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11 ways to protect your writing from being mutilated
By Kim Harrison,
Consultant, Author and Principal of Cutting Edge PR
Do you get plagued by bosses who want to replace your clean, clear writing and speeches with jargon, marketing hype and mangled sentences?
As communicators we have all suffered from the problem of managers, clients or others turning our words into mush. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of our work. These people not only interfere with the integrity of carefully written text, but they invariably slow down the process and outcome of our hard work. (Obviously if they have valid points it’s fine.)
They want to 'improve' finely crafted copy by inserting meaningless jargon such as 'delivering key learnings', 'driving employee integration strategies', and 'interfacing holistically with clients'.
We get this interference from our boss and others in senior management who are involved in the approval process. The changes can also come from people in other departments especially marketing, who want to use hopeless marketing hype in news releases, and also from HR, who want to speak in legal jargon. Consultants get it often from clients.
Another trap is to ask fellow employees for contributions to the staff newsletter. When they contribute substandard copy they can get antsy if we edit what they have written. So how can we minimize our pain?
(The assumption in all of this is that you write quality material. To help ensure this, get more than one person to proofread it very carefully. If the article has various typos, the reviewer will feel justified in adding their own pearls into the text.)
There are two aspects to successfully managing your clients: getting the process right and knowing how to navigate the politics:
1. Cut down the number of approvals needed
When I joined a major power producer I found the staff newsletter was always published late. Then I discovered most of the delay was because too many people were involved in the approval process. Six senior executives were needed to sign off the drafts prepared by the editor – and it wasn’t exactly a top priority for them. With great trepidation I cut the number of reviewers to three – myself, my boss (who was a general manager) and the managing director. The process became much simpler and faster as a result. What’s more, the three general managers who had been cut out of the approval process never once complained. They were probably glad they didn’t have to worry about it any more.
When I sent approvers the draft to check, I stated that if I didn’t hear back by a specific date I would assume they were happy with the content and I would proceed to publish. This sped up the responses as well.
There are lessons for all of us in this.
2. Don't ask for 'feedback'
'Feedback’ is a broad concept meaning different things to different people. One reviewer might check for grammar and spelling. Another might be concerned with how 'on-brand' the story is. Yet another will want to rephrase the writing to incorporate words like 'solutions,' and 'going forward,' simply because the original wasn't 'corporate enough.'
So instead of asking for feedback, which gives them an open invitation to comment on anything they wish, including their pet topics, be more specific and ask whether there's anything in the piece that would cause a problem if it were published. That limits the tormentor’s role to pointing out inaccuracies (misspelt names, incorrect job titles, out-of-date information, etc.) and still allows them to indicate anything that's sensitive, confidential, or embargoed.
Also, in some situations, you can tell them whether any of their peers have already approved the article as it stands. This might encourage them to refrain from making minor changes.
Another approach is to ask for ‘input on factual accuracy and important content, not style.’ This makes it clear frivolous suggestions are not wanted.
3. Pick up the phone
It is very frustrating when copy comes back heavily edited. Next time, get that person to call or meet you with their comments rather than engage in impersonal editing by pen or computer. It is much harder to criticize a person face-to-face or over the phone than in writing. And you have the chance to make your case to them.
4. Avoid tracked changes
It's particularly humiliating when the other party’s contempt for your copy is conveyed in many boxes of tracked changes marked 'Deleted.' If you can, PDF the document before you send it so they are more obliged to talk to you about any proposed changes. This makes it more difficult to mess around with your copy even if they can convert a PDF to a Word doc.
5. Be ruthless with word count
Most corporate writing is far too long-winded. Therefore set rules for word count. For example, insist that all stories on the intranet must be no longer than 200 words.
'Delivering holistic operational synergies across the organization' uses up a lot more words than 'working together.' If that's really what they want to write, then other suggestions of theirs will have to go to make way for it in order to keep the word count down.
6. Don't budge on sentence length
Similarly, insist that any sentence longer than 24 words or similar must be cut—and, again, don't shift on this. Put these rules in the company style guide, so you can wave them at the other person about their flatulent copy. If you don't have a style guide, create one. I’ve just done that. It’s a very useful weapon!
7. Throw some stats at them
Another weapon to throw at your troublesome critic is the readability tool in Word. You can simply show the differences between their text and the original as analysed by the Flesh-Kincaid Reading Ease figure. Many senior executives relate to numbers and will relate to this logic.
8. Have a list of banned words and phrases
There's a real discipline gained from keeping a list of banned words on your desk: It stops you being lulled by repeated exposure into thinking terms like ‘delivery framework,’ ‘best-practice solutions,’ and ‘going forward’ are acceptable uses of the English language.
9. Conduct an audit
You can carefully review in a clinical way the value added to your draft by other people by comparing sentence length and content, etc. Calling the review an ‘audit’ is a powerful technique because it will provide hard numbers to save the company both money and time.
10. Standardize the brief
Every memo, intranet update, or article in the staff magazine should be published in support of the organization’s mission, goals and objectives.
When researching the piece, create a briefing form that forces the other party to answer the following questions:
This last question is particularly potent. If the other person can't articulate a good business case for publishing (or for including six paragraphs on how she's ‘delivering transformational change across the business…’) then she needs to rethink.
Remember, it's your job to help that person to understand the difference between what she wants to say and what your readers need to hear.
11. Build a portfolio of good examples
Some executives think plain, simple English isn’t suitable for a business audience. They figure that easily understandable writing is simplistic and patronizing. Your solution is to show them business publications like The Economist, and the financial pages of most newspapers plus Time magazine, The New Yorker, etc which are written in readily understandable terms even for their sophisticated audiences.
Also show them Warren Buffett's letters in Berkshire Hathaway's annual reports. If clear and simple prose works for the world's greatest investor, it should also work for your jargon-laden executive.
Based on an article by Clare Lynch.
About the Author
Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website, www.cuttingedgepr.com, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.
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