luck out there!

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      For what it’s worth, OP, when I was younger I realized how critical it was for me to have my OWN projects (vanity projects, basically) produced outside of work, where I could get exactly the style and the meaning *I* wanted – because it was hard to have my work products always “committee-ed” to death and watered down. I really needed that outlet so that I could take it on the chin at the office.

      Reply
    2. Snark

      Yeah. You’re not a novelist or a painter or a blogger. You’re a craftsman, not an artist. You’re more like a line cook. You’re not coming up with your own unique take on the dish. Your job is not to second-guess the parsley garnish. Your job is to say “yes Chef” and do it the way Chef wants to see it done, tight and clean and consistent. And there’s room for personal satisfaction and the pride of a job done well and to spec there, but you’re not Chef.

      Reply
      1. SimonTheGreyWarden

        And that doesn’t mean you can’t be Chef *one day*, just that for now you have to accept your place on the line.
        (I’m a professional writing tutor; I teach students how to make overly casual and slang-laden language sound academic without losing their own voice, which can be a delicate balancing act).

        Reply
        1. Myrin

          Or that Chef won’t say in the future that there are sub-areas where you can go all out! I do actually work part-time in a kitchen and there are things my boss – the chef – leaves up to me completely. “Just put it down however you feel looks good!” is something he says quite regularly. But still there are other areas where I need to defer to him completely.

          Reply
        2. Snark

          Absolutely. And as Chef gets more confidence in your judgement, maybe he’ll listen if you suggest a cilantro garnish, or “hey, I had this rad idea for special today,” or “I had this idea, let me make it for family meal” or whatever.

          Getting heavy flashbacks to line cookin’, talking this way.

          Reply
        3. Courtney

          I would love to hear more about this! Any general tips (if it’s not too off topic)? I’m in my final year of school for teaching English in the upper level grades, and this is definitely an area that’s tricky!

          Reply
      2. Aurion

        I would argue that even the most artsy of artists still need to have guidelines and structure to make the whole thing cohesive, though admittedly the higher you go, the more leeway you have (tempered by experience that junior folks don’t have!). You could have beautiful prose that would make Shakespeare weep and yet, if you can’t construct a cohesive narrative and a good character arc, your novel is not going anywhere.

        Reply
  35. YarnOwl

    Kind of an aside, but I can say as a professional writer that there’s a halfway point here: formal and polished writing doesn’t have to be stuffy and wordy and boring and hard to understand.

    I work in the insurance industry and write for a variety of purposes and audiences, and it’s all polished and somewhat formal, but it’s still digestible and accessible for the majority of people. There are a lot of things that you can do without moving down to the Buzzfeed level of casual to make writing easier for people to read and understand.

    I’ve definitely had to push back on others at times who may not have the same experience and tools that I do, but in this specific instance it really seems to me like it didn’t need to be an argument.

    Reply
    1. Akcipitrokulo

      Absolutely. The misconception that formal = dry and boring is very irritating! Formal can be deliciously alive and I love some of the intricasies that can dwell in a really good formal piece.

      Reply
  36. TeacherNerd

    OP:

    My background (two graduate degrees in rhetoric and the teaching of writing) has led me to a career teaching college-level introductory and intermediate writing classes. The very first thing we cover on the very first day, aside from the correct pronunciation of my ridiculously Polish married surname (minimum qualifications: at least 42 letters long with interminable amounts of z, y, and w), is to discuss what we write. I ask students to tell me what type of writing they do: school papers is usually the first thing that come to mind…and that’s it. I ask how many student text, or e-mail, or are Twitter/Facebook/Snapchat/Instagram/etc., and they all raise their hands to at least one of those options. We then talk about how our writing changes according to the rhetorical situation – audience and purpose. What’s appropriate in terms of texting to a friend is not necessarily not appropriate when you’re writing a cover letter or talking to your boss-who’s-30-years-older-than-you. They don’t realize that they change their tone based on who they’re trying to reach and why, and that you need to understand what’s appropriate based on your changing understanding of you audience.

    Formal does NOT need to be unreadable (and I’m a bit nonplussed to see you equating all formal writing with stultifying stuffiness). You might be misreading your audience, but the previous comment that The Audience is Not a Monolith is right on. Something can be formal and quite readable, but what that constitutes is different, even for the same group of people in that theoretically singular audience.

    Reply
  37. Jaguar

    OP, how would you feel if you paid a contractor to write something professional to you, they returned something conversational, and then refused to change it because of their opinions on writing? You need to change your perspective from “I am being paid to produce content” to “I am being paid to produce the content someone else wants.”

    Reply
    1. Landshark

      +1. Content is useless if it doesn’t serve its intended purpose. Your company has a purpose. It’s your job to make the words serve that purpose.

      Reply
  38. CaliCali

    Also, you mention being a junior writer. I remember my first professional writing/editing gig out of college, and I remember the shock and frustration and disillusionment that came from being told that my education and experience wasn’t any kind of authoritative source. I remember feeling like everything that I Knew In My Heart about writing — which I’d learned from journalism school, and writing for a few newspapers — was being upended and disrespected. What do you mean you don’t spell out “percent” and use % because of space constraints? Why are acronyms not only acceptable, but embraced? WHY DOESN’T ANYONE CARE ABOUT THE RULES AND COMMON WISDOM?!?! But the truth is that — as you said — writing is subjective. There are a number of different style guides, house styles, and even variances on grammatical “rules” that are acceptable. The most important function of writing is to communicate well and clearly, and there are a multitude of ways to achieve that. So because your employer prefers a different style, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong, or they’re wrong. It just means you have different ideas. And because they’re paying you, their ideas are the ones that’ll be the rules.

    Reply
  39. Mike C.

    I think it would help a great deal if your workplace were to adopt/adapt/create a style manual. That would prevent a good deal of this conflict.

    Reply
    1. Rusty Shackelford

      I don’t know… it sounds like the problem isn’t that the OP doesn’t know their employer’s style, they just don’t want to follow it.

      Reply
    2. sunny-dee

      They do have guidelines. The OP has been actively ignoring them, and is planning on passively ignoring them.

      I assume it was for my benefit as well, since such work tends to be subjective, even though there are brand or corporate guidelines to stick to, and there may be some leeway I can use.

      Reply
        1. sunny-dee

          I had to read it, like, three times to grasp that, because my brain just shut down that someone would flout a style guide that brazenly.

          Reply
          1. President Porpoise

            Actually, this is a great example of why a specific style isn’t effective for all writing tasks. I know we’re not supposed to critique the OP’s language or writing choices or grammar, but in this case it directly applies.

            OP, your letter wasn’t particularly clear or easy to read. Many commentators missed important pieces of information. This information was phrased kind of parenthetically, which is common in a loose, casual style of writing. That’s fine here, though somewhat confusing. Very little rides on our collective understanding of your point in the grand scheme of things.

            But what if this letter had been an important piece of communication at your company, and we your coworkers, managers, and public audience? Do you want your managers trying to figure out what you probably meant in some side conversation where you don’t get to provide input? Do you want to provide unclear or confusing documents to your coworkers, or worse the public?

            Reply
  40. Anonymous Educator

    Not about this specific case with formal/casual writing, but just for picking your battles in general, I’ve got to say I’ve had the best luck in being fairly respective of the office hierarchy. I generally do what my boss says (as long as it’s not illegal). This gives me a lot more leverage when I do protest. And when I protest, I do so respectfully and deferentially. My bosses don’t feel threatened or feel that I’m constantly pushing back (and thus constantly have to be shut down), so they take me far more seriously when I do push back.

    I usually present my case as “I don’t think we should do X, because of Y and Z reasons. What do you think?” And if it gets shut down, it gets shut down. But, again, I haven’t gotten shut down very often, though.

    And picking your battles really does mean picking them. “Is this the hill I want to die on?” is something you should ask yourself every time you push back.

    Reply
  41. DC

    Question: How do you handle this on the flip side, as the manager? If you have an employee who keeps pushing back? Assume firing isn’t an option.

    Reply
    1. Anonymous Educator

      I think the best thing to do is to hear them, and then shut it down. “Thank you for bringing these concerns to me. I understand why you want to do X, Y, and Z. We have reasons we aren’t (A, B, and C). If we decide to revisit this, I’ll let you know.”

      Reply
      1. fposte

        And if it keeps going or comes back, “I’ve informed you of the ruling here, and I won’t be using our time to relitigate the issue. Please don’t bring it up again.”

        Reply
    2. Snark

      I’ve used wording to the effect of, “I realize this is something you feel strongly about, and you’ve made your opinion and rationale clear. Ultimately, I decided to take the approach we discussed. If we need to revisit that, I’ll let you know, but I’m not open to re-litigating this now. Can you get on board to implement this?”

      Reply
    3. Allypopx

      I have one of these. Usually dealt with with some variation of “I hear you, I understand where you’re coming from, we’re making the decision we believe is best for the team and we need you to get on board. Can you do that?” which usually results in some sulking but ultimately solves the issue at hand. You can tailor it a little too. For example he cares a lot about his coworkers so any implication that he’s making things harder for other people or not taking them into consideration tends to quiet him down. “I promise there are reasons we’re doing things this way, there’s a lot on the back end you’re not privy too” also works.

      Reply
    4. Lynn Whitehat

      This was a low-stakes situation, but I am reminded of the time I was planning a large group camp-out/small festival with 9 other people. One guy asked, “should we permit dogs?” Hmm. Dogs have never been permitted in the past, but one of the rewards for doing the work of planning is that we can consider making changes. We all considered it, and decided against allowing dogs. They poop, they bark, they don’t get along with other dogs… it’s just too much trouble.

      But this guy kept coming back, day after day, for weeks! Asking about dogs like we hadn’t already had this conversation a bunch of times. Once, sure. Maybe twice. But by the 12th time, “hey! I just thought of something! Maybe we could allow people to bring dogs, what do you all think?” was just maddening. How can we ever move forward if nothing is ever settled? And since we were 10 co-collaborators, no one person had the authority to tell him to stick a sock in it.

      Reply
  42. Rusty Shackelford

    While I have no issues with filling in content gaps, I was not too keen on using formal tone, as I believe that content should be accessible and reader-friendly, not dry, sterile, and bland.

    If you can’t making your writing both formal and accessible, maybe this isn’t the job for you.

    Reply
  43. Jan

    My job involves a great deal of writing and you really just have to abandon your personal style when you work at a company. I mean, there are a few exceptions but mostly, you have to write in the style of the company. The only time I have ever gone to battle (in a respectful calm way) over writing is when writing is intentionally obtuse when it needs to be clear. Sometimes with internal documents, higher-ups like to be kind of vague and obtuse when giving bad news. They think it softens the blow somehow when all it really does is confuse and make it seem like they’re hiding something. So I will push gently in those cases. You need to be transparent and you need your employees to understand policies.

    The only other time I’ve gone to battle is when a leader within my organization penned a letter to Oprah (when she had a show) and the letter was a nightmare – she made some words in different fonts and colors. She said “It will grab her attention!” but it just looked like a serial killer wrote it. So I changed it and made it professional and she kept going back and forth. I’m not at all ashamed that I finally told her I mailed her version but just mailed the professional version instead. I could not in good faith send a letter out from the company where some words were in 18 pt comic sans pink and others were in 14 pt pegasus blue.

    Reply
    1. Landshark

      Re: the letter… yikes. I’m with you on making sure the proper version went out. That would be mortifying to send or receive your coworker’s draft.

      Reply
  44. cornflower blue

    A novelist gets to choose her own style. A journalist with a byline might get to choose her own style. A business writer adheres to the style of her company. This is not your call to make.

    Reply
      1. Matilda Jefferies

        Harlequin Romances are a great example of this. Harlequin has specific guidelines that all their authors must follow – tone, story arc, word count, and pretty much everything else have to adhere to their specific style, because that’s what their readers expect. If you went to Harlequin going “All those romances are so boring and stuffy, let me give you a great steampunk lesbian Disney fanfic work instead!” – you’d be bounced out the door pretty quickly. Not that there isn’t a market for steampunk lesbian Disney fanfic, but Harlequin isn’t it.

        Reply
        1. Matilda Jefferies

          I’m getting a bit far down the rabbit hole here, but I have to share their style guide because I found it fascinating. They go to a lot of trouble to describe exactly what they want for each series, including specific examples from their own publications and other pop culture.

          https://harlequin.submittable.com/submit

          This is actually the kind of thing I would love to write – not the romances themselves, but the style guide is amazing!

          Reply
    1. Falling Diphthong

      Even for a novelist, if the standard is actually being published there’s a huge range in how much latitude you have to push back against suggested changes. Based on things like “my last three books were best-sellers” rather than “this is the sort of book I like, so other people will like it too.”

      Reply
    2. Rosa

      This is very true. I’m trying (and mostly failing) to write for an episodic TV drama right now and the style guidelines are extremely tight, not to mention obviously I’m writing for characters other people created. Theatre, at least in my country (UK), is really the only medium where the writer is put on a pedastal and giving the type of total creative freedom many writers feel is there due.

      But you know, most writers aren’t going to end up writing for the Royal Court. As mentioned above even best selling novelists have editors.

      Reply
  45. Miss Herring

    I would love to know what line of business your company inhabits. Buzzfeed’s style, while it can be easily read, is solely meant to keep views on click-bait pages. They barely proofread what they write, and they aren’t known for doing good research or being authoritative on ANYTHING – but this is appropriate for their product. If your company has you writing for, say, finance or advertising a business-to-business product, the company will lose a LOT by being as casual as Buzzfeed. That style of writing says “We aren’t taking this seriously.” The Harvard Business Review style says “We have done our research, and you can cite this as authoritative.”

    Take the example of an accounting firm. Say there were a new change to overtime rules, and the firm wanted to give clients’ bookkeepers a warning that this change was coming. Which would be appropriate? Which would make your clients think of switching to another firm?
    “So, it looks like our state is requiring all time over 30 hours to be paid at time-and-a-half. It’ll start in December, so keep a sharp eye and look out for the changes you’ll need. The big payroll services already know. Call us on the office line if you have questions. We’ll help you figure out how this’ll hit your cashflow or how to get your payroll system ready for it.”
    “Effective December 1, 2017, the state of XXX mandates that weekly hours past the 30-hour threshold will be paid at time-and-a-half. The large payroll services, such as ADP and Paychex, have confirmed that they have this change set up in their systems. However, clients who use QuickBooks Payroll and other in-house programs will need to manually adjust their payroll setup. Please contact us at (123) 456-7890 if you would like assistance in adjusting your in-house program; would like assistance in calculating the weekly change the increased payroll, taxes, and benefits will have on your cashflow; or have any other questions regarding the new law.”

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      they aren’t known for doing good research or being authoritative on ANYTHING

      This actually got discussed a bit in the comments on a post yesterday: Buzzfeed actually employs some top-notch political reporters now and is known for excellent journalism in that area (subsidized by their “what Stranger Things character are you?” quizzes).

      Reply
      1. Miss Herring

        My mistake, then! I haven’t read any of their political material, but I have noticed information being shallow, misleading, and outright wrong in other (non-politics, non-news) areas that interest me.

        Reply
      2. Observer

        This actually highlights one of the points about tone though. Because of their general reputation, a lot of people don’t take Buzzfeed’s political reporting seriously. Eventually that may change, but for now it’s a challenge they need to deal with.

        I can’t really blame a company for not wanting to get into that kind of mess.

        Reply
      3. BF50

        Exactly. Buzzfeed was the one who actually printed the Trump dossier and some of their investigative reporting is really in depth and top notch. I would say they are decidedly left of center, but still amazingly well researched. They even won a pulitzer citation this year.

        Reply
      4. H.C.

        Also worth mentioning that the writing style/tone on their journalism side (which I love) is considerably different than that of their quizzes & listicles side.

        Reply
      5. Kate 2

        Well, some of their stuff is decent, some of it is badly researched and presented as fact, not as opinion, and never print corrections on it. Of course the New York Times does this too, so . . .

        Reply
  46. MindoverMoneyChick

    I witnessed almost this exact argument between a junior employee and the Big Boss years ago. Actually Big Boss wanted a little bit of flare, marketing style in a training document. Junior employee kept arguing, that it wasn’t necessary to get the point across. Big Boss was the type to make sure she listened to dissenting opinions so she stayed in the discussion with him. Probably to his detriment, because they spent like 20 minutes going back and forth while Big Boss got more annoyed. she should have but it off in just 5 minutes and told him to just do it.

    He flat out wouldn’t. I had to jump and and re-write it. And Big Boss was not wrong. Yes it wasn’t technically necessary to add the flare, but it would get our clients more excited about what we were producing. And that was a very important business goal, if not a critical training goal. New employee did not have the perspective to understand it. A couple of us pulled him aside and told him he needed to have shut up after the 3rd time voicing his opinion. He just kept doubling down on being “right”. But he was wrong, and just couldn’t see it.

    Reply
      1. MindoverMoneyChick

        Luckily for him he was very good at other aspects of the job – untangling technical material that not everyone could get. And really nice and personable most of the time. but that attitude brought him close to getting the ax more than once. He eventually moved into an IT role which he was well suited to, and he’s still there.

        Reply
  47. Chatterby

    Since the manager who made the comments was not the LW’s manager, and was not the one with final approval for the article, the LW should have thanked the manager for the fact-check and the feedback, and left it there.
    LW could then submit the article to her own manager for approval, and if her manager said it needed a more formal tone, made the appropriate changes.
    It’s important to realize, especially with subjective products, like writing, that you, your boss, and the readers/clients are not enemies who need to argue, battle, or ‘win’ things. You are all on the same team and have the same goal: to produce good quality, useful things. Disagreements should be discussions, not arguments.
    If someone says “this tone doesn’t work” you can explain “I did it this way because I was going for X, Y, and Z, does that seem to be working?” and then they can either agree to go with your approach, or say, “I see what you’re trying to do, but we don’t need X, Y, and Z, we actually need A, B, and C, and if you made ___ change, this would work.” to which could be replied, “What if I tried ___? It would ___.”
    There will be times when you’ll need to pushback, but being able to express and discuss differences in opinion without fighting and having the flexibility to adapt without pettiness or resentment are signs of maturity everyone would benefit from cultivating.

    Reply
    1. sunny-dee

      Not necessarily, for your first point. My manager is people manager of my content team, but my subject matter experts are the ones that typically do reviews and approvals of my work, because I’m writing for them and their projects. So, I’m often writing an article that may appear as their byline or be used by them for a campaign.

      The rest of what you wrote is SPOT ON, though.

      Reply
  48. The Vulture

    I think this is trickier for people who have a strong moral sense and high level of certainty in their own beliefs. Everything is very important because it’s a matter of RIGHT VS WRONG. I learned, when talking to one of my BIL, that some people believe that their sincere conviction that their boss is wrong almost constitutes a moral obligation to push back, until the rule is changed, or whatever. This is an irritating way to live your life! For you and for your boss or even coworkers! I think people get attached to one way as right or wrong and begin feel like it’s a moral issue, It’s easy to get attached to being ‘right’, whereas if you focus on “this is a business decision that my bosses are making. I’m not in charge of making this decision. If I am right, it is still their business and their decision to make” it won’t feel personal/wrong/like you are betraying your principles. Righteousness may feel good but when we’re talking business: the boss gets to decide the direction/policies/style that is used, and, as always, remember that just because you feel righteous, does not mean you are right.

    Reply
    1. Artemesia

      I think you are right. Some people both see things as black and white, right and wrong and feel a moral obligation to push and push and push because it is ‘right.’ I learned early on in hiring that when a reference said the person has a ‘strong moral sense’ or were ‘very moral’, that what they meant was this person is a rigid moralistic pain in the butt. Everyone I hired who had this kind of reference was just that.

      Reply
    2. Junebug

      At the risk of derailing the topic, how would you say the equation changes when it’s something unethical but not illegal or unsafe? Suppose your boss wants you to do something that violates company policy or seems generally sketchy, and Allison’s script didn’t change anything? Would that justify pushing back more or just polishing up your resume?

      Reply
      1. fposte

        It’d depend on what’s meant by “seems generally sketchy,” but there’s also the option of consulting with HR or your boss’s boss.

        It’s pretty unusual that merely repeated pushback from a junior is going to change a manager’s mind if it didn’t the first time, no matter what we’re talking about. So the problem isn’t just that it costs you political capital, it’s that it’s not likely to be effective. Find a way to make it more effective.

        Reply
      2. sunny-dee

        I dropped a project once because the sales director wanted me to revamp their website and explicitly state that their product / service had features that I knew for a fact (from doing the technical docs and working with the engineering reams) were not in production and weren’t even in development because of some problems in designing them. He thought that putting the nonexistent features in the website would be a “hook” for customers, and that he could just finesse any customer contracts around it.

        That was unethical, and I refused to do it. Because I was a freelancer at the time, thought, it was a lot easier to just walk away than it would have been if I were a full employee. I probably would have escalated to a VP in that case.

        Reply
      3. MillersSpring

        I once pushed back on an unethical request–the CEO and SVP of Sales and Marketing gave me edits to a press release that included a fictional quote from a fictional customer. I said no, you’ll have to find someone else to write it and someone else to issue it. They dropped it. And I started job searching.

        Reply
    3. Q

      I take a “if that’s what you want to do, I am taking no responsibility for that decision whatsoever. But I’ll do it.” approach.

      Reply
    4. Observer

      I don’t think it’s as much about moral sense as black and white thinking. If there is only ONE RIGHT way to do X and everything else is trash, then you are much more likely to push back, whereas if you can get to ONE BEST and other NOT BEST, BUT ACCEPTABLE, you are not going to waste as much energy.

      Reply
    5. Lison

      To me if there is no ethical element to it you register your objection and just do it once you have documented proof you objected and were told to do it anyway. Usually lower stakes but one time there was a threat of legal action over something I had questioned doing at the time and who caused the issue actually checked that I still had the proof they ordered it before admitting it was their error of judgment. Otherwise I’d have been held accountable.

      Reply
      1. Akcipitrokulo

        I’m aware I sometimes have a tendency to do that. So I keep an eye on the signs of its happening and go for a walk if the red flags appear… makes life happier!

        Reply
        1. Specialk9

          Oh yeah, I do several of those. Being able to name it actually really helps to pop me back into rational/problem solving mode instead of spiraling.

          Reply
  49. JD

    You are an employee you write what you are told. If you want to write however you want then you can do that on your unpaid time.

    Reply
  50. Q

    Writer here…this one rankles me. You can write well in both casual and formal styles. You can write user-friendly and accessible text both casually and formally.

    At least, you can if you’re as good a writer as this LW thinks they are.

    It’s a learning experience I think LW sorely needs. And it’s good practice to learn how to write in multiple styles for multiple audiences. And it would be really great for them to learn why this style is what the bosses chose, but I think they might have pushed this too far to get an answer on that (I like asking my bosses why things are done the way they are. It helps me understand how to do it best).

    (also I’m biased in that my main experience with Buzzfeed is not really writing but a couple random sentences in an article littered with pictures and gifsets and am not sure what’s she’s lauding about it. But that’s me)

    Reply
    1. MindoverMoneyChick

      So true – In my story above we eventually found out the employee couldn’t actually write in the style the Big Boss wanted, although he was a wiz with complex technical writing. Fortunately we had enough of that work to only assign him to those projects. But he limited his experiences and options by not being willing to learn.

      Reply
    2. moss

      I agree. I’m shocked she chose Buzzfeed as an example because, political journalism aside, Buzzfeed is the typical “what’s wrong with the world today” example of how Standards Have Declined On The Internet. WHY would you want to emulate Buzzfeed of all places, my goodness.

      Reply
  51. Matilda Jefferies

    I’m seeing some all-or-nothing thinking here, with the assumption that writing is EITHER formal OR accessible, but that it can’t be both.

    OP, you seem to have set up a dichotomy where:
    Formal = specific, dry, sterile, bland;
    Casual = accessible, reader-friendly, digestible, plain language.

    This isn’t necessarily true. Plenty of written works are both formal and accessible, both bland and reader-friendly. For example, I would assume that a procedure document should be both bland and user-friendly, as you want to be able to understand what you’re supposed to do without wading through formal or overly exciting language. And something like a “how to access this free legal aid clinic” website should be both formal enough for people to take it seriously, and accessible enough to be understood by people who may have low literacy or language skills.

    It really depends on your audience, and what they’re expecting to see from your work. So I’m going to echo what pretty much everyone else is saying here, which is that the managers and Communications people are probably the best judges of your audience. This one is not the battle to pick.

    Reply
  52. Jadelyn

    Writing isn’t part of my role officially, but I’m a writer off the clock, and word got around my workplace that if you need something wordsmithed, I’m a good resource for that. So I get asked to draft communications for other people pretty regularly.

    To me, it’s a point of pride that I can look at who made the request, what they’re asking me to convey, and adjust my normal writing voice/style to mimic theirs so that the communication sounds like it’s actually coming from Fergus, rather than “Jadelyn on behalf of Fergus”. That’s a specific skill that can be very useful to have, whether specifically in the sense of being able to mimic specific other people’s writing styles, or more broadly in the ability to modulate your tone and style without losing your own voice entirely. Maybe you could try to reframe this conflict to yourself, and look at it as a chance to strengthen your skills in flexibility or alternate styles.

    But I mean, overall…yeah, you’re pushing way too hard on something that’s not your decision to make. When you’re a managing editor or a director of communications someday, then you can make all the stylistic choices you want and tell other people how to write things. Until then, you’re on the receiving end of that equation, and that’s just a reality you’re going to need to cope with.

    Reply
  53. Grits McGee

    LW, a story— I work for a govt agency, and non-partisanship is extremely important to accomplishing our mission. A field office social media manager sent what she thought was a funny tweet about a current political event, and it went super viral- more coverage than anything we’ve ever posted, mentioned in the news, etc. From her point of view she thought it was great coverage for the agency, but it was a BIG deal because it the tone of the tweet made it look like the agency was taking a side on a suuuuper sensitive hot-button political issue. This could have had major ramifications on our funding for the whole agency. Sometimes mass appeal is a far more secondary goal than maintaining a reputation, or satisfying major stakeholders.

    Reply
  54. Observer

    Op, I’m going to be very blunt. If you want your career to do well, you are going to need to rethink your attitude. Not just to how you deal with your employer(s) and managers, but to writing and communications.

    As others have noted, you have conflated several different issues. You have also neglected the simple fact that different audiences and different subjects require different writing styles. “accessible to the mass market” is not always the appropriate goal. And Buzzfeed style writing is not always to the appropriate style even for mass market work.

    For instance, if I, as a layman, want to look for information about a medical condition, a Buzzfeed style article is exactly what I do NOT need. Yes, it needs to be written for the mass market, but it needs to be written differently than Buzzfeed. If you want to see the difference, look at the (medically useless) stuff that they publish and places like the Mayo Clinic, Pubmed or even WebMD. I’m not trying to push that particular site or vouch for it’s accuracy. I’m just pointing out that they present with far more credibility than Buzzfeed, and you can get the information you are looking for much more easily that from Buzzfeed. And, if my doctor is looking for some information, even that is not really the style or content needed. But at least they won’t be rolling their eyes. Then they are going to go to the sites that you consider “sterile and bland” but which give them the information they need at the level they need it in.

    For another example, if you are writing descriptions of your product for proposals, Buzfeed style writing could kill your chances of getting the contract in many cases. Of course, that’s not always the case. But that speaks to a really big issue with your attitude – KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. You are assuming that “good writing” looks ONE way, and that ALL audiences need or want the same thing. And that’s not true.

    Let me just point out that HBR is a rather successful concern. Obviously their writing style WORKS for the audience they are aiming for. And that’s the key. It’s the job of your communications director to know the audience you should be aiming for and what voice works. You can ASK about the thinking, but you need to accept the answers. And you need to accept that there are different voices and different styles that are appropriate for different use cases.

    Reply
    1. Maya Elena

      Heh, I dislike webMD style articles, and even more when their exact wording is recycled verbatim and uncredited on other sites.
      They only give you “current orthodoxy” with appropriate butt-covering statements, but for anything nuanced, you need to craft creative search terms and look at research papers.

      Reply
      1. Observer

        Sure, but WebMD doesn’t really claim to give you anything else. Also, you, a person who does not especially want the current orthodoxy and who is also competent to “craft creative search terms” and actually read and understand research papers are not their audience.

        Sue who has some symptoms and wants to know if she should talk to her doctor; Joe who heard about some “miracle cure” for shingles and wants to know if he should bother with it; Jack and Jill who are trying to figure out if their pediatrician is out to lunch are the people who are their audience.

        Ask yourself this: How would you react if someone came to you and said “I need to do X because I read about it in a Buzzfeed article” vs “I need to do this because I saw it on WebMD.”

        Reply
        1. Observer

          Also, I just want to be clear – I’m not actually suggesting that people go to WebMD. I’m just making the point that they are a thriving mass market site that does a good job of sharing specific information, which BuzzFeed is totally useless at.

          Reply
  55. caryatis

    I’m not sure if Alison noticed that this is a disagreement between the junior staffer and “a” manager, i.e. not the letter-writer’s direct manager. So, it would make sense to get the direct manager’s input on this disagreement. Same basic advice though: senior people get to dictate your writing style even if you think it’s boring and inaccessible. If you want to express yourself by using your own particular writing style, you can do so outside work.

    Reply
    1. Half-Caf Latte

      I disagree that it would make sense to get the direct manager’s input on this disagreement. It’s already escalated to the head of communications.

      If my employee came to me and said: other manager and communications head already told me to do X,Y, and Z, but I still think #ab&c is the way to go, I’d think they were cluelessly stubborn at best, or asking me to use political capital to override my fellow managers in order to get employee their way. I’d be annoyed, to say the least, and seriously questioning their judgement.

      Reply
      1. Falling Diphthong

        I disagree that it would make sense to get the direct manager’s input on this disagreement. It’s already escalated to the head of communications.

        Seconding. There are points where I might pull in the person for whom I’m formally working, who can fire me for not doing as I’m told, because the issue is something that would make me give a hard pass to any future assignment from this outside person/group. Formality is absolutely not one of them. Most of the time, the professional thing to do is make whatever changes I was just told to, not drag in my manager with “But I don’t waaaaaaaanna.”

        On a recent project, one of the other writers did push back, successfully, on a new directive. She was channeling all the other writers; she just happened to respond first, with a concise summary of why it wouldn’t work. (Besides being fast, she’s excellent and very experienced, so our boss and the client would listen to her.) Tone is not something I can picture her ever pushing back on with a client, much less dragging in the official hire/fire person–it’s 50 shades of unprofessional.

        Reply
        1. caryatis

          Yeah, I didn’t mean that OP should use the direct manager to push back more–that would be inappropriate at this point– but that in the future, it would make sense to get the direct manager involved whenever there is a disagreement with another manager. Not to get them on your side, but so that OP can get a better idea of the company’s expectations.

          Reply
    2. sunny-dee

      It may not matter. As I said, my manager is a people manager — the other subject matter experts are the ones that review and actually use my work. My manager doesn’t really have an opinion on any given content piece and he’s not the one creating or assigning my work. (Although I’m also a senior writer and have a fair amount of autonomy.) Even still, the SMEs are the ones that truly are the stakeholders in my work, much more than my boss.

      Reply
  56. always in email jail

    While “good writing” is subjective, the needs and preferences of the organization may not be.
    I had an employee like this, and guess what? They don’t work here anymore. I did them the courtesy of hearing them out (on a number of issues), and explaining to them that yes, that was a fresh and interesting idea, but we are bound by grant guidelines/accreditation requirements/national best practices etc. (and I’d even further explain those), and what she was proposing was not in line with those drivers.
    Ultimately, it came down to the fact she was producing objectively well-designed documents…. that were not at all in line with what I was requesting from her. If you can’t produce the products you’re asked to produce, you might as well be doing nothing. Please learn to accept this and if it bothers you that much, find somewhere more suited to your style

    Reply
  57. madge

    I understand OP’s frustration. A large part of my job is writing and many times my ideas are different. But had the situation above played out in my workplace, there’s a very good chance the OP would’ve been fired. At the very least, it would’ve led to a warning and a flag in the employee’s file.

    OP, the insubordination you wrote about won’t be a fireable offense everywhere but please understand that at some places it would be. It doesn’t matter who is right.

    Reply
  58. Jen

    As a writer, I can say that half of your skillset should be the ability to adapt. Every single place you write for will have a different tone of voice and you can’t adopt your own style in every job.

    If writing is the career you want to pursue, you’re going to have to be ready to change the way you work. You don’t need to lose your own voice, but you do need to make it suit the brand.

    Reply
    1. Lily in NYC

      Agree! OP wouldn’t have the type of writing freedom she seems to think she’s entitled to even if she decided to freelance. She will always have an editor unless she becomes one. The only way I can see her getting to write for herself is by self publishing on amazon or something.

      Reply
      1. Q

        “Writing freedom” isn’t much fun, anyway. Generally a good fiction editor is going to help you edit to make your point come across better and writers often see the value in those comments, even if they kind of grumble about it.

        Reply
  59. Julius Pepperwood

    Seeing a lot of people advising the OP that the job is a ‘bad fit.’ I feel duty-bound to say, any job is going to be a bad fit for a junior employee who firmly believes they know better than management. You can change jobs, but you will just delay this learning process. I think the better move here would be to figure out how to take feedback you don’t agree with gracefully (as NW Mossy so eloquently lays out, above) and see if you can successfully adapt. Once you can do that, your changes both of being able to get and keep a job writing in your preferred style will be much higher.

    Reply
  60. Ann O'Nemity

    Where is the OP’s own manager in all this? Are they supportive of the casual style and this conflict is only with the one other manager? Or has the OP’s manager similarly told the OP to write more formally? Does the OP’s manager even know all this is happening?!

    As a manager myself, I would really want to know if one of my direct reports has having this kind of conflict on any matrix assignments. Especially if it escalated to the communications head! And you can bet I would be coaching accordingly.

    Reply
  61. Broadcastlady

    I’m a News Director for a radio station, but I freelance write a lot on the side. I love Oxford commas. I need them in my life. I like the way they look and sound when I write. I have one client who hates Oxford commas. When I write for him, I don’t use them. He’s paying me, he calls the shots.

    Reply
    1. Star

      We use Oxford commas in our publication and recently had a (well-known, prize-winning) author really push back on their use when we sent him his proofs. We don’t mind too much that he submits his drafts without them, but they’ve not been added at the editorial stage for no reason, dude!

      Maybe he should write for your client instead :)

      Reply
    2. cornflower blue

      Legally, Oxford commas are the smart choice. Google “Oxford comma lawsuit” and see how avoiding them is probably going to cost a company ten million dollars in overtime pay.

      Reply
  62. FormerOP

    I am a manager in a very similar situation right now! Alison’s response is exactly the message I am giving my version of the OP. Even if he disagrees with me, I need him to do what I have asked. FWIW, I actually agree that the “casual writing style*” that he wants is objectively better, but what the org needs right now is “formal writing style*.” But before we change any policies/strategies/principles, I need to trust that my “OP” can follow directions.

    *my project is not writing, just sticking with the letter’s example

    Reply
  63. kapers

    On picking battles at work: first, there really should not be a lot of battles at work, unless you are a soldier. If you find yourself regularly butting heads, the job is either not a fit for you, or you are not fitting into the hierarchy and will be seen as difficult. If you’re a very junior employee, especially a young one, substitute “entitled, naive, and bratty,” for “difficult.”

    Second, I always make sure “principle” is not code for “ego.” This is difficult. Legally, the material is not yours, it’s your employer’s, so try to subtract your ego from the equation. Not including a sexist line your boss wants in a piece of writing is a principled stance. Not adhering to house style because you think you know better and you want the material to have your personal voice is harder to defend as a principled stance, and sounds like the ego talking.

    Third, even if you are justified, you have to know when to back off– and that’s after one round in this case, and any case where you’re only being asked to do the job you were hired for within reasonable parameters.

    Reply
  64. Landshark

    OP, as a freelance writer and editor, I have to agree with Alison and the majority of the comments section here. Multiple people have told you The Way It’s Done. Therefore, you need to do it their way, even if you disagree. I have to shift my styles constantly based on my different clients as a freelancer, so at least you can stay consistent!

    I understand your hang-ups, but they specifically want a certain audience and purpose. This doesn’t mean you can’t be clear, concise, and accessible, but you have to shift your tone and word choices. My advice here is simple: do it their way because that’s what you have to do AND it builds a portfolio of both casual pieces (which I assume you have) and formal pieces, which is attractive if you move into other writing jobs. Otherwise, try to find a job that allows and encourages casual writing if your style is inflexible. Doing it your way despite guidance to the opposite will, at best, give you a bad reputation, and, at worst, get you fired for insubordination.

    Reply
  65. Ahmea

    So, I am a technical editor and writer at an engineering firm. I work on instruction manuals and other documents that are by nature in the more formal and technical side of things. I work on technical papers. I work on documents that get sent to customers to inform them of important updates and changes, and you’d better believe those have a very specific style and voice. That’s part of our corporate branding, and if an executive decides that we will no longer use certain words because they are are too negative, I don’t use those words, even if it seems silly to me.

    I also, in my free time, write fantasy novels. Those are in my voice, and very different from corporate standards. And trying to argue that our corporate documents should be written like my epic fantasies would not fly at all. Not with my company and not with our customers. Writing voice is very dependant on context to determine what is appropriate.

    Reply
    1. Falling Diphthong

      The caps lock key lurks to the side of the keyboard, using the tab key to mask its nefarious intentions toward the unsuspecting ~.

      Reply
      1. Ahmea

        ?
        Was this supposed to be a reply to me? I am posting from my phone, but don’t see anything that’s improperly capitalized… Or am I not understanding your post?

        Reply
        1. Ahmea

          Clearly, CapLock was confusing me with its nefarious powers to sow distrust and dissent. (Or so it seemed until we discovered that Shift was, in fact, the true power, setting CapLock up to take the fall…)

          Reply
  66. Noah

    “It doesn’t matter that “good writing” is subjective. It’s still their call.”

    I’d say the subjectivity does matter — it makes it more strongly the boss’s call.

    If it’s objective, it’s still the boss’s call, but there’s MORE room to push your view. If your boss wants you to write about how 2+2=5, I think you have a lot of standing to push back on the objective problem there. But if your boss doesn’t like the style of your article about how 2+2=4, there’s a lot less room for push back.

    Reply
    1. Rusty Shackelford

      Yes, this. If there is no true “right” or “wrong,” then it really does boil down to who gets paid to make the decisions, and who gets paid to follow those decisions.

      Reply
  67. Hey Karma, Over here.

    Kill your darlings. This is the greatest piece of advice I ever absorbed. If I am writing for work, it is for work. Take it or leave it.
    My concern for you LW, is your insistence that writing is subjective. Fair enough. One person’s poetry is another’s porn. That is not the issue here.
    You say your material is professional; they say it is too casual. You say it isn’t; they say it is. They are not saying your writing is bad, they are saying it doesn’t project the tone they want for the company. The outcome you want is for management to say you’re right, we should use a more casual tone.
    I don’t think that is going to happen. You need to decide if you can live with that.

    Reply
  68. Purplesaurus

    OP, I’m assuming writing is your thing and part of how you identify yourself. And because of this, you might be writing for yourself instead of for your audience/employer. If you don’t already, write something totally separate from your job where you can just be you – a blog or journal or whatever. And maybe writing outside of your natural style at work won’t seem so much like someone else is trying to change who you are. Because they aren’t. They’re just trying to change how you write for them.

    Reply
  69. memyselfandi

    Great question and applicable to so much more than writing. I work for a state agency that has so many WTF policies that really do have some good reasoning behind them. It is just not always apparent, so ask politely and don’t push back unless it really makes your work impossible. Interesting discussion. Love hearing form all the writers.

    Reply
  70. The Other Katie

    As someone who writes to earn my crust, I have two – no, three – gentle suggestions for the OP. The first and most superficial point is that the person who cuts the cheque gets to decide what the rules are. Second, it sounds like you may struggle with taking constructive criticism. If multiple people have said that your writing is too casual for its audience, you need to take that on board. Your own stylistic preferences shouldn’t override the expectations and needs of your audience. If you’re writing just to please yourself, that’s what blogs are for. Third, and in my opinion most importantly, there’s no reason that formal writing has to be conflated with dry, boring, dull, or uncommunicative. It can be informative, engaging, entertaining, and witty. If you look at it as a challenge to your skill as a writer, rather than an annoying imposition, then you’ll have a real opportunity for growth.

    Reply
    1. The Other Katie

      Fourth, of course, is the importance of editing. There’s nothing wrong with blogs at all – see the evidence of this page! It’s just the most purely self-directed form of public writing we currently have.

      Reply
  71. bridget

    When it comes to writing, the battles I pick are 1) when the work will be attributed to me and my voice alone, and it is antithetical to the voice I want to cultivate, and 2) something is just incorrect.

    Most of my career, my writing has been attributed to others or to a group that I do not control. When I was a law clerk, it was my judge’s name on the opinion, so I deferred to the judge’s preference. I clerked for two judges; one was a much more colloquial and engaging writer, and the other thought it was important to maintain gravitas in published opinions. I preferred the first writing style, but the second is not unreasonable (and it’s his call to make; I wasn’t appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, he was). At my law firm, my name is on the papers, but so are several others more senior to me, the name of my firm (which has a reputation and image it has been cultivating for decades), and first and foremost, the names of my clients. I try to inject more lively writing when I can, and defend it when I think it is more effective, but I ultimately defer to the preferences to partners and clients.

    My second judge did have a kind of annoying habit of changing every “under” to “pursuant to.” Usually this made sense, even if it was a little finicky (“pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1983”), but he occasionally did it as a habit without thinking about the actual sentence and I’d change it back (“No judge, I did not mean ‘pursuant to the bridge'”). After a couple of rounds of this, I just started using “pursuant to” in first drafts.

    Reply
    1. Alli525

      My former boss LOVED beginning sentences with “Indeed, …” especially at the beginning of a paper where the ONLY thing preceding that word was the title of the paper. It drove his entire team crazy but we did it anyway, because it was his name on the papers.

      But it’s still jarring to see:
      XYZ Company Expecting Poor 1Q Results Due to Bad Sales
      Indeed, management stated on Friday that…

      Reply
    2. SheLooksFamiliar

      I used to work for someone………who must have believed pregnant pauses……..in his written reports and………letters……..with his version of ellipses………made him a thoughtful……..measured……..and effective……..communicator.

      He knew he was the butt of several jokes, but he just didn’t care. He really thought his style was refreshingly different. I did finally get him to whittle down the dot dot dots, a proud moment for me even now.

      Reply
  72. Kat Em

    As a freelancer, I’ve gotten used to tweaking my style for different audiences and employers, sometimes a LOT.

    The thing is, “general audiences” aren’t all the same. The folks reading Buzzfeed, the folks reading Slate, the folks reading Forbes … there’s some overlap there (I enjoy all three on occasion), but it’s not even their choice of style that makes them popular, it’s their consistency.

    Make the switch at work, and blog on your own time to keep the creative fire going. A little more formality will start to feel just as natural after a while, I promise.

    Reply
  73. Dust Bunny

    The thing is, if it’s not actually inappropriate for the material and discipline in question, and it’s not what your bosses want. . . then you’re not right. You’re not right here. It’s not that you’re not a good writer, it’s that you are not delivering the product that you’re being paid to deliver, and an arbitrary difference of opinion is not actually grounds to dig in your heels.

    Reply
  74. Maya Elena

    My approach has always been, do it my way; if pushback is significant, redo according to instructions; if not, risk including only the minimum parts of my style without which my very soul cringes (e.g., a really good phrasing, or a particular comma approach), and see if it gets picked up on; if it does, do what the requester wants and no more after that, unless I really, truly feel deviation is warranted.

    Reply
  75. Liz2

    This is an attitude issue, not a writing one. I worked at a super stuffy place which I felt was to its detriment- it wasn’t bringing in the new bigger audience, it felt old fashioned, it was highly suspicious of new change and new people which was costing them good talent as they never felt included unless they fit into a very specific format. Then I realized- they catered to super stuffy ultra wealthy types who were looking for reflection and validation of those values. Anyone outside would be uncomfortable but that’s exactly what they wanted.
    You have to accept that businesses have reasons for what they do- they might not be reasons you value, but if you work for them, you have to align your work with their expectations.

    Reply
  76. Nita

    I love creative writing, but my job requires a certain writing style that’s very down-to-business. If a coworker hands me a report with casual asides or slangy descriptions, it sets my teeth on edge. There is a time and place for everything. Buzzfeed-style writing belongs in Buzzfeed. It does not belong in the Wall Street Journal. Maybe your company’s communication style really is too formal for their own good, but you’ll be a better judge of that when you have more experience. For now, concentrate on clear and interesting writing that fits within their preferred style. If you’re really unable to do that, you’re only going to keep making yourself and your boss miserable.

    Also, however you end up resolving this specific conflict, don’t forget – listening to what others are saying is also an invaluable skill for a writer.

    Reply
  77. LQ

    I have been picking a similar battle for the last …3 or 4 years. Except it’s with a coworker. I have the standing to push back and I’ve found a good place to push back on. I think that our voice work needs to be done slightly more casually because a super formal tone for voice work sounds really harsh even when said in a pleasant tone (at least out of my mouth, I can’t make “You will not be receiving a payment” sound nice, I can make “Unfortunately you won’t be getting a payment. Here are some other resources….” sound nice. She always writes it more formal, and I always have to come back through and soften it up. That’s a lot of little battles.

    But I am at the same level as her. As much as she doesn’t like it, she does trust my judgement, she’s never going to write it casually, but she will let me edit it. And I know that if it came down to it I have the backing of our boss. And I concede on other things that aren’t as big of a deal. And I know how to make it about the end user and she cares about them.

    (Just wanted to give an example of picking a winable casual voice battle.)

    Reply
    1. Matilda Jefferies

      I actually see that less like a battle, and more like teamwork. I used to have a colleague like that – she was great at sketching out the main points of what we wanted to say, and then I would flesh out the details and soften the tone if necessary. Or if I wrote something that was too full of details or that needed a sterner tone, she would rework it from that perspective.

      It’s all about playing to each other’s strengths. When you can manage to yin-yang each other like that, it works brilliantly!

      Reply
  78. Decimus

    I used to do consulting work and “picking battles” was important because the most important thing I learned was that, at the end of the day, the client is paying me and that often meant compromising “best practice” to suit the client’s needs. And the real thing to know was when was it bending best practice and something I should accept, and when was it breaking best practice and something I shouldn’t do.

    Example: Processing a former employee’s files, I found copies of the company newsletter that the company was missing. “Best practice” would have been to keep the newsletters with the rest of the employee’s files and cross-reference with the general newsletter collection. The client told me to pull the newsletters and store them all together, because they didn’t care about provenance, they just wanted all their past newsletters where they could get to them in one collection. I can explain best practice, but once they decided, I did what they asked.

    Alternative: I was looking at a job and was told “Client is under investigation by the FBI. You will be expected to remove any correspondence between Client and any relative, however distant (we’ll give you a list) and if the FBI shows up with a warrant you are to refuse to let them in until Client can be notified.” I chose not to go any further with that job (again, this actually happened to me).

    The OP needs to learn what battles are worth fighting, and the writing style isn’t one of them.

    Reply
  79. Lora

    Here are my requirements – and I’ve had MULTIPLE instances where someone from a completely different industry attempts to pass off some both-siderisms like I’m just being immature or something refusing to compromise or refusing to be a good little worker bee:

    1. People will be hurt or die
    2. It just won’t work at all (i.e. patients getting placebo instead of drugs they need)
    3. The regulatory agency of choice will END ME personally
    4. The regulatory agency of choice will end the company
    5. Very expensive equipment will have to be repaired or replaced (equipment usually runs in the millions)
    6. A license to manufacture or license to operate will be revoked
    7. A full campaign (3+ batches) will be destroyed or a 3+ month setback. Each batch typically costs $2M and each campaign typically requires a few months.

    Note, none of these things are about my feelings or opinions. They are about actual harm to people – whether that is directly or just drug shortages and clinical trial delays. And in my field, companies will try to circumvent or violate these things all. the. time. and they will happily argue these points right up until the day the front door is padlocked by the feds.

    Reply
    1. Lynn Whitehat

      I would also add, things that are a physical or logical impossibility. If I am told to attend a meeting on the other side of the country in an hour and I say I can’t, I’m not being insubordinate. I just physically can’t get there in time.

      Reply
  80. Undine

    I don’t know if anyone else has addressed this, but casual just doesn’t age as well. Some corporate communication can be around in one form or another for a long time. Sure there will be revisions, but the core content can get reused a lot, and a description or phrase that was cute and “woke” when a user first sees it just becomes irritating when it appears over and over again. And if it lives long enough, you may end up looking like a real cool cat, man.

    In addition, even deep-pocketed corporations with extensive ad teams can fall flat on their face trying to capture a “casual” tone. (Pepsi and Kendall Jenner, we’re looking at you.) In the end, you are working for a corporation and the people who are consuming your writing know it’s coming from a corporation. They don’t want you to be their buddy and they won’t trust you if you try too hard.

    Reply
  81. ThisIsNotWhoYouThinkItIs

    I want to say, OP, when I read this I was immediately reminded of the expenses letter (where someone was pushing back on reasonable and customary expenditures on a business trip) and the one with the worker that had a good idea but bad execution and kept pushing it. I’ll put the links in the response comment. Those two are good examples of knowing when to push, I think. And, the second is a good example of how you can be right but still get fired.

    In short–how do you know when to push? When it’s worth risking your credibility. It’s harder to gauge while you are getting experience (speaking as a younger worker that has made some bad calls!). If I disagree I’ll ask for clarification before I push back. And, I only do it once. Currently my bar is, “is it hurting me or someone else? Would I leave over this?” If the answer to those two is yes, but I’m not sure how to phrase the escalation, I run it by a few others before I push back again. If I get told to stuff it after that, then if it’s lawsuit worthy I’d tell the appropriate parties (HR for harassment and whatnot). And, I’d start looking for another job.

    I honestly think you are looking at this one from the wrong angle–that’s the way you want to write, but what’s the target audience? What are the advertisers (that ultimately pay your salary) looking for? That’s what you are writing to, even if you don’t like it. If the boss comes back and says “put stupid typo here” and you say, “Hm. My understanding was that the company style said X on that?” and the boss comes back and says “put that stupid typo where I said put it” then ultimately to keep your job you are putting that typo there…the higher ups can come back and say “That’s a stupid typo! Take that out!” Just make sure you get that kind of crazy in writing.

    Final thing–I’d be leery of the way that the response was worded to your pushback. Some managers are very polite when they should be harsh about feedback. The tone may be a red herring for the fact that you need to stop doing what you want if you want to stay employed.

    And don’t be afraid to go talk to your manager on this! She should be in the loop–“I’m having a little trouble with the styling here. I think this part is subjective and manager X is asking me to do Y. Of course, I want to make sure I keep to the company style, but I’m not sure what she’s asking meets it. Can you give me a bit of clarification on what’s needed here or what I should do in general when this happens? Is there a style guide reference for this?” She should hear stuff from you instead of the other managers (or whoever ultimately came down on you and said write it a different way).

    Good luck!

    Reply
    1. ThisIsNotWhoYouThinkItIs

      First story: http://www.askamanager.org/2017/08/my-companys-accountant-is-nitpicking-my-pretty-frugral-travel-expenses.html

      First story’s update: http://www.askamanager.org/2017/09/update-my-companys-accountant-is-nitpicking-my-pretty-frugal-travel-expenses.html

      Second story: http://www.askamanager.org/2017/03/telling-a-difficult-pushy-employee-that-shes-right-without-undermining-your-own-authority.html

      Second story update: http://www.askamanager.org/2017/04/update-telling-a-difficult-pushy-employee-that-shes-right-without-undermining-your-own-authority.html

      Reply
  82. Kat

    Please do as your manager asks. My workplace has issues with people being asked to do things for reasons we’ve explained to them repeatedly, and then continuing to do them the way we have not asked. All it does it give more senior people more work to do, and I don’t mind that if it’s necessary, but if it’s just a case of someone not doing their job properly, it rubs me the wrong way. What she’s asking isn’t absurd; it sounds perfectly sensible.

    Reply
  83. imaskingamanager

    .The good news is that we get to choose our actions. The bad news is that we don’t get to choose our consequences. . .

    Reply
  84. aebhel

    OP, the only battles you should pick to the degree you have–going over a manager’s head and then protesting the decision you got from higher up as well–are the ones where you’ve been given directions that are impossible, illegal, or unsafe.

    Look at it this way: if you were a freelance writer and a piece you submitted was rejected because the editor didn’t like the style (or didn’t think it was a good fit), would you write back repeatedly protesting that decision? Probably not. This is essentially the same situation. When you’re being paid to write, you produce the kind of writing that the people paying you want. That’s the nature of being employed.

    Reply
  85. H.C.

    On top of what most commenters thus far have said, it may help to reframe this as an opportunity to develop your formal writing style (which I don’t equate with being inaccessible) and have a few items to diversify your writing portfolio for future career opportunities. I’m a fairly casual writer myself too, but I was definitely glad to have the chance to do some formal writing (e.g. grant proposals, annual report articles, white papers for trade pubs) that broadened my writing skillset and would only help in future job searches.

    Reply
  86. Trig

    You’re probably right that a casual style is better/more appealing to today’s users. But the key thing is that the directives come from on-high. As a junior member of the team, you just don’t have the standing to say “hey we should switch our entire corporate tone”. Even if you’re right, you’re going to be seen as young and naive. Maybe if you were a senior writer with a long track record of producing good work, you’d have room to suggest it to your manager (with research to back it up), who could raise it higher, until someone up there decides, yeah, let’s go for it. But now? You don’t have that kind of credibility.

    I’m a tech writer at a ginormous company, and we have FINALLY relaxed our writing style for new cloud-based products. They’re actively trying to appeal to a younger audience with both the products (mobile-first!) and the docs (contractions are ok!). So we’re striving for a more casual, more friendly tone. Which is great! I love it! But it’s still a very hard line to toe. We are a big huge formal company, so using Buzzfeed-tone is not going to be appropriate. First, it’d be trying too hard and wouldn’t seem genuine. Second, some of the stuff we’re talking about has serious security and data implications. You have to match the tone to the content, and being glib in style isn’t going to inspire confidence in users.

    If the people you’re writing for and the context you’re writing is is accustomed to a certain style, it’s going to be very strange to all of a sudden have a Buzzfeed listicle in their inbox. It will be inconsistent, it will stand out, it will make them wonder WTF is going on, and not in a good way. Especially if they’re from a generation that is very “kids these days!” about the informal internet tone! They’re going to feel like you don’t care about their demographic. If it’s not part of a big public “We’re rebranding!!!” splash, this kind of thing needs to be done slowly and consistently across all writers. Your work is not you, your work is your company. From the user’s perspective, what you write shouldn’t look any different from what your colleagues write.

    Reply
    1. Rusty Shackelford

      She says “there are brand or corporate guidelines to stick to,” so yes, there are standards. She just doesn’t want to follow them.

      Reply
  87. Pudgy Patty

    Does it make you a bad employee if you DON’T pick battles and just go along with things? I am always the employee who does what the manager says, because quite frankly, 99% of the work they review is subjective and I honestly don’t care. The pieces of my job I do care about, they can’t see and so I get to design on my own. But you know, if they told me to change how I do that, I probably would there too.

    What does that make me? I asked about this in an open thread recently. I have found it makes me a colleague people like to work with, because I never push back. I suppose I should care that I’m a pushover, but I don’t care at the end of the day.

    At some point, I imagine this stymies growth/advancement in one’s career, as well as doing well in a leadership role, but I want none of those things. Does it matter then?

    Reply
      1. Pudgy Patty

        I suppose that’s true. Hasn’t been an issue from my 11+ years in my field. As I said, I suspect it would be a problem if I wanted to get promoted, but I don’t.

        I just find it hard to care so much about this stuff. I don’t get fulfillment from my job, so that’s possibly why.

        Reply
    1. Observer

      No, it doesn’t matter. If they were asking for things that were illegal or unsafe, that would be different. But for stuff like this? Not at all. Being reliable, competent and easy to work with is generally a recipe for job longevity.

      Reply
      1. Pudgy Patty

        In that case, I’d just leave the org. But I’ve only experienced this in situations that are so subjective, it’s hard to muster outrage. I’m not the person who has decision-making authority; so, why put up a fight? I’ll speak my piece if asked, but I’d rather just have consensus and move on.

        Reply
    2. ThisIsNotWhoYouThinkItIs

      Nope, sounds good to me! It got to the point at my last job that basically the only thing I would protest were “Hills to die on”. Everything else: “dumb, but I don’t care anymore”.

      I’d fought the good fight too often and nothing changed (mouthflap acknowledgement), so I just stopped. Either way I still got paid and honestly? If they want to go down in a blaze of glory (or success) I can’t stop them.

      The colleagues that I worked with that were agreeable made for much more pleasant work–lets sit down and get it done and move on instead of making plans on how to appeal (and fail to stop) or change whatever just came down the pipe. :)

      Reply
    3. Kat

      You’re just a good employee. I don’t see why pushing back would get you any further. You can come up with useful ideas and suggestions to improve business, for example, but arguing with management, in my experience, doesn’t really work. I do what I’m told and I’m a team leader, so it’s not true that working as your company wants you to will hold you back. Most people just want you to do your job well.

      Reply
  88. Ramona Flowers

    Also. OP, I have written for many types of audiences in my lifetime. I have worked as a journalist, copywriter and now in non-profits doing a job that involves a lot of written communication.

    In my time I have seen a number of junior staff members assume they know better than editors or managers without stopping to find out why the style guidelines are the way they are, what strategy or UX research they were based on or how well those managers know their own readers or clients.

    How many were right? Zero. I’ve been trying to think of a single one and I can’t.

    Reply
    1. Junior Editor

      Second this. Not sure what kind of writing OP does but there are waaaaaaayyy too many junior writers out there who are too precious about their work and will take any pushback from an editor as trying to hamper their creativity (myself included, although I’ve never said it to anybody’s face!). What you learn as you begin to climb up the ranks is that these people are calling these seemingly odd shots for reasons you’re often not privy to, so changing the style, ignoring the angle you’ve been given or otherwise deliberately doing something you’ve been asked not to do because you think you know better is just not going to fly.

      For example, I might ask you to write a list style article because I know they get three or four times the views of most of our other articles and Jane’s just finishing off an important-but-unlikely-to-get-very-many-views investigatory piece to run today so I need a high traffic piece so our views stay around average so I can justify to my senior editor putting staff onto longer projects.

      Or I might ask you to tweak a piece so it focuses on a certain angle or drills down into a certain set of stats because I know a competitor ran a story on this topic yesterday but they completely glossed over this point, which our most recent reader survey suggests our readers would be very interested in.

      Or I might ask you to do something because my senior editor tells me it needs to be done a certain way.

      I don’t think there’s too much harm in asking why things are being done a certain way because ultimately it will help you make decisions going forward and IMHO a good manager is open to feedback from all sources on how things can be improved. But once you have your answer, even if it’s a frustrating ‘Because I said so’, that’s where it needs to stop. Writers who continuously ignore instructions or stomp their feet because ‘I don’t recognise their greatness’ at best get relegated to writing the ‘fluff’ pieces that nobody really cares because I’m relatively ok for them to be screwed up/be completely wrong for our audience. At worst, they get fired if they’re staff or don’t get invited back if they’re freelance.

      Reply
  89. Goya

    The two big back down flags for me were “manager”…aka…higher than yourself. And “her” product. You offered your version, for whatever reason she did not like it. Change it or change your employment. FWiW…I prefer the more casual style of writing when I’m reading something, but as AAM stated, you really have no leg to stand on in this case (or others like it).

    Reply
    1. Jenny Jenn

      I agree 100%. As someone who owns product myself I would be extremely irritated if someone didn’t follow the direction I had given about tone and then continued to argue with me about it. Ultimately, it’s my decision. Period. While feedback is welcome, I’m the one responsible for product success. I’d also go out of my way to not have to work with that person on future projects and depending on the nature of the business and their position that may have a very negative impact on their career opportunities within that company.

      OP – my advice would have been to try and have an open conversation with the manager (and even comms team) about the intended audience, what the company voice is supposed to be, and the pros and cons of other approaches. This only works if you are truly open to hearing their point of view and not using it as a pretense to litigate your side. That said, you may have already burned that bridge by getting yourself labeled “nuisance”.
      One last thing – there is a very real possibility the manager looped in communications out of frustration. “Well, since you clearly won’t listen to me, maybe you’ll listen to this person”. It’s time to put down the shovel and start trying to climb out of the hole you’ve dug.

      Reply
  90. chnellociraptor

    OP, if readability is your bag, google “Flesch-Kincaid readability” and enjoy. It’s a trick I learned in journalism school to steer us away from jargon and buzzwords in favour of simple, clear writing that is still suitable for the front section of a newspaper.

    Flesch-Kincaid measures your average word-length, sentence-length, and paragraph-length and spits out a reading level that roughly corresponds with grade levels. For example, my comment here is a grade 9 reading level. The New York Times averages a grade 14 reading level. Hemingway averaged a grade 4 reading level.

    I think this might help you embrace a more formal tone if you can confidently know that your writing will still be accessible. As other comments have noted, news writing is both formal and accessible by design. Try aiming for something like a grade 10 and I think you’ll find it suits your needs and the higher ups. Try hemingwayapp.com to start and see where it gets you.

    Reply
    1. Koko

      I live and die by the Hemingway App as a freelance writer! I vary the “voice” I write in to match the client’s brand, but I write the simplest, plainest way that voice could speak.

      I aim for grade 8 and rarely get there because some of my clients do really expert-driven/esoteric work and they get very persnickety about describing it accurately, but striving for a just-out-of-reach goal is helpful to me.

      Eventually it starts to become more instinctive. I can take copy written by a colleague and cut it in half without losing any meaning.

      Reply
      1. chnellociraptor

        Absolutely – I had one professor in school who made us use a similar tool for every single writing assignment, and our goal was always to get a grade 8 or below. Anything above a grade 10 was an automatic fail. It completely changed the way I write! I’m not a writer by trade now, but in nearly every job I’ve had since I’ve been asked to manage communications because of my writing style. Clarity is so underrated.

        Reply
  91. logicbutton

    I don’t know how wedded you are to the Buzzfeed comparison or if it was just an off-the-cuff example, but something to keep in mind about them and similar outlets is that they’re not simply writing for a mass audience, they’re competing for their audience’s limited free time with literally everything else in the world. So if their product’s only inherent value is fun (as it is for most of their quizzes and clickbait listicles, for example), they HAVE to make every aspect of it as entertaining and not-businesslike as possible, because otherwise readers will get bored and go play video games or take pictures of their cats or whatever it is they like to do with their free time, hence the casual writing style.

    Unless your writing is purely meant to be entertainment (and I’m not getting the sense that it is), there must be some other reason people are looking at it. The more inherent value it carries, the less you need to worry about your writing style boring the audience, since the information they’re looking for will hold their attention.

    Reply
    1. LCL

      Cracked is my favorite website for light reading. I love the style. As part of my job I write operating instructions. I don’t write them in Cracked speak.

      Reply
  92. Fake Eleanor

    Fellow writer and proponent of reader-friendly copy here.
    Ultimately, the stakeholder (who is your client) wins. I definitely agree that you can make your case, but in the end, you have to (as they say) “disagree and commit.”
    When I’ve been in your circumstance, it becomes a challenge: Can I keep the tone formal while making the writing as accessible as I think it should be? It’s tricky. There are a lot of people who are sold on the idea that informal writing is “incorrect” or just less effective — that it undercuts authority that they want to keep.
    The other thing I keep in mind in circumstances like yours: This is a long game. If you’re an in-house writer, the goal is not to make this next piece the one that completely transforms voice and tone. Make your points, turn in your copy, and attempt to move the needle. I’ve been more successful with my arguments by respecting the other point of view, giving them what they want, and keeping the arguments going long-term.
    One final piece of advice: In the words of Jared Spool, you can’t stop people from sticking beans up their noses. You may be right. But your client (an internal client, here) gets final say, and can do whatever they want. Sometimes the best way to get them to stop sticking beans up their noses is to let them try it and see how it goes for them.

    Reply
  93. illukar

    Ultimately, fighting battles you can’t win will just tire you out. But there is also a middle ground here between winning and losing.

    I’m the manual writer for my office. By policy, all our policies are supposed to be in ‘plain language’ because the aim is for people to understand them with the least amount of effort, while leaving the least amount of quibble room for staff who like to rules lawyer their way out of doing things they don’t want to do. I often write small-audience emails in chatty tones, but office-wide emails will be clear and businesslike, and will leave out in-jokes, while not being overly formal.

    Read a couple of plain language guides and clean up your work to remove the overtly casual, while retaining positive and informative. There’s no need to head all the way into ‘formal’ (which is interpreted as stilted, over-complex and difficult to read). And then tell your boss in a positive way that you’ve reviewed the style guides and you’re aiming for their best practice plain language.

    Reply
  94. e271828

    When you are writing for your employer, no matter what your age or experience, you are doing work for hire, and therefore you do it to their spec and standards. Period.

    Reply
  95. Argh!

    Re: writing style

    Your written work doesn’t represent you personally. It represents your company to your clients and your boss to her boss and that person’s boss, etc. Something like that is absolutely not worth being stubborn about. If your company colors were red and white you would have no defense against a pink and white design for your teapots. Similar thing. The way to prove your point would be a double-blind study or survey or focus group

    Reply
    1. Argh!

      …. but if there’s already a standard writing style for the organization, it would be a tough battle taking the time to do that yourself. They’d have to see sales declining or a lack of click-throughs to think there’s a problem, and then they’d hire a consultant.

      (have just been through consultantitis here myself)

      Reply
  96. Akcipitrokulo

    If your boss wants chocolate cake, it doesn’t matter how awesome your victoria sponge is or how much you explain why it’s better… you eventually give them chocolate or get shown the door.

    Reply
  97. AnonAtty

    I cringed a little at this. I’m an attorney, I write a lot of different documents for different audiences. There is no one set style for lawyers. You have to know your audience, which, for lawyers can often involve strict style guides on things like briefs. You have to be able to communicate on many different levels – writing in a casual style may not go over well at all with an appellate judge. However, if you’re working with a client and are writing a letter for someone, you tailor your language to your client’s needs. Being able to code switch is crucial.

    Here, a manager and the communication director have sent a clear message here. Pushing back here is a very bad idea if you want to keep your job.

    Reply
  98. Akcipitrokulo

    Thing is… I get it. I’m qa/tester. I have seen products go live with bugs I found and really thought should be fixed still there. You make your point… then if it’s important you send your reasoning with its potential risks to people in charge… and then you check you’ve got your arse covered in writing and let it go.

    It’s frustrating. But my job is to make the business aware of the issues and risks. If they decide that they are willing to take the risk… that’s a business decision. It isn’t mine. I may disagree, and I will have an “are you sure, and have you considered X” chat if I think it matters – but it’s not my call.

    Which means that I’m now at a stage where if I say “I strongly advise that…” then people listen. Because they know I appreciate how shit works.

    (Apart from the time I said “you need to fix this, it’s illegal”. Then “apart from ethics regarding medical record confidentiality, you do know what the fines are for this, yeah?” to “I’m serious, knock that shit off!” (slightly more formally ;) ). Then escalated it further. And did bring up again.

    I eventually ended up leaving for other reasons and reported them to authorities. Should’ve listened…)

    Reply
  99. Rosa

    Fwiw I’m a professional writer (a novelist and award winning playwright) and I do a little journalism on the side. I recently ended a contract with a feminist magazine that I thought would be perfect for me (as a radical feminist) because it was basically Tumblr SJW feminism which I find highly problematic, and I felt the guidelines were so restrictive as to be potentially damaging and to be censorship. Eh writing an article about someone making an ableist slur without being able to make any reference to him making that slur because the knowledge someone had made a slur might trigger people. Or writing an article about suicide without making any explicit mention of taking one’s own life because that might be triggering.

    I chose to walk but that’s not an option for everyone. I have also ended relationships with major directors because I felt we were not creatively aligned. Being a writer is not like a regular job.

    Having said that, writing in a NYT style vs a BuzzFeed style is absolutely part of a writer’s job and something any decent writer should be able to do. And it sounds like the LW is in a job where she has to write to order (rather than being a novelist or magazine features writer) and that’s a very different kettle of fish.

    Reply
    1. Koko

      “writing in a NYT style vs a BuzzFeed style is absolutely part of a writer’s job and something any decent writer should be able to do”

      This actually makes me realize that this is something that should have been a hint to the LW. The fact Buzzfeed and NYT have distinct writing styles means that somebody at those companies is enforcing brand standards to maintain a consistent style…just like your company is trying to do! As one of many people writing for your company, you need to “sound like” everyone else writing for your company.

      Reply
  100. Jenny Jenn

    “I think there’s an underlying belief in your letter that it’s okay to keep pushing and pushing if you’re right, but work just doesn’t work that way.”
    I stood up on my couch and applauded when I read this. As someone who has found herself in upper middle management (it’s as confusing as it sounds), I find myself saying something similar to this at least once a week. I’m astounded by how many employees don’t understand the nature of a business relationship. The worst offenders are usually the younger, entry level folks who haven’t had the naivete beaten out of them yet.
    They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease – but the squeaky wheel can also get it’s happy butt fired if it doesn’t eventually shut up.

    Reply
  101. SS Express

    OP, I can so relate to your predicament. I used to work in marketing communications where the definition of good work can be similarly subjective. I’m a pretty good marketer and writer, and even with a few more years experience under my belt I can still honestly say that I often DID know what was “good” better than my (micro)manager. Sometimes she would correct my writing to things that were so grammatically incorrect they weren’t even proper sentences anymore. Once she made me poll our staff to choose an image for our next billboard. One of the guys I polled actually worked in the research team, and he voted for image A because he knew that in focus groups people hated image B. I included this info when I sent my manager the survey results, but she went with image B because it was her favourite.

    But she didn’t only insist on certain outputs, she would also micromanage the way I approached my work. She’d tell me “go and talk to Jane about the deadline for project x” and when I’d say “actually Jane doesn’t work on project x, Fergus handles it and he already told me the deadline is December 1” she’d say “yeah…just give Jane a call and ask her”. She literally wouldn’t accept the answer I gave her until I had spoken to Jane (who would refer me to Fergus, who would give me the same answer he gave me in the first place.) Eventually I learned that the only way to move forward with a project was just to do things exactly the way she wanted them done – or at least make it seem that I had. It was hard because I took pride in my work and hated to see the finished result wasn’t as good or as effective as it could have been, and I also hated to waste time bothering people repeatedly about things, but I learned that if something relatively simple will make your manager happy you may as well just do it.

    My next role was as an EA, and my exec loved hard copies but my own work was almost 100% paperless. One day she mentioned that a lot of the other (older) EAs had everything filed in folders and maybe I should too because it looked like they were busier than me… She framed it as a perceptions things, but I got the feeling she secretly thought I really wasn’t as busy. I just filled a few empty folders with scrap paper and displayed them on my desk. It took two minutes and suddenly my level of activity was satisfactory! When I started my current role my first project was a presentation, and my boss suggested one way of doing it using a new software. I didn’t think it was necessarily the best way but I did it, he was extremely impressed with the presentation and also that I had jumped at the chance to learn a new skill, three months later he gave me a super positive performance review and asked me to act in a role two levels up from my normal one.

    It was a hard and somewhat silly lesson to learn but I wish I’d learned it earlier! The sooner you develop a tolerance for “pointless but simple stuff that will impress my manager”, the sooner you’ll be in a position to call more shots yourself. (I mean, it’s also true that sometimes your manager is right to ask for things a certain way – maybe it’s more on-brand, or they know something you don’t, or it’s just plain what they hired you to do – but it can be helpful to understand that even when your manager is being silly it’s often in your interest to just do it anyway.)

    Reply
    1. Observer

      I just filled a few empty folders with scrap paper and displayed them on my desk. It took two minutes and suddenly my level of activity was satisfactory!

      That’s both hysterically funny and horrifying at the same time. That just sounds so incompetent on her part!

      it’s also true that sometimes your manager is right to ask for things a certain way – maybe it’s more on-brand, or they know something you don’t, or it’s just plain what they hired you to do – but it can be helpful to understand that even when your manager is being silly it’s often in your interest to just do it anyway.

      Yes, indeed. This is such a good summary.

      Reply
  102. Susan K

    I think the question of which battles to pick at work is an interesting one, and something I’ve wondered myself at times, but this is not the type of battle I was expecting when I saw the title of this post! I don’t mean to be overly harsh, but I think there’s a good chance you have already jeopardized your job. It looks like your superiors have repeatedly told you they were not satisfied with your performance and asked you to improve, and you have not done so. They could easily consider that cause to discipline or even fire you, either for poor performance or insubordination. I know *you* don’t think your performance is poor because you think you’re doing something better than what management wants, but the fact is that you are not producing the work they told you to produce.

    If you want to keep your job, I suggest you accept that you will have to produce work that is satisfactory to your management. Maybe it’s worth it to you to look for a different job that will allow you to write in your preferred style, but even if that’s the case, you still need to follow management’s orders as long as you are at this job.

    Reply
  103. Pomona Sprout

    It’s not clear from the letter, but I can’t help wondering jf the OP is new to the business world. Their attitude of, “I’m sure I know best, these senior people who are trying to tell me otherwise are just wrong, and I don’t see why I should knuckle under to their obtuseness when I KNOW I’m right” kind of reminds me of that story about those interns who tried to tell their compzny what its dress code should be and were shocked that the company told them to go take a hike (i.e., fired them all). That’s a newbie type of mistake that, to me, speaks of someone who hasn’t been in the “Wonderful World of Work” ™ long enough to realize that your employers DO get to tell how they want you to do your job and also get to show you the door if you have the effrontery to insist that you know how it should be done better than they do.

    I hope the OP takes Alison’s advice and that of the commenters here, because as some have said, this is NOT a hill to die on, and OP IS very likely to “die” if she persists in insisting that she knows best.

    Reply

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