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Want Better Writing From Employees? Start With Coaching

By Allison Horak

— Supervisors often feel their employees can’t write well. How about you? Do you spend time correcting the same mistakes repeatedly for your employees? One way to address this issue is to carve out time for coaching, especially for employees whose work involves a lot of writing.

To get better results, give clearer instructions at the beginning. Always:

  • Specify what type of document you want produced and who the audience is.
  • Give a deadline for the document, along with whether that date is firm or flexible.
  • Provide examples of previous documents of the same type that were successful.
  • Estimate a page maximum (yes, maximum!).
  • Estimate how long your employee should spend on the assignment.

Ask yourself if you’re part of the problem. If you feel your employees turn in substandard work, expecting you to fix it, then you’ve probably trained them to behave that way. Why would anyone give an assignment their best effort when they know it’s going to get massacred no matter how hard they try?

Most of us edit in only one way—using the “slash and burn” method: No matter the circumstance, we call out everything that might be wrong. If we’re honest, we enjoy finding these so-called errors in others’ work. We mark, underline, circle, renumber, reword, and generally hack it into something “better,” i.e., something that sounds like we wrote it.

Newsflash: “This isn’t how I would’ve written it” is NOT a standard against which we should measure anyone else’s writing!

Editing should be a coaching experience.

  1. When reviewing an employee’s draft, read it all the way through without a writing utensil in hand. (How can we really edit anything until we know what the whole thing says?)
  2. Next, sit down with your employee and talk. It’s your job to commend successes and suggest improvements, not change the document—that’s the employee’s job!
  3. The employee works on a second draft based on your conversation, and the process continues.

It’s about ownership. When we tinker with other people’s documents, expecting them to make our changes without explanation or discussion, we’ve robbed ownership of the document from them.

You may have noticed that I said above “commend successes.” In these coaching conversations, that means giving honest compliments about things done well. Always include the word “because” in these commendations, so employees know the “why” behind the comment. You might say:

“Ebony, I like how you’ve organized this document. You placed your most important point at the top, and as the document goes on, items of lesser importance are discussed. That’s effective because we know people don’t always read documents completely, but your readers will get the most valuable information even if they only read page 1.”

Time is the biggest obstacle to this coaching approach. It takes time to coach someone rather than “fix” their document. If you think you don’t have time for these coaching conversations and multiple drafts, here’s a suggestion: Just try it. Plan so you do have time for the creation of a draft, then a review followed by a conversation, then at least one other draft.

The payoffs of this approach can be huge:

  1. It will save time eventually. Your employees will become better writers, needing less input and coaching from you over time.
  2. You’ll hone your own editing skills because you now have to justify any suggestions you make.
  3. You’ll build stronger and more trust-based relationships with your employees because you’re investing in their professional development through honest conversations, including positive and constructive feedback.
  4. You’ll have a well-written final document. You had input into its form and substance, and your employees will feel it was actually produced by their hands.

What do you do to empower your employees to be better writers? Please share your tips.

Guest author Allison Horak is a consultant and trainer who helps organizations work more efficiently through better communication. She believes effective writing translates into superior customer service. Write to Allison in the comments section, or email her at

From Lynn Gaertner-Johnston: I invited Allison to submit this article because I like her ideas about coaching for better writing. Do you agree with her?

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.

8 comments on “Want Better Writing From Employees? Start With Coaching”

  • Thank you so much for this. I started working for my current employer a year ago and lack of coaching is a huge problem. The lead of the group has staff sitting and watching him type edits into a report so they can see how they do it. That just doesn’t work. Getting the junior staff to take ownership of their work is a nightmare because the way the group operates is exactly as you describe above: they write poorly (they don’t even do spell check!), submit for senior review, and the senior reviewer just fixes it.

    I have myself had reviewers want me to change sentences simply so it sounds like they wrote but without actually changing the meaning. I work hard to avoid doing that myself when I’m reviewing someone else’s work.

    These are some of my methods for reviewing:
    – If I start seeing the same spelling/grammar/punctuation error, I’ll highlight a few examples and ask them to fix throughout. I won’t go through and find all of the errors for them.
    – I go into a fair amount of detail in my comments providing context and background to back up my comment. I focus on the ‘why’ in order to help them figure out the ‘what.’ What I really want is for them to engage their critical thinking skills rather than just wait to be told to what to write/do.
    – I ask questions about why they wrote something the way they did, often pointing out where their train of logic isn’t quite aligning at different locations in the document (without explicitly providing the answers).
    – I ask them if they feel the document is ready for delivery to the client.

    With respect to having enough time, it is necessary to make the time, but I also find that the problem stems from a lack of time management, which creates a situation where everything is a fire drill and reports are always going out the door at the last minute. No one can do their best work under those circumstances.

  • Thanks Allison! Time is usually the enemy in these situation, so I appreciate you pointing out that by making some time now to coach, we stand to gain a whole lot of time on future assignments. Plus it is a great feeling to help someone else develop new skills!

  • Thank you for sharing your experience, Melissa! I have found contributing to the professional development of someone is definitely a benefit to this coaching approach and helps create loyal employees.

  • Good stuff Allison. When I edit documents with my team, I use track changes, and always include a Comment that explains my reasons for suggesting a change. It allows the writer to respond in Comments as well and lets us have a dialogue that we might not otherwise have time to schedule.

  • Thank you, Bryan, for suggesting the use of the comment feature in MS Word’s track changes when there may not be time for a coaching conversation. Rather than unilaterally making changes to a document, explaining the reason why, using a comment box, can also be an effective way of teaching.

  • I really like your perspective and suggestions for coaching. If we want our employees to contribute at their highest level it is our responsibility as leaders to set them up for success. The additional benefits will be engaged, committed, and productive employees!

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