How To Defend Your Writing From Your Bosses’ Demands

Man yelling with hands grabbing his own hair

Photo: Ryan Snaadt

It doesn’t matter if you’re on a magazine’s payroll or if you’re helping out a friend of a friend with his website copy—as a writer, you’ll need to answer to somebody for your work, more often than not.

The thing is, these relationships do sometimes come with a bit of feedback, and some people are better at giving it than others.

Trust me, it’s no fun reading an e-mail with a list of things you’ve done wrong, even when you put your heart and soul into it. But receiving feedback and amending your work doesn’t need to be a helpless process. You, too, have a say as a writer.

Of course, you should always cater to your clients’ demands to the best of your abilities, but what happens when the feedback isn’t exactly constructive? Don’t lose your cool, for one.

Here are some of the more common obstacles I’ve faced in my writing career, and the solutions that’s worked for me. Perhaps it could do the same for you.

You suck

Before we start, let me just share a similar experience that took me by surprise. My personal favourite being a translation work from Malay to English. “This looks like something from Google Translate,” the person wrote. “Who writes ‘managed to snag a medal’ anyway? Utterly terrible and unacceptable!”

Now, I have to preface this by saying that my client wasn’t particularly adept in English (I paraphrased the above sentence), and that it was obvious that her feedback was also tinted by her own subjective views.

The easy thing would’ve been to carry out the changes she’d proposed, and botch what I thought was a pretty decent article. But I chose to stick to my guns, a task made much easier once this person’s colleagues hopped in and talked some sense into her.

So you see, sometimes you can be criticised through no fault of your own, and it’s times like these when you should have some problem-solving tips at hand. Let’s start with a typical demand.

Can you do this by today?

Sometimes it wouldn’t even be a question. This demand is especially prevalent in industries like journalism, where you’re expected to have a story ready before you leave the event hall. If you’re the one who picked the job, then the onus is on you to match their expectations.

But what if you’re just another writer in the corporate communications department? Or maybe you’re a freelancer who’d just received your brief the day before. What do you do then?

Tell the truth. If you can’t get it something by a specific time, then be truthful to your boss instead of trying to meet their unrealistic deadlines and ending up with a half-finished assignment on the due date.

Yes, it’d suck to admit that you can’t meet their expectations, but people are usually more forgiving of a delayed deadline than someone who didn’t meet it. Also, this ties to a second point regarding deadlines, and that’s to always ask your boss when they need something done.

This is especially important when your boss has the tendency to throw you random mini-tasks in the midst of larger projects. Say, for instance, you have to revamp the copy for an entire website, but halfway through it, your boss asks you to prepare a social media post.

You don’t want to be focusing on the big project, only to receive an e-mail from the boss asking you why the social media post isn’t up yet.

When you ask them when they need something done, it allows you to prioritise your work, as well as come up with a counter deadline if you have too much on your plate. It also stops them from harrying you for deliverables before they’re due.

Don’t take this for granted. Always ask them for a deadline.

Man looking at Timex wristwatch with a laptop in the back

I’m not late, YOU’RE late. Photo: Brad Neathery

This is not what we’ve discussed

Have we established that writing is subjective yet? It goes without saying that your relationship with your boss or editor will matter more than your writing prowess. Seriously, I’ve seen decent writers get harangued for their work, and I’ve seen super crappy ones given all the best assignments.

But who am I to judge? My preferences are subjective too, aren’t they? You know what that means? It’s that you should only work under someone you can deal with. This is something that will never change, despite your best efforts. So if you find yourself wishing your boss was someone else, then it’s time to look for a different job.

But when it comes to them giving you subjective reasons to change your work, then a good way to protect yourself is by having justifiable reasons for every decision you make.

Maybe you chose to highlight a room’s size because you thought that it would be relevant to readers, or maybe you included a pun in your title because you know your target audience would appreciate it.

Either way, what you do doesn’t matter as much as why you did it, as long as you have a good reason for it. It might or might not be accepted by your editor, but it does quell their tendency to criticise you once they realise you’ve put some thought into it.

Do it again

The amending stage can differ from company to company. It could even differ from boss to boss. Sometimes, the piece you’ve worked tirelessly on with your head of department could be totally rejected by the CEO. In these times, it’d be prudent to deal with them through e-mail, just so you can get their requests in black-and-white.

If you’re a freelancer, you should already have discussed the number of available amendments you’d entertain before taking on the job. As a full-timer though, you won’t be as lucky, and you’ll have to see each job through.

And the best way to do this is by asking this question: “If I do (insert your proposed amendments here), will it address your concerns?”

Do not be satisfied with feedback such as “make it flow better” or “just give it a happy feel”. Probe them with suggestions of your own, such as proposing the use of happy words such as ‘joyful’ and ‘bask in the fun’, and see if they’ll work with that.

Remember, your goal here is not to confront them, but get both of you to share a similar perspective. So keep the “I’m the writer here” attitude at the door.

Writing is sometimes a people thing

After having written for a living for nine years, I’d like to think that it’s my craft that’s gotten me this far, but I’ve realised that every writing problem I’ve ever encountered was settled through discussions rather than the amendments themselves.

And maybe that’s what we should do as writers. We do sell words for a living after all, both non-verbal and verbal. So perhaps we should stop looking at our job as simply putting words in a PDF file, and start thinking of it as an entire experience.

20 thoughts on “How To Defend Your Writing From Your Bosses’ Demands

  1. So good! This is so helpful for when you’re just dealing with people too.
    Sometimes people don’t know what they want, just that they want it 😂

    One thing I’ve experienced is being asked to work on something and when I asked for a deadline, I was told there’s no deadline. Of course I didn’t push for one but if this came earlier, I would have.
    Now I’m stuck here wondering whether I should have already done it by now or I’m okay lol.

    Really good tips Stuart!

    • Yup, it’s definitely much more prudent to insist on a deadline regardless, so that you both get to align your expectations. Thanks so much for dropping your thoughts, Wonani. You’re always welcome here :)

  2. You know my feelings about my boss 😂. I think your tips can apply to more jobs than just writing. A lot of it has to do with confidence. When you know yourself and how much “territory” you command in the workplace (for lack of a better metaphor), you can defend yourself easier because you know what your work is worth. You’ve proven yourself and criticism doesn’t make you feel *quite* as insecure than if you were new. You know for a fact your boss is an idiot and is wrong. Being the new person is so hard because you haven’t earned any leverage yet.

    • It’s true to a point, but let me play devil’s advocate here. I think it depends on your ‘gifts’ rather than your arbitrarily-set confidence.

      Case in point: I was a hairdresser for some six years, and was still insecure and didn’t command any respect at the end of my tenure.

      Writing though? I was able to hold my own within the first year of working.

      Maybe it’s about ‘finding it’, whatever ‘it’ is. I believe we’ll only know what it is when we’re actually there. Love your thoughtful comment as always.

      • Most def. Having the gift or skill is my underlying assumption. People who fake confidence are the worst! (And also the ones to get promoted the most…)

        When you mentioned the hairdresser thing, it reminded me if when I sold fine jewelry. Talk about insecure. I only did it six months before transferring to another department. I never got comfortable and sure as hell won no respect.

  3. Helpful reminders. Thanks Stuart! At the end of the day, gotta stay true to your core but maintain some flexibility. Delicate balance always. By the way, hope you’re staying Covid-safe as I know things aren’t so great where you are right now. Take care!

    • Ugh yeah. We have half-assed lockdowns, which means you do stand a chance of getting arrested, but everybody’s still going out in clusters. Thanks for your well wishes, Kelvin, and thanks for dropping by too!

      • You make a good point there… but I still very much admire it. It’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice which is necessary to reach any meaningful goal. Nice work sharing about it too. :))

  4. This was really helpful to read, especially that last item about offering a solution and clarifying whether that will meet the editor’s expectations. I once had a conversation with an editor about some proposed changes to a piece that ended with them promising a clearer list of revisions only to instead drop my work. Though I tried my best to phrase my concerns in a collaborative way (as in, “Can you tell me more about what you’d like to see to show character development?”), I have wondered over and over if I was being unrealistic in expecting to get clarification. You have given me more confidence that I shouldn’t have to simply bow my head no matter how I feel about the requested changes.

    • Yes! In the end, writing IS about coming up with something your client wants, but they also have to know what they want themselves, or else you both are just going to waste time going in circles meeting a target that’s not there.

      Thanks for sharing your experience! It’ll no doubt be useful for anyone else who wants to learn more of what goes on behind that scenes.

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