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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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    Stylists Aren’t Rulers

    Friday, November 21, 2014
    The world is waiting for your fabulousness, don't forget your crown! (CC)

    In language, there are grammar rules, and then there are styles. Let’s consider, for example, using a series in a sentence.

    English grammar says that a series ought to be parallel.

    Don’t write this: Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and wrote his name on the paychecks.

    Do write this: Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and the paychecks.

    Then style comes into play. Oxford style says a comma should come before the last item in a series.

    Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and the paychecks.

    Associated Press style says that the final comma is unnecessary.

    Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets and the paychecks.

    So certain rules change according to which style you are following. Easy enough, you might say. Just use the right manual.

    The trouble is, however, that grammar itself doesn’t have a rule for every situation. At the very least, some rules are obscure.

    Consider, for example, the situation described in “My Big Fat Greek Blog Post.” Never in my education as an English major did anyone ever teach that adjectives are placed in order of opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose. Nor does the possessive adjective “my” fit any of those categories.

    Such gaps become most evident when teaching a language to non-native speakers. One of my daughters teaches English to adults in Belgium. Recently, her students asked which of these is correct: “A friend of Mary’s” or “A friend of Mary.” She suggested that both are correct and mean the same thing, but the first puts a slightly greater emphasis on Mary.

    Then the students changed one word. What about “A photo of Mary’s” versus “A photo of Mary”? In this case, of course, the meanings are entirely different. Depending on what they wanted to say, the students would have to choose one phrase or the other.

    At times like these, grammarians are forced to invent a rule to describe (or fit) the situation. In a way, such scenarios define grammar—a set of rules describing how people use language. The language comes first; the description comes second. And style trails along after that.

    —Lester Smith

    Be a Star at Work

    Monday, September 29, 2014
    Plejaden - M45 (star cluster)

    When I was a child, school was like a factory. Subjects crossed student desks in discrete periods of time, and we worked individually to master them. Every test was a solitary effort. Even group activities like sports and music celebrated the individual champion—the star.

    When I graduated, I got a job at an actual factory. Work crossed my table in discrete pieces, and I labored alone (talking was forbidden) to accomplish it as quickly and accurately as possible. If I managed to beat the standard time, I could even earn a piecework bonus. Again, individual effort was the norm, and stellar effort was rewarded.

    However, when you gaze upward at a night sky, it’s obvious that true stars don’t work alone. Constellations are composed of many. The band of the Milky Way consists of 300 billion stars. Similarly, even the US flag has 50, representing the joint efforts of 50 separate states, of some 320 million citizens.

    It wasn’t until I landed a job in publishing that I learned the benefit and joy of working as a team, each of us tackling what we do best, relying on one another. It wasn’t until then that I discovered the fiction of the solitary writer was just that—a fiction.

    Conceiving a topic doesn’t happen in a true vacuum. Even composing a draft is a dialog between a writer and an imagined reader. Editing is done by another person entirely. Proofreading is usually the work of several. And when it comes to business writing, even the initial draft is often composed by multiple writers.

    So when you write, be a true star. Don’t expect to light the sky alone. Rely on others in your quadrant to help get things arranged in clearest black and white. When stars align, great things can happen.

    —Lester Smith

    Puzzled Expression

    Friday, September 19, 2014
    Summertime means puzzle time

    Do you like puzzles? Here are three I've faced. (The third involves writing.)

    Outside the Cube

    Years ago, someone gave me a Rubik’s Cube. I mixed it all up, then set about trying to solve it. Eventually, frustrated, I turned the top level about 10 degrees, pried out the middle piece on one edge, disassembled the whole thing, and put it all back together in proper order. Puzzle solved.

    Hold the Phone

    This afternoon, I got a call on my cell phone from an unknown number. Whoever it was rang once and hung up. I did a quick reverse lookup online and learned it’s a spammer. Spammers don’t pay attention to the national “Do Not Call” registry, and my phone service doesn’t support blocking numbers. Which left me with a puzzle: How can I avoid receiving calls from this number?

    My solution was to add a “Spam” contact in my phone’s directory, then set that contact to go straight to voicemail. Spammers and bots generally hang up without leaving a message, so from now on I’ll never even know they call. Puzzle solved.  

    Write Approach

    Writing is simply another type of puzzle—sort of a cross between jigsaw and scavenger hunt. In your mind is an image—however sharp or blurry—of the result you hope to achieve. Laid out before you are a world of pieces that might fit: facts, ideas, opinions, examples. Your job is to sort out the ones you need in this picture from all the rest, then fit them together logically, clearly, and smoothly for other people to view.

    Think about that jigsaw metaphor for a moment.

    • In business writing, you typically have a form to follow. That’s something like the edge pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. They outline the contents. Your understanding of topic, purpose, and audience also helps to shape that frame.
    • As you locate pieces that fit together, the picture starts to become clearer in your own mind. When writing, as you learn more about your topic and goals, your purpose comes clearer. In turn, this helps you to identify more pieces.
    • It’s obvious when pieces are still missing from a jigsaw puzzle. In writing, those gaps may not be as immediately evident, but with practice you can spot them. Look for unsupported assumptions, leaps of logic, and imprecise wording. Ask a colleague to read and react. Don’t just gloss over gaps; those missing pieces draw attention away from the overall picture.

    Approach writing as a puzzle—rather than, say, a race or an endurance test—and the process will go much more smoothly and successfully. Puzzle solved.

    —Lester Smith

    Mastery via Imitation

    Wednesday, July 02, 2014

    "Smile" photo from MeytalCohen.com

    Recently, on Facebook, I stumbled across drummer Meytal Cohen’s excellent cover—with Jennifer Lynn and Christine Wu on electric violins—of System of a Down’s “Toxicity.” It led me down a rabbit hole of other drum covers by Cohen, ultimately to discover that she left Israel at age 21 to pursue a dream of making music in Los Angeles. What’s significant here is that she mastered her trade by carefully listening to and modeling the performance of drummers she admired. In August of 2013, she leveraged that skill to an extremely successful Kickstarter project to fund her own original album.

    This reminded me of reading that Hunter S. Thompson once transcribed, on typewriter, both The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, just to get a feel for what it meant to write a great novel. Or to quote William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, “Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.”

    Similarly, educators often assign “sentence modeling” to students as a way to have them absorb effective constructions and styles. The students choose sentences they admire, then rewrite them with different words while preserving the original structure.

    As Lynn Gaertner-Johnson points out in “Copy What Works,” the same strategy can both save us time at work and lead us to mastery of business writing. By modeling our own writing on other successful documents in our workplace, we shortcut the writing process, while simultaneously training ourselves to write most effectively.

    So don’t be afraid to use writing templates. Just be sure to adjust their contents to the current needs of your project.

    —Lester Smith

    Writing in Someone Else’s Shoes

    Thursday, June 19, 2014

    Creative Commons "new shoe" photo by Joel Dueck on Flickr

    "[Y]ou never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.…"

    —Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

    In “How to Write Your Own Recommendation Without Getting in Trouble,” Cory Weinberg, of BloombergBusinessweek, reports that MIT’s Sloan School of Management is now requiring applicants to write “a professional letter of recommendation on behalf of yourself.” This is, apparently, an increasingly common trend at both schools and businesses, likely in part because instructors and supervisors have difficulty fitting such writing into their schedules.

    It is also an excellent opportunity for students and employees to step outside themselves and take a critical look at how their performance meets with another person’s needs. In the business world, of course, both this sort of personal review and “ghost writing” are common tasks. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are easy.

    To understand the problem, let’s start by looking at communication as a triangle:

    The better a writer knows the subject, the less distance exists between the two, and the easier it is to write:

    Similarly, the closer the writer feels to the reader, the easier it is to write:

    To write “a professional letter of recommendation on behalf of yourself” however, requires a sort of mental gymnastics, placing the writer in the role of “subject,” viewed at arm’s length from the perspective of a different person, a supposed writer, with yet another person as the final reader.

    Psychologists say that sort of self-reflective distance isn’t even possible for most people until their mid-twenties.

    A few weeks ago, my youngest daughter called, facing a similar situation. A professor had agreed to provide a letter of recommendation for a program she was applying for, but asked her to give him a draft to work from. She wasn’t sure where to start, so I volunteered to draft something for her.

    “Give me a bullet list of details to work from,” I said, “including how the professor knows you, your grades in his courses, and whatever else you think he might include.” She set to work, her bullet list in effect a first draft. I then composed a letter, “role-playing” the part of a college professor recommending a promising young student. She passed my draft along to him, and he took excerpts from it to plug into what turned out to be an application form.

    The trick to writing for someone else this way, as Harper Lee reveals, is to “stand in his [or her] shoes and walk around in them.” Stepping out of your own for a bit gives a whole new perspective. And that’s a very good thing.

    —Lester Smith