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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    Oh Those Meetings...

    Wednesday, July 27, 2011

    I recently sat in on a meeting the made my eyes droop and my toes curl. The purpose of the meeting was clear—it was the regular assembly of a civic organization with established goals—yet it dragged on, veering from topic to topic and back again. One member was consistently breaking into the discussion with information, relevant or not, and what could have been a one-hour meeting was doubled.

    This isn't an isolated incident, of course. All too often meetings fall prey to the random commentator, eating into the other attendees' time (even extending their workday). However, when calling or chairing a meeting, there are a few things you can do to avoid it crumbling into a disorganized, inefficient mess.

    First, decide on a clear purpose for the meeting. This might sound obvious, but you'd be surprised how many meetings wander into nether regions, failing to work toward specific outcomes. Decide what actions should come out of the meeting for each subject, and don't let a topic go by unresolved. Focus on those outcomes, and you can steer rambling speakers back on track.

    Next, prepare an agenda. This includes a listing of each topic to be discussed, from most to least important (the way a news story is written). This ensures that should the meeting have to break up early, you will at least have covered the essentials. If possible, distribute the agenda to attendees well before the meeting, and allow them to suggest additions to be added where appropriate. A clear agenda, reviewed beforehand, will help to focus attention item by item, preventing disruption by off-topic comments.

    At the beginning of the meeting, set a time limit on discussion per topic. This can help to keep the more talkative from rambling on. You might even bring a timer to help the group stick to that limit. By the way, this is also a good idea for any speakers invited—let them know beforehand that you would like them to work within a specific time frame. With this done, stick to the schedule as closely as possible. The participants will thank you.

    For a regular meeting of an ongoing civic, charitable, or non-profit organization, you might consider adding the topics “old business” and “new business” at the end, allowing participants to bring up their topics in an orderly fashion. Otherwise, you'll find random topics thrown in throughout the meeting. This way, you can simply defer non-relevant discussions until you get through your main business.

    Finally, and most importantly, if you are in charge of the meeting, Take Charge. Tactfully steer non sequiturs and off-topic comments back to the subject being discussed. That is the true role of a meeting chairperson—the ability to keep things on track.

    If you have further questions on how to run a meeting, you can't do wrong by referring to Robert's Rules of Order, the quintessential reference for any meeting. Although developed in 1876 by Brigadier General Henry Martyn Robert, who was disgusted with the lack of order in military and governmental meetings, it is still excellent and has been revised to reflect modern meeting practices. You can check the official site, www.robertsrules.org, for some basics.

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by Brett Jordan

    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

    The Keys to Effective Bragging

    Tuesday, June 07, 2011

    Walt Whitman once said, "If you done it, it ain't bragging." That may be true, but while it's important to keep your light shining, self-promotion done wrong can be obnoxious and off-putting, a detriment to your career.

    When you have to promote yourself, whether to earn a raise or a promotion, or simply to establish credibility, how can you do so without seeming a braggart? Ah, my friend, there are ways.

    First of all, always be professional in your "gasconade." By this, I mean focus on details, facts, numbers. As Walter Brennan used to say in The Guns of Will Sonnett, "No brag. Just fact." Did your logistics plan boost efficiency? Give measurement details and statistics. Is your sales record impressive? Present the numbers.

    Next, employ positive yet modest wording. Avoid superlatives like "the best," which suggest an unattractive competitiveness. Again, refer to the facts. It's okay to remind a supervisor of situations where your work or ideas were instrumental in improving some aspect of the company. Explain clearly and precisely how you contributed.

    Finally, remember to be a little humble. You don't have to be all "Aw, shucks," but don't make a big, noisy deal out of your achievements. (Let others do that for you.) Give credit to other people who contributed, making it clear that while you proposed an effective idea or did the bulk of the work, there were others who helped. Teamwork is highly prized in business, and graciousness in giving credit actually makes you look even better.

    Self-promotion can be effective when its purpose is not perceived as "puffing you up," but simply making clear your strengths and contributions. It's just one more way effective communication plays an essential role in business.

    —Joyce B. Lee

    Photo by Florin Draghici

    Multiple Targets, One Bullet

    Wednesday, March 16, 2011

    When I was a child, one of my favorite stories involved Davy Crockett (or maybe it was Daniel Boone) coming upon an enraged bear and a deadly cougar in the same instant. There wasn't time to shoot one creature and reload his musket in time to shoot the other. So he fired at a rock between the two, thereby splitting the bullet and dealing with both threats at once.

    As an adult, I find the adage of "killing two birds with one stone" equally appealing. Time is short, and it's valuable, so if something can do double duty, or even more, it is to be praised.

    In that spirit, I'd like to recommend something that can improve your business writing, provide relaxation, improve your thinking, and build a personal legacy. That seemingly magical tool is journal (or "diary") writing.

    Before you say, "I don't have time," or argue that you don't have anything interesting to write, let me emphasize that journaling will enhance your business writing and sharpen your critical thinking. As a professional writer myself, I can guarantee that practice is the single most important aspect of gaining skill. Journaling will absolutely improve your overall writing day by day, week by week, and year by year. It will also perk up your critical thinking, because writing is basically thinking on paper. As you write your journal, you will discover thoughts within yourself, and explore their validity. Those things are as inevitable as they are valuable.

    But remember, writing a journal is also relaxing, a chance to get rid of some daily stress, letting it flow out through your fingers (whether by pencil, pen, or keyboard) and onto the page. Further, it will provide a record of your thoughts for you to review a year from now or later, for your family to treasure in years to come.

    You might even opt to post your journal, or at least some entries, as a blog. Many CEOs do just that, gaining all the benefits of journaling listed above, with the bonus of strengthening their brand. Do a Google search for "CEO blogs" to discover just how many there are and to learn what those CEOs are posting.

    I hope this message has convinced you to try journaling yourself. But if nothing else, it has given me chance to further practice my own writing, explore my own thoughts, relax a bit, leave a record behind, and build UpWrite Press's brand. See how easy that was?

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by randomlife

    Writing to Explore

    Wednesday, February 09, 2011

    Much of business writing is of the "fill in the blanks" variety. Your company may have standard templates for memos, letters, and reports. The actual content can be organized and filled in by using an SEA, a BEBE, or an AIDA format. That makes planning and execution of common tasks trouble-free and efficient.

    But what if you need to write something more unusual or more personal? What if you feel uncertain of your grasp of the topic or of its reception? Sometimes taking the time for exploratory writing is actually the quickest, most energy-efficient way to complete a writing task.

    Writing expert Peter Elbow compares these two approaches to growing and cooking. In the first, standard templates and forms of organization provide a framework for your piece of writing to grow on. (Imagine a rose bush climbing a trellis, for example.) In the second, ingredients are simmered together until something delicious results.

    Elbow's suggestion in times of uncertainty is to freewrite. Freewriting, he explains, is about turning off the critical-editor part of the brain and just getting words down, ignoring errors in spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and so on. He suggests actually practicing this skill two or three times a week for an hour at a sitting, to develop your own natural writing ability and voice.

    Faced with a tough writing assignment, Elbow recommends a special application of freewriting. In Writing Without Teachers, he presents a scenario in which you have four hours to get a tough piece of writing completed. Elbow suggests spending the first 45 minutes just spilling thoughts on paper, then 15 minutes rereading and thinking about what you've written. That's one hour down. In the second hour, he suggests doing the same (45 minutes freewriting and 15 minutes evaluating), but starting with your new understanding. In the third hour, he suggests freewriting again for 45 minutes to thoroughly explore what the first two hours have revealed, then using the hour's last 15 minutes to plan your final draft - which will itself fill the final hour.

    If you're like me, that approach may seem daunting. I know from experience that freewriting can be tough to start. We are so results-focused that writing to explore looks like time wasted. On the other hand, I also know how effectively freewriting - even just a journal or diary - can improve our writing and thinking skills. That improvement translates directly into time saved.

    Have you had experience with freewriting? What effects has it had on your own business writing? Are you courageous enough to try Elbow's four-hour scenario? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo by Sabrina Campagna