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BLUF: I have an employee who's writing ability is lacking considerably.  How do I correct this problem?

I have an employee who is relatively new to the company (<3 months).  He is a senior level engineer and I recently tasked him with writing a few reports regarding some equipment which a customer returned due to supposed failures.  The approach he took to exploring the failures was very scientific and thorough - there are no problems there.  His reports, however, are poorly written with many run-on sentences and excessive word use.  The do contain all the relevant information and correct conclusions.  Reading them and understanding how he came to those conclusions is the problem.  I would be very, very hesitant to put anything remotely similar to these reports in front of the customer.

How would you suggest I go about correcting this problem?  Feedback?  Would rewriting the reports in a manner I deem suitable and then providing to him as future reference be a good approach?  I am up against a time crunch here as well due to the fact that the documentation is due on Wednesday.  I did not expect his writing to be such a problem.

kennedyd's picture

Welcome to the club - it's not exclusive.  Given your time crunch - if Wednesday is "it", I suspect  you may have to follow your own advice:  re-write as you need to, give it to him as a reference.  One can't become a good writer in two days.  It's too bad you're at this point.

Talk to him first and let him know what you're facing.  He will almost certainly want to re-write the report(s) himself;  that would be ideal.  If you edit with a red pen and it takes quite a bit of time, and then you sit down and discuss it you'll run out of time.  I don't know how many or how long the reports are or how many.  Tasking with a "few" reports without knowing his abilities was risky.  It would have been better if he jumped on one and you had a look at that before completing all of them.  That's often a better approach with many tasks, not just writing (get one done and back into the hands of others whom are affected by the task, then tackle the next).

If his grammar is reasonable, and if it a matter of shorter sentences, a clear and logical outline, parallel structure, use of bullet points where appropriate, and basics along those lines, then maybe you could meet with him and discuss those issues, set him to the task on one report, and start on another yourself (okay, that was a long sentence).  You need to make progress, your risk tolerance is now pretty slim, and hence possibly so are your options.

Whatever you decide, one of the worst outcomes would be to deliver a crappy report "on time".  In that event, it wouldn't be on time because you'd have to re-do it anyway and will have burned up a lot of client goodwill.  It sounds like you have a good technical staff member - you'll want to keep him, and he'll want to learn how to do better on the writing.  We bring in technical writing trainers for our staff (which is helpful, but still not enough).

Call your client - internal or external.  If you have good work and good conclusions you're in pretty good shape.  If your client will give you an extra day or two to get a quality product, that will ultimately be faster and far better.  We often don't ask them.  We hope and try, then call him or her Wednesday afternoon.  Then you're making an excuse.  If today, you may be making a reasonable request.

Communicate with both parties.   I suspect you'll be doing some re-writing on your own, but don't hide it - talk first.  Good luck.

ddelaiarro's picture

 Thanks for the input.  Fortunately, we were on the same wavelength.  

First, a little more background.  These reports were very small - only a few pages each so the workload was not super heavy.  The time-frame was rather short (about 1 week) but I felt confident that the information required for the reports should not take more than a week to consolidate into written form.

I agree with your assessment that it was a bad move on my part assigning multiple tasks without ever seeing an example of the end product produced for that kind of task.  My solution to the problem was as follows:  I took the smaller report (2 pages) and edited it with simpler sentence structure and a cleaner document format.  I then presented it to my employee as an example of the kind of work we'd like to present to the customer.  We had a discussion about providing clear, concise information to the customer that would not confuse him.  He appreciated the feedback (or that's at least what he told me) and has agreed to use that format for the larger (4-5 page) report.  Wednesday should still be achievable now and I believe that he is thankful for the guidance.

If I could do one thing different it would be to not bombard him with a 'good' copy but rather explain the problem and see how he self-corrected.  Unfortunately, time did not allow.  What made this discussion a little more difficult was that this employee is old enough to be my parent and here I am telling him he needs to improve his writing skills.  I actually felt a bit embarrassed.

Problem averted, full steam ahead.  Thanks again for the help.

kennedyd's picture

Well done, glad it worked out.  Don't forget that final QC before sending them off.  I find when I'm re-reading edited work that my eyes stop seeing the little details.  Cheers

afmoffa's picture

I'm glad this worked out. I have two additional tips.

1. Anything technical, legal, medical, or over four pages long should have an executive summary on it. Harvard Business Review has these in the back of the magazine for most of its articles. A well-written executive summary can actually get people excited about reading the whole thing. Also, a summary performs "meta-communication" magic by telling the reader: "The people who wrote this document care about communicating with you on your terms."

2. Strunk & White's The Elements of Style is a 100-page book that I recommend to all writers, at all levels, unreservedly. Elements of Style is Manager-Tools for writers. If you ever end up coaching a direct-report on his writing ability, this tiny book should be your guide. I paid $140,000 US for my degree in English Literature. I paid $5.50 US for my copy of Strunk & White. Those two purchases have contributed in nearly equal measure to my development as a writer. In a perfect world, we'd all have $140,005.50 to spend on developing the writing abilities of our directs, but, corporate budgets being what they are these days, I suggest you start with the book.