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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    Empty Words

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011

    Are you a victim of "Empty Word Syndrome"? That's when you're giving a speech or sales presentation, and every other word is "er," "um," or the poisonous "you know." These are empty words, fillers for when you are trying to figure out what comes next, and they can be clear indicators to an audience that you are less than prepared, which undermines your credibility and distracts from the message.

    So how do you avoid Empty Word Syndrome? Simple: by being prepared. Go over your presentation many times beforehand, delivering it as though to an audience. Perform it in front of a mirror, to see what your audience will see. Record yourself and listen for any trouble spots. And here's where writing comes in: Follow along with your written notes (you ARE speaking from notes, aren't you?), and when you find a section where you are groping for words, mark it in red and insert whatever you need to know—a cue or a fact—so you have that information right at your fingertips. You can write in the margins or in the text itself, but use a different color ink to help your eye zoom in on what you need.

    Empty words are also often an indication of nervousness, while silence can be powerful. So if you should find yourself caught in a hole, don't say anything. Calmly scan your notes for a foothold, then look directly at your audience, smile, and continue. (The trick, again, is to have practiced enough so that you know where to look for that foothold, to keep the silence as short as possible.) Therein lies the strength of effective speakers—the ability to maintain their cool and convey confidence to the audience. Words presented with ease and conviction are most convincing and effective.

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by pigsonthewinguk

    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

    Another Perspective on Writing with Style

    Thursday, June 02, 2011

    Blue Sports CarLester Smith's "Stylish Writing" entry last week commented on style as it pertains to voice, which creates the individuality of your writing. Your style comes from the words you choose and the structure of your sentences. Your style makes your writing sound like you.

    But there's another meaning to style in writing, and that is the specific formatting of your work, dictated by your purpose. There are many style manuals—it seems every organization has its own—but the major style manuals are AP (Associated Press), APA (American Psychological Association), MLA (Modern Language Association), and Chicago Manual of Style (often abbreviated CMS). Each contains guidance for formatting your writing, depending on the subject and audience.

    For example, let's look at the serial comma (often called the Oxford comma or Harvard comma, because it is advocated by those august bodies). The serial comma is the one before the conjunction in a list, and writers often wonder if it should be used or omitted. According to many style guides, including APA and MLA, it should be there. CMS also recommends it for clarity. However, the AP stylebook, which is the bible of journalistic writing, says "No" to the serial comma. Is there a reason for this difference? Well, to be honest, it's a matter of practicality: newspapers are always trying to save space, and cutting that comma gives an extra pica to the piece.

    MLA serves well for general writing. CMS does as well, although it actually offers more than one documentation style—the author-title system being like MLA and the author-date system like APA. (Listing publication date just after author names is important in scientific articles. Speaking of which, the Council of Science Editors, or CSE, also has a style manual, for publications dealing with hard sciences.)

    Anyway, to put all this in perspective, the style manual you use is only a tool, designed to make your writing grammatically correct and fitting to your purpose. Each manual's guidelines should be incorporated within your larger personal style to make your writing most effective.

    Note: For a quick yet excellent overview of general style issues, see the famous little volume The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. It's the classic guide for all basic questions about writing and should have a place of honor on your desk. You can find a free copy of Strunk's 1918 edition at Feedbooks.com, in Epub, Kindle, and PDF versions.

    —Joyce B. Lee

    Photo by Michael Bloch

    Making Unemployment Work for You

    Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    Pens in hairIf you have been laid off, or if you’re just entering the job market and finding it less than hospitable, you know that unemployment is not the most pleasant state of being. So how do you make it tolerable, even positive?

    There are ways, my friend.

    First, think of this as a gift of time. Use it to reexamine and polish your resume until it shines. Even better, make several versions, each geared toward a different job. For example, you might develop a consulting business based on your specific professional acumen. That’s one resume. Do you have training experience? Could you serve as adjunct faculty at a local technical college? Another resume. Does your experience include business writing—proposals, white papers, instructions? Yet another resume.

    You get the idea.

    Another way to use this gift of time is to improve your marketability. Take a class to sharpen your skills, or even consider a course of study in a different career field. This is a time to focus on your future. It has been said that a person will change careers—not jobs, but whole careers—eight times in life (the exact number depends on who you talk to). Still, the idea of changing goals is reasonable: maybe this is the time to change yours.

    Also, remember that even if unemployed, you are still a professional, and your job right now is finding a job. No lounging around the house in a robe, watching daytime television or playing computer games. Likewise, if you were in an office you wouldn’t be doing the laundry, so save that for “after hours.” Maintain your focus on the job hunt. Have an agenda for each day and stick to it, blocking out time for computer job searches, for electronic networking, for cold calls. Get dressed in something other than sweats so you can feel professional as well. Set up casual meetings with others in your field for coffee and a little face-to-face networking.

    Finally, just as you would in any normal workday, take a lunch break. Set your lunch hour and stick to it, getting outside for a walk or maybe going to the gym for some quick exercise. Physical activity keeps your mind sharp as well as your body in shape and helps you maintain a positive attitude.

    And therein lies the most important aspect of using your time while unemployed. Stay positive. Whatever else you do, don’t give up. Keep in mind that this is a temporary situation.

    Hang in there!

    —Joyce Becker Lee

    Photo by Evil Erin

    Rambling in Writing

    Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Rambling is fun sometimes. It can be relaxing to spend a day ambling aimlessly over hill and dale. But when you let your writing ramble, you risk losing the reader - and business. Here are some ways to avoid rambling sentences that confuse or bore.

    • Read your own writing. When you finish writing a piece, read it yourself - preferably out loud. If you have to take a breath in the middle of a sentence, the sentence is probably too long.
    • Count the words. Yes, we mean actually count them. First scan the piece, and if you spy a sentence that is more than two lines long, count the words. If you have more than 20 words in a sentence, shorten it.
    • Divide and conquer. As you read each sentence, ask yourself what the main point is. Each sentence should contain only one main point, and if you find more than one, divide the sentence accordingly.
    • Chuck the conjunctions. If you have a plethora of conjunctions in a sentence, divide it. This includes coordinating conjunctions (and, or, but) and subordinating conjunctions (because, although, when, and so on). Be wary, too, of relative pronouns such as who, which, and that. These introduce clauses that can bloat a sentence if you're not careful.
    • Pare down the phrases. Is your sentence a maze of commas separating a multitude of modifying phrases? Such intricacy may earn points in a literary contest, but in business writing your goal is to be clear and to the point. Cut, divide, and eliminate extraneous material to make each sentence clean and easily understandable.

    You can learn more about sentences beginning on page 152 in in Write for Business: A Compact Guide to Writing and Communicating in the Workplace, just one of the many helpful business-writing materials from UpWrite Press.

    - Joyce Lee