Managing difficult stakeholders: Bad writer edition
March 28, 2013 6:17 PM   Subscribe

Professional communicators of Metafilter: Please give me your tips for handling subject matter experts who write poorly, but don't know it. When a colleague is adamant that their disorganised writing and grammatical errors Must Not Be Changed, how do you respond?

I am responsible for the final copy, so one way or another, the problems are going to be fixed. Lines like "A large amount of volunteers..." are not going on the damn website. (Unless said bad writer starts mincing them, I guess...)

But being a grammar nazi wins you no friends, especially in an organisation which is still adjusting to having a communications professional on staff. I want to take a kinder, gentler approach. Please give me your best advice on how to make the necessary edits while keeping relationships intact and egos relatively unbruised. How can I get the bad writer to see me as an asset, not a threat?

(To head off any derails: 90% of my colleagues are happy with my work; they tell me that I help them say what they wanted to say, only better. The bad writer is a notable exception to this trend).
posted by embrangled to Human Relations (31 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I let people know why I've made the change, not in a snotty way, but in a matter of fact way.
posted by OmieWise at 6:21 PM on March 28, 2013

"Colleague, I understand your concerns and want you to know that my first priority with any piece of copy is to maintain the integrity of what's being said along with the voice of the original author. The changes I've made do just that, and I am confident that they also represent the content standards our organization is known for. Thanks for your input!"
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 6:24 PM on March 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

Because online users read content differently, the content has to be written and presented in a specific way that maximises readership.

And, yes, These Birds of a Feather's line about representing the standards of our organisation.
posted by heyjude at 6:29 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Try creating a house style guide, with entries for their favorite solecisms and links to authoritative sources for the correct usage.
posted by ottereroticist at 6:30 PM on March 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you haven't been at this organization very long. Some people just need time to get used to having an editor working with them.

However, Bad Writer may just be a difficult personality or stubborn. If that's the case, you'll need to come up with some strategies for dealing with him/her. Here are some ways I've used to work with difficult writers:

-use both track changes and comment bubbles to make edits (this makes your work seem less overwhelming)
-try explaining why you are making significant edits; sometimes writers will reject your changes because you are changing meaning or they don't understand why you are changing what seems to them to be a perfectly reasonable sentence
-if you have a style guide, cite it (ex. Change made in accordance to MLA 2.3), but do not under any circumstances try to re-teach the writer; it's condescending and unhelpful
-try submitting feedback through a different approach (i.e., instead of meeting in person, return the edits via email and tell him/her you are available to meet if he/she has questions)

If those ideas fail, I suggest talking with your boss. If you are responsible for the final product, then why are the writers weighing in, outside of whether something is correct or not?
posted by emilynoa at 6:31 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

You know, not worth it. Tell them you have final say on copy. If they don't change it, you will.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:33 PM on March 28, 2013

I am responsible for the final copy, so one way or another, the problems are going to be fixed.

My advisor has to deal with your situation (professor at a university), and his way of handling it is to just fix the issue and print/upload the final copy without further input from the person. So he:

1) Receives the draft.
2) Corrects the draft.
3) Prints/uploads.

In other words, he doesn't ask for the person's opinion, advice, or review. He just does his job. Unless you're specifically required to review the changes with the person before you submit the final work, you may just want to stop involving the person in the final process at all. Just gleefully accept their draft and handle everything else from there.*

*If your department will allow this that is.
posted by Shouraku at 6:36 PM on March 28, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm thinking they have control issues.

What is their expert subject? My line of attack would be that the writing and editing is your job, just as subject X is theirs, and just as you wouldn't dream of telling them how to do X, you'd appreciate it if they allowed you the same courtesy.

I'd definitely stress that you are focusing on grammar and word choice and not in any way disparaging their expertise. Make a point of saying you understand their apprehension, and assure them it is only the phrasing--not the content!--of their submissions that concerns you.

They believe no else knows Their Stuff better than they do, so they just don't want to relinquish control. A little nod to their concerns and maybe a bit of ego-stroking should get you past that hurdle.
posted by misha at 6:37 PM on March 28, 2013

I usually just point at the style/quality/edit guide/checklist and say "I have to check all these boxes for every single thing that gets published. The list does not really reflect my favorite grammar/style choices either, so I understand your frustration. Thank you for understanding." or similar type I am not the bad guy it is this list over here type strategery.
posted by skrozidile at 6:39 PM on March 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

"Stu, I think you're pretty good at your job. As a matter of fact, you're one of the best damn [his job] I've ever known. And that's probably why [your mutual boss] hired you. I think [boss] has a pretty good eye for talent. As a matter of fact, I'm certain that [boss] has a pretty good eye for talent, because [boss] hired me. To do this. It's all I do. I can give you a good reason for every... single... edit that I have made to your copy. Or you can take my word for it and spend more time doing [your job], which I'm going to guess you enjoy more than sitting here arguing with me about this thing that I do for a living."

If that doesn't work, you start taking him through every... single... edit. And have a good reason for each one, until he realizes that you're not just fiddling with it because you want to rewrite everything.
posted by Etrigan at 6:52 PM on March 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've dealt with this, and the only time it's been a truly unsolvable problem is when the Big Boss has not been on my side. As long as it's been very clear that my job has been making sure that all company text needs to be in the same voice, I've had no trouble dealing with colleagues, even very superior ones, when their text needs editing.

So go as high as you need to to make sure that your company's voice is coherent. It's very likely that not everyone really grasps that your job is to unify, not to annoy.
posted by padraigin at 6:59 PM on March 28, 2013

If it can be avoided, I wouldn't tell them you're changing it because they're wrong and they write shitty. I'd say it's your job to "make the copy consistent across the site and make sure everything's accessible to a general reader." In other words, you and I, Bob, we get this stuff, but the rubes out there, you're shooting over their heads.

If he's got a stick up his ass about this and he's a subject matter expert, then throwing your own weight around --- you may know about that, but it's my job to know about this, so back off --- may backfire, because it will be read as an assault on their intelligence, and they'll be able to counter-attack by suggesting that's you're eliminating crucial nuances because you're ignorant of the subject matter. It's better to go with the flattering frame of "you're just so special and so busy you have no time to spend to dumb this down, let me take it off your hands," etc.
posted by Diablevert at 7:06 PM on March 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'd say it's your job to "make the copy consistent across the site and make sure everything's accessible to a general reader." In other words, you and I, Bob, we get this stuff, but the rubes out there, you're shooting over their heads.

One of my jobs is to do this for copy written by art historians. This works with a lot of them who are resistant to editing.
posted by Miko at 7:17 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Some of the lines people are giving come across to me as overly confrontational. Maybe this person requires that, but when I have to do this I generally try to be as sweet as possible while also appealing to authority, as with a style guide/links/etc.
posted by woodvine at 7:23 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone, great answers so far. To clarify, I'm sending the copy back for factual review, and it keeps coming back rewritten, with grammatical errors reinserted. The bad writer knows how her part of the organisation works better than I do, so she does need to check that what I have written is accurate. Management is behind me, sort of, but the organisational culture is big on positive relationships and lots of consultation, which means that the "f*** you, I'm the writer" approach isn't going to work here. I need to find a way to get what I want (clear, readable copy) without damaging my working relationship with this person.
posted by embrangled at 7:24 PM on March 28, 2013

Have you tried making it clear to this person that what you need from them is a technical review? As in, "I'm so glad to have you, the foo expert, because I don't know much about foo, and it's really important that everything about foo in this document is correct. Can you please look over this to see if there are any foo mistakes? My job is to be a grammar, spelling, and writing expert, so you don't have to bother with making any of those kinds of changes."

Or, can you keep a copy of the revised doc and just make the necessary factual changes to the foo content? Is Dr. Foo required to sign off on a final review?
posted by woodvine at 7:32 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

it keeps coming back rewritten, with grammatical errors reinserted. The bad writer knows how her part of the organisation works better than I do, so she does need to check that what I have written is accurate.

I think you can get by with leaning hard on consistency, then. Perhaps abetted by a vague reference to some stylebook. "Of course, you're a science person so I'm sure you're used to Blah, but we decided that for the site we wanted to go with something a little more conversational, so we're using Chicago style as the guideline, and of course, everything has to be consistent, so I might have to make a few tweaks here and there, I'm sure you understand." And then merrily change all the less-es to fewers.
posted by Diablevert at 7:35 PM on March 28, 2013

At my last large company job, all communications went through Communications. They had their own internal site that provided a style guide, a grammar guide with examples and links and they published a weekly "Grammar Girl" type column where they discussed errors they'd recently seen (changed/disguised, I think, so as not to offend). They also let it be known that they could be contacted with grammar questions because not everyone has an MLA at their desk and because people forget the rules. They positioned themselves as a writing partner.

I like These Birds of a Feather's response. But I think you are going to have be direct but courteous with this particular person and explain your changes. With the example that you provided, a large amount of volunteers, your trackback/comment could include a gentle reminder of the rules regarding amount vs number, i.e. remember amount is used for mass/uncountable nouns and number is used those that can be counted. Provide the rule where the writer has made a full-on mistake.

If it continues, I would consider escalating to this person's manager.
posted by shoesietart at 7:43 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

But being a grammar nazi wins you no friends,

1. You're not there to make friends, you're there to communicate the company's message.
2. You're not a grammar nazi, you're making sure all of your public communications speak with the same voice, just as each page of the website has the same design.

Create a house style guide as you go. Take your time and be patient. Just like good writing, integrating an editor into corporate communications is a process.
posted by headnsouth at 7:47 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

"[Author], you're an expert [topic-er], but I'm an expert editor."
posted by scratch at 7:55 PM on March 28, 2013

If she sent you the original facts, why is fact-checking necessary? Is it actually sign-off you are seeking, not fact-checking?

Consider sending her a read-only pdf or hardcopy for review, so she has to provide her feedback either on the printed page or itemized in an email. That way, the response is decoupled from the document, allowing you to trivially update the facts while ignoring the grammar.
posted by davejay at 8:22 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I do this for a living too. If I were in your place, I would chat with my boss about this and acknowledge the conflict between making it right and maintaining a good relationship with the writer. Your boss may have dealt with this person before and have some insight.

Also, restrict your battles to ones you can fight with your house style manual--Chicago, AP, whatever. Just tell the writer that the organization uses this manual to ensure consistency across all communications, so you have to follow those rules. That puts the onus on the manual, not you.
posted by elizeh at 8:24 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

"I edited your copy for better search engine optimization." Everyone wants this but no one understands it.
posted by Joleta at 8:26 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

You are not dealing with a "bad writer" -- put that thought completely out of your head. You are dealing with an expert in [subject]. The expert has unassailable and unique knowledge, and a VERY high level of personal investment in the subject matter. Engage that investment.

Since consultation is valued, do a consultation. After you get the first fact-checking response, prepare your edits and plan a sit-down. Start by showing excitement about the subject, talking about what you learned in reading the article, and how important you feel it is to "get this right" together. Ask a few questions about the process they used to reach their conclusions. Make sure you truly and sincerely acknowledge the subject expertise.

Now, quickly note that your job is to help translate this information for the intended audience. YOU know the audience ... and how to speak to them ... and you have (undoubtedly) the credentials to demonstrate that knowledge. Don't be afraid to quietly put your own experience and background on the table, as appropriate.

As you review together, pick your battles. Many changes will be minor and you can say so -- "In this paragraph, I just straightened out some tense issues, nothing earth-shattering" and move right on. Don't use judgmental language (even if it felt VERY BAD when you found it); make no indictment of the expert's skill. Signal that to you, it's just part of your job to catch and correct such things, like you would a typo or a misspelling. If you are questioned, state the reason as a matter of fact. If your authority is challenged, politely offer to provide citations later ... and move on.

Turn attention as quickly as you can to more substantive changes, like a poorly structured paragraph that needed rewriting, for instance. Say something like, "When I read this as if I were a [person in our audience], I got a bit lost. I think the key takeaway for the reader is this, so I moved it up front. Do you think that is the right approach to clarifying it?" Listen, suggest, compromise and seek consensus to rewrite together. Keep going back to the audience's understanding as the driving reason for change. State and restate your understanding of the topic and what you think is most important to communicate. You want to make it clear that YOU GET IT! You're working TOGETHER with the expert to make sure the audience will get it, too.

The technique is to be equal parts bulldozer (on simple edits) and collaborator (on more critical rewrites), with a dash of awe and ego-stroking for leavening. Using these techniques, I've rewritten the golden prose of surgeons, engineers, artists and research scientists. They need reassurance that you are not merely word-smithing, but are thinking about the article as carefully as they are. You are helping to make sure their message is clearly and completely understood. That understanding builds the trust you need for a solid, long-term working relationship.
posted by peakcomm at 8:51 PM on March 28, 2013 [17 favorites]

I work in a wonky field and sometimes have my work "neatened up" by a communications person. So let me speak on behalf of the difficult and bad writers to share some things that might help smooth your path.

It is not always easy to spend time on something and have it sent back to you with phrases you'd never use and in voice you don't recognize. For instance, my communications person loves to use the word "spew" and I'd never use that word. I cringe every time I see it inserted into my work.

That said, I would much rather write something up and have someone else agonize over style, formatting and grammar. If the ED doesn't like it, it isn't my problem! Hooray. This lovely person saves me time so I can go ahead and do other things. Also, I recognize that my communications colleagues have the authority to make whatever changes they see fit because it is clearly communicated by my organization through organizational charts and work flow charts.

For this difficult person, it may help them to relinquish control if they are told that is what your job is and there is no room for negotiation on that point. You have your job, they need to let you do it and you have been deputized to be the final editor.

Is the work published in Difficult Person's name? (Ex-"A Letter from Dottie") When this is the case, I do become pickier about the writing style because the writing is attributed to me. This may not be reasonable but if I do not like the communication person's style, it is more difficult to stomach having words put in my mouth. However, I could give a flying fig about things I've written that are not attributed to me.

Once we identified this distinction, it removed a sticking point. Shifting "Letters from Dottie" to just being articles published by our organization made me very happy. Try to identify sticking points and why they happen.

Of course, you could just go all Wizard of Oz and try to order this person around but it might be easier to try to figure out what their problem is.

As I said, I like my communications friends because they are there to save me time.
Some communications staff have a very frustrating habit of both asking me to make changes to my work and then making their own changes beyond that. I do not like having my time wasted in this way. Nothing makes me want to cooperate less than putting hours into revisions that are then just thrown away, all at the whim of the communications staff that do not seem to be valuing my time.

If you are asking for full editorial control, do the work of revising yourself and limit the original author's involvement to accuracy checks only.

Make it clear that you only want to know if the facts are represented accurately. If something has been oversimplified or stylized in a way that the facts have been distorted, ask for suggestions for making it accurate through a comment bubble, not revisions in track changes.

This happens in my workplace all the time "science wonky paragraph" becomes "not accurate yet succinct sound bite" and I really hate when the communications person says "it's good enough" when it is glaringly inaccurate to me. It isn't my job to reword everything to fit their taste but I give them the general idea of what needs to be changed for it to hold water.
posted by dottiechang at 9:31 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I do this every day for a living. I agree it's good to pick the battles, but my number one guiding light in doing this is: "Is the author's name on the piece?" Because, ultimately, if it's their name not mine, they can look like a bad writing fool and the world will keep spinning. If it's not their name, or it's representing my org, then I get to do my job.

I think also worth remembering is that - when editing other people's content - every change you make aligns to the original writer getting pissier with you, and ultimately giving less of a shit abut the work. It doesn't take many changes for this negatives to far outweigh the benefits when you remember that.

Personally, I try to get myself satisfied if the text is 80% there. They can keep the 20% as a tip and ego-boost and investment in good future relations.

Also, don't phrase sending back to them as "Review". It is "fact-checking" - you want to make clear that the prose is your demesne. Negotiation is the road to disappointment. If you give them the idea that they can change the text or argue with you about it, you have already lost.

Best of luck, is easier with some people and harder with others.
posted by smoke at 10:23 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

who is in charge here? bad writer or you? who is responsible? does bad writer evaluate your work (do you report to him?) or the person who made you responsible? the issue here isn't just bad writer, it's you, too. you cannot overrule bad writer and expect to still be liked. this is a situation where someone has to have final say or you're just pussyfooting around forever. if bad writer has the final say, then suck it up, smile and upload his copy. if you have, change it. be prepared to explain every single edit to bad writer with logical reasons. be nice but firm. bad writer will go through this exercise with you a couple of times, perhaps even complain, but eventually accept.
posted by krautland at 10:59 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have found that citing the specialness of writing for the web helps. When I send text back to difficult authors I highlight the key changes in the email and explain exactly what I want from them, and I have both tracked changes and comments to explain my changes. I think sending it back as a pdf that's more difficult to edit is a good idea.

We also regularly remind people about house style unconnected to a particular piece of work. This reinforcement makes people sick of us and our insistence on active rather than passive, but they are more likely to do as we say.

Everything is easier if more senior management believe that your edits add value.
posted by plonkee at 5:37 AM on March 29, 2013

Yeah, I had one of these too. Windy, run-on sentences, confusion between less and fewer, everything a grammar nazi hates.

I remember sitting with him, drafting an RFP, and gently trying to steer him towards the correct usage, helping pare down his long sentences and in general cleaning up his garbagy prose.

Finally, as he for the elevendieth time tried to tell me that his sentence was sophisticated, not confusing, I'd had enough. "Dude, you know I love you, but your writing is for shit. You want this to be clear, not confused and I'm the one with the degree in English. I totally respect your knowledge in the realm of Blah, but please go with me on this, it's my deal, and I'm telling you, your writing needs the help of an editor."

My boss was there, and laughed, "She's right, you know." And that was it. We'd work together, I'd ask him what he wanted to impart and then I'd write it up for him.

Yes, I know my spelling is terrible, that's why AskMeFi needs spell-check.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:57 AM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might find some benefits from taking a less prescriptivist approach. What does it mean that your rules are "correct" and the writers are "incorrect"? If you are aiming for a certain register, say "formal standard written English," and your writer is communicating in casual terms, frame it that way. The writer is doing what would be fine for an email, but you have to sell why your website needs to communicate in more formal terms. Try not to think of it as a battle that you have to win, but a conversation that you need to come to consensus on. Keep an open mind yourself. Grammar rules are not hard-and-fast laws. They are constantly in flux. (Look at the singular "they" for genderless pronoun. Is it acceptable in formal English yet? I would say yes, but many would disagree. But in fifty years, I'd guess no one but the types who still complain about split infinitives will bat an eye.)
posted by rikschell at 9:34 AM on March 29, 2013

Lots of good advice already but, in case it might help, there's a particular bit of wording I use takes some of the sting out of a correction. Instead of saying, "That was wrong so I changed it to X" I say something like, "A better choice would be X." They might not get the full idea that they should not make the same mistake again, but your copy at hand will be acceptable with a bit less ego injury.

I would avoid using "track changes" because most edited writers won't notice most of your changes if you simply make the edits and send the revision back with a note that says, "I changed the following things, among others" and don't itemize the changes but merely give the ones that matter most. I usually turn off "track changes" in group-edited Word files, too.
posted by Mo Nickels at 1:28 PM on March 29, 2013

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