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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    "April is the cruelest month . . . "

    Wednesday, April 13, 2011

    Recently, I had to write a preface for a forthcoming poetry book by a close friend who died last year. It took me forever to get started, probably the worst case of avoidance in my life. Something deep inside seemed to feel that this preface would be a last goodbye.

    Eventually, a deadline (such an unfortunate word) forced me to face up to the task, and I discovered something surprising: The writing turned out not to be about saying goodbye, but instead about introducing my friend and her work to other people. It was, as the old metaphor goes, life rising out of death.

    I mention this today because April is poetry month, because this is a season of rebirth, but primarily because it's an example of how writing can work us through a difficult issue. Are you facing a tough decision at work? Try writing out your thoughts, and see what you discover. After all, even a business plan or other report is as much about researching where we are as it is about informing other people.

    Have you ever made a surprising discovery as a result of your own business writing? We'd love to hear about it.

    —Lester Smith

    ("April is the cruelest month…" from T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland")

    Photo by Ted Sakshaug

    Writing, and All That Jazz

    Wednesday, February 16, 2011

    Recently, while listening to NPR on the way to work, I heard neuroscientist Dr. Charles Limb describe an experiment to map the creative process. An amateur musician himself, he placed a series of jazz pianists in an MRI machine, gave them a non-magnetic keyboard and earphones, and watched their brains as they improvised music.

    One detail in particular made me happy: He said that during the creative process, the critiquing portions of the prefrontal lobe were quiet, while playful parts of the brain went to work. As one pianist told him, you have to be willing to make mistakes before you can get in "the zone."

    This matches something UpWrite Press has been teaching for years about writing: The early stages should be about generating ideas and copy without worrying about grammar and spelling. Editing for correctness can come later.

    The fact that creativity and critique cannot work simultaneously is something visual artists have long understood. That's why they make a sketch before tackling a project. It's also why poets "invoke the muse" (begging for inspiration) before beginning to versify.

    For more evidence of the need to separate creative time from critiquing time, I'd point to Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson's recent article, "Why Letting Yourself Make Mistakes Means Making Fewer of Them," on the Psychology Today Web site. She says, "Give yourself permission to screw-up. Start any new project by saying 'I'm not going to be good at this right away, I'm going to make mistakes, and that's okay.'"

    Are you convinced yet? Have you tried drafting without critiquing first? Or does something different work for you? If you have a secret for getting the writing ball rolling, we'd love to hear it!

    - Lester Smith

    Photo by ssoosay

    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

    When Writing is "For the Birds"

    Wednesday, September 01, 2010

    A customer wrote us recently about trouble "getting words down before I forget them." She explained that she finds writing slow and difficult, and that when sentences do begin to come, they fly too quickly to be recorded. So her best thoughts are often forgotten.

    I'm certain that many of us have felt the same way. It's as if those phrases are stray birds leaping into the sky, glimpsed once and then gone. The fact is, however, that stray thoughts can always be recaptured. Even birds have to land sometime. The trick to catching them is to use a net.

    That is to say, the early stages of a writing project are messy. Feathers should fly. Snatch a bird and stuff it in your sack and move on to the next. Later, you can decide how to arrange what you've captured - which ones to put together in which cages, which ones to let go because they don't belong, what order you want to display the cages themselves.

    Usually when people can't get started with a writing project, and then can't keep up once the ideas start coming, it's because they're subconsciously hoping to do it all in one draft. Often, they've come to think of writing as so difficult that they just want to get it over with. But again, even birds have to land sometime. A migration of a thousand miles isn't accomplished in one long swoop but as a series of shorter trips, each growing nearer to the final goal.

    That's my best advice in this case, but what ideas would you offer? Have you experienced a similar situation in your own writing, and if so, how did you overcome it? We'd love to hear your comments.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo by mikebaird

    Down and Dirty Business Writing: Nine Steps to Writing Anything Quickly and Effectively

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010

    Business writing is a craft, not an art form. Like all other crafts, it can be broken down into teachable steps that can be practiced and mastered. What follows are nine steps for writing any sort of business document, from start to finish. These are the steps that every professional incorporates into writing, and that every writing student should be taught. Follow these steps, and you will find steadily improved results with steadily decreasing labor.

    1. Establish your goal. In one sentence, state what you hope to accomplish with this piece of writing. The more clearly you state your goal, the easier the rest of your work in this writing will be, so take time to get it right.
      Tip: Sometimes before writing, I actually walk back and forth, imagining I'm explaining my goal to a colleague. Explaining to a friend (even imaginary) is a great way to get past any cloudiness and to the heart of the matter.
    2. List details to include. With your goal in mind, jot down every detail you can think of that must be covered in your final document. These may be arguments for or against the main point, features to be explained, resources a project will need, and so on. Don't worry about accuracy or order; this step is a brainstorming session. The point is to include everything that might be needed.
      Tip: While I like to make a list for this step, some people prefer to cluster or to free write. Choose an option that best suits you and your writing task.
    3. Organize your details. At this point, you should have a clear enough vision of your writing's emerging shape to recognize what details you can cut, what missing details you will need to research, and in what order your details would best be presented. This is often an exciting point in the process, like viewing a landscape from the air, with its checkerboard of fields and lines of highways.
      Tip: If you've made a list on computer, it's simple enough to drag items into the proper order, cut pieces, and add details from your research. You can even turn it into a formal outline, if needed.
    4. Write the body. Once your list of details is organized, it's time to get to the business of writing. Basically, this means turning your details into complete sentences, with supporting sentences to introduce and explain them. Each main point will most likely need its own paragraph, perhaps more. Minor details may be better suited for a list of bullet points. The length of the overall writing, the depth of details, and your audience's familiarity with the subject will determine how much "meat" you'll need to add to the bare bones of your list. Clear transitions will serve as the ligaments holding all this muscle together.
      Tip: Again, imagining that you're explaining things to a friend or colleague can help you decide exactly what to say and how to say it.
    5. Add a conclusion. With the body finished, bring your writing to a close, focusing again on what you originally set out to accomplish. Now that your reader has all the necessary information, you can make a call to action regarding that purpose.
      Tip: There is no need to "beat a dead horse" in your conclusion. If the body of your writing has effectively made its case, the conclusion is just a formal request to act upon it.
    6. Add an introduction. Once the body of your writing is finished, you can most effectively go back and write an introduction. Think of something that will catch your reader's interest, tell that reader what to expect from the writing, and make her or him want to read onward. Think of it as shaking hands and welcoming the reader in.
      Tip: It may seem odd to write the introduction last, but writers often flounder otherwise, uncertain of how to start. Writing this part last avoids that problem.
    7. Take a break. Once you've finished drafting a piece of writing, stop and take a break. Your brain needs time to switch from writing mode to editing mode.
      Tip: Notice that up to this point, your brain should not have been allowed to edit. Just as it's difficult to write and erase at the same time, it's tough to generate text while second-guessing it all.
    8. Reread and revise. If possible, ask a colleague to read your draft and point out problems with clarity and organization. Professional writers have copyeditors for just this purpose, and it definitely improves the final product while also shortening production time.
      Tip: As much as possible, ignore spelling, grammar, and punctuation for now. Concentrate on missing details, unclear arguments, improvements to order, and so on.
    9. Edit and proofread. Once everything else is in great shape, check for spelling, grammar, correct word usage, punctuation, and other such niceties. If these are not your strengths, ask for help. Again, professional writers have proofreaders for this purpose, as do most important businesspeople.
      Tip: Many people make the mistake of editing and proofreading before a piece of writing is really finished. That's sort of like trying to sand and stain a tabletop before it has been planed smooth. You just can't sell a piece of furniture like that.

    Some writers may quibble about the exact points above, suggesting that steps 2 and 3 should actually be joined, or that step 7 isn't really part of the writing process. Some may tell you they never do step 1. The fact remains, however, that every successful piece of writing goes through this stepwise process in one way or another (with step 1 prepared mentally, for instance), and if you follow these steps, you'll find your own writing both easier and more successful.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo: JPO2, Mr. Muddy Suitman