Your perfectionism may be driving your employees to mediocrity. Don’t rewrite their work.

Published by Peter on

I saw a meme yesterday which called proper spelling and grammar “colonial rules that were forcibly ingrained upon us and which exist to invisibly reinforce hierarchy.”

As with many memes, this is a truth overstated.

It’s true in that “professionalism” is often used as a cudgel to beat down brilliant people who don’t fit the white, patriarchal mold.

Grammar, usage, spelling, and vocabulary can be one of those false “professionalism” yardsticks that give privileged people permission to judge and dismiss others who don’t fit their mold.

The rest of the meme: it’s all about clarity

That meme also called out the ultimate goal in any interpersonal communication: clarity of meaning.

If the meaning is clear and the communication effective, focusing on grammar and spelling is not only pointless but potentially damaging.

Speaking as the guy who is always the proofreader in any organization, who edited my own novels, who leads writing workshops… I completely agree.

In fact, I wrote about this five years ago as part of my Editing Pony series on effective writing, when I was managing a team at a Fortune 50 company.

I’ll be reposting selected posts from that series here from time to time, as they provide practical and useful advice on effective writing, especially in a business setting.

Here’s that particular post, mildly edited.

Stuffed pony with a red pen editing a document
The Editing Pony is not fooling around.

Why you shouldn’t rewrite other people’s work

All kinds of business documents come through your inbox, written by others and given to you to pass along to management, decision makers, or others. When I get these, I always proofread them. After all, my reputation may be affected by it even though I’m not the author.

My team are all good writers, but every document can be improved.

Here are some edits that may occur to you as you review.

  • You’ve got all the detail this needs, but I’d lead with the third paragraph.
  • You effectively illustrate the main point, but I’d use a different example.
  • The chart conveys the relevant data, but there’s not enough narrative around it.

Only one of those four is helpful.

If you didn’t say the last one, then I’m not sure we can be friends anymore.

Keep your meddling paws off it—don’t rewrite!

What do the first three have in common that make them not just unhelpful but actually counterproductive?

In each, you’ve acknowledged that the communication does its job, but your ego has declared, “That’s not the way I would say it.”

You now have a choice:

  1. Approve the document with minor edits
  2. Rewrite the document the way you would have written it

If you’re unsure, here’s a handy flowchart:

A handwritten flowchart saying that if a document does its job, leave it alone
How to decide whether to rewrite or not

The objective of business communication is to communicate business things.

If the document does its job and is not grossly offensive in how it presents itself, then leave it alone.

It’s okay to make minor edits—clarify where necessary, fix basic usage and grammar, spell-check—but do not rewrite.

What’s wrong with making it better?

Rewriting a document that is already competently written does not actually make it better. Rewriting accomplishes only negative things:

  • You waste your own time.
  • You make the author feel their time was wasted.
  • You make the author feel their voice is unheard and their work unappreciated.
  • You confuse people about who now “owns” the document. It’s no longer the original author’s, but it’s not yours either. Who responds to questions?

And probably most important of all:

  • You set yourself up to get crap that needs to be rewritten in the future. Who wants to put a ton of work into something they know you’re just going to rewrite anyway?

Knowing the difference is good leadership

Certainly, some documents need to be rewritten.

A draft written by an engineer may need to be reformed in the corporate voice, for example. This is where professional communicators come in. That’s called teamwork.

I’ve drafted presentations that weren’t at all what my boss wanted because we didn’t get the objectives clear in advance. It happens. My boss corrected me, and I started over.

Knowing the difference is where the wisdom of a good leader comes in.

How important is this, really?

This may seem like a petty thing, not worthy of my weekly blog post. But it’s actually pretty important.

The drive to rewrite or rebuild your subordinates’ work is a symptom of control-based micromanagement, not leadership.

You may rationalize it under the name of quality, but more likely it is a limiting perfectionism that contributes to disengagement and quiet quitting.

You’re driving your employees into mediocrity under the banner of perfectionism.

So when you feel the need to rework something that someone else created, pause a beat and check the handy flowchart above.

Are you really fixing something that’s broken, or are you just imposing your style onto something that is just fine on its own?

Courageous, clear, powerful communication

As a lifelong writer, I care deeply about quality writing. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, though like everyone I have better days and worse days.

I invite you to join my workshop, Courage Writing. In it, I’ll help you find and harness your voice to bring more courage, quality, and impact to your writing. Whether that’s personal, business, or something else.

Contact me with questions or if you’d like to learn more.

Courage Writing workshop logo with journal and blue pen


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *