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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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    Online Writers, Give Readers a Break

    Friday, January 18, 2013

    I’ve been professionally publishing for nearly three decades now. (Where has the time gone?) And over those years, I’ve written texts from just a few paragraphs long to about 400 pages. Once I even edited a manuscript just shy of a million words. (Oh, right. That’s where the time went.)

    More recently, of course, much of my writing has been online. And I’m noticing how essential short paragraphs are in this venue. In a print document, six or seven sentences may make a good paragraph. But online the maximum seems to be no more than three to five.

    To prove the point, let’s consider a bit of Americana, the first paragraph of Mark Twain’s nonfiction account of Life on the Mississippi.

    THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

    That works fine in print, but not so well online, where the reader drowns in a field of gray. Let’s try the same text with a few well-placed breaks.

    THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable.

    Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames.

    No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude.

    The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

    Don’t you find that easier to read? The difference is just three paragraph breaks. Nothing else is changed.

    Now maybe you don’t maintain a blog. But you probably have a Facebook page or a LinkedIn account. And you certainly send emails. All of those can benefit from a few well-placed paragraph breaks.

    And if you ever have reason to post a block of information from a printed company document online, consider the lesson of Mark Twain’s paragraph. Adding a few paragraph breaks may actually enhance the flow of information. What’s best for print isn’t always best for etexts, and vice versa. 

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by USACEpublicaffairs

    Parallel Writing for Clarity

    Monday, October 15, 2012

    Unparallel construction uses words, phrases, and sometimes clauses that are inconsistent in form. This inconsistency can result in jarring, confusing, choppy writing. Here are some examples and corrections of unparallel writing.

    • Verb forms. The verb forms in a series should be consistent.

    Unparallel: We emailed, faxed, and had texted our customers to alert them of the change.
    (Verb forms shift from past to past-perfect tense.)

    Parallel: We emailed, faxed, and texted our customers to alert them of the change.
    (All verbs are past tense.)

    Famous example: “I came; I saw; I conquered.” —Julius Caesar

    • Phrases. The types of phrases used in a series ought to be consistent.

    Unparallel: After networking all day, talking to many customers, and then to seal several big deals, the team was tired.
    (Verbals shift from gerunds to an infinitive.)

    Parallel: After networking all day, talking to many customers, and then sealing several big deals, the team was tired.
    (All verbal phrases use gerunds.)

    Famous example: “[G]overnment of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” —Abraham Lincoln

    • Clauses. When two or more clauses are used to make an overall point, parallel construction can add emphasis and clarity to the message.

    Unparallel: The board met every day for two weeks, they would pore over the financial reports, and the members had to make some hard decisions.
    (The clauses use different subjects and verb forms.)

    Parallel: The board met every day for two weeks, they pored over the financial reports, and they made some hard decisions.
    (Using parallel subjects and verb forms unifies the three clauses into a strong point.)

    Famous example: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” —Benjamin Franklin

    Keeping elements parallel gives them equal weight, creating balance and rhythm in your writing, which sends a clear message to your reader.

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by far closer

    Big Trouble in Little Commas

    Tuesday, September 25, 2012

    Consider the little things that often cause trouble—the speck in your eye, the pebble in your shoe, the drip in your sink, and so on. In writing, one such trouble is the omission or misplacement of commas. Here are quick reminders of three places commas should be used.

    • Following introductory clauses and phrases: Commas are needed to set these off from the rest of a sentence.

      Example introductory clause: Although we had gone over the company’s requirements, the advertising campaign fell woefully short of our needs.

      Example introductory Phrase: By my reckoning, we needed to obtain at least three more sales to finish the year in the black.
    • Between independent clauses: A comma is needed to separate two or more complete thoughts in one sentence. Place the comma before the coordinating conjunction.

      Example 1: Madeleine spoke about making the office more environmentally friendly, and then she introduced our new energy plan.

      Example 2: You can elect to go with the company insurance plan, or you can select the HMA option.
    • Around nonrestrictive modifiers: Use commas to separate modifying phrases that aren’t critical to understanding the sentence.

      Example 1: Chris introduced the new hire, a recent college graduate, to the rest of the team.

      Example 2: The contract, which had been extensively revised, was finally signed.

    Want more? Check out page 258 of Write for Business for more information on using commas to set off different elements in sentences.

    —Joyce Lee

    Image by Brett Jordan

    Augment and Supplement, Spider-Man Style

    Friday, July 27, 2012

    In the first three Spider-Man movies (2002, 2004, and 2007), Peter Parker's super powers were due entirely to a radioactive spider's bite. In the most recent film, our hero's enhancements are more in keeping with his comic-book origins. This makes them perfect for comparing the words augment and supplement.

    Augment
    In the comic series, Peter Parker's natural strength, speed, and agility are augmented by the radioactive spider's bite. In other words, they are boosted. They already existed, but have been made better.

    Supplement
    The comic-book Peter Parker was a boy genius before becoming a super hero. After the bite, he used his chemistry and engineering knowledge to create wrist-mounted web shooters. He even developed different web formulas for different purposes. These web shooters supplemented his spider abilities. In other words, the devices added something new to his crime-fighting repertoire.

    But what about his "spider sense"?
    It's debatable whether the radioactive spider's bite augmented Parker's human senses or supplemented them with an entirely new ability. I tend to think of his "spider sense" as a supplement. What's your opinion?

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by rayand

    Is Led a Word?

    Tuesday, July 10, 2012

    One common search-engine query that lands business writers on the UpWrite Press site is the question, "Is led a word?" The short answer is "Yes." Led (short e sound) is the correct past tense of the verb lead (long e sound). Consider these examples.

    • Today I will lead my robot army to the zoo.
    • Yesterday I led them to the amusement park.
    • My robots are made of lead.

    Any spelling confusion likely rises from that final usage. Lead with a short e sound is a soft, dense metal that is great for shielding from radiation. It is, however, poisonous. In English, the same word is used for the graphite in pencils.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Ryusuke Seto