The bain of every corporate writer’s existence is the person who uses his higher perch on the org chart as an excuse to rewrite our work. We don’t mind when he clarifies a misunderstanding or adds missing facts. After all, Mr. Blue Pen is usually a subject matter expert, as they’re now called.
The trouble is he’s not an expert in writing, even though he thinks all the papers he wrote for his multple degrees qualify him to do my job better than us.
The best time to work with Mr. Blue Pen is when he’s “too busy.” Not only will he take only a cursory glance at the article you’ve written, but he might also ask you to write something for him.
He will apologize, saying he’d write it himself, but he’s “too busy.” You hope he stays that way.
You know that “too busy” can also be code for “too important.” But that’s a topic for another post, possibly a doctoral thesis.
Dismissing our writing like this demonstrates that he over-values his own writing and under-values ours.
Every organization I’ve ever worked for has lots of people like this. Every communicator I know complains about them, including Lindsey McCaffrey, who wrote a post that Mr. Blue Pen is probably “too busy” to read called Is your employees’ inferior writing sabotaging your brand?.
Lindsey is very brave in using “inferior” in her headline. Mind you, even if he read it, Mr. Blue Pen would have no idea she’s thinking about him.
Why are otherwise-smart people blind to their weakness in writing? They don’t have to be “too busy” to call a plumber, but writing is different, they think.
This happens only because they can’t see the words spewing out of the broken pipe, I now know, thanks to Susan Pinker in a recent article about our natural tendency to use a “neural air brush” to make ourselves feel prettier, more popular and better at anything that can’t be clearly measured.
She quoted Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. “When people rate themselves on any dimension that’s ambiguous–their managerial skills, their interpersonal skills, their grammar, or their test-taking ability–there’s zero correlation between their self-perception and their performance,” he said.
Although he mentioned grammar specifically, I’m sure his comments apply to writing in general. Lacking objective measurement, as the professior said, “people give themselves the benefit of the doubt.”
Susan also described an experiment where most of the subjects claimed an idealized photo of their face instead of the actual photo or a version that made them look worse.
I get this. When I see photos of people close to my age, I usually tell myself they look so much older than me.
Yet, despite this self-delusion, I buy costly skin revitalizers.
So how does this work? And how can I apply these lessons to the likes of Mr. Blue Pen?
I’ve been thinking about this as I try to market training based on my book Write like you talk–only better. I’ve worked with so many people whose writing could improve, if they would read the book or attend the workshop.
The trouble is most of them think their writing is just fine. Moreover, they are “too busy.” Wink, wink.
My general reason for buying skin revitalizer is that my internal PhotoShop could never knock off enough years, which any woman over 30 can understand.
Lesson one: I need to persuade Mr. Blue Pen that he needs to always sound more brilliant.
I am most likely to buy the skin revitalizer if I’m having a bad day, am in a nice drug store and see a display featuring an older, air-brushed super model. Not that I ever looked half as good as her. But at least it saves me from buying chocolate, my bad-day alternative.
Lesson two: I need to catch Mr. Blue Pen after a fissure of self-doubt has been opened by a bravura performance of Steve Jobs, Guy Kawasaki or some other business celeb.
I also will buy skin revitalizer that has some scientific backing. If Dr. Oz, who combines medical credibility with star power, tells me a certain product has been proven to work wonders, I will shell out. Even though experience tells me I will simply end up with zits around the wrinkles.
Lesson three: I need to come up a measurement that takes the ambiguity out of assessing writing skills, then conduct clinical trials and get the word out.
I’ll develop a hypothesis and visual tracking tool, test it on my workshop participants, replicate, have it peer reviewed and touted it in an academic journal, then promoted on a popular television show.
My head is starting to hurt. Complaining is easier. Maybe I can just slip my book onto Mr. Blue Pen’s desk and hope he’ll read it. When he’s not “too busy” of course.