We all write through our personalities. Our writing is as different and unique as our ear shapes. Given the same story line, a dozen people will write a dozen different stories, use different verbs, choose different sentence lengths and clauses.
What’s wrong with that? Nothing at all. It makes writing a wonderful art. Writing is flexible, supple, and athletic. In the hands of each person, writing is unique, elegant and clear.
Still, it’s quite common that a supervisor will want the people who write for her to write like her. Nothing else will seem good enough. That word, that one there, is not sharp enough. Glad should be happy. Gleaming should be glowing.
Interest in context fades next to the precision of adjectives. When the writing is returned, nothing can be gleaned from the changes. Tone remains the same, so does the audience and the objective. The effort repeats until the supervisor gets tired of the employees “not writing well,” and then sends them off to training.
The only way a writer can successfully please the supervisor in this case is to become a mimic, the equivalent of lip-syncing a song. Speechwriters get good at that special mimicking, but writers who are not contributing to speeches shouldn’t have to.
Most supervisors will not read through a document asking, “Does this reach the audience?” or “Does this make the reader feel like they should feel?” They read and change words into their own preferences.
How to fix this language gap? First, never ask “What do you think of this?” if you are passing a document through the approval chain. You aren’t interested in an opinion, you are looking for comments that will improve the document.
Second, improving the document is all you care about. Not every word is golden. Learn your boss’s favorite words and phrases and include a few of them (as long as they are grammatically correct) in the pieces you turn over. Your boss prefers “glad” to “happy”? Use it, then. It’s a distinction without a difference.
Third, don’t let word changes muddle the content. As a writer, content that is crisp and clear is what you want to deliver. Pick your battles, but let all your battles be over clarity and the end-users understanding.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing.