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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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    Cyborgs Don't Worry

    Wednesday, January 08, 2014

    In “Write your worries away,” Jo Haigh describes a practice of jotting down worries in a notebook as they occur. She says that this helps to reduce her worry because, “I look at it more objectively for a start, but what is really powerful is when I come back to look at it again, either in a few days, a few weeks, a few months or even years, I realise just how unimportant in real terms it was.”

    I’ve discovered something similar with to-do lists. Writing down a task takes it off my mind. Instead of trying to remember everything that needs doing, and worrying that something may be forgotten, all I have to remember is "Check the to-do list."

    Over the years, I’ve read a few best practices for to-do lists. One is to focus on the three most important items each day (to avoid feeling overwhelmed). Another is to move finished tasks to a “Done” list instead of deleting them; being able to see what’s accomplished is powerful encouragement.

    While many people like Ms. Haigh use paper journals or calendars to track things, I’m a fan of electronic ones. In part, that’s because the order of tasks can be changed easily. With many apps, reorganizing is as simple as drag-and-drop.

    I’ve also discovered the power of cross-platform task apps. Personally, I use Google Tasks to keep a record in the cloud. When I’m at my home or work desktop machine, the app is easily accessed by keyboard. On the road, I can reference the list on my tablet (which later syncs whenever wi-fi is available) or use my smart phone to quickly add tasks, edit them, or rearrange the list.

    In effect, the cloud becomes backup memory for my own brain, a cyborg relationship that allows me to focus on the work at hand. Not only does that reduce stress, as Ms. Haigh describes, it also provides a record of all I’ve accomplished today, this week, this month, this year, and so on. That’s both encouragement right now and a good source of future résumé material.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Pockafwye

    The Tao Te Google

    Tuesday, December 03, 2013

    In the early days of the Internet, anyone with a modicum of HTML knowledge could game the search engines. Search-engine optimization (SEO) experts popped up right and left, charging hefty sums to place their clients at the head of search results. They crammed client pages with search keywords—in titles, meta tags, headings, links, and image descriptions—sometimes even as invisible (white on white) text on the page. When Google came into being, with its strategy of ranking pages by number and quality of inbound links, SEO “black hats” gamed that system by daisy-chaining sites in link-swapping deals.

    Search engines got smarter. Their algorithms started actually punishing such tactics by sending abusive pages to the back of the line. In response, SEO pros studied the changed rules, revised their strategies, and charged more money to retune client sites. An arms race began between evolving search engines and SEO experts.

    In such a situation, it should be obvious who wins. You can play catch-up only so long—especially with a giant with legs the length of Google’s—before you fall behind. And where Google goes, other search engines follow. As a result, the “black hat” SEO specialist is dying out.

    Many things play a part today in a page’s search engine ranking, but all fit under one umbrella: Quality Content. If a page is well written, search engines will recognize its content by natural variations on key terms and phrases. If a page is well organized, with appropriate headings and graphics, search engines will note that as well. If a page is helpful, search engines will note inbound links from other sites of good quality. But if a page tries to cheat, it will suffer.

    If I may borrow a section from the Tao te Ching

    Fill your bowl to the brim
    and it will spill.
    Keep sharpening your knife
    and it will blunt.
    Chase after money and security
    and your heart will never unclench.
    Care about people's approval
    and you will be their prisoner.

    Do your work, then step back.
    The only path to serenity.

    In other words, focus on a true purpose, and the results will come.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Beatnik Photos

    It’s a Gusher!

    Wednesday, November 20, 2013

    Let’s talk about raw petroleum for a moment. Bubbling out of the ground it’s of little real use. You can burn it for heat, if you can stand the smoke, and you can use it for lubrication, but that’s about it.

    With a little refining, though, petroleum can power an automobile, or a diesel engine, or a jet plane, or even a rocket ship! The more refined, the more powerful it becomes.

    Some people treat business writing like raw petroleum. They feel that ideas bubbling up and spilling over should be enough for communication. While it’s true that this may generate some flames, the problem is the smoke. Poor organization, unclear word choice, grammatical errors, and such make the message more difficult to comprehend.

    Writing requires refinement for best effect, and like petroleum fuels, the clearer it is the more powerful. The more time and effort spent in preparation, the more quickly and effectively a piece of writing can achieve its goals.

    Does your writing just chug along, coughing and sputtering? Refine it with the seven traits of effective communication: (1) strong ideas, (2) logical organization, (3) appropriate voice, (4) precise word choice, (5) smooth sentences, (6) correct copy, and (7) polished presentation.

    We recommend the Write for Business handbook for more information about these traits, as well as common grammar and spelling errors to avoid, an array of typical business forms, and more. Preview the table of contents to see how this handbook could help with business writing in your office. 

    —Lester Smith

    Photo from Wikimedia Commons

    Writing from Adjoining Seats

    Tuesday, October 29, 2013

    Critiquing another person’s writing can be difficult. Many people are guarded about their work, especially if they’ve not published much. Or they may be self-conscious about their spelling, grammar, or whatever. So they come to the exchange perceiving the critiquer as an adversary, or at best a hurdle to clear, before publication. If the critiquer is a supervisor, tensions may be even higher.

    One trick I’ve learned over the years is to start with the best part of their writing. It’s something I originally discovered while editing poetry, where people’s feelings are really at risk, where a harsh word can shut them up like a clam. But it applies to every sort of writing.

    When editing a poem, I might say, “This line took my breath away. It’s that good. Understand, however, that it sets a high bar. To do it justice, your other lines need to reach that same measure. Let’s look at the weakest ones and discuss how to improve them.”

    My experience has been that with the first statement, authors let me move from across the table to sit beside them, so to speak. The critique is no longer adversarial but instead companionable. They know I’m convinced they’re capable of great things and want only to help. That help is welcomed.

    It’s no great stretch to apply this same trick to critiquing a workplace document. Whether the starting point is as simple as “It’s obvious you’ve done your research; now let’s see about sorting and presenting that information as logically as possible,” or “The ideas here are impressive and generally very clear; but I’m somewhat confused in section three,” most people blossom with this sort of approach.

    And what of those more cynical souls, who have been beaten down enough that “I really like this part” makes them cringe, waiting for the “but”—the proverbial other shoe to drop? Try inverting the order. Let them bask in the compliment. Imagine saying something like, “Johnson, I’d like to take some time later to polish up your report, but for now, I just wanted to say how impressed I am with your research.” Say it in front of other people. Even the most skeptical find a public compliment difficult to dismiss.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Marc Dalmulder

    He Said What?

    Friday, October 18, 2013

    Forgive me if you’ve heard this one:

    A new pastor delivers a sermon at a church. After the service, he stands at the door, shaking people’s hands, getting to know names and faces. Everyone says, “Nice to meet you, Pastor,” except one old curmudgeon who says, “That was a terrible sermon.”  

    The next person in line steps up quickly and says, “Don’t pay any attention to him, Pastor. He doesn’t really think things through, just repeats whatever he hears.”

    To be honest, there’s a lot of that going on in business writing. Trying to impress a client, we end up repeating phrases like these:

    • full-service solutions provider
    • cost effective end-to-end solutions
    • uniquely innovative solutions
    • value-added services provider
    • smart services capabilities
    • collaborative partner approach

    Strung together, they result in a sentence like this one I found online: “[We] uniquely deliver innovative solutions, unmatched expertise, and smart services capabilities using a collaborative partner approach.”

    Let’s analyze that sentence one word at a time. (We’ll skip “and” and “a.”)

    • Uniquely is a bold claim. It says “no one else in the world does things like we do.” Most readers are likely to be skeptical.
    • Deliver is too strenuous a verb in this context. It draws attention to itself, and away from the main idea.
    • Innovative has become a throwaway term in our age. Everyone claims to be innovative. Worse, uniquely and innovative battle each other in the sentence. On the one hand, they’re redundant; on the other, uniquely trumps innovative, deflating that second word.
    • Solutions has become the bland, white-bread business term of our century. It’s also a nominalization—turning a strong verb to a weaker noun. Consider how much stronger it sounds to say, “We solve problems” than “we provide solutions.”
    • Unmatched is just another word for unique. It invites the same skepticism.
    • Expertise is as bland and empty as solutions. Similarly, it turns expert (a strong noun or adjective) into a longer, weaker noun.
    • Smart and services are inseparable in this sentence, but what do they mean? The term smart services is either jargon (which should be avoided) or a specific product (which should be capitalized).
    • Capabilities undermines the offering of services. Imagine telling a guest in your house, “We can provide you with hot coffee capabilities.”  
    • Using is better than the common utilizing, but is it really necessary at all? Some of the sentence’s bloat could be reduced by changing using a to through, for example.
    • Collaborative should be assumed in business. Does it really need to be restated here?
    • Partner seems redundant after collaborative, unless the idea is that “we partner with other businesses to meet your need.” And if that’s the case, it should be stated more clearly.
    • Approach is a cautious word. A gazelle approaches water, alert for predators. The word hardly seems fitting in the face of unique and innovative and unmatched expertise. Note also that it is another example of turning a verb to a noun.

    So what is this sentence actually trying to say? I’m guessing it means the following:

    We offer expert, innovative Smart Services tailored to your specific needs.

    If that doesn’t cover it, add a second sentence with details. Make the writing clear and specific, not bombastic and full of buzz words.

    For more on this topic, you might enjoy Jason Fried’s 2010 Inc. post, “Why Is Business Writing So Awful?

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by mpclemens