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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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    A Whole New Approach to Business

    Wednesday, January 26, 2011

    Daniel Pink, in his excellent book A Whole New Mind, proposes that we are entering (or already in) the Conceptual Age, in which businesses need to promote creativity and divergent thinking in order to prosper. The Conceptual Age? What happened to the Information Age? Haven't countless companies established great wealth, and millions of individuals established worthy careers, based on knowledge and information technology? Yes they have. Thank you very much.

    But according to Pink, three factors are severely weakening the value of the information-based model in this country: (1) Asia, (2) automation, and (3) abundance.

    • Asia: As you know, more and more information entry and retrieval work is being outsourced to Asian countries (read: India) because it can be done so much more cheaply there. That is only going to become more common.

    • Automation: As you also know, technology works so quickly and efficiently we mere humans have no chance when it comes to working with information. As Pink reports, because of technology, even safe careers such as law, accounting, finance, and "mainstream" programming are no longer that safe.

    • Abundance: Pink's third factor, abundance, is interesting. He claims U.S. consumers have so much (because of the wealth generated during the Information Age) that we are no longer content with simply purchasing more stuff. Instead, we are becoming more interested in products that are truly innovative and/or have added value - beauty, worthiness, meaning, etc. Such products go beyond mere function.

    According to Pink's thesis, then, existing and start-up companies need to move past the literal and logical thinking that has driven the Information Age, and instead champion originality and innovation. The subtitle of Pink's book is "Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future." Brain theory, of course, tells us that the right hemisphere of the brain controls our ability to think creatively.

    Final Thought: You may work in a company that has already gone in this direction. (Many dot com companies are truly innovative.) If so, we'd like to hear what are you doing. Or we'd simply like to hear what you think of Pink's thesis? Do U.S. businesses need to become more conceptually based?

    - Dave Kemper

    Photo by digitalbob8.

    Chop Wood. Carry Water.

    Wednesday, January 19, 2011

    Comedians sometimes complain that the only way to get a bank loan is to prove you don't need one. This suggests a sad irony of life: Need often frightens away its own potential salvation, while riches draw more of the same.

    When I landed my first job in publishing a few decades ago, it was after some experience in other lines of work, none of them really a good fit. I'd been a failure at both baking and phlebotomy. Soldiering and practical nursing were better, but each left me feeling uncomfortable. I had more success with sheet-metal work and welding but couldn't imagine making a career of them. So when I began to get paid for writing and editing, it seemed a dream come true, something to hold on to with both fists.

    It's difficult, however, to type with fists.

    Which is to say, the tension to keep that job made me a less-than-ideal employee. I got my work done (and then some) but didn't always communicate well with other departments. All too often I worried about how upper management perceived me as much as about my current project. And although I always tried to project politeness, I'm sure some tension showed through. It certainly kept me from being as successful as I could have been. In a nutshell, my worry about keeping the job sometimes interfered with doing the job.

    I'm chagrined to admit that it wasn't until some years later, when this tension came to a head, that things changed. Utterly frustrated at a conflict with a colleague, I suddenly recalled something my father used to say after a particularly hard day at the factory: "I was looking for a job when I came here." For some reason, those words had never made sense before. Now their insight relieved the pressure. While I certainly wanted to keep my job, I needn't be desperate about it. There are always other options.

    At the same time, I began to understand that employment is merely an illusion of security. Let me put it this way: People who run a business are well aware that the wolf is just outside the door; people who work for them forget the wolf is two doors away at best.

    The only rational response is "Chop wood. Carry water," as the old Zen proverb says. Or as the Tao te Ching puts it, "Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity." I began to focus on the work and let go of worries about my future at the company. I watched for ways to be helpful, viewing team success as more important than individual stardom. As a result, my own value to the company improved, and my employment actually became more secure.

    You'll recall that this little essay opened with a sad irony of life. But from another perspective, it's a helpful truth: Just as people instinctively shy from desperate negativity, they are naturally drawn to openhanded positivism. And as this writer has learned, it's much easier to type with open hands.

    What has your own experience been like in this regard? Do you have any other advice to share with people who might be struggling to keep a job in business or writing? We'd love to hear your comments.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo by roman.petruniak

    Putting the "Write" Foot Forward

    Wednesday, January 05, 2011

    Photo of men's dress shoesJoe Navarro worked 25 years for the FBI as a counterintelligence special agent and is now a consultant for three other government offices in Washington. A specialist in body language, he says he has been stunned to discover just how ill-equipped businesspeople are to present themselves effectively in person. (You can read more about Navarro in "Secrets Of Nonverbal Communication" by Susan Adams at Forbes.com.)

    I have a similar feeling about business writing. During 25 years in publishing, I've met many brilliant businesspeople who simply don't write well. The difference is that while few of us were taught anything about body language in school, writing has long been a subject of study, with grades attached. Unfortunately, writing in school has often involved literary theme papers, which may seem far from down-to-earth matters of business.

    As a result, many otherwise brilliant businesspeople are actually disdainful of good writing. If the message gets across, they may argue, what do a few grammar and spelling errors matter, let alone matters of style? This rationale misses two important points.

    First, every bit of unnecessary energy a reader expends to comprehend a message is money lost. We all know how physically draining it can be just to clear an e-mail inbox. Does this message need my attention? Does it give me all the information I need for action, or will I have to request clarification and watch for a second message to arrive? Exactly what is this writer trying to say? Poorly written e-mail reduces productivity. So do poorly designed PowerPoint presentations, and reports, and instruction manuals, and so on. Good writing saves money.

    Second, writing errors are like stains on a tie or spinach in the teeth. It's difficult to pay attention to a message when blemishes in grammar and spelling keep drawing our attention away. It's even more difficult to see the sense of a message when issues of style cloud the surface. Poor writing has its own cost.

    Navarro mentions scuffed shoes as a common faux pas among men, in particular. An otherwise professional suit of clothing can be undermined by this one area of neglect. Surely business writing deserves a bit of polish as well.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by nitecruise

    To Build a Fire

    Wednesday, September 15, 2010

    If you've never read Jack London's short story, "To Build a Fire," take a moment to do so now. I'm about to give away the ending, and you should definitely experience the tale beforehand. It's just over 7,000 words, well worth a few minutes of your time.

    Finished? I hope you agree that it's a powerful tale, well told. Interestingly, however, when London originally published the story, he wrote an ending in which the man endures and lives, just as the dog does in this version.

    On the surface, that earlier ending would seem appropriate for a tale about survival. But doesn't the version in which the man gives up just short make the point all the more convincingly? That's the ending that makes you want to keep going yourself, much more than "happily ever after."

    Writing itself is frequently an endurance game. That's especially true of large or difficult projects. Our first time writing a business plan can seem overwhelming. Similarly, composing a bad-news letter to a valued client can seem so painful we just want to delay. In such cases, the path to success is often just a matter of taking the first step and keeping going. Take each step you can see at the moment, and the next one becomes evident. Eventually you're out of the wilderness; you've reached your goal.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo by arcticroute.com

    The Lost Sale You Never Saw

    Wednesday, September 08, 2010

    Every day UpWrite Press staff members spend some time trolling the Web for business-writing articles to pass along via Twitter. Few things make us happier than pointing out a helpful article or site. And few things sadden us more than having to bypass something interesting, simply because of a careless use of language that would reflect poorly on our recommendation.

    Today, for example, I came across an announcement for a one-day course intended to help business people write more persuasively, with less stress. It sounds like a great course, except for the page's ungrammatical opening statement:

    For professionals whose grammar and sentence structure are under control, but want better results and responses from their business writing.

    Does that description feel a bit "off"? It's because the verb "want" is left hanging without a subject to match. It can't be "for professionals want" nor "whose want," so we're left with "grammar and sentence structure want," which is grammatically correct but makes no sense. A simple "who" would fix things: "but who want," referring correctly back to "professionals." Without that fix, however, we're left with the unintended irony of grammar and sentence structure that are hardly under control.

    My purpose is not to ridicule. (You'll note that I've not identified the site.) Instead, I merely want to point out a missed opportunity. This instructor will likely never know that someone considered spreading the word about the course, but was turned away by that opening statement.

    In today's competitive business world, careful writing - with editing and proofreading - is sometimes viewed as an unaffordable luxury. But can we afford to have a potential sale walk away, unnoticed, because of a seemingly careless a bit of writing?

    - Lester Smith

    Photo by Eastlaketimes