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True Story: How to Help Employees Write Better

Read the brief, true story below about Eric and his supervisor, Linda. Then decide: If you were in Linda’s role, would you handle the situation the same way?


Eric has just written his first newsletter article about an innovative approach the team has developed and used to get great results. The purpose of the article is to share the new approach with the entire company.

Eric is pleased with his first draft. He emails the piece to his supervisor, Linda, and to his six teammates for their feedback. He writes, “Feel free to suggest any tweaking or demand a rewrite.”

Linda reads the article immediately and likes it. The piece has nearly all the right content, and it is accurate and clear. Because Linda knows what the article needs to be “perfect,” she moves some of the last paragraph to the beginning, adds a catchy title, breaks up a long paragraph into several short ones, and corrects a few stylistic oddities. Then she emails it back to Eric and the others with this note:

Eric, thanks for writing this article. It will be wonderful to get the word out. I made some suggested edits in the text. Mainly, I wanted to let people know about our results at the very beginning, and I wanted to break up the text. Feel free to accept or reject these changes. Thanks!

Do you agree with the way Linda handled her feedback on Eric’s writing? What did she do right? Wrong?

Please post your thoughts in the comments. I’ll add my ideas after people have had a chance to share theirs.

Next-day update: This story comes from my guide Help Employees Write Better: A Guide for Managers, Trainers, and Others Who Care About Business Writing, which contains 60 solutions to employee writing problems. The guide is on sale through November 2019.

I think Linda took the wrong approach when she responded to Eric’s request. After all, he wrote, “Feel free to suggest any tweaking or demand a rewrite.” Here’s how I assessed the situation in Help Employees Write Better:

What Linda Did Wrong

  • Linda revised Eric’s work when all he wanted was feedback. Her actions made it clear that she expected Eric to accept her changes.
  • She sent her revision and note to everyone on the team.
  • She neglected to tell Eric what he had done well.
  • She missed a coaching opportunity.

Possible Negative Consequences

  • Eric feels that the article is no longer his; now it’s his and his supervisor’s. He has lost the feeling of pride and ownership.
  • Eric feels embarrassed because everyone on the team knows that Linda revised his document.
  • Because of how she handled the situation, Linda has lost Eric’s trust. He doesn’t know what to expect from her.
  • Because Eric didn’t get feedback on what he did well, he does not recognize his strengths.
  • Because Linda has shown herself to be an editor rather than a coach, employees begin to send drafts to her. Rather than doing their best on a writing project, they think “I’ll get the basic idea down. Then Linda can fix it.” Linda has carved out a new responsibility for herself.


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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.

15 comments on “True Story: How to Help Employees Write Better”

  • Personally, I think Linda should have ‘shared’ her suggestions/edits with Eric in a private email. Let him make the final choice about the wording, etc. Since the information was sent to seven employees, I would expect more than one idea to be returned to Eric. There’s never just one right answer. Eric should make the final call on his project’s communication to the company. Linda stepped in too strongly, in my opinion.

  • I can definitely be a “Linda” sometimes; I mentally edit others’ writing, and I identify with her desire to perfect the article. Her email response was polite and cheerful and not overly pushy or demanding, which I approve of, but I would have done a few things differently.

    First, I would have complimented the things I liked about the writing up front (contains all the right info, is clear and concise, etc.).

    Second, I might have avoided doing the rewrites myself and instead simply made suggestions about the changes I’d like to see (like putting results in the first paragraph and breaking up long blocks of texts). Depending on Linda’s leadership style, her team members might expect her to manage things like this with a heavy hand and think nothing of the rewrite. Eric might even welcome it. But I personally try hard to avoid micromanaging, and encourage team members to take ownership of their own projects, so I would lean toward giving Eric the space to make those tweaks himself even if the finished article didn’t read exactly like the “perfect” one I would write myself.

    Third, I would probably have responded to him privately rather than copying all the team members on the email containing my feedback.

  • I think Linda did not do wrong but she could do better. Actually it looks very similar to what my supervisor or project leaders wrote to me after they review my work.
    From the story, Linda at least did 4 types of changes on Eric’s draft, but she only mentioned 2 of them in the email and did not explain very clearly why she made the changes. If for me, I will have to guess why Linda broke up the text like this? How can I meet her expectations next time? What did I learn from her review and benefit for my next writing?
    In addition, Linda did not mention that she liked the article at all. If Linda wants to help Eric improve his writing, I think it is important for her to let Eric know both of what he did well and wrong. Improving doesn’t mean people have to get rid of everything they did. Eric can still keep his own style of writing but just needs some skills or guidance to make it perfect.

  • Her last sentence invites Eric to ignore what she’s done and go ahead and publish as is.
    She starts well by expressing appreciation. If she had listed precisely what potential benefits she sees arising from his article, Eric might be surprised by some he hadn’t thought of and thus be more likely to pay attention. The likelihood of his then accepting her editing suggestions would be increased if Linda went on to explain the logic behind them, and the persuasive effects.
    Did Linda take suggestions for her edits? Her response to Eric might gain authority if she mentioned who suggested what and why. Her subject could then become the more persuasive ‘We’ instead of ‘I’.
    Please feel free to accept or reject these changes, Lynn. After all, I am just a humble helper of young students who has no real online presence… at this stage!

  • What Linda did was fine until she sent it to all the others. She should have made the edits, provided her rational, and sent it only to Eric. She could have amplified on BLUF (bottom line up front) and added additional reasoning for the other edits – all that would help Eric better understand and improve his future efforts.

  • I take the point that LInda perhaps should have shown her edits to Eric privately at first, but so that the rest of them could learn from the experience Linda might have – with Eric’s agreement – circulated it with an explanation.
    Assuming Eric is not a little snowflake he should not have been offended by Linda’s comments – in the main she was tactful and constructive. She gave him the opportunity to object: ‘Feel free to accept or reject these changes’ – which was respectful of her if a little brusque. The only thing she might have added was an invitation to Eric to have a private conversation with her about it to make sure that they were both totally happy with the copy.
    And if at the end of the day Linda carries the responsibility of the newsletter’s effectiveness, she was in her rights to make any changes she believed to be necessary.

    Snowflake Slasher Suze …. !! LOL… I hope Eric forgives me…

  • Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I really appreciate reading your thoughts on this story. It comes from my guide “Help Employees Write Better: A Guide for Managers, Trainers, and Others Who Care About Business Writing.” In the post above, I have added content from the guide that describes my view of Linda’s approach.

    Confession: I was Linda. This is an experience I had many years ago, and I regretted how I handled it. After writing to Eric (his real name), I realized that he had not asked me–or any of us–to revise his piece. He had asked us to “suggest any tweaking or demand a rewrite.” I felt I had taken over his article in a way that wasn’t helpful. He was a resilient guy, though. Later, when I told him I regretted that I had revised his article, he said my changes were fine.

    Back to your comments:

    Ellen, I agree that “Linda” stepped in too strongly. Also, sharing her revision with everyone–without Eric’s permission–was another step over the line.

    Virginia, I agree that an important question is whether Eric respects Linda’s editing. Sometimes work relationships involve a healthy back-and-forth editing. I have that with a colleague now.

    Stephanie, I’m with you and would echo your comments. There isn’t really such a thing as “perfect” when it comes to writing, and Eric could have found his way to “perfect enough.” You mentioned micromanaging. That approach creates a lot of work for the manager and less ownership for the team member.

    Queenie, I agree that Linda should have been more specific about what Eric did well and why the changes were necessary. It could have been a stronger learning experience for Eric.

    Carolyn, I’m glad you mentioned Linda’s closing sentence: “Feel free to accept or reject these changes.” Coming from a supervisor, those comments don’t seem sincere to me. Putting myself back in the supervisor’s shoes, I think I would have been annoyed if Eric had rejected the changes. On another topic, I love your suggestion that Linda list the potential benefits of the article to help Eric think again about his approach.

    Lionel, I think the approach you suggest could work, depending on their relationship. At the end of the post above, I’ve listed the reasons I warn against it.

    Suzan, I like your idea of a private conversation to make sure Eric is happy. I mentioned at the beginning of this comment that I was Linda. Eric took the changes well, despite my concerns about how I handled the situation.

    Laura, I agree with you and Stephanie. I think there is more buy-in–and learning–when the writer makes the changes. Of course, a time crunch often rules out that possibility.

    Anita, I especially like your comment that “Linda’s role is to help Eric do his best work, not fix his mistakes.” Too often managers work themselves into the role of fixer rather than manager because of their own choices.

    Everyone, thanks again for participating!


  • I like Stephanie’s response. Tell Eric what the changes should be, and let him make them himself. Unless you are under extreme time limitation from a deadline and just have to get it done, I think there is better buy-in from people when they make the changes themselves.

    I came from newspapering to the corporate world, and I have found a lot of egos and “snowflakes” when it comes to edits. In journalism, we are used to having our work critiqued and think nothing of it. If that’s the culture where Linda is, then what she did was fine. In a traditional corporate setting, however, it was a little heavy-handed to “reply all” with the changes.

  • Hi Allison,

    Well said: “Resist the urge to tinker; commend successes and suggest improvements–then, wait for the next draft.”

    I see that your URL is If you or someone else in your organization would like to post an article on this blog, one that relates to coaching on business writing, I would love to see a guest piece.

    Thanks for stopping by with a comment.


  • Always interesting to hear different perspectives on these questions. I agree with Stephanie that identifying the types of edits needed to improve the work and letting Eric make those changes would be best. Given that it was Eric’s first article, I assume he would expect and even welcome some requested changes. Rather than “Feel free to accept or reject these changes.” I’d have offered “Let me know if you would like to discuss any of these suggested changes.” That opens potential dialog and doesn’t diminish the value of Linda’s review. I like that she offers her rationale behind the suggested changes but, as his supervisor, Linda’s role is to help Eric do his best work, not fix his mistakes. I also agree that sending the feedback to Eric only would be better.

  • It’s interesting that so many comments reflect the opinion that the only thing Linda did wrong was reply to all. This reflects a commonly held belief that Linda’s way is the only way to edit.

    Lynn, I agree with your assessment–Linda has robbed Eric of ownership of the document, spent longer than she needed to on the project, and made “fixer” her new job duty. Why would Eric (or anyone) put their best efforts into a document if Linda is just going to do what she wants with it anyway?

    Resist the urge to tinker; commend successes and suggest improvements–then, wait for the next draft.

  • The problem here is that you gave feedback as if you were his teammate instead of his manager. Normally, I welcome edited versions, because all I then need to do is accept or reject the changes. It is a lot less work to just make the edits than to walk over and have a discussion (we could do that if I don’t agree with an edit). Also, sending edits to the rest of the team prevents people from suggesting the same edits repeatedly. But as a manager your opinion had stronger weight than that of a teammate. And, you weren’t honest if you suggested he could do as he pleased but still would be annoyed if he rejected the changes. That makes you hard to see through. Next time, if you say his work is great, are you being honest or just being polite? Or maybe I’m too Dutch to understand this English politeness protocol and everyone else understands y’all perfectly when you do that ?. Anyway, you listed a lot of potential negative effects. Did any of these actually happen? Many of the negative effects you describe would IMO be symptoms of an unhealthy work approach to begin with.

  • Wow, Lynn —
    Your confession that you regret parts of how “Linda” handled this review request is amazing! This topic hits very close to home!

    I work one-on-one with clients on website content, I often recommend changes to their draft copy for their websites.

    I never once thought this would offend them or make them feel I had taken ownership of their work! That is an important concern.

    I agree that in a working relationship — the relationship’s health is more important in the long term than controlling the outcome of any one incident.

    What role do you see in setting up expectations and policies for writing review? If I’m writing something pubic facing on behalf of a company — editorial review should be part of the company process. I would not feel right about posting something without an editor’s review!

    If the company doesn’t have an editorial review/approval process for work like Eric’s, isn’t that perhaps the real problem in this scenario?

  • Hi Erwin,

    You are correct–I did several things wrong, which you identified. That’s why I used the word “Confession” to admit that. It was a long time ago, and I have learned a lot since then. I have also learned from observing managers who complain that their employees don’t write well, but they rewrite rather than coach them. That means they are doing two jobs.

    You asked about the possible negative consequences. Often those aren’t obvious to us. Here are the ones I mentioned:

    1. Eric feels that the article is no longer his; now it’s his and his supervisor’s. He has lost the feeling of pride and ownership. I DON’T THINK THIS RESULTED. ERIC SEEMED TO HAVE A STRONG EGO. ANOTHER PERSON MIGHT HAVE RESPONDED DIFFERENTLY, ESPECIALLY AFTER REQUESTING FEEDBACK RATHER THAN REVISIONS.

    2. Eric feels embarrassed because everyone on the team knows that Linda revised his document. HE DID NOT EXPRESS EMBARRASSMENT.

    3. Because of how she handled the situation, Linda has lost Eric’s trust. He doesn’t know what to expect from her. I DON’T THINK I LOST HIS TRUST. MAYBE HE THOUGHT LESS OF MY JUDGMENT.

    4. Because Eric didn’t get feedback on what he did well, he does not recognize his strengths. THIS WAS A NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCE. I DID NOT HELP HIM RECOGNIZE HIS STRENGTHS THROUGH THIS PIECE.

    5. Because Linda has shown herself to be an editor rather than a coach, employees begin to send drafts to her. Rather than doing their best on a writing project, they think “I’ll get the basic idea down. Then Linda can fix it.” Linda has carved out a new responsibility for herself. THIS DOES HAPPEN AT WORK WHEN SUPERVISORS REWRITE RATHER THAN COACH. I DID NOT STAY IN THIS ROLE VERY MUCH LONGER, SO I DON’T HAVE EVIDENCE IN THIS SITUATION.

    Thanks for sharing your concerns about the way “Linda” handled the situation.


  • Joanne, nice to hear from you!

    Thanks for bringing up the question of an editorial review and approval process. It’s important that everyone involved agree on a process when the writing will appear on a website. I looked at your website, No doubt clients rely on your expertise to get their message across, and you communicate with them about the most effective way to get the results they want. You are not seeking to teach them as much as to help them succeed.

    In my experience, some clients are very attached to their words; those individuals require a tactful approach to edits and suggestions. Others just want the job done and love whatever you do for them.

    The organization in my story might have had an editorial review process. I don’t remember. This was a one-off experience involving an internal publication. My purpose in the blog post was to get at how to help employees write better. Over the years I have heard supervisors and managers admit to staying late to rewrite their employees’ work. That’s an unsustainable approach. The employees themselves need to learn to write better. At the same time, some managers insist that writing be “perfect”–in their eyes. They will always find something to change in an employee’s work product. That approach can be a demoralizing waste of time, with the employee wondering why the word “opportunity” is better than the word “chance.” If it is a better word, the employee needs to learn why–not just read it in a final version. Or the manager needs to consider that “chance” may be a better word than the often overused “opportunity” in a given situation.

    Thanks for your comment, Joanne.


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