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Dear Manager, Please Stop Doing This!

Managers across the globe get in the way of their employees’ growth as writers. They rewrite to suit their whims, correct errors that do not exist, and obstruct employee writing performance in other ways. I know about these behaviors because employees share their frustrations in business writing classes.

(If you are an employee, feel free to share your frustrations as a comment.)

If you are a manager, are you tired of not getting the kind of writing you want from your employees? Does rewriting, correcting, and fine-tuning their writing eat up valuable time? Surprise! You may be part of the problem.

Consider these eight unhelpful manager behaviors and ways to change them.

1. Living in the past.You live in an earlier century when it comes to writing if you do this: Find fault when your employees end a sentence with a harmless preposition, start a sentence with a powerful “I” or the conjunction “And,” or space once between sentences. Some of the rules that may seem important to you never actually existed. And if they did, they are dead and insignificant now.

Solution: Step into the 21st century. Get a current style guide and study it. Make sure your rules exist.

2. Living in your own empire. Do you issue ultimatums such as “I won’t read an email if it’s more than three sentences!” and “No memos more than a page long!”? Do you instruct writers to “Say it in 25 words or less” or “Write it so all the information fits on my phone’s LCD”? If so, your expectations are tying employees in needless knots. No playing emperor! Plenty of information doesn’t fit within arbitrary limits.

Solution: Walk on the same ground your employees tread. Yes, your time is limited, but so is theirs. Don’t make them put their message on a matchbook. Understand that an email may need 10 sentences, and the content of a memo may require a second page. Set realistic expectations.

3. Obstructing traffic. If you require your employees to get your approval for their writing—and then let it sit for days in your inbox—you throw off everyone’s schedule. Even if you end up saying that the piece is perfect, you have slowed the flow of work. And if you require major changes after days have dragged by, you may trigger an emergency, with everyone careening around to meet a deadline.

SolutionReserve time in your schedule to review the proposals, reports, and other documents you know are due. Allow yourself 24 hours if that is realistic in your company. Then release the documents and let others get on with their jobs.

4. Being a virtuoso. Some work requires the highest degree of care and precision, but most writing doesn’t. Not approving an employee’s document until you fine-tune “cloudy” to “overcast,” or “expensive” to “costly,” wastes your time and exasperates your employee. Those adjustments add little or nothing, but they take away the employee’s complete responsibility for the work. They make it partly yours.

Solution: Only fiddle with a document when your fiddling makes the piece significantly better. Only make changes when you can explain to the employee why your wording makes the difference between a successful, professional composition and an inferior product.


To build employee writing skills, get the guide Help Employees Write Better: A Guide for Managers, Trainers, and Others Who Care About Business Writing.


5. Taking your employees’ job. If it is your employees’ job to write, don’t steal it away from them. Do not make yourself responsible for their work by rewriting. If you do rewrite, you will have that job forever. Employees will say to themselves and others, “She’ll rewrite it anyway, so there’s no point in doing my best work.”

Solution: Sit down with each employee and go through the writing. Coach by saying “I don’t know what this long sentence is about. Can you break it up and simplify it?” Instruct with “These acronyms may lose readers. Spell them out the first time you use them.” Yes, this approach takes time, but not a lifetime of rewriting.

6. Holding on to the keys. The person with the keys holds the power, opening doors no one else can. When you make changes to employees’ writing but don’t explain why your way is more effective, you leave employees without the keys to their success. And you set yourself up as the person who is always necessary to make changes.

Solution: Share the keys to effective writing. Explain to employees what a document needs and how to achieve it. Show them great examples. Give them training and writing resources so they can open doors themselves.

7. Keeping them guessing. When you do not give employees positive feedback on their work, they never know that they have done a good job. They don’t recognize their writing strengths, and they can’t reuse or build on them. Since they can’t see that they have hit the bull’s-eye, their next piece may miss the mark completely.

Solution: Tell writers what they are doing well, and be specific. Don’t say just “Great job!” Instead say “Very concise, clear, beautifully formatted, and focused on the necessary actions”; then elaborate on those points.

8. Lazing on the beach. When you yourself choose to write badly—in two-word puzzles, torrential rivers, or pitted makeshift sentences, you signal employees that writing doesn’t matter. Lazy writing tells employees that they too might as well relax their standards. As a result, the work that goes out may be second-rate—even when it needs to win confidence and clients.

Solution: Keep your writing professional. Model the standards you want employees to follow. Wait until your hard-earned vacation to lounge carefree on the beach.

Employee writing skills require your investment. Take time and effort now to help them build their skills, and you will reap long-term benefits.

Comments? Please share them.


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

15 comments on “Dear Manager, Please Stop Doing This!”

  • Excellent piece, Lynn. It definitely deals with the big problems and frustrations of having a manager who changes things just to “their mark” on it or the ones who are always sure their writing is better so they “fix” it. Both are totally demoralizing, as is just sending it back with “I hate it” or “This doesn’t work.” My biggest peeve was an executive that didn’t value the skill and revisions required. He constantly told us, “It should only be a page or two and should only take you a couple of hours.”

  • Hi Tina,

    Thanks for your affirmation. And thanks for adding the good (bad) example of the boss who comments “I hate it” or “This doesn’t work.” Very frustrating!

    I wonder whether the executive was trying to be helpful in signaling his expectations. Even if that was the case, he failed in communicating clearly.

    Thanks for stopping by.


  • Nice, the only exception I would add is the preference for shorter emails. People need to keep it as short as possible and still give the needed info. Thank you.

  • I appreciate the efforts made by my manager towards building my professional career In the construction industry. He is the only one who always stand by me when ever I am in need. I am very thankful to him and wish him very good luck for his future endeavor.

  • Ma’m,
    would that be helpful to use more sophisticated words when writing a business letterrs. eg. using the word “endeavour” instead of “try”.
    please do comment.

  • This only helps the manager who finds the article. Having a manager who re-writes and micro manages and has the mind set the ” my way is the only way” is why I seek employment elsewhere. I would rather take a pay cut than to have a helicopter manager.

  • Hi,

    I’m an employee who suffers from a controlling employer. Is there a way to professionally this article without getting fired?

    FedUP with my writing being tornUP!

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