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I am a Ph.D.-trained data scientist, who is also a native English speaker. My boss is 30 years my elder and speaks English as a second language. He also has a Ph.D., but is several decades removed from academia and has been working in managerial and business development roles since that time.

Technical writing is a regular part of my job, and my boss wants to edit everything I write before it is published. The problem is that most of his suggestions make the text less clear and less readable. As a (made-up) example, if I were to write this sentence

In this whitepaper, we introduce a new class of spectral methods for supply chain optimization,

he might rewrite it this way,

In our paper described below, we provide a novel solution utilizing spectral technologies applied to the optimization of supply chains."

I write about my own area of expertise, so it's not a case of me being unfamiliar with the terminology or conventions of the subject. When we have butted heads over this in the past, he has stated that I should accept his edits because they are borne from his additional years of experience. Ultimately, he gets to make the final edits, so my strategy has been to try to meet him halfway. But recently, he's been becoming more insistent that we use his wordings, and it's gotten to a point where I don't want to have my name attached to these publications.

I'm an experienced writer, in both technical and informal writing, but I don't have any specific writing credentials that I can point to. I'm also one of the few native English speakers at our small company, so others tend to just acquiesce to my boss in matters of English. How can I persuade him that his edits are not improving the quality of my writing?

Note: I've included both the "United States" and "India" tags below. Our company is based in the U.S., but primarily employs members of the Indian diaspora (including my boss).

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    You might be better off posting in Academia SE since they probably know PhD, mindsets, processes, and relationships better.
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 15:48
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    A lot of people think that more and bigger words mean better writing. They are wrong. Good luck convincing them. Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 16:29
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    Perhaps your boss has found from experience that your audience prefer incoherent nonsense?
    – Steve
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 16:37
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    @JoeStrazzere "Spectral methods" is a specific technical phrase while "spectral technologies" is not. The same applies to "supply chain optimization" versus "optimization of supply chains". I once was unfortunate enough to have experienced extremely incorrect edits foisted upon us, so I'm a bit touchy on this subject. Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 11:27
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    @JoeStrazzere When an editor changes "extravehicular activities" (aka spacewalks, except those astronauts are not out for a jaunt; we call them EVAs) to "activities with extra vehicles", changes every use of EVA to VEA to suit that editor's cringeworthy edits, and then sends the "improved" articles straight to publication, it is beyond "cringy". We had to send an explanation and an apology to NASA for that beyond "cringy" editing. Editors can sometimes make a complete mess of things. They can also improve things, such as identifying and suggesting fixes for incomplete sentences. Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 12:02

4 Answers 4

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How can I persuade him that his edits are not improving the quality of my writing?

You and your boss should jointly find a review source that your boss respects. Perhaps a reviewer in academia, or one in business that most closely reflects the consumers of your writing.

Submit your writing and your writing with your boss's revisions, and ask the reviewer to indicate which is better, and by how much.

You may very well find that it makes little difference to your readers, and isn't worth an argument.

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So the problem, it seems, is that you are the subject matter expert (in speaking English) but your boss is the most respected person on the team (at speaking/writing English) even though he isn't good at it. So he's telling you to change things in a bad way and nobody else is backing you up that he shouldn't be doing that.

This is certainly a problem, and there isn't a good solution I can think of, as you, as the no-"expert", is basically trying to correct an "expert" who is wrong. Clearly, you can't go to your boss and say (anything even remotely close to) "your English sucks, my English is better, don't correct my work".

I don't know about academia (you may want to ask on Academia SE about this), but would it be an option to put your boss as lead author on the paper and you as second author? This might make your papers, which you did indeed write, less prestigious for you, but it would also shift most of the blame for the writing issues to him.

Another thing you could also try is that, as it seems his goal is to make your paper more wordy and use bigger and fancier words, to just write your own paper but make it sound obtrusively fancy and obtuse. For example, instead of saying "we did an experiment where...and put the results in a table", you could say "the team of researchers performed a procedure to observe the effects of...and recorded the impacts thereof in a data storage system". Those 2 things mean the same thing, but the latter is much more wordy (and therefore "impressive"). Perhaps this will allow you to get your work past your boss while allowing you to maintain control over the wording of your papers.

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I'm with you in the sense that I believe that your version of the example sentence is simpler and easier to understand. However your boss' version, while more complicated, is not unreadable or incomprehensible.

There is a school of thought that believes scientific and technical writing should be "formal", and by "formal" they mean complicated with long words instead of simple with short words. This style was certainly more popular in academia and several decades ago, and is often preferred by speakers of Indian English.

It is a matter of style though. And provided the finished version of the document is understandable, then I would not recommend that you die on this hill. Recipients of these documents are likely to be used to the style, and nobody will think badly of you for following it.

There is the question of whose name is going on the document. If it's an academic paper with your name on it then your boss shouldn't really be controlling the wording, unless he is the primary author. But you should ask on our Academia site if that's the case. If it's a company document with your on name then you have some case for saying "I want the language to reflect how I write", but ultimately your boss is your boss. Maybe add his name to the document saying "edited by..." if you want to make it clear that you are not responsible for the wording.

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    -1: The "revised" wording that OP posted as an example is a meaningful and distinctive change in meaning from the original wording. In academia, where wording of things is important in the peer review process, this is not good advice.
    – Ertai87
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 18:24
  • (because 5 mins have passed and I can no longer edit my above comment) the distinctive change in meaning is subtle to a non-native speaker of English but evident to a native speaker. It's both entirely reasonable for a non-native speaker to not understand this issue and also reasonable for a native speaker to object strongly, as OP has.
    – Ertai87
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 18:31
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    As a native speaker I see the slight distinction in meaning, but we really don't have any indication that the second might be "incorrect". Something can be both a "new class of spectral methods" and a "novel solution utilizing spectral technologies". If it is in fact a solution (as well as a new class of methods) then from a business point of view the second wording is better. Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 18:54
  • Spending time to make changes that “might not necessarily be incorrect” is a waste of time. What the boss does (wasting time without measurable improvement) while frustrating his subordinate is incompetent.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 20:26
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    I agree that the switch from "spectral method" is the biggest red-flag in the example. "Spectral method" is a mathematical technique for solving differential equations. "Spectral technology" is a made-up phrase. Searching for the former will get you math techniques; searching for the latter will get you physics stuff like spectral analysis, which is a totally different field. Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 20:04
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You ask your boss for a one-to-one meeting. In your meeting, you tell him as politely as possible or necessary that he is not helping. That his changes make the text more complicated and harder to read.

You will then find out if you have a good boss or not.

PS. I believe the "India" tag has been added after I wrote this. In India, for all I know I would assume the worst about your boss. Assume your boss would rather waste his time to make the product worse than taking advice from an underling.

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