I was recently asked to design a writing training for the engineering staff of a large corporation. The executive in charge of the division was an outstanding writer and editor. The staff would labor for weeks, putting together reports on projects to be completed. Then the executive would whisk in with his red pen, cutting, adding, rewriting, and reorganizing. They went through this process two or three times, and finally emerged with a fairly good document.
So what was the problem? First, the process took too long. The executive was busy with many projects, and could not always give his full attention to editing. The whole process stood still until the executive got around to doing his revisions. More importantly, the staff was turning in ever more mediocre drafts, because they assumed the executive was going to rewrite everything they wrote anyway. Their attitude was, “Why should I try? What I write does not matter.” This frustrated the executive, who found he was spending more and more time revising their work.
I have seen this pattern replayed in dozens of organizations, large and small, during my career. In the end, trying to manage our staff's writing by extensively rewriting everything they turn in is demoralizing and counterproductive.
Why Doesn’t It Work to Manage by Editing?
It is demoralizing when people put their heart and effort into writing something and then get it back full of corrections. Most people do not mind being corrected, but a sea of red ink makes writers feel discouraged and disempowered. This moves them perilously close to the dangerous attitude of, “Why should I try?” Once a person has decided it is not worth trying, it is almost impossible for a manager to win back engagement.
Managing by editing keeps the unsuccessful writer dependent on the efforts of the overworked manager. In the absence of constructive feedback that would help them learn new skills, writers continue to make the same mistakes. They are less likely to improve if they do not have a chance to correct their errors.
Managing by editing also adds unnecessary work for managers. A brutal cycle develops in which demoralized employees churn out error-filled prose, and managers spend hours correcting the mistakes. The manager has to continue spending days, nights, and weekends toiling over the sub-par work product of staff members.
How Can Managers Avoid Managing by Editing?
Step 2: Realize that editing is not managing. If you were managing sales representatives, you would not teach them by barging into every sales call and taking over the call. You would not manage tool operators by taking their place on the assembly line. Why then does it seem appropriate to manage writers by commandeering the writing process?
Step 3: Offer educational support. Many employees enter the work-force unprepared to write correctly and clearly. Dozens of online and printed resources exist that teach people about writing. You can also offer writing training to those who need it.
Step 4: Assign more effectively.
Managing the writing process involves more than red-lining the results of your writers’ efforts. It includes assigning the project clearly and effectively, and giving feedback along the way.
The ultimate success of any communication depends on how well it was planned.
When managers assign writing projects, they will profit from clarifying the Three Ps for the writer. What is the purpose of the assigned document? What person will read it, and what are that person’s inner questions and concerns? And what, in a sentence, is the point? Taking five minutes to identify the Three Ps before the writer starts to write will yield phenomenal results.
Step 5: Give comments, not rewrites.
After the writer turns in a draft, resist the urge to fix it. Instead, give constructive comments and recommendations. Let them take responsibility for their own errors. Managers may feel that they can fix the document themselves more quickly and effectively; often, they are right. They can zip through a document, deleting, rewriting, reorganizing, and voila! An improved document. That might work for one document. However, if they are assigning many documents, perhaps to many writers, this system falls down. One manager cannot take on the burden of extensive editing, and still expect to get other work done.
We’ve all heard the proverb, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” The same principle applies to writing: Give a man an edit and his document is better that day; teach a man to edit and the manager gets his life back.