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How I lost Respect for an Executive Because of their Red Pen

How I lost Respect for an Executive Because of their Red Pen

I often say that spelling and grammar are not the most important thing to focus on when writing. It gets a very strong reaction from some people who connect spelling or grammar mistakes with poor or questionable content.

After all, if someone can't get the spelling of a word right, how can you trust the content and be sure there aren’t other more critical mistakes somewhere else?

The reality is that mistakes happen and even with the closest scrutiny, they will slip through and be on the page (or screen) for everyone to see.

Does that mean that the content can't be trusted? Certainly not. In fact, the content may be top notch.

And do spelling or grammar mistakes mean the content can’t be understood? In most cases, it makes very little difference. We are very good at reading and understanding the context and meaning even if words are spelled wrong or grammar doesn’t follow all the rules you learned in English 101. Only rarely will grammar cause mis-understanding when you have the full context available.

Unfortunately, there is still an emphasis on what is on the surface, not on the substance below. That is why I lost respect for an executive because of their red pen.

I was working for a large corporate organization as a new manager. My job was to analyze operations being delivered out of several locations in a city. The objective was to consolidate the operations and free up an asset for sale, which would put cash in the company's pockets while reducing ongoing operating costs.

After spending a considerable amount of time on the study over several months, I developed a plan that would achieve the company’s goals. The efforts to get there included analyzing operational statistics, routes and access to highways, real estate market values, zoning, analysis of office, warehouse, storage and parking space available at each site and even extensive interviews with the various operations managers and their staff.

I wrote it up in a business case justification with a recommendation to eliminate one location, which met our corporate goal. It went first to my boss for review. Then it went to their boss for further review. Then it went to the Assistant Vice President for approval.

From there, it was returned with some spelling and grammar mistakes corrected with a red pen by the Assistant Vice President’s own hand. Nothing else. No comment on the content, no suggestions, no feedback whatsoever.

Just a marked up document to correct and re-submit.

If there had been some feedback or criticism of the proposal itself or even on the details, data or analysis, that would have been fine. And perhaps also chastise me for the spelling and grammar mistakes. The fact that neither my boss or their boss caught the mistakes wasn’t an issue with me.

What happened, however, changed my view of minor mistakes, particularly for internal documents. It also changed my opinion of the executive. I lost respect for what they did. It surprised me that their focus was on something so trivial with such an important issue at stake. I could only wonder if they actually assessed the content or perhaps they weren’t capable of identifying issues or mistakes in the content - only superficial spelling mistakes - so that’s what they did.

I’ll never know, but the proposal itself was eventually approved. Perhaps the executive was having a bad day. Or they liked the report but thought this was the best way to provide guidance to a junior manager. I never found out.

What it did teach me was to deal with others differently based on how the executive dealt with me. First, I value and support others ideas, creativity and work. That’s where they add value to the organization. It’s why they were hired. Getting their work right is important, and that’s what I want them to focus on. Only then do I worry about the superficial things like spelling and grammar. Those are easy to correct.

That’s why I say that spelling and grammar are not the most important thing to focus on when writing, particularly for internal use. It’s the content that really matters, after all. And I find that some of the best employees are either challenged by writing or have no confidence in their ability.

Is spelling and grammar important? Yes they are, because they have an impact on first impressions and feed into the belief that a spelling mistake means there are other mistakes.

Are they the most important thing? Only if you don’t think results are important.

About Michel Theriault

Michel is the founder of Success Fuel for Managers. He is an author, speaker and consultant focusing on topics relevant to Managers and aspiring Managers in businesses of all sizes who want to get results, get attention, and get ahead. He is also a contributor to Forbes and AllBusiness Experts . Michel is available for speaking engagements, training and consulting. Connect with him or send an email.

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