Write for Business - Blog

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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    The Tao Te Google

    Tuesday, December 03, 2013

    In the early days of the Internet, anyone with a modicum of HTML knowledge could game the search engines. Search-engine optimization (SEO) experts popped up right and left, charging hefty sums to place their clients at the head of search results. They crammed client pages with search keywords—in titles, meta tags, headings, links, and image descriptions—sometimes even as invisible (white on white) text on the page. When Google came into being, with its strategy of ranking pages by number and quality of inbound links, SEO “black hats” gamed that system by daisy-chaining sites in link-swapping deals.

    Search engines got smarter. Their algorithms started actually punishing such tactics by sending abusive pages to the back of the line. In response, SEO pros studied the changed rules, revised their strategies, and charged more money to retune client sites. An arms race began between evolving search engines and SEO experts.

    In such a situation, it should be obvious who wins. You can play catch-up only so long—especially with a giant with legs the length of Google’s—before you fall behind. And where Google goes, other search engines follow. As a result, the “black hat” SEO specialist is dying out.

    Many things play a part today in a page’s search engine ranking, but all fit under one umbrella: Quality Content. If a page is well written, search engines will recognize its content by natural variations on key terms and phrases. If a page is well organized, with appropriate headings and graphics, search engines will note that as well. If a page is helpful, search engines will note inbound links from other sites of good quality. But if a page tries to cheat, it will suffer.

    If I may borrow a section from the Tao te Ching

    Fill your bowl to the brim
    and it will spill.
    Keep sharpening your knife
    and it will blunt.
    Chase after money and security
    and your heart will never unclench.
    Care about people's approval
    and you will be their prisoner.

    Do your work, then step back.
    The only path to serenity.

    In other words, focus on a true purpose, and the results will come.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Beatnik Photos

    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

    Three Secrets to Business Writing: Location, Location, Location

    Wednesday, September 25, 2013

    Q. “What are the three most important things about real estate?”

    A. “Location, location, location.”

    In real estate only one thing is preeminently important. But business writing is a multifaceted endeavor, in which location can mean different things.

    Location as Perspective

    A common weakness of business writing is a focus on the writer instead of the reader. That’s only natural: as writers, we are in our heads, striving to push a message out. But unless we can connect with a reader, the effort is pointless.

    Think of a time you’ve tried to navigate around a Web site, or through some instruction manual, only to be frustrated. The trouble wasn’t that the writer had nothing to say, but rather that it wasn’t expressed well for you, the reader. To succeed, writers have to put themselves in a reader’s position.

    Here’s a recent pointed example. A young man emailed a résumé to a prospective employer, only to be chastised and rejected because he’d used the email address at his current employer, and he sent it at 10 a.m. on a workday.

    Maybe he was on a vacation day. And maybe his work email address is his only email address. It doesn’t matter. All that does matter is the reader’s perception that the message was sent on during work hours from a company machine.

    Or consider two solicitations I’ve received today from editorial-service companies. Both businesses seem legitimate, with experience in the field. But the first solicitation contains several random acts of capitalization, and the second displays a prominent dangling modifier. Consequently, neither solicitation shows an awareness of me, its reader, a member of a publishing company that relies on accuracy in such things.

    Location of Thesis

    For best effectiveness, the thesis (main point) of your message should take a different location depending upon your purpose.  Good-news messages call for a direct, up-front, SEA approach. Bad news calls for an indirect BEBE approach with the thesis delayed. Persuasive messages call for an indirect AIDA approach, in which the thesis comes after groundwork is laid. See our explanation of “Trait 2: Logical Organization” for more definitions of these three approaches.

    Location as Medium

    So you’ve identified your reader, and you’ve decided on a logical organization. It’s time to determine the best medium for your message. Our June 4, 2012, eTips newsletter discusses informal, semiformal, and informal media in “When Medium Is Well Done: Choosing the Correct Medium for Your Message.” Whether you choose text message, email, personal letter, form letter, slide presentation, report, or some other document will depend upon both your intended reader and the content of the message itself.

    Summation

    Practice viewing things from a reader’s perspective. Notice when you receive a message that leaves you confused, and puzzle out how it could have been better presented. Pay attention to messages that work well, and use them as models. Consider SEA, BEBE, and AIDA each time you begin writing. And choose the best medium to deliver your messages. These “location” practices will pay off in more “real estate” as a business writer.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Category5 TV

    Why MBA-Bound Johnny Can’t Think

    Friday, June 28, 2013

    “I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.”

    ― Flannery O'Connor

    In “Why MBA-bound Johnny can’t write,” Michael Skapinker reports about an MBA professor forced by his dean to drop a weekly writing exercise from his classes. Students objected so strongly to writing a one-page weekly memo that the dean conceded.

    Their reasoning? According to Skapinker, “The students said that in business today they did not need to know how to write. ‘E-mails and tweets are the medium of exchange. So,’ they argued, ‘the constant back-and-forth gives one an opportunity to correct misunderstandings caused by unclear thinking and writing.’”

    I’m stunned at that rationale. Business leaders report regularly that unclear thinking and writing cost money. The bigger an organization, the more time-consuming and costly that miscommunication becomes. Writing skills save money by communicating accurately. They also help focus thinking—as both the Flannery O’Connor quotation above and the students themselves indicate.

    I’m even more stunned that a business-school dean seems ignorant of this need for clear communication. For students to dictate—through the dean—what their professor will teach to prepare them for business, seems to me the very definition of backward.

    On the other hand, it may help to explain why the value of an MBA continues to erode.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Keith Williamson

    A Quagmire of Idioms

    Thursday, May 30, 2013

    Business has gone global, so your writing may as likely be read by someone in Tokyo or Berlin as in New York or Chicago. Keep that in mind when you write and edit documents, and strive for the clearest, most direct language possible. One particular pitfall to avoid is the use of idioms.

    Idioms are figurative language, colorful and descriptive but easily confusing if taken literally. The trouble is that they are so common we don’t even think about using “ballpark figure” or “making a cold call” until we receive a confused response from a client or customer in another country.

    Imagine you are communicating with a partner for whom English is a second language. You send the following idiom-packed email. Think about the literal translation.

    We asked our bean counter to crunch the numbers, and we believe that if we keep our noses to the grindstone, we can get the ball rolling on production within a month. Then, with the right backing, we should be able to float a loan, and with social media’s word-of-mouth to plug the product, we’re confident it will take off and sell like hotcakes. Our bottom line should be in the black within six months. We know you’ve been through the wringer with this project, but if you stick it out you’ll rake in a substantial bang for your buck. So please don’t throw cold water on the deal by pulling out before we can break even.

    Even between colleagues whose first language is English, idioms like those above are too casual for formal business correspondence. The following rewrite conveys the same ideas with more clarity.

    We asked our accountant to go over the financial figures, and we believe that with some hard work we can be ready to begin production within a month. Then, with help from investors, we should be able to obtain a loan and begin using social media to advertise. This will provide a sales boost resulting in a solid profit within six months. We realize this project has been difficult, but your participation is critical to our success, and if you stay with us you should see a good return on your investment.

    Of course some idioms have become such a part of language that it’s difficult to entirely avoid them, and others are pretty clear in themselves. The best rule is to use precise language and keep your possible readers in mind. Do that, and your message will hit a home run.

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by Phillie Casablanca