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    Read This Fine Print

    Thursday, June 16, 2011

    Cover of book: Fine PrintWhen I need a break, I often pull out a favorite book and read a few pages. One such book is Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art, by James J. Kilpatrick. I enjoy the book for two reasons:

    1. I love Kilpatrick's writing voice, which you can hear in this passage: "The last sentence of a piece of writing, known in the trade as a cracker, is almost as important as the first. It is the snap of the ringmaster's whip, the slam of a young lady's door."
    2. And he offers great advice about writing. For example, one section of Fine Print serves as a usage guide, but not your typical guide that explains when to use their, there, and they're and such. Here are a few of his suggestions.

    basically: This word carries no meaning, so avoid it.

    Our company has basically two concerns… (The word adds nothing to the idea.)

    believe/think: In informal communication either one will work. But in more formal communication, Kilpatrick makes this distinction: Use believe when emotions or feelings are involved and think when you referring to reasoning and thought.

    I believe in love at first sight, but I think that it is a rare occurrence.

    due to/because of: According to Kilpatrick, most editors prefer because of in the following type of sentence.

    The meeting was canceled because of [not due to] a scheduling conflict.

    each other/one another: Use each other when referring to two people or things and one another for more than two.

    Mr. Abbott and Ms. Laird always interrupt each other.
    The accountants help one another during tax season.

    envy/jealousy: Envy what belongs to someone else and be jealous of your own possessions.

    ACME Manufacturing is envious of our production schedule.
    We become jealous of our plans when other companies inquire about them.

    got: According to Kilpatrick, got is a "belch of a word" that should be avoided.

    She received or has [not got] the report from the legal department.

    more important/more importantly: Kilpatrick prefers more important or of more importance when used as the beginning of a sentence. To his mind, more importantly sounds "puffed up and pretentious."

    learning experience: As Kilpatrick states, "Is there any experience that is not in some sense a learning experience?" It's best to avoid this phrase.

    lot/lots: Either of these words may work well in casual conversation ("We collected lots of shells at the beach"), but avoid them in formal communication.

    might/may: Here's one way to decide which one to use. Might suggests more doubt than may.

    We might win the contract if we change our pricing.
    We may get the contract soon.

    only: Watch where you place this word. Rather than "The friends were only texting in the evenings" (they were texting then and doing nothing else) try "The friends were texting only in the evenings" (they weren't texting at other times). Rather than "He only had four hits in August" (nothing else happened to him in August) try "He had only four hits in August" (his hits in August were minimal).

    over/more than: In formal communication, use over to mean "on top of" as in "Drizzle the olive oil over the potatoes." And use more than when you talking about a period of time: "She has managed the kitchen for more than 20 years."

    try and/try to: We know what is meant in this statement: "If I just try and eliminate the sweets, I will fit into my favorite dress." But what the weight watcher really means is "If I just try to forget the sweets, I will fit into my favorite dress."

    Final Thought
    Get a copy of Fine Print if you are a writer by trade or if writing is a major part of your job. Then enjoy the book in little sips as I do. Ten or fifteen minutes of Kilpatrick is always enjoyable and instructive.

    —Dave Kemper