my boss won’t let me edit his terrible writing

A reader writes:

I’m the only communications position for my company, so a part of my job is writing, editing, and posting things to our website. My boss, who leads the company, wants to author pieces of writing and editorials for the company. The writing is always overly complex, unclear and riddled with grammatical errors. It’s hard to read and does not succeed in getting a message across. I have received more than one complaint about the quality of his writing, but have been too afraid to tell him.

I can usually make the case for fixing the obvious errors, but I still try to make suggestions that I think would make the writing read better. On more than one occasion, my boss has taken offense to this and has accused me of tampering with his writing style. I can understand that he is defensive and cares about authorship, but in my mind, I’m “doing my job” by making suggestions and trying to put forth the best piece of communication.

Do you have any advice for how to respond to people who are emotional/defensive about being edited when it’s your job to assist with editing? Should I simply avoid making suggestions and let things go?

Ugh, people who are enamored of their own writing when they’re not in fact great writers are difficult at any time, but when they’re your boss? It’s a complete clusterfudge.

Ultimately, you’ve got to figure out what your job is — not the job you want to do, but the job your boss has hired you for. If it turns out that he doesn’t want you to edit his work more than minimally, then that’s what the job is … even if it means that you’re charged with posting things that are poorly written and embarrassing. Of course, that’s going to reflect on you to some degree, as the communications person, so you’d then need to decide if this is a job you’re interested in.

But first get clarity on what the job is, in that regard. Talk to your boss and say something like, “I’m hoping to get better clarity on what you’d like my role to be when it comes to editing things that we publish online. With others here, I clean up the writing for grammar and usage if needed, but I also reword things when something isn’t clear or could be stated more concisely without losing meaning or nuance. But I’m getting the sense from you that you’d rather I not do that with your pieces. I do think there’s value in having a communications person give things an edit for clarity before they go online, and I’m hoping you’ll let me make the case for that to you. But I wanted to figure out what the boundaries are of what you’re looking for from me in this role.”

Hopefully your boss won’t be so ridiculous as to tell you that no, he doesn’t even want suggestions from you. But if he does make it clear that he’s absolutely not interested in being edited … well, that’s his call, misguided as it would be.

And yes, it’s frustrating and the wrong decision for the company. And it will have consequences — anything from turning off potential customers and business partners to driving away prospective job candidates to even making him a laughingstock if the writing is bad enough. But it’s his decision. All you can do is lay out the case, as you would with any other business decision that was ultimately his call.

At that point, you’ll need to assume that’s the job and decide if it’s something you’re interested in continuing with long-term. Do you want the job as he has presented it? Sometimes, just looking at it that way and recognizing that this is just how it is and you can’t alter that can be enough to make you live with it reasonably contentedly. Sometimes it’s the battle that makes things so frustrating, the feeling that you need to be solving this problem, and realizing that you don’t and can’t is a relief. Other times, though, you might realize that if this is the way things are going to be, you’re not interested. Either one is legitimate. The key is to just get utterly clear about what you can and can’t change, so that you’re able to make the right decision for yourself.

However, whatever you decide, stop shielding him from complaints about his writing. Pass them along, because he needs to hear them.

And at some point, you might use that to revisit the issue more broadly: “We’ve been getting complaints about the pieces on our site. I’d love to take a stab at making some of them more web-friendly and see if we get a different response. Would you be willing to let me try that over the next month?” (You could also suggest running different versions past a handful of people he respects — the original draft and your edited one — and gathering feedback from people. But in order for this to have any impact, he’d need to be truly open to hearing feedback. If you know that he’s not, you’d be wasting everyone’s time and energy.)

But ultimately, you want to get clear on what you can and can’t control, and then figure out what you want to do with that.

{ 99 comments… read them below }

  1. Charlotte*

    I love this: Sometimes it’s the battle that makes things so frustrating, the feeling that you need to be solving this problem, and realizing that you don’t and can’t is a relief.

    This is something I’ve been struggling with a lot lately…some good advice to take to heart.

    1. ChristineSW*

      Exactly. One thing I’ve always struggled with is dealing with the reality of “what is”, not “what it should be”. This blog is definitely helping me learn how to look at it from the “what is” perspective, although I admit I may need additional help (which I have access to) once I finally do get a paying job again.

    2. Vicki*

      For many of us, the “battle” comes about because we care.
      By being told that we can’t fix it, we then need to stop caring.

      That;s usually the beginning of the end for that job. There’s only so much non-caring that a caring person can stomach.

      1. Legal Eagle*

        But ultimately that’s a good thing. If you care about the quality of your work, you should work at a place that respects that. If you find yourself someplace that refuses to benefit from your ability to care, then you belong somewhere else.

        It’s good to recognize what you cannot change, so that you can know when to leave. Then you can spend your energy figuring out your next move, instead of explaining to your touchy boss why grammar errors are bad.

      2. fposte*

        Or stop investing, anyway, at least in that part of the job. I think that’s different from deciding not to care overall–every job will have stuff you have to work around. The question is whether the rest of it is satisfying enough to keep you there.

        1. Ruffingit*

          +100! This is absolutely the truth. It is possible to stop investing in portions of the job while still caring overall. If there is enough to give you satisfaction in the job otherwise, then not investing in certain parts of it that you cannot change is a wise move and can help make the days a lot easier. It also frees up some emotional energy for investment in the parts of the job that you can change/do well at.

      3. Jessa*

        Exactly. There’s a point where you can’t sit there and let that stuff go. Just because you aren’t to fix it doesn’t mean you stop caring about the quality of the work. That’s the time you pick up and find somewhere else.

      4. Cassie*

        Agreed. I think of it like players and teams in the NBA. You have a superstar player who wants to win championships and wants management to bring in other players who can help him, but the team owner just wants to fill seats and doesn’t want to pay for high-caliber players. The other players just want playing time and to boost their stats, and don’t care about playing as a team.

        The superstar just has to move on and find a team which will help him go for a championship.

      5. Cheryl*

        There’s only so much non-caring that a caring person can stomach.

        Oh totally!! When management says thats not part of your job and you know that in passing it off to someone else the person with the issue is only going to continue to be passed off without a resolution on the horizon, it is really difficult. And honestly, it lowers my own self esteem as I pride myself on a job well done and this attitude isn’t a part of that. Not doing it because it’s not a part of my job isn’t customer service to me…especially when I know how to fix it.

  2. Lily in NYC*

    I was so thrilled to see Alison used “enamored of” correctly, especially in a post about proofreading. Even journalists rarely get that right. But boy can I relate to this – my boss’ “right-hand-man” (really an evil woman) had a terrible writing style and her VP used to secretly give me everything she wrote so I could fix her errors. She got annoyed and told him to stop and then promptly sent out an invitation to 300 CEOs telling them that we “craved their bodies’ presence” at a high-level event we were having. We got so many confused replies. It was hilarious.

    1. Adam V*

      She told her VP to stop doing what he was doing? And she didn’t get fired on the spot?

      Also, what was the follow-up? Did she get her mass-email or customer-facing-email privileges taken away?

      1. Lily in NYC*

        Sorry, I wasn’t clear! The VP was her subordinate – I meant “her VP” as in he worked for her. The only follow-up was a red-faced email correcting the error. She was teflon because she was a masterful liar and our big boss loved her for doing his dirty work for him. This happened three years ago but we finally got rid of her last week! Everyone hated her and only a few people showed up at her good-bye party (and she was very senior – it was a pointed snub).

    2. Meg*

      That’s amazing. I would have loved to see an invitation to a business event that said they “craved their bodies’ presence”. Provided I wasn’t the one in charge of the event.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        I wish I had the nerve to say where I work because that makes it even better. This invite went to people like Anna Wintour and other very well known bigwigs in NY. (Random aside: Anna Wintour actually came to the event – indoors at night – and never took off her stupid sunglasses).

    3. littlemoose*

      Hahaha that’s amazing. And it is vaguely gross – “craved their bodies” sounds like it’s from some trashy romantic novel.

      1. Rana*

        Nah, not autocorrect. Thesauritis. The original wording or idea was probably something like “we request that you be there” and it got inflamed with pompous vocabulary.

            1. Jessa*

              Okay we’re back to I cannot be drinking when reading this blog. I just snorked Pepsi up my nose.

              And had to use my Google-fu on “marsupial neonate Tribbiani,” and guess what the TOP listing was for the usage in this blog. Gigglefit. Serious total gigglefit.

      2. FD*

        I assume she wanted to say that they were invited to the event.

        “We request your presence” is a fancy old-fashioned way of inviting someone; I’m guessing that she just mangled it a bit.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        She is a native Cantonese speaker – is it possible it’s a literal translation of somthing from that language?

        1. Ruffingit*

          I sure hope so because I need a good explanation that doesn’t involve being on illegal drugs for something that bizarre.

        2. Julie K*

          I have a friend who used to work in my department whose first language is Chinese. Sometimes she used to ask me to proofread her important emails. She knew her written English wasn’t great, but she never would have written “craved their bodies’ presence”! How can you live and work in the US and not know that phrase is ridiculous?

    4. SW*

      Ha, that’s great!

      But: “enamored of” as opposed to what? I tried Googling and couldn’t find anything.

  3. J*

    I’d like to add that if you do find out that your boss is completely uninterested in your feedback/edits, you might seriously consider trying to switch jobs. If you’re the communications person and potential future employers see the website posts riddled with errors, it may blow up in your face. Good luck!

    1. A Bug!*

      If it’s appropriate to do so, the OP might very clearly attribute the boss’s content to him. To the boss, it would be giving credit where credit is due. If the rest of the content on the site is well-written, anybody who notices the difference will likely recognize why.

      (And if they don’t, the attribution will support the OP’s assertion that the boss wrote those pieces independently and did not have any assistance in preparing them.)

      1. Escritora*

        That’s exactly what I would do. I would keep my name far, far from whatever page the posts are on, and make sure his name is all over his crap.

        Be aware, though, that unless the posts are clearly branded–big headings that shout your name, including photos/avatars, there is a very good chance readers will not notice the byline. In that case, I would re-think staying there.

  4. COT*

    Alison’s advice is great–sometimes there are things that you just can’t change, no matter how much it should be “your job” and no matter how well you wish to do your job.

    If I were you, I’d encourage lots of other folks to also write for your website so that the good content outweighs the bad. The more good authors you have, the more evident it will be to readers that the boss is an anomaly and that your company’s overall communications are strong. (And for those who see that your boss is the president, they may be understanding of why his work obviously hasn’t been well-edited, because he’s far from the only head honcho out there resistant to this kind of correction.)

    I’m a good writer and I do a lot of writing for professional blogs… and I always welcome edits (and usually agree with them). A lot of the best writers do, I think. Sometimes that second perspective helps clarify the piece, improve flow, and catch trouble spots. Resistance to that is usually ego-driven, as it seems to be in this case. You’re probably already doing this, but try sandwiching your editing suggestions between lots of compliments: “You make a really great point here, but I wonder if an outside audience would understand it better if it were phrased in this way.” (And if you can blame the readers’ lack of knowledge that might help your boss feel smarter.)

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      My general impression is that people who are open to correction are also the most competent.

      1. FiveNine*

        Agreed — to an extent. It’s not that the boss’s work is going out riddled with errors. The boss is complaining that the OP is fundamentally changing the writing style. I understand people who won’t under any circumstances let someone edit their work so it sings — but I also have run into that not-totally-rare editor who imposes their own voice on someone else’s writing style, which is a slightly different thing and is more a matter of personal taste than of there being a genuine issue with the text. That the OP said the boss is offended by some of the changes is kind of what suggests to me there might be a tiny bit of this going on here.

        1. jesicka309*

          Sometimes people will assume that their writing is completely perfect because spell check said nothing was wrong…but they’ve used the wrong tenses the whole way through, they have fragmented sentences that lead nowhere, they start sentences with conjunctions etc.
          Stuff like that can require more than a simple proofread – they need to be re-edited, and many sentences re-written. Sometimes a point will be repeated, sometimes the writer won’t notice they’ve started four sentences in a row with ‘however’, sometimes a paragraph needs to be moved from the beginning to the end so that the article flows naturally.
          A good communications person will see these things, and correct them, because while they’re not obvious errors, they contribute to the overall tone and perception given out in the writing. The idea is that, yes, the writing style is being changed, from the style of a 14 year old writing their first essay, or a 19 year old on their first blog, to the style of a business professional.

  5. Kelly O*

    Plus infinity.

    One of my biggest peeves is the person who insists that everything he writes is error-free and should be sent out as-is. It coincides with another responsibility and a person could easily assume (if they did not know better) that it was me sending out these typo-laden messages. I tried editing once, and it was NOT a hill I wanted to die upon, however it makes me cringe every time I have to send this particular communication.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Editing is hard work; but it’s far better than letting something so riddled with errors go out into the wild. I absolutely cringed at a website for a company to which I applied, and when I found out the boss was like the OP’s, it killed the deal for me. I didn’t get an offer, but I’m not sure I would have been able to take it.

  6. Sonya*

    Ugh. I’m currently in a work situation very similar to this. My boss is a pretty bad writer. Not the worst I’ve ever seen, but she’s overly wordy, uses big words to try to seem smarter, doesn’t understand basic grammatical rules, and can’t use a semi-colon properly to save her life (yet she uses them constantly). I am, for all intents and purposes, her assistant (which I shouldn’t be, given that I’m employed through a federal service program with very specific rules as to what my duties should entail, but that’s another story) and I work closely with her to produce web/social media content, marketing materials, etc. She won’t take my suggestions, even when I’m correcting an obvious grammatical error–she’ll pretend to listen and then simply not write it down, or later I’ll see the finished product without the changes made. It drives me crazy and if I didn’t know that my time with her was limited (it’s a one-year position), I’d probably have to quit. OP–you have my sympathy!

  7. Pussyfooter, aka. OneoftheMichelles*

    Hi OP,
    I agree with all Alison’s advice.

    The fact that you’ve been withholding others’ negative responses to your boss’s writing, but pressing him for change jumped out at me as inherently mistaken. If you weren’t there, he’d be hearing it; stop keeping him in the dark while expecting him to see the light.

    I wonder why you you’ve been hiding the negative feedback from your boss?

    1. Meg*

      Judging from how the OP described him, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the type of boss to shoot the messenger. He sounds like the type of person who wants to protect his own ego above all else.

      1. Pussyfooter, aka. OneoftheMichelles*

        Yeah, I thought of that, but I’d like if that’s the issue or if the OP is holding back for some other reason.

    2. lurker*

      My first thought about the criticism was in regard to who the criticizer was. If it’s subordinates to this boss, then I think the OP should continue to withhold it because it may have been expressed to her in confidence and the individual doesn’t want to be outed to a person who clearly doesn’t take feedback well. If it’s a client or a board member or someone in a position of authority, then I think it’s OK to forward it to the boss.

  8. Communications Drone*

    Oh god, I hear this. I’m the communications person for a nonprofit where the CEO is enamored of their “wordsmithing.” This means that about half of what I draft gets severely rewritten into less clear, wordier documents before it can go to the public. It also means that their drafts are apparently beyond reproach. At least their grammar and punctuation are good but their style is really not suited for the online world. And I can’t change it because of egos.

    (I’ve been a writer for years, full-time and freelance, and the best thing I ever learned in my life was that working with a really good editor can be the best thing a writer ever does. No matter how good the copy that comes out of your brain is, working with a good editor can make it better. I wish people would get less defensive about editors doing their jobs.)

    1. Sascha*

      Yes to editors! I’m a freelance editor myself, and while I pride myself on my writing abilities, I still need someone (sometimes multiple people) to help me see the overall picture. For example, I was writing a short story and the setting was very foggy, yet a mysterious wind was blowing and make a door slam…and my husband kindly pointed out that if there’s fog, there’s no wind. I need editors to give me reality checks! :)

      1. Anonymous*

        But, but…it was a mysterious wind….it moved the door, but not water vapor….that’s part of the mystery! You could have made it work! :-)

      2. Elizabeth West*

        LOL I hate when I do stuff like that.

        I recently sent a novel off to a kinda-famous writer for a critique. It’s nerve-wracking, but I know when I get it back, I’ll have not only what I need to make it the best it can be, but I’ll also have advice I can carry forward to the next one.

  9. Joey*

    Sometimes you have to let people screw up before they’ll listen to you. They key is he has to understand that he’s screwing up. That’s where you show him not your opinion, but evidence that he’s not doing it well. Complaints, stats, etc.

    Of course there are some people that no matter how much you show them they will never believe they’re doing a bad job.

  10. Anon because old coworkers could ID me by this comment*

    Ugh. I had this problem at a previous job. I’d work on reports and papers, and then they’d get passed up the line to various comms (!) directors and VPs and come back a complete mess, with all sorts of mixed metaphors, grammatical errors and factual misinterpretations (people couldn’t understand statistical data to save their lives). And holy jargon, Batman!
    I flat out wasn’t allowed to touch any of it. It was so frustrating. By the time I left I actually had a jargon/made-up word list 30-items long tacked to the wall of my cube, the general staff had a contest to see who could find the most mistakes first when a new paper came out, and we’d won a jargon award from a well-known publication. I actually have to say “well, I wasn’t really involved in that” when discussing some material they’ve put out. It was professionally embarrassing and was a real hindrance when I was searching for a new job and wanted examples of my work, because they consistently destroyed my work.
    (And, the situation honestly speaks to the overall management style of the company — I’ve never been more glad to leave a position.)

    1. Sniper*

      It makes you wonder how companies that are run by people so incompetent, remain in business. Yet, they are all over the place. It never fails to amaze me.

    2. EB*

      My boss os the opposite, they are in love with their ability to edit and par things down. However the end result is just as incomprehensible. Explanatory clauses are edited out and they insist on only using simple sentence and paragraph use. However we are engaged in scientific writing so when they edit out the complexity you are left with stilted construction and missing crucial bits of methods. Thankfully third party editors review the final product. It is so frustrating to see the editor put in all the compound (and more succinct) sentences I wanted to use and point out the missing methods point that I had put in but they took out.

  11. KarenT*

    As a professional editor, I deal with this every day. Egos can be tricky to navigate. I get the sense you haven’t been direct. Try that. Tell him you’re not interested in changing his writing voice, but that his writing has mistakes in it. Don’t be vague–don’t say things like in your letter about making his writing “better.” Be specific–“your verbs are conjugated incorrectly,” “your tenses don’t match,” “your modifiers are dangling,” “you’re switching from first to third person.” If you try to sugar coat it (and we all do this) he’s just going to think you’re nitpicking. You’ll get a better result from “This sentence is unclear. The word X doesn’t make sense in this context, and the subject-verb agreements are incorrect.” than you will from “This isn’t clear. I’ve made some changes to make it better.”

    The following helps (depending on the personality your dealing with):

    *A compliment and a change in one: Wow! Great point about X topic–our readers are going to love it. Where you’ve written “ljlkjklj” let’s put “jkjlkklj” as it is clearer to read. The bigger the ego, the more compliments you slip in.

    *A reminder about who’s going to be your audience. Boss, your paper on X topic has a few grammatical errors and clarity issues. We should have those corrected, since this is going on the website to be viewed by our customers and it has your name on it. Even the biggest egos fear embarrassment.

    * Be direct: Hey boss, the piece you wrote about X topic was great, but I noticed a few grammatical errors. I made a few changes for clarity.

    *Forward the customer complaints. Don’t “protect” him. If he’s writing material that your customers are complaining about, tell him! He’s remiss if he is not paying attention to client feedback.

    *Highlight the errors and let him fix his own mistakes. Use the comments feature in Adobe Reader or in MS Word and flag errors: “Wrong verb tense,” “incorrect subject agreement,” “unclear antecedent.” It’s really hard to argue with specifics.

    Keep in mind this can impact your own reputation–people will assume you are editing his work. His poor writing can also prevent you from having a portfolio.

    1. Chinook*

      KarenT, I love all your reccomendations. This was the tact I took with junior high students when editing and marking their essays. Like you, I would point out complete mistakes (like verb conjugations) and unclear sentences (pronouns can be the worst) while pointing out that I don’t want to change their voice. It really is hard to argue with specifics.

    2. Anon because old coworkers could ID me by this comment*

      Yes, making the correction and using the comments feature to explain exactly why the edit was made is very helpful with this type of writer!

    3. Elizabeth West*

      Yes, as the edit-ee, this works WAY better. The first time I got a critique (long, long ago, when I still thought I knew everything), it kept me from getting mad! Now, instead of saying “What!?” when someone makes a suggestion, I say “Ooh, that’s good; I’m going to do that/try that/fix that.”

      I’m still really nervous about the pro one….I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t want feedback. I just don’t want Kinda-Famous to hate it. :\

    4. KellyK*

      These are very good suggestions. Another benefit to being very specific is that it shows your grammatical expertise and might build your credibility as someone who can fix it. I’ve always had pretty good success with pointing things out specifically. Granted, that might be because someone who doesn’t know an antecedent from an aardvark, and doesn’t wish to learn, will agree to whatever edits I want to make the grammar talk stop.

  12. Brett*

    This post makes me wonder about the ethics of editing.

    Decades ago I worked in a biology lab with a primary investigator who was a horrible writer. This was particularly noticeable in abstract submissions to conferences. The post-docs dreaded having a horribly written abstract go out with their names on it. Fortunately, the PI was incapable of getting the laser printer to print correctly into the little box on the abstract submission form (I did say this was decades ago), and would give the form to me for printing and mailing.

    So, the post-docs and I had a procedure. The PI would give me the form with the abstract as a Word file. I would turn the Word file over to the post-docs, who would then completely rewrite the abstract. I would print the abstract onto the form and mail it off. Six months later when the conference program came out, the PI had long forgotten the wording of the original abstract. The PI would just look at the beautiful prose and marvel at their fantastic writing. I think, “Wow, this is much better than I remember,” was even said once or twice.

    Even though the outcomes were much better for everyone across the board, just how unethical was it to edit the PI’s writing like that?

    1. Chinook*

      I think the only unethical part was allowing the PI to believe that had great writing skills. But, if they were already resistant to anyone editing their work, I think you all came up with the perfect worrk around.

    2. Anon because old coworkers could ID me by this comment*

      I think in many cases, researchers aren’t great writers. My first “professional” editing job was when I was a receptionist at a medical college/hospital office and I was given the task of editing (or rewriting) a doctor’s grant applications. I don’t think he ever even noticed what I changed (English was not his first language), but it became standard procedure for everything he wrote to go through me, whether he knew it or not.

    3. Cassie*

      Did the PI really think that it was all his writing or was he saying it jokingly? I proofread journal/conference papers for faculty and students and in addition to correcting typos and grammatical errors, I’ve also changed sentences to make it more readable. I leave the track changes on, but I usually don’t make it a point to tell the original author what I changed.

      I don’t think it’s unethical in your situation – after all, many papers are written with multiple authors.

      1. Brett*

        The PI would really think it was their own writing. This particular PI would have thrown a fit if they found out that their writing had been edited (hence why the post-docs had no genuine input on the abstracts in the first place). The PI is actually a great speaker (has even been a TED speaker) and was a MacArthur fellow along with other major awards, but just cannot translate their public speaking into writing.

        Makes me wonder what that lab is doing now for abstracts in the era of digital submissions.

  13. EnnVeeEl*

    I think all the advice here is really good. And if he just won’t accept feedback (and this happens all the time), honestly, consider a move. I think communications jobs are tough enough without these types of issues. You don’t want this coming back to haunt you later, and it really could. I’ve worked for that company, and I am mortified when people make comments like, “Gee, you do good work, why weren’t you on my account before I had to fire XXX?”

    Also, be sure to leave these pieces out of your portfolio. Don’t add the link to these pieces to your resume or website. I’m sure there are other things (press releases, fact sheets, etc.) that you can use.

  14. Angry Writer*

    I agree that there’s lots of good advice here. I’ve been a professional writer and editor for 15+ years. I’ve been in this situation too. One angle to think about, though, is that so much of “bad writing” is subjective. It’s so easy to label someone else’s writing as “bad” — I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve done it to others — when it can often be subjective (obviously I’m not talking typos or grammatical mistakes). I’m not saying this is what the OP is doing, I’m sure the boss writes horribly. Just something to think about. When I’ve gone back and looked at the “horrible” writing of peers (who I happened to hate) years later, sometimes it’s not as “horrible” as I was convinced it was at the time. Just something to think about.

    1. fposte*

      And even the impact of grammatical mistakes is subjective. People don’t tend to get bent out of shape over the predicate nominative, and I’ll end a sentence with a preposition any time I want to. On the other hand, faulty parallelism bugs the crap out of me and I’ll clean it up in my journal, knowing that most readers aren’t likely to care.

  15. bearing*

    So, you’re “tampering with his writing style.”

    How about asking the boss to articulate to you what he envisions his “writing style” to be? If he produced the perfect piece of writing — in his own opinion — what does he hope it would sound like? Is he trying for conversational, stream-of-consciousness, familiar-sounding, “approachable?” Is it important to him that he sound intelligent or authoritative? Does he have a sense of who his audience is and what their informational needs are? Does he want to include tons of extra information to be thorough, or would he like to be known as a guy who gets straight to the point?

    Maybe if you ask these questions, listen carefully and note how he would like to see himself as a writer, you can counsel him more effectively. You might be able to reflect back to him how he wants to be seen, and demonstrate how some changes could help him project the image he wants to project. These are not necessarily the same ones that you wish he would project, but he is the boss, after all. Maybe you can help him see editing as a way to put forward a polished version of his own voice, rather than a different voice entirely.

  16. Wilton Businessman*

    clusterfudge – my new favorite word. Everybody knows what you’re trying to say without having to say it.

  17. ChristineSW*

    Alison – I already commented above in reply to Charlotte, but I just want to thank you for your blog. This post is a perfect example of the type of thing that may seem minor, but still would drive me batty. Dealing with the realities of the working world (and life in general) is sometimes very difficult for me. “The key is to just get utterly clear about what you can and can’t change, so that you’re able to make the right decision for yourself.” – This line from your answer sums it up perfectly, and perhaps something I should tape to my forehead. lol.

    That said, I do agree that bringing up the complaints about the writing is a good idea. That way, he may realize that it’s not just you being petty, but something that is legitimately affecting the company’s image.

  18. BB*

    One suggestion for editing an egotistical writer: blame the reader!

    “What you’ve written here is very nice/elegant/comprehensive/creative/…, but I wonder if all of the readers will really get it. Most of the readers won’t be as well-versed in chocolate teapot making as you obviously are, so it may be a good idea to simplify this section and make it more direct so that everybody fully understands the points that you are making here.”

    1. Escritora*

      I would tweak this, to leave him with no defense: In our journalism classes in high school, we were told to write to an eighth grade level. In college I was told to write to a sixth grade level (to be fair, the teacher might have misspoke). Experience tells me this is the range to shoot for when writing for the general public.

      The OP might also run his text through one of the online calculators for a Flesch-Kincaid readability score. I believe he should be aiming for Time magazine, which I think is ranked 51 out of 100 for ease, and comics rated at 100. The calculators will tell him whether he’s hitting the Time magazine range or the impenetrable jargon range. The end of the post on this link has a long list of calculators to choose from,

  19. Just a Reader*

    Honestly, I’m in comms and I would quit. Writing and editing is such a huge part of the job–and why people choose this path–that it can’t be remotely fulfilling to have your hands tied. Not to mention your professional reputation is at risk.

    Just my 2 cents. There are lots of places that appreciate good writers and editors and will allow you to do your job without sacrificing quality for vanity.

  20. EngineerGirl*

    Seek mutual purpose when you discuss this with him.
    * You both want the company shown in the best possible light
    * You both want the boss to look knowledgable
    * You both want people to listen to what he says

    Based on this you may want to approach this issue as “we want people to read your work”

    Then bring this up:
    * Most successful websites have a 5th grade (or whatever) reading ease
    * People will ignore complex and hard to read phrases
    Then convince him that in order to comply with with these requirements he may want to…
    And of course you are there to support him in reaching that goal.

    Rephrasing it turns it from a power play to a mutual goal. He’s more willing to listen in those circumstances.

  21. Editor*

    Educating some senior people about the awfulness of their prose is difficult. I agree with what Alison said, but I would add this: People are suggesting you try to educate him about style or the grammatical errors he is making.

    To really convince someone who is skeptical and resistant to criticism like this requires a lot of documentation. In my experience, there are poor writers who just won’t recognize issues like agreement, even when confronted by a page in a grammar describing best practices in English. As part of the OP’s decision-making, I would evaluate how much time can be devoted to trying to fix one person’s writing, even if the person is the head of the company. It may not be cost effective.

    In some cases, reading a sentence or two of the offending prose out loud to the poor writer allows the writer to hear the errors that were made during the writing process. People who don’t understand agreement, for instance, may realize the sentence nevertheless “sounds wrong.”

    If outsiders and customers are criticizing the boss’s writing, however, stop shielding him unless and until he starts blaming you. If he won’t let you edit stuff, but blames you when his writing is at fault, it will be better for your reputation to get out.

  22. OP, here*

    I’m grateful for Alison’s advice as well as the comments. Thanks, everyone! It makes me feel better knowing I’m not the only one struggling with this.

    To answer some of the questions posed by other readers:

    Yes, I’m wary of being the messenger in relaying outside criticism, mostly because I think it will be perceived as me going out of my way to prove a point. My boss and I get along most of the time, which is another reason why this step is more difficult for me. Ideally, feedback would arrive completely independent of me. Your comments have reinforced the idea that I should tactfully forward ANY feedback I receive from now on, both the pretty and the ugly.

    I also understand how certain ways of editing can erode style. Most of the edits I put forth are to clarify the meaning of certain sentences and phrases that don’t really make sense to me. My litmus test is whether I understand the piece of writing and what its overall point is. I still think that’s a good measure, but I’ll need to receive extra clarification about my position and role as editor, as Alison suggested.

    Other writing from our company is (IMO) professional and different from the CEO’s work. This is something I obviously take pride in. Everyone benefits from an editor refining their final product (I’m in this camp, too). I often have co-workers look at my work before hitting publish, which I find tremendously helpful.

    I have plenty of constructive advice to think about and overall more listening to do next time. Thanks!

  23. CathVWXYNot?*

    Oh, this would drive me to an immediate full-scale job search. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this, OP.

    I’ve worked with multiple professors and researchers over the last few years, editing their grants and manuscripts, and luckily for me even the biggest and wiggiest of the bigwigs I’ve worked with have been very open to having their work edited for grammar, typos, and clarity. I appreciate this so much that when I was recently given the option to start working with a new prof, I went to his former grant wrangler to find out if he’s also open to editing before I accepted the assignment (he is! We’ve had a couple of hilarious email conversations about some of his typos!)

    (any errors in the above comment are, of course, deliberate)

  24. Lea*

    I wish I’d received this advice about two years ago, when I was a communications professional at a nonprofit and had a boss like this. I would have cut my losses and left before I’d been there for 2.5 years.

  25. Georgiana Mihalache*

    I agree with the “stop shielding him” part.
    To be honest I would create an internal newsletter where to expose his bad writing by contrast with other great articles. I would ask him to write an article on a specific topic and then ask the best other writers to do the same. Put his awful article, mistakes and all, first in the newsletter followed by the others so the people can see the difference. Maybe he will notice the problem…

  26. Grace*

    It must be so frustrating to see all these errors that seem to detract from your hard work (re: boss with bad grammar).

    As an admin, I once received a bunch of letters that were going out to several public companies (I worked for a government agency) and posted to our webpage to give thanks for support of our disaster relief efforts. As the admin to the head honcho, I had a stamp with his signature on it and they wanted me to stamp it as he was out of office.

    It was an atrocity. They even had the name of the country in error (think Island of Haiti vs. Republic of Haiti). They had the date of the disaster wrong. It was choppy and the wording was extremely awkward. Certain sentences contradicted each other. I went back to the originator and told them they all needed to be done and he refused, saying I should “just stamp them.” I wouldn’t do this and waited for my boss to get back. I showed him the letter with my corrections and asked him if I could redo them. He told me absolutely.

    I definitely made more work for myself, but it was a relief to send out something that reflected well on the command. I actually got a commendation letter that went in my permanent file for stopping that letter from going out lol.

  27. Linda in Toronto*

    Boy, do I feel for this writer as I am living this very scenario. My colleagues are afraid to tell a senior member of our team that they think a regular piece we produce has various flaws that could be fixed by a good / real edit or improved content collaboration.

    On other jobs, I have a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario. I am (god help me) trying to introduce a process whereby there is a “project owner” who ensures appropriate collaboration, editing and sign off. It could be a waste of time, but at least I’ll know I’ve done my best to manage the process.

    I get that no one would write a piece the same way, but now I have some great tools that will empower me to address my frustrations – thanks!

  28. Christine*

    I write articles at my current job that my boss insists on editing before they go out but she’s a terrible writer. The articles come out making no sense. Now I’m trying to apply for a different job and I’m afraid that someone’s going to look up these articles to see if I’m any good and they’ll find these awful articles. I wish I could send a disclaimer along with my cover letter and resume that I know how bad the writing is and that it isn’t me!

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