My boss keeps rewriting my work
March 14, 2019 2:09 PM   Subscribe

I work as a public servant for the Australian Government. It is a hierarchical structure where I write something, my boss reviews it, our Director reviews it and so on. Yet every time I write something, regardless whether it is a minute, briefing, email etc, my boss rewrites what I give her so that none of my words or ideas survive.

She will copy me in on the final version that she sends to our director so I can see what she has written but I don’t understand what was wrong with what I had. It is driving me crazy because what is the point of doing my work if none of it goes anywhere??

I asked her about it at my last performance review (where I got the average rating of effective) and she said not to take it personally and didn’t really address what was wrong with my work. She gave me some pointers on how to do briefings, which I’ve tried to follow but it is early days yet (review was in February) and so far it hasn’t helped anyway.

I have tried applying for other jobs, both within and outside the public service but have been rejected without interview for two at think tanks, one within the public service is still shortlisting and I haven’t heard back from the other public service one.

I feel completely stuck in my job and at a loss to know what to do. It makes me reluctant to volunteer for more work during slow periods because I am not motivated- I just think what’s the point, no one likes what I produce anyway. I put in my best effort regardless though.

Note I am not at risk of being fired - public servants are notoriously hard to fire and they haven’t put me on a performance management plan yet, which is a prerequisite to getting fired.

My question is: what should I do?
posted by EatMyHat to Work & Money (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is both infuriating and, usually, completely not about you. If your boss is comfortable writing stuff, what you're doing is setting up the structure and notes for what she's eventually going to turn into the final project. Rewriting it doesn't mean you've done it wrong - it means that your boss, for whatever reason, wants it to come out sounding like her. If she's not complaining, then you're probably fine.

That said, it is a grating fucking habit and it will take a mindset shift on your part to deal with it. First thing, see if you can polish less - you don't want obvious mistakes or incorrect data, but you can just put everything in very basic prose and not worry too much about style or flow, since it's going to be changed anyway. Second, start looking at the rewritten versions in terms of *content* - are you getting all the right details in your version? Are you presenting them in about the same order? It's possible that your boss is making everything flow more logically, even if it's basically the same stuff you presented.

And it is possible that your boss is just an impossible-to-please control freak and you just need to be completely emotionally detached from your work. I've been there - it sucks. (That boss was also a flat-out bad writer, which was doubly enraging.) But if your job is to turn in rough copy, turn in rough copy and don't worry about it. This is a really, really good mindset to be able to find if you're going to be doing a lot of writing in this kind of environment throughout your career.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:28 PM on March 14 [28 favorites]

I would document this in an email along the lines of "Dear Karen, thank you for copying me on the version of XYZ you passed on to Steve. Upon reviewing XYZ, ABC and DEF, I have noted that the work I submit to you is substantially revised before being passed on to Steve. I would very much like to improve this aspect of my work, and would appreciate it if you could find some time to provide me with concrete suggestions that would result in less revision work for you. Sincerely, EatMyHat"
posted by DarlingBri at 2:31 PM on March 14 [8 favorites]

I mean...have you tried requesting follow up meetings after the next few (bigger) texts you write? Tell her you want to learn how to write according to her preferences and in order to be respectful of her time, so that she doesn‘t have to spend so much time rewriting your work. Ask her for a mini review where you both go through the text and you ask her why this or that change was preferable.

Ultimately, however, some bosses are like that. They can‘t let you do your own thing, they‘re not happy until they‘ve made it theirs. It‘s a bad use of her time, but that‘s her problem. As long as she says she is happy with your work. And yes, if you aren’t sure, you can ask for a meeting to discuss whether she sees any possibilities for improvement for you.

Motivating yourself is your problem. You know you won‘t get the recognition from your boss. So it‘s good that you‘re looking for a new job. But the amount of effort you‘ve put into it is minimal compared to the amount you‘ll still need to, in order to find a new job. Find the motivation in yourself, it‘s the only way to get out of there.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:35 PM on March 14 [3 favorites]

So, there's a few possibilities here:

1. Your boss just likes to write everything herself, in her own voice, and the work you do is essentially outlining the ideas for her, and she does this to everyone.

In this case, you can probably pretty much keep doing what you're doing and not be failing, but there are some things you could try to do better. Take some time to read some of her final versions and see how she makes her ideas flow, what kind of word choices and rhetorical devices she employs and see if you can get closer to her voice in your drafts. You may never get there, but at least it might present an interesting challenge and a way to reframe your thinking about your work.

2. Your boss doesn't like your voice, so she is re-writing you into something she prefers.

In this case, you can try to get closer to what she's looking for. Again, by looking at the final products and trying to figure out what they are doing in terms of flow and style choices that are different than what you are doing. You aren't trying to figure out what's wrong with your work, but how to emulate hers. Talk to other people who write for your boss to understand how they approach these sorts of things to see if they have style hints for you.

3. Your voice isn't appropriate for the kind of briefing materials that you write, and any senior person would re-write it if they saw it.

Again, looking at finished products and asking around can help. Also find out if your public service training programs have courses on writing briefing materials. Mine does, and they can help you capture the particular nuances of government writing and house style. Also, try taking partially completed drafts to your boss or your colleagues and ask for feedback before they are finished, so that instead of re-writing a final product, she is giving you advice on how best to complete the project.

4. Your boss knows nothing about voice and doesn't care, she is just a micro-managing control freak.

posted by jacquilynne at 2:35 PM on March 14 [8 favorites]

If your boss isn't giving you particular feedback, the odds are very high that she's just a habitual rewriter.

Nobody wants to spend time substantially rewriting texts just because the original author is incompetent. Unless she instantly wrote you off as an unteachable moron, if the quality of the initial drafts was not up to scratch, you would have gotten some direct criticism.

I've had bosses like this. It stings (how dare they touch my deathless prose!!!) but often it truly isn't personal. I think it's more important not to sound disgruntled about it than to do anything about it (because you can't, really; all you can do is show that you're not difficult to work with). Do you have any colleagues who have also worked under her? It might be worth asking them if they have any tips.
posted by praemunire at 2:45 PM on March 14 [3 favorites]

I have fought this battle. For me the issue was a boss rewriting reports that I was then signing my name to. I argued that she should be correcting for grammar, spelling and facts but not for style. I remembered reading that an architect believed that a client would always need to change something and so would always include a 'red doorknob' that would stand out and not fit, that way the client could change something but not damage the integrity of the design. I would then sprinkle my first draft with enough extra misspellings and extra spaces that she had something to do.
posted by InkaLomax at 3:34 PM on March 14 [4 favorites]

Thanks for the answers so far! Just to clarify I am the only person this boss supervises, and she is recently returned from overseas so there aren’t any previous supervisees that might be able to help me out. Otherwise helpful suggestions so far!
posted by EatMyHat at 3:44 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]

If it makes you feel any better about this—it won't—long ago when I worked for a Minister, I could often identify the chunks of people's writing that came up in Franken-briefs that had been passed around for mid-level public servants to slice up, 'add value' to, and put back together. The sum of the parts was always far, far worse than anything any one contributor had put together, often it was repetitive, self-contradictory of completely out of context. It's an endemic problem and a cultural part of management that sees a senior person as by definition having to know more and better. It's 100% not about you, it's not even about your manager, it's just the system.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:47 PM on March 14 [2 favorites]

I'm a compulsive re-writer. If someone asks me to edit something, I'll probably rewrite everything two or three times over, and the text at the end will come out pretty polished, but often very different in style to the original. I try really hard not to overdo it, and to add value without removing all traces of the writer's personality. I could never be a professional editor.

This may not be a reflection at all on the quality of what you write. A selection of people reading both might have no preference. Your boss just wants things a very specific way, one that maybe she can't easily put into words. I like restless_nomad's ideas. They'd work on me, I suspect. Although some formalisation of what the purpose of your writing is, from her point of view, might be worth pursuing.
posted by pipeski at 4:42 PM on March 14 [3 favorites]

I often rewrite reports, at least the ones for external consumption and sometimes also key internal reports. I do this not because I am a control freak but because I am normally one of the more senior people to read something, sometimes I am the last person to read it in any detail and if it all goes wrong I’ll have to explain it to internal audit, my regulator or in court. So for key documents I will insist they are something I am happy with.

Reasons why I change things:
- Information is presented in an order that does not flow or at least does not allow me to tell the story I want to tell/does not facilitate specific messaging
- the language is too jargony and unsuitable for an external reader
- information is factually incorrect
- information is only minimally relevant or misses the point
- non native speakers struggle with the report language
- something is correct but much too long or too short
- something is not specific enough or too specific/technical
- required information is missing
- I have additional, relevant information because I was in other meetings etc.
- somebody higher up the chain has changed their mind about what they want or how they want it

Reasons why I don’t just coach somebody through multiple revisions:
- it is time consuming and frustrating to go through more than one round on the same piece of work with the same person and we both have plenty of other work
- the writer is too inexperienced/junior to get anywhere close to what we need so I will only coach them on a specific aspect and consider myself lucky if they manage to pull together the other details, numbers or charts I have requested so I can focus on writing up the ‘story’
- if there are specific improvement points I will communicate them

So yes, analyse what your boss is changing. Are there any patterns you can identify by comparing a few of the reports? If you can identify something start to incorporate that. In the past I have also found it extremely helpful to sit with somebody and write together. It helps you understand how they think, what their review/fact checking process is like.

This evening I sat with my team and we prepared an overview/result dashboard for a meeting tomorrow morning. I requested very specific details and structure. If I had only asked for the structure and left them to fill in the details I would not have gotten what I needed. So we had one person working in the file on the big screen and me asking all kinds of questions and all five of them were hunting around for information and challenging it. They felt the process was quite intense. But we now have a document that covers everything we need to communicate and it anticipates the most likely questions. And I now have most of the information I will need to include in our reports in one place. So there was method to my madness and they got that. But they would not have been able to think it all through and challenge the information without me. And they are all quite capable people who I rate highly. But some things take a lot of experience to learn.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:02 PM on March 14 [10 favorites]

Keep doing what you are doing. Read everything she rewrites. Go back and read everything you can that she wrote. Then, try to write it in her voice, not yours. It is like being a speechwriter for someone else. You need to find their voice but use your ideas.
posted by AugustWest at 6:23 PM on March 14

I do this, especially with longer narrative proposals intended to sway the reader.

It makes it easier for me to discuss the topic knowledgeably when called upon, as the rewriting process is also a fact-checking and information-absorbing process.

I also find some of my junior coworkers have clunky writing styles that don’t jive with my “voice”. They aren’t wrong, per se, so that isn’t really fertile ground for training or correction. It’s just style.

That said, the initial drafts really are invaluable as they save me a lot of the heavy lifting of digging up facts and considering creative arguments. I have said to these folks, much like your boss has to you, to keep doing what they’re doing and not to take my control freak-dom personally.
posted by HoteDoge at 7:04 PM on March 14 [4 favorites]

I'm a boss who rewrites. It is not per se about the person writing it; I consider having someone else draft it be a *huge* amount of work off my plate, but there are still always a little of this and a little of that and something I found out later and a personal phrase I like and another little phrase I dislike and so on and so on. So, I would have to basically reiterate what everyone says about it not being personal. If someone were writing for me *badly*, I would be giving feedback or not asking them to write things anymore. But someone writing a basic version is doing a wonderful piece of work that I deeply appreciate; it is much much easier and faster for me to edit than to write de novo.

I have no idea about your boss, but if one of my reports wrote me a note like DarlingBri suggests, I would find it grating and passive aggressive; I'd much prefer someone who cut to the meat of it and said "Is there anything I can do to improve here?" rather than suggesting that they're trying to make less work for me. I might have suggestions, or I might not - it's really just 20 years of my own writing quirks and personal history coming to the fore.

Overall, I would concur that the fastest way to get to "being less revised" is to try and write towards whatever the person editing you is doing...but it still may not happen.
posted by annabear at 7:10 PM on March 14 [7 favorites]

I write for a living. On most projects, where someone is asking me to write for them, I leave my ego at the door. I don't take edits personally, especially if there is no indication my client (and your supervisor is your client) is unhappy.

With junior writers (in your hierarchy you are most definitely a junior writer) I also will extensively rewrite in order to hit the bullseye.

Not sure why you mentioned getting fired. You have an "effective" on your performance review.

This sort of situation is one of the drawbacks of working in government.

On the other hand: golden handcuffs. Wish I had those.
posted by JamesBay at 9:35 PM on March 14 [5 favorites]

("Golden handcuffs" usually means you're getting paid well. Inapplicable to government employees...)
posted by praemunire at 10:22 PM on March 14

Yeah it's easier said than done, but I'd recommend trying to disconnect emotionally from your work. My bosses have told me many times it's easier for them to edit an existing piece of work than write it from scratch so I think of my work in putting together the work from scratch as being an essential part of the process even if the final version with all my boss's edits seems vastly different from my own. Think of what you're doing as an extremely important job in its own right because it is.
posted by unicorn chaser at 4:14 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]

Ok, so I work in government communications and this is a very common thing. I have definitely completely rewritten things my direct reports have written, usually for any of the constellation of issues I note above. I always feel horribly guilty about it, but ultimately I am accountable for the work produced in my shop and sometimes it's just easier to rewrite myself vs asking the writer to do an edit (which, when time permits, is my preference). Two points I want to make: some people are naturals at mimicking voice/style and some people are not, no matter how good they are at writing. Similarly, some people are naturals at explaining what they want from other people's writing. Most, however, are not.

Likely your boss is also not a natural at explaining what she wants. Which means that open-ended questions about how to improve may be fruitless, because it's hard to step outside your own voice and translate it to someone else. So one minor recommendation would be to ask a couple very specific questions about a piece, rather than asking for a global assessment. As in, "I see you changed the order of points A and B. Was there an issue with my original structure?" The thing is, there may not be a reason. And that's totally fine. But if there is a reason you may slowly start to get a handle on what boss is looking for.

But yeah.....welcome to government....... :)
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 5:33 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]

I'm often on the other side of this, that is, overseeing other people's writing. I'd say no matter where you are in your career one should always expect his/her written work to be red-penned. It's a subjective craft.
posted by lecorbeau at 6:10 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]

I have had almost exactly the same experience, down to the receiving good ratings and refusal to discuss any issues with my writing. With the added fun of my manager sometimes making my writing WORSE, then submitting it with my name on it, then the critique from upper levels coming back to me and "my" writing. It was really, really upsetting, so I empathize so much with you. I took two approaches. First, as much as possible, I went around my manager and sent writing directly to others, cc'ing her as necessary. You may not be able to do this, and I probably pushed the envelope a bit. But in doing this, I realized that there were certain "genres" of documents that she felt less ownership for and was OK with me taking the lead on. That was helpful. Second, I started doing work for other groups and managed to basically make a lateral move. Again, that may not be possible for you.

If #1 and #2 hadn't worked for me, I was prepared to go to approach #3 and address the issue very directly with my boss. It had just become completely untenable for me to spend weeks writing a memo or draft, and have it literally thrown out without explanation. This was not normal or even heavy editing, but rather the boss completely redoing my writing. I had never experienced anything like it, and it basically made my job untenable. I planned to be very forthright with her at my next evaluation about that.

It also helped to psychoanalyze my boss a bit. I realized that she was high-stress and worried about work product that she felt responsible for not being perfect. She was not good at delegating, so she felt like she couldn't do "her" job unless she actually wrote it herself. As part of her responsibility, she also felt like she needed to understand every single technical detail at the same level I did (despite the fact that I was supposed to be the technical expert ... ) and the only way she could feel like she was "satisfied" that she understood was basically to redo the ENTIRE RESEARCH PROJECT. As in, going back and doing all the research and writing herself.

Once I realized that about my boss, my planned approach #3 would have involved coming to an agreement that there were certain projects where she needed to take the lead in drafting, and figure out ways I could support that. For example, instead of me writing the actual draft, I would write a series of background research memos for her to use, and then I would edit her draft for her.

Approach #4 if #3 failed would have been to find a new job.
posted by schwinggg! at 6:59 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]

I'm often on the other side of this, that is, overseeing other people's writing. I'd say no matter where you are in your career one should always expect his/her written work to be red-penned. It's a subjective craft.
posted by lecorbeau at 6:10 AM on March 15 [1 favorite +] [!]

I just want to emphasize to this and other similar comments ... the rewriting boss I had was not editing or red-penning. They were *completely writing a completely new draft in substance and structure, and refusing to give any feedback.* I had never experienced anything like it, and I have been writing in the workforce for almost 20 years and have experienced plenty of red-penning. It's possible that I did a poor job, but conversations with other people who worked under this manager confirmed it wasn't just me.
posted by schwinggg! at 7:07 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]

For a private-sector example, one of my best friends is an editor at a prominent publication. They re-write the hell out of everything that comes across their desk. I asked about this once and was told that at least half the time it's purely subjective and has to do with style or flow rather than anything that's technically incorrect.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:22 AM on March 15

It's an endemic problem and a cultural part of management that sees a senior person as by definition having to know more and better. It's 100% not about you, it's not even about your manager, it's just the system.

Totally want to echo this. I worked in a Deputy Minister's office for a Canadian governmental organisation for almost five years and there is a total culture of this plus a culture of every person wanting to seem as though they have had an important role in a product to underline their importance, so many people just making edits for the sake of making edits.

However, if she is doing this and not giving you feedback and not identifying the problem being HER if there is no problem with your work, she's also not a good manager and you should seek something else where your manager is interested in helping foster your growth as an employee. This manager isn't doing you any favours.
posted by urbanlenny at 10:12 AM on March 15

1. Your boss just likes to write everything herself, in her own voice, and the work you do is essentially outlining the ideas for her, and she does this to everyone.

This is it for my and my manager - I provide technical information and experience - and she converts it into very business-friendly prose for executive and high-level consumption. Personally - I am extremely happy she does this, it lets me concentrate on what I do best. I only push-back if the accuracy of technical content has changed, or if I think it is unclear.

This has worked out so well, that I have actually followed her from client-to-client and organization to organization - she values my skills/expertise and I value hers. (I am a contract consultant)
posted by jkaczor at 10:26 AM on March 15

Oh - one other thing - the manager I am referring too has also never complained if I have significantly re-written her materials either - it is a 2-way street in our working relationship. And our current client is government - so, she insulates me from both senior/executive management AND elected officials/ministers. (And - I have recently been moved to another team and she is also now working in a different role, I expect that communications with my new manager will be vastly different due to working and management style differences)
posted by jkaczor at 10:39 AM on March 15

There's this feature in word which allows you to COMPARE DOCUMENTS, under the REVIEW tab, I think. It gives you the equivalent of tracked changes. This may help you identify any common edits she makes, like if she consistently uses active or passive voice, or removes contractions. Might be useful also to dump each version into Grammarly (free) so you can see what potential stylistic preferences show up. Lastly, I also dump text from 2 versions separately into a word cloud to see if either of you consistently use one (or more) words than the other like: also, really, etc.
posted by b33j at 5:15 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]

This exactly what has happened to me in my UK govt job, and for years I took it hard. I was getting great reviews, my boss loved me, but the constant rewriting of my work created this cognitive dissonance - how can I be good if you're changing everything I write? I can't get anything right so I must be shit! I've had to make myself accept that the facts are there, my reviews are good, I'm effective, the boss says so. So the rewriting cannot be because I'm crap. It's not about me. If you're graded as effective then you're NOT failing. So it's not about you or your capabilities.

You need to reinforce that to yourself if you're going to continue in a job where you're writing briefings for others, otherwise your confidence will really suffer. Know that everyone who is writing briefings in govt is going through the same thing. If you choose to stay and progress, you'll be doing the rewriting in the future :)
posted by tinwhiskers at 5:23 AM on March 16

Retired AG public servant here - BTDT, both sides of the fence.

She needs to tell you why she changes your drafts. If she can't, she is just a compulsive re-writer, and as others have said, don't take it personally (easier said than done, I know).

You don't say how long you have been in this job - it sounds like a relatively short time, but probably doesn't feel that way for you. Look for training opportunities, search out new work opportunities at level, short term acting, anything to broaden your experience and expose you to new supervisors. Yours is a common experience of a new entrant, you need to adopt strategies to get your skills upgraded/fine tuned, and broaden your work experience. Network with likely new supervisors and others at your level.

If nothing improves, tell her you want a move and why, and tell her boss you are feeling that your skills are not being exercised and improved in your current job. Make sure you know what sort of skills development/work opportunities you are looking for.

Good luck!
posted by GeeEmm at 3:56 PM on March 18

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