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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    Business Writing in the Information Age: The 2020 Workforce

    Wednesday, February 08, 2012

    More than half of the U.S. workforce will be independent by 2020, according to a forecast by consulting firm MBO Partners. That's 70 million people, compared to a reported 16 million today. Members of this expanding independent workforce include

    • people with fixed-term contracts,
    • freelance consultants,
    • people working through temp agencies,
    • on-call workers, and
    • business owners with fewer than five employees.

    Nor is this increasing shift simply a matter of a depressed economy. Among those currently independent, the vast majority say they intend to stay so.

    The 2020 forecast makes four further predictions:

    1. The future workforce will reflect a "growing demand for experts and seasoned skilled workers," including people aged 55 and up, who are moving their on-the-job knowledge to independent careers.
    2. "Independence [will be] fueled as new social communities and collaborative technologies continue to rise."
    3. State and federal governments will respond with "increased regulation and tighter enforcement" of labor laws.
    4. "Independent workers will require a 'passport for independence'" to carry benefits such as retirement and healthcare from project to project, employer to employer.

    Seasoned Skills
    Obviously, one of the "seasoned skills" mentioned is clear communication, especially given increased "social communities and collaborative technologies." Writing skills will be especially valuable. While increased bandwidth and interconnectedness will certainly improve videoconferencing, scheduling meetings won't be any easier (especially across time zones). Nor will need for textual documentation decrease.

    As people use cloud computing and shared applications more extensively—working on project documents at whatever time best fits their schedule—they'll undoubtedly leave notes for one another, connecting in real time only for brainstorming or clarification. Naturally, the better the written communication, the less the need for clarification.

    Implications for Individuals
    Implications for individual workers are clear: Learn to communicate well, including in writing, and adapt to evolving technologies.

    Implications for Businesses
    Businesses will also need to prepare, of course. Beyond putting new technologies in place, they'll need to establish best practices for communicating with this independent workforce. Some of their own full-time employees may become independent contractors, so training invested in them will pay off in the long run.

    As Ben Cashnocha points out in "When Talent Can Easily Find New Opportunity, How Do You Retain Talent?" by fostering employee skills—even knowing those employees may then move on—companies encourage an alumni spirit, create goodwill ambassadors, and expand their own business connections. Weigh the cost of training against these benefits, together with the reduced overhead of a smaller office, and the equation looks pretty simple.

    This then is a glimpse at the working world of the near future. The Information Age is truly dawning. It's an era of networking and communication. Are you ready?

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Ross Angus

    Thin Is In, for Business Writing and Presentation

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012

    Take a look at the Beatles in 1964, arriving in New York for their first U.S. television appearance (on the Ed Sullivan Show). Note those skinny ties and narrow jacket lapels. Now skip over the broad sweep of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s to today: Thin is back in style.

    That's as true of business writing as of haberdashery. Text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook have driven us to write leaner copy. People just don't have time for lengthy messages. With its PLAIN Writing Act, even the U.S. government is driving this push for succinctness.

    Happily, the shift to leanness is also making information presentation increasingly visual. Graphic elements like headings and bullet lists have become commonly accepted for highlighting key points, of course. But well-designed infographics are used more and more to make complex data digestible. Further, with increased bandwidth available, online audio and video are replacing text for quick consumption of information. (I recently repaired my washing machine, for example, after watching a home-appliance store's YouTube video.)

    Given the rise of smartphones and tablet computers, this trend toward "thin" is only going to continue, especially online. Short text is helpful text. Multimedia options that help viewers quickly find what they need (as opposed to multimedia dress-up) will be rewarded with more visitors.

    For a further glimpse of this slim-lined future, take a look at HTML5. It's a match made for mobile computing. The days of Flash-heavy or (heaven forbid) Flash-only sites are numbered.

    If you're writing for the Web, or anyhow influencing your company's Web presence, and you're not already browsing with a mobile device, it's high time to start. It's the only way to really understand how well your site works for your visitors, or doesn't. You may also want to begin chanting this mantra: "Thin is in."

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by JonoMueller

    What Was She Thinking?

    Thursday, October 13, 2011

    I have a friend who has a quick temper and a quicker computer. She will read something that makes her angry and dash off a quick e-mail reviling the writer, or post a scathing comment on the writer's blog. With one quick click, the message is sent on to shock the writer - frequently someone she doesn't even know. Needless to say, there have been repercussions. She has lost business and even friends, just because she doesn't take time to cool down before sending.

    This is one of the great perils of our electronic age - the gut response. Now we can react to anything immediately, through e-mail, blogging, and social media such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and the rest, all promoting - nay, encouraging - instant communication with no muss…no fuss…(no brains). We have become doers in lieu of thinkers, sometimes in the worst way. And in the process, we risk embarrassing ourselves and alienating others.

    When communicating with people - especially in business - we need to slow down and think a little more. Before hitting "send" on that irritated e-mail, consider the possible results. Do you want that client to believe you think he's an idiot? Probably not. Yet even the smallest negative word can carry big consequences.

    Therein lies the crux of the matter: Even small words carry power. They can hurt, insult, and destroy; or they can compliment, placate, and inspire. So choose your words with great thought, and weigh them with utmost care. Let your message sit for an hour. Take a break and come back to re-read your words with a fresh mind. Only after you are certain you are sending the message you really want to convey should you click "send."

    - Joyce Lee

    Photo by Zinaad

    Writing in Cars with Boys

    Thursday, October 06, 2011

    Have you ever bought a used car?

    Recently my youngest daughter asked me to look over a used car she was considering buying. The dealer's salesperson smiled and walked us over to it, saying, "Great body. Not a scratch on her." I got in, started the engine, looked over the interior - all in good shape. I got back out, opened the hood and looked at seals, hoses, and so on, then bent down to look at the tires and underbody. The wheel wells were rusted completely through. When I asked the dealer's mechanic about repairing them, he took a look and replied, "The whole underbody is rusted out. I wouldn't feel comfortable selling this car to your daughter."

    Now for the other side of the picture. One of the first cars my wife and I owned was a used Buick. Mechanically, that car was wonderful. Cosmetically, it was a mess. The paint was peeling off the roof. The hood had been replaced, and its color didn't match the rest of the car. The rear bumper was falling off and had to be held up with a rope tied inside the trunk. My wife was embarrassed to be seen in the thing, but I loved it: Good on gas, dependable starter even in the coldest weather, a smooth ride, and so on.

    Those two cars represent different attitudes about business writing.

    Writing teachers often focus on grammar training, punctuation practice, spelling, and correct word usage, as if these were what make writing perform. But this is like paying attention to how a car looks without considering how it runs. A great paint job and leather upholstery do no good if the underbody has rusted through or the engine is broken.

    Business leaders often focus on content to the exclusion of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and correct usage, arguing that the only thing that really matters is communication. But this is like driving my old junker back and forth to work. Other people really do care how your ride looks.

    Having been a writing teacher, I understand that grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word usage are easiest to grade. Ideas, organization, and voice require more expertise and energy. Working in business, I also understand that communication and delivery speed are essential. Devoting time to proofreading can seem counterproductive. (And maybe we still have some slight resentment toward those teachers who marked up all our papers in school.)

    The truth is, of course, that we need both. A piece of writing must be well designed and mechanically sound to communicate. It must have sound ideas, a logical organization, and an appropriate voice for its audience. But it must also look good if we are to be taken seriously. This is where editing and proofreading become important - to ensure correctness in spelling, punctuation, grammar, word choice, and sentence construction. Page design (use of headings, columns, lists, graphics, and so on) is also important, of course, to help readers quickly comprehend your message.

    You can find tips about all of these things by using the search box on this site, and more in-depth information in our print publications. You might consider these your toolboxes. Here's wishing you the best on your writing journey.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo by Ross Griff

    No Passion in the World...

    Wednesday, September 21, 2011

    H.G. Wells Quotation with Alteration Marks

    Do you often have to write for a supervisor? Or are you, perhaps, a supervisor for whom other people have to write? In either case, it's worth noting that not every textual change is a judgment of the writer's ability. Often, changes are made because of a sense of voice. And voice is something unique to each of us.

    In my own work, sometimes I receive and edit text from other writers, and sometimes I have to submit my own writing to superiors. In both cases, textual changes occur. Sometimes it's a matter of correcting errors. (No one can write, edit, and proofread all at the same time. That's why publishing companies have writers, editors, and proofreaders, each focused on a different step.) But just as often, a technically correct piece may be adjusted for tone, perhaps to better match the company's voice.

    Certainly it can be exasperating to pour your best work into a piece of writing and then have it changed - perhaps dramatically. We often hear from office writers worried that their jobs might be in jeopardy because of how much their text gets edited. My best advice comes from the Tao te Ching, "Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity." Do your best. Let it go. Fretting never makes things better. Calm - on the other hand - definitely does.

    For supervisors reviewing other people's writing, I'd point out again the H.G. Wells quotation above. It hangs above my own desk as a reminder not to change things just for the sake of change. If you do make changes to a draft, be aware of how it reflects upon the writer who submitted it. If the changes are to correct errors, make sure the original writer understands those errors, to avoid them in the future. (This may mean firming up your own understanding of the grammar or punctuation rule involved. I work full time in publishing and frequently have to look things up again.) If you can't explain why a change is being made, ask yourself whether it's really necessary.

    I suspect that's what H.G. Wells would ask about my red pen marks above.

    - Lester Smith