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UpWrite Press understands the importance of writing skills in business: We're business people just like you. On this blog you'll find tips to improve your writing, along with topics of interest to our staff.

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    Writing in Someone Else’s Shoes

    Thursday, June 19, 2014

    Creative Commons "new shoe" photo by Joel Dueck on Flickr

    "[Y]ou never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.…"

    —Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

    In “How to Write Your Own Recommendation Without Getting in Trouble,” Cory Weinberg, of BloombergBusinessweek, reports that MIT’s Sloan School of Management is now requiring applicants to write “a professional letter of recommendation on behalf of yourself.” This is, apparently, an increasingly common trend at both schools and businesses, likely in part because instructors and supervisors have difficulty fitting such writing into their schedules.

    It is also an excellent opportunity for students and employees to step outside themselves and take a critical look at how their performance meets with another person’s needs. In the business world, of course, both this sort of personal review and “ghost writing” are common tasks. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are easy.

    To understand the problem, let’s start by looking at communication as a triangle:

    The better a writer knows the subject, the less distance exists between the two, and the easier it is to write:

    Similarly, the closer the writer feels to the reader, the easier it is to write:

    To write “a professional letter of recommendation on behalf of yourself” however, requires a sort of mental gymnastics, placing the writer in the role of “subject,” viewed at arm’s length from the perspective of a different person, a supposed writer, with yet another person as the final reader.

    Psychologists say that sort of self-reflective distance isn’t even possible for most people until their mid-twenties.

    A few weeks ago, my youngest daughter called, facing a similar situation. A professor had agreed to provide a letter of recommendation for a program she was applying for, but asked her to give him a draft to work from. She wasn’t sure where to start, so I volunteered to draft something for her.

    “Give me a bullet list of details to work from,” I said, “including how the professor knows you, your grades in his courses, and whatever else you think he might include.” She set to work, her bullet list in effect a first draft. I then composed a letter, “role-playing” the part of a college professor recommending a promising young student. She passed my draft along to him, and he took excerpts from it to plug into what turned out to be an application form.

    The trick to writing for someone else this way, as Harper Lee reveals, is to “stand in his [or her] shoes and walk around in them.” Stepping out of your own for a bit gives a whole new perspective. And that’s a very good thing.

    —Lester Smith

    Among and Between

    Friday, April 18, 2014

    Creative Commons photo by berr.e on Flickr

    English is called a living language because the words and rules are constantly changing to fit a changing world. The words among and between are good examples of this flux. The simple rule has been to “use between when referring to only two things, and among when referring to more than two.” But following this rule unswervingly results in awkward constructions.

    It is correct to use between when considering one-to-one relationships, no matter the number of individuals or things, and no matter if that number is unspecified (see third example here):

    The choice for vice president is between Raynar and Kimberlie.

    We must decide between New Orleans, Galveston, and Tampa for our vacation destination.

    In this global economy, cooperation between nations is paramount.

    On the other hand, it is correct to use among to portray meanings such as these—in the midst of, in a group, or to distribute:

    The guests felt at ease because they were among friends.

    Marcia is among the elite when it comes to her management skills.

    The will divided the property among Kris, Linette, and Vaughn.

    Here is an example sentence that uses both words correctly:

    Traveling on the roads that stretched between the small towns, the reporter wandered among the field hands and asked questions.

    It’s important to stay abreast of changes in the language. Be careful, though, to avoid trendy phrases that quickly become dated. Our blog and our mid-month eTips newsletter can help.

    —Joyce Lee

    Cyborgs Don't Worry

    Wednesday, January 08, 2014

    In “Write your worries away,” Jo Haigh describes a practice of jotting down worries in a notebook as they occur. She says that this helps to reduce her worry because, “I look at it more objectively for a start, but what is really powerful is when I come back to look at it again, either in a few days, a few weeks, a few months or even years, I realise just how unimportant in real terms it was.”

    I’ve discovered something similar with to-do lists. Writing down a task takes it off my mind. Instead of trying to remember everything that needs doing, and worrying that something may be forgotten, all I have to remember is "Check the to-do list."

    Over the years, I’ve read a few best practices for to-do lists. One is to focus on the three most important items each day (to avoid feeling overwhelmed). Another is to move finished tasks to a “Done” list instead of deleting them; being able to see what’s accomplished is powerful encouragement.

    While many people like Ms. Haigh use paper journals or calendars to track things, I’m a fan of electronic ones. In part, that’s because the order of tasks can be changed easily. With many apps, reorganizing is as simple as drag-and-drop.

    I’ve also discovered the power of cross-platform task apps. Personally, I use Google Tasks to keep a record in the cloud. When I’m at my home or work desktop machine, the app is easily accessed by keyboard. On the road, I can reference the list on my tablet (which later syncs whenever wi-fi is available) or use my smart phone to quickly add tasks, edit them, or rearrange the list.

    In effect, the cloud becomes backup memory for my own brain, a cyborg relationship that allows me to focus on the work at hand. Not only does that reduce stress, as Ms. Haigh describes, it also provides a record of all I’ve accomplished today, this week, this month, this year, and so on. That’s both encouragement right now and a good source of future résumé material.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Pockafwye

    It’s a Gusher!

    Wednesday, November 20, 2013

    Let’s talk about raw petroleum for a moment. Bubbling out of the ground it’s of little real use. You can burn it for heat, if you can stand the smoke, and you can use it for lubrication, but that’s about it.

    With a little refining, though, petroleum can power an automobile, or a diesel engine, or a jet plane, or even a rocket ship! The more refined, the more powerful it becomes.

    Some people treat business writing like raw petroleum. They feel that ideas bubbling up and spilling over should be enough for communication. While it’s true that this may generate some flames, the problem is the smoke. Poor organization, unclear word choice, grammatical errors, and such make the message more difficult to comprehend.

    Writing requires refinement for best effect, and like petroleum fuels, the clearer it is the more powerful. The more time and effort spent in preparation, the more quickly and effectively a piece of writing can achieve its goals.

    Does your writing just chug along, coughing and sputtering? Refine it with the seven traits of effective communication: (1) strong ideas, (2) logical organization, (3) appropriate voice, (4) precise word choice, (5) smooth sentences, (6) correct copy, and (7) polished presentation.

    We recommend the Write for Business handbook for more information about these traits, as well as common grammar and spelling errors to avoid, an array of typical business forms, and more. Preview the table of contents to see how this handbook could help with business writing in your office. 

    —Lester Smith

    Photo from Wikimedia Commons

    Writing from Adjoining Seats

    Tuesday, October 29, 2013

    Critiquing another person’s writing can be difficult. Many people are guarded about their work, especially if they’ve not published much. Or they may be self-conscious about their spelling, grammar, or whatever. So they come to the exchange perceiving the critiquer as an adversary, or at best a hurdle to clear, before publication. If the critiquer is a supervisor, tensions may be even higher.

    One trick I’ve learned over the years is to start with the best part of their writing. It’s something I originally discovered while editing poetry, where people’s feelings are really at risk, where a harsh word can shut them up like a clam. But it applies to every sort of writing.

    When editing a poem, I might say, “This line took my breath away. It’s that good. Understand, however, that it sets a high bar. To do it justice, your other lines need to reach that same measure. Let’s look at the weakest ones and discuss how to improve them.”

    My experience has been that with the first statement, authors let me move from across the table to sit beside them, so to speak. The critique is no longer adversarial but instead companionable. They know I’m convinced they’re capable of great things and want only to help. That help is welcomed.

    It’s no great stretch to apply this same trick to critiquing a workplace document. Whether the starting point is as simple as “It’s obvious you’ve done your research; now let’s see about sorting and presenting that information as logically as possible,” or “The ideas here are impressive and generally very clear; but I’m somewhat confused in section three,” most people blossom with this sort of approach.

    And what of those more cynical souls, who have been beaten down enough that “I really like this part” makes them cringe, waiting for the “but”—the proverbial other shoe to drop? Try inverting the order. Let them bask in the compliment. Imagine saying something like, “Johnson, I’d like to take some time later to polish up your report, but for now, I just wanted to say how impressed I am with your research.” Say it in front of other people. Even the most skeptical find a public compliment difficult to dismiss.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Marc Dalmulder