I’m sick of editing my boss’s writing

A reader writes:

I find myself in a very sticky predicament and I need your help please! My boss is not a native English speaker and routinely has us edit her work. Her prose is terrible, however, what bothers me most is that it’s carelessly written. She is a technical person/researcher and feels her only job is to ensure that the methodology is correct and the grammar, tone anything else is someone else’s job. She recently submitted a 4-page portion of a project which so far has taken me three hours to edit. This is not the first time. Frankly, I’ve had enough. She’s warned us that we are not to go to HR for anything and I don’t want HR to misinterpret this as discrimination.

I don’t mind editing; I do mind receiving carelessly done work from the VP of my department. She often sends us A LOT of work for editing last minute, while holding us to previous deadlines and our small department is on the edge of leaving. I don’t think her work is done in a professional manner and she could care less.

There’s one big problem here, but it’s not what you’ve written in about: It’s your boss’s warning that you’re not to go to HR for anything. But first let’s address your question…

It’s actually not up to you to decide what your boss’s job is. If she feels that her job is to be the technical person and researcher, and that it’s your job to clean up her writing, well, that’s the way it is. (As long as her own boss doesn’t have a problem with it, of course.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with this set-up, and it’s not an uncommon one. There are lots of people who aren’t great writers/editors but who have an enormous amount to contribute when it comes to content. If these people’s content contributions are valued enough, then that’s what they get to do, and someone else edits their work.

Your boss’s own performance is judged by the performance of your entire department, and it’s reasonable for her to divide that overall workload in whatever way she judges most effective.  If that means that someone else edits her writing, well, that’s what it means. In fact, it’s her job to make those decisions. If she makes the wrong decisions, it’ll be reflected in the department’s performance, and that’ll be something her own boss will address.

That said, you could certainly have a legitimate beef here if your job has ended up being something different than what you signed up for. But in that case, what your boss did wrong was misleading you about the nature of the work — not having someone edit her work in general. She’s entitled to do the latter.

(By the way, if it’s taking you three hours to edit four pages, you may not be cut out for editing. That seems excessive. If you agree with that assessment, you could try telling her that editing quickly isn’t your strength, but of course if she judges that to be a key thing she needs in your position, you risk her replacing you with someone who will do it happily.)

Now, let’s discuss the actual problem here: her command that you not go to HR about anything.  That’s extremely alarming, and I doubt HR would be happy to hear about it. (Unless there’s a reasonable explanation for it that we don’t know about, like HR told her to stop having people bother them with questions about things they don’t handle.)  You can’t even go to HR with a question about your benefits? Or how much vacation time you have accrued? What if there’s a harassment complaint?  I’d want to know more about this, because that kind of edict is potentially one that could get her in serious trouble if it came to light, especially if it’s motivated by trying to cover up things that could reflect badly on her.

But again, that’s a separate issue. As for the meat of your question — that’s just part of having a boss.

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. nj mama*

    the OP must (must!) work for my old boss. she was a native french speaker, but that wasnt the problem. she was just careless. and after a few screw ups (that she tried to hide) her boss wouldnt let her send any mail or email outside of the organization without me proofing it first. she was eventually fired (but not until after i quit).

  2. Lesley*

    Ah, this is the job that launched my career! I worked for a (brilliant) research doctor who spoke (and wrote) English as a second language. It was difficult and slow to edit his work because it wasn’t just editing–it was drastic rewriting. I had to rewrite every sentence, reorganize every paragraph, identifying the thesis and calling it out, etc. In short, I was taking his data and conclusions and writing the papers or grant applications for him, because he just didn’t have the skills. (And they say you never use essay writing skills in the real world!) There was another layer of difficulty because it was a technical medical subject matter that I had no knowledge of or experience with. It was like editing a foreign language–very slow going.

    I actually loved the editing part of that job (and, as I said, it started me on my career as an editor), but the main problem I had was that every single project was dropped on my lap last minute and required me to stop what I was doing to work on it. This put me behind on all my other work. To this day, I still have not figured out how to deal with someone who just doesn’t care about my time.

    With most people, you can reason with them and tell them how much turn-around time you need to do a project and get it back to them. You can plan ahead for their deadlines and send them reminders to keep things moving. You can explain why their lateness prevents you from getting things done on time. If they aren’t jerks, they’ll usually try to do better for you. But every once in a while you’ll encounter someone like the VP in this letter, who is in a position of authority and Just Doesn’t Care. Unless someone higher up the ladder calls them on this behavior, I don’t know what you can do. I’ve only encountered two people like this in my career, and in both cases I ended up leaving.

    1. Julie*

      I’ve had a boss who was a non-native English speaker, whose prose was sometimes extremely hard to understand. For some of the trickiest parts of her writing, I’d just take it to her and ask, “What did you mean to say in this paragraph?” Then she’d tell me something (invariably completely different from what the paragraph actually said), and I’d re-write it for her. It was just easier that way.

  3. fposte*

    Another reason why the editing might so long is that the OP may be editing more like a book editor, avoiding introducing original material and perhaps even going back and forth with the boss to clarify ideas and confirm phraseology. That will take you for-freaking-ever with genuinely bad writing, and if it’s for a project report, it’s not like there’s an individual sensibility that needs to be preserved. Just rewrite that sucker and move on.

  4. Joey*

    Ask you boss to clarify what she means when she said don’t go to HR for anything. Some bosses mistakenly throw that generic statement out when they really mean don’t complain to HR about stuff that I should and can handle.

    And I doubt your boss is being careless. I would assume its more about her ability to write in a non native language. And frankly I’d argue that shes being careful by having someone with better English writing skills edit her work.

    1. nj mama*

      joey – i also think it is great that the boss recognizes that her english sucks, but i believe the OP when she says that her boss is careless. i had one just like this. it wasn’t a language problem – it was a caring problem.

  5. EngineerGirl*

    Hey Allison,

    Three hours for four pages isn’t long for a technical paper. Trying to relate specific technical concepts using imperect language is very, very hard. Ask any requirements writer. They actually teach multi-day classes on it.

      1. Mike C.*

        Yeah, if we’re talking really high end research with lots of mathematics and the like the density of information is really incredible.

        Though if the OP is getting tons of stuff dropped in her lap at the last minute, that additional multi-tasking is going to reduce her productivity even further.

      2. Karthik*

        EngineerGirl is right, and part of the issue is that the subject matter can be so dense that a *perfectly* written paper can take a half day just to understand. And since it’s a scientific work, changing the wording around can completely change the meaning as well, so you have to take every word into account.

        For us, documentation and memos are quick to edit and send out…papers take forever because it becomes an item of record available to the public and forever tied to your career.

      3. Anonymous*

        Well, editing texts by non-natives can take a very long time, actually (depending on the subject matter). Often you encounter sentences/expressions that are not technically wrong, but…they just sound. And making a text like that sound as if it was written by a native speaker will take a lot of time. It’s more than just checking for commas or spelling mistakes.

        (And I’m daily on both sides. I mainly work with my two foreign languages, but also do some editing in my native language.)

        1. Anonymous*

          Oops, missing word. I meant to say that texts written by non-natives can sound odd. They’re not always real mistakes, though – and that makes editing that kind of texts difficult.

      4. Elizaeth*

        I do a lot of editing of work written by speakers of a language where it is common to add ten words where one would be fine. Trying to find the meaning (hidden among all those extra words) and distill it into something readable in English is extremely time consuming. It is not just correcting grammar here and there, but reformulating sentences and paragraphs. I could easily see it taking that amount of time if the OP is in a similar situation.

  6. The Editor*

    Just a thought….

    I’m an editor (12 years experience). If it is a truly technical piece, an hour a page isn’t unreasonable, especially for non-native English prose.

  7. Rebecca*

    Exact same kind of situation launched me down the writer/editor path. “What did you mean to say here?” worked well for me – both for a couple of non-native English speaking bosses and one who was just a complete idiot.

    And as a writer/editor, if she’s having to completely re-write everything – structure, grammar, etc. – of a technical paper, that could definitely take several hours.

  8. Hannah*

    This is complete speculation, but I wonder if the boss meant not to go to HR until speaking to her directly about a problem first.

    I don’t understand why it bothers the OP to edit her boss’s work. It’s better than getting her coffee. It means that the boss trusts her to convey her meaning in better English. When I started as an intern in my current job I was annoyed that some of the senior workers were sloppy with documentation because it made more work for me. Now that I am on their level I realize how much fuller their plates are, and that avoiding “sloppiness” is not as high priority as the real task at hand.

    1. Liz T*

      I think the problem is that it takes large amounts of time away from her actual, time-sensitive duties, with no advance notice and no forgiveness of deadlines.

  9. KellyK*

    Another part of the real problem is the last-minute nature of it, and her not being able to set priorities (“She often sends us A LOT of work for editing last minute, while holding us to previous deadlines and our small department is on the edge of leaving. “). It’s her job to decide how to divvy up work–that includes having a realistic understanding of how long stuff takes and being willing to let something else slide if something high-priority comes up last minute.

    If it takes a long time, then you can certainly tell your boss that it takes you X hours to edit Y pages, and if you get them in less time than that, you can’t do as much with it. You can ask her if she needs the level of rewriting you’re doing, or if what she really wants is for you to make sure she hasn’t spelled anything wrong or committed any egregious grammar mistakes and then get back to your other tasks. You can also point out that in 3 hours, you can accomplish A, B, or C, but not all 3, and ask which one she’d like you to focus on.

      1. Mike C.*

        If much of the effort in editing is because the person handing you the source material just doesn’t care about doing a good job, that should irritate anyone.

        I work in quality myself and while it’s my job to catch mistakes, it’s always irritating to see someone make the same mistake over and over again and not care enough to stop doing it. Mistakes here and there? I don’t care in the slightest.

        See the difference there?

  10. Anonymous*

    She often sends us A LOT of work for editing last minute, while holding us to previous deadlines and our small department is on the edge of leaving

    If the OP is at that point, it might be worthwhile considering whether there’s any particular reason to stay (beyond a paycheck). Such a move would eliminate the issue entirely.

  11. ThomasT*

    It may be the case that editing is not the highest calling of someone who writes “she could care less” when she means “she couldn’t care less.”

    1. fposte*

      Save for the fact that that’s a recognized colloquialism that’s no more illogical than “head over heels” :-).

      1. Liz T*

        No, don’t do it!!! It’s a common *mangling* of a recognized colloquialism, and it drives me freaking crazy! Fortunately I’m not alone–I just Googled “could care less” and the whole first page is about how that’s wrong. Except for one article about Governor Cuomo, in the Observer no less, so I suppose there are editors on both sides of the issue :)

    2. Joanna Reichert*

      You know . . . . I didn’t want to be the one to say it, but that was my first thought as well.

      Regardless, the OP sounds overwhelmed, and it sounds like this boss needs more of a personal assistant than anything. Perhaps you could have a serious but non-confrontational meeting with your boss and explain your dilemma. Who knows, perhaps you could transition into a custom-made role?

  12. Emily*

    While I don’t necessarily think three hours for four pages is too long for technical editing, it could be that the letter writer isn’t cut out for editing simply because she/he doesn’t seem to enjoy it. Or maybe editing would be enjoyable but it’s getting in the way of other priority projects?

    Maybe it’s time for a conversation along the lines of “How good do you want this to be and how much time should I spend on it?” “Okay, here are the tradeoffs.”

    I am also disturbed about the comment that you shouldn’t go to HR for anything. I think this should be another letter.

  13. Steve*

    I see some people questioning the OP’s stance, but I am totally on her side. I work in a regulated market where deadlines are deadlines – not deadlines that your boss sets, but are really somewhat arbitrary. You literally cannot have someone dump stuff on you randomly, last-minute in some jobs.

  14. Cassie*

    I don’t think having to edit your boss’s writing is that odd of a task. My boss (and most of the students) are non-native English speakers. I spend a good part of my life proofreading their papers and given that I have absolutely no technical background, it can take a while proofreading a four-page paper.

    Sometimes I wonder if I should try teaching/coaching the writers so they can develop better writing skills – if it’s my boss, I don’t bother. If it’s a student, I’ll make the changes on the paper, but I’ll also provide some specific suggestions/tips to them.

    Many times, the proofreading requests aren’t urgent, but there are times where we’re working on proposals that do have a hard deadline. I have to take paragraphs and pages from multiple technical folks (most who are not native speakers), combine it into one file (make sure formatting is consistent), and then proofread everything. There was one time that I finished proofreading 10 minutes before the deadline and a student wanted to add a paragraph. Uh, sorry – too late – no more changes!

    Out of all of us with the same job title, I think I’m the only one who proofreads papers. Some of my coworkers are not qualified (they are not native speakers or writers themselves), or their bosses don’t ask them to do it. Sometimes I gripe about it (to myself), especially if I have other deadlines, but at the same time, I recognize that I wouldn’t be asked to do it if I wasn’t capable.

    In regards to the boss’s directive about not going to HR, I don’t know about that – maybe something got lost in translation?

    1. class factotum*

      Sometimes I wonder if I should try teaching/coaching the writers so they can develop better writing skills – if it’s my boss, I don’t bother

      I learned the hard way not to copy edit my boss’ memos. He had asked me to look at a memo and there were several style mistakes in it that I took the liberty of correcting.

      People who think they are good writers often do not want to be corrected.

      1. Cassie*

        At least my boss doesn’t think he’s a good writer :) but then that gives him more reason to ask me to check stuff before he sends it out.

  15. Anonymous*


    I am the OP. I really appreciate everyone’s comments.

    To answer a few questions

    1. It is a technical piece and it’s not straightforward editing I should have truly said re-writing (almost completely).
    2. I’m an analyst and editing is not at all part of my job description, though I enjoy it and do well at it
    3. As someone mentioned, it’s not the editing-so much- that bothers me it’s the completely careless attitude
    4. These kinds of issues escalated (issues of my boss not doing her departmental administrative and other duties and leaving us to figure it out) as well as the continued nonchalance so I went to HR. HR is making a plan of action.
    5. I agree, the HR thing is terrible and she really means it. Last time our small team went to HR (with legit complaints) we got in trouble for going to HR….completely unethical.

    6. For the time being I really appreciate the suggestions of how to handle last minute requests and balance other priorities. I will definitely implement those suggestions.

    1. Julie*

      I think someone’s suggestion above with regard to last-minute requests is pretty good: “Just so you know, Sally, I estimate that this editing job will take me 3-4 hours, which I’m going to have to take out of time I usually devote to other tasks. Right now I’m working on the Johnson report, the wingbat development plans, and the presentation for the meeting next week. Which one of those should I deprioritize?”

  16. Anonymous*

    I had no idea I would receive so many responses!
    For the record: I’m not a native English speaker either, and admittedly, my idiomatic English is awful. However, I do professional translating of technical documents (on the side)-qualifying me for this very specific kind of editing. I would also concede that I’m not a professional editor- because that’s not my job!!

    I’ll be sure to post if there are major improvements to the situation. Thank you for all the suggestions.

  17. Jess*

    Except for the non-native english speaker bit, this could be my old boss!

    Alas, english was her first language, and what’s more, we work in publishing. She’d do the load-of-work-at-the-last-minute thing, and she seemed to love waltzing over 10 minutes before the end of the day to dump 4 hours of work on my lap, which she of course needed ASAP. It didn’t annoy me in the beginning, as I was head of editorial, so it made sense for me to proof read presentations and documents, and it was certainly better than seeing her professional emails to clients and contacts sprinkled with errors and emoticons (also, she was a fan of changing the font mid sentence to make her point. If she could have made them glitter with elves dancing around she would have).

    What got me was when she started insisting I write the ‘letter from the editor’ bit for our publication, in her voice, and put her name on it. It started out as I’d just edit her god awful stunted notes, and by the end she’d give me one or two buzz words ‘to get me going’ and then sign her name.

    How did I deal with it? Well, one evening when she approached with more work I simply said ‘Alright, I can handle that, but it means x won’t get done until this time. I’m just trying to prioritize’. It took her aback a bit, but after a bit of sputtering she agreed that whatever project I had to finish first was more important, and would toddle off to at least draf the darn thing herself.

    And then I stopped fixing her grammar and just let her hang herself from her own run on sentence :P. If she wanted her name on a personal letter, who was I to stop her sharing her personality with the masses?

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