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Stolen words

Stolen words
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Cary’s classic column from

My boss uses what I write in e-mails as his own. What should I do about it?


Dear Cary,

I’m an in-house copywriter/creative director with a small technical company, working for a boss whose communications skills, to put it delicately, are not his greatest asset. Lately I learned he’s been passing off my writing (not ad or brochure copy, just conversational e-mails on internal issues) as his own. I’ll write him a note on a topic, and later on that same note will land in my in box as part of a forwarded e-mail conversation chain — only now the note has his name on it. It’s happened several times that I know of.

I’ve always thought of him as a fundamentally decent fellow, and I sense he does this more for expediency’s sake (“Why bother rewriting this opinion that I share, when I’ve got this version sitting here?”) than to lay claim to my thoughts and words. Still, they are my thoughts and words, and I worry that by keeping my name out of these conversations he’s limiting my ability to benefit from people’s reactions to my ideas. Besides, I’m a writer: Even within the quasi-professional forum of interoffice e-mails, it feels like plagiarism.

Am I overreacting? And if not, should I confront him?

Accidental Ghostwriter

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Ghostwriter,

Here are some suggestions: Stop giving your boss great lines that he can use and call his own. Do your job on the brochures and the official stuff, but stop giving him stuff for free. If there are people you want to impress with your ideas, send your ideas directly to those people. Or if there’s a discussion you’re having with your boss and you can predict that it’s going to widen to include others, if you suspect he’s going to steal your material, suggest that that you include those people to whom he’s likely to send your material. Ask, what other interested stakeholders are there? You know, act like you care.

Either suggest they be included, or just cc them as though you thought that was the normal thing to do, since you know they’re interested parties.

Don’t be telling your boss not to cop your copy. He won’t get it. He’ll just think you’re being a pain.

You might also review just what you were hired for. Did you get a job description? Did anybody ever tell you what your job was? There is probably some expectation that you provide “other written materials.” These e-mails could be considered other written materials. You just want credit for it, right? So I’d find some way to let others know where it’s coming from — like, by cc’ing them before your boss steals your stuff.

And I would beware of your own personal motives that are tripping you up, too. Hey, I know about this: You want to do a great job of writing e-mails because that’s what you are. After all, you’re a writer. So you could be tricking yourself into giving your stuff away because you’re so damned good and you can’t help it, and you can’t help trying to impress your boss. I know what it’s like to be a writer. It doesn’t matter who the audience is. You’re still going to sweat over a few sentences until they’re perfect.

Bosses in non-media companies are so weird. They have no idea what it’s like to be a writer. They are just so weird. How do they even get through the day without being able to communicate?

Who knows. But they do. I guess they do it by hiring people like you.

Don’t pick a fight with him, but don’t be a sap!

WhatHappenedNextCall

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One Comment

  1. Dear Cary,

    I ran into a similar problem with my old boss – who wanted me to ghostwrite an important industry speech for him. I mollified myself by creating an acronym – starting each new line with a specific letter, so his first few remarks spelled out, A L A N W R O T E T H I S.

    When I left the company, I sent him a copy – now with each capital letter in bold. I think he got the message.

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