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.

Featured Product

Write for Work

Our newest book Write for Work, a practical guide to writing and communicating in the workplace. This 8½ x 11 inch work-text is designed specifically to teach writing, grammar, and communication as it applies to the workplace.

Subscribe to the Blog

Add to Google Add to My Yahoo!

Subscribe to eTips

eTips includes the best information for effective business writing, along with helpful advice and updates on evolving communication practices.

Stay Connected

Categories

Tag Cloud

Recent Posts

Archives

    Three Secrets to Business Writing: Location, Location, Location

    Wednesday, September 25, 2013

    Q. “What are the three most important things about real estate?”

    A. “Location, location, location.”

    In real estate only one thing is preeminently important. But business writing is a multifaceted endeavor, in which location can mean different things.

    Location as Perspective

    A common weakness of business writing is a focus on the writer instead of the reader. That’s only natural: as writers, we are in our heads, striving to push a message out. But unless we can connect with a reader, the effort is pointless.

    Think of a time you’ve tried to navigate around a Web site, or through some instruction manual, only to be frustrated. The trouble wasn’t that the writer had nothing to say, but rather that it wasn’t expressed well for you, the reader. To succeed, writers have to put themselves in a reader’s position.

    Here’s a recent pointed example. A young man emailed a résumé to a prospective employer, only to be chastised and rejected because he’d used the email address at his current employer, and he sent it at 10 a.m. on a workday.

    Maybe he was on a vacation day. And maybe his work email address is his only email address. It doesn’t matter. All that does matter is the reader’s perception that the message was sent on during work hours from a company machine.

    Or consider two solicitations I’ve received today from editorial-service companies. Both businesses seem legitimate, with experience in the field. But the first solicitation contains several random acts of capitalization, and the second displays a prominent dangling modifier. Consequently, neither solicitation shows an awareness of me, its reader, a member of a publishing company that relies on accuracy in such things.

    Location of Thesis

    For best effectiveness, the thesis (main point) of your message should take a different location depending upon your purpose.  Good-news messages call for a direct, up-front, SEA approach. Bad news calls for an indirect BEBE approach with the thesis delayed. Persuasive messages call for an indirect AIDA approach, in which the thesis comes after groundwork is laid. See our explanation of “Trait 2: Logical Organization” for more definitions of these three approaches.

    Location as Medium

    So you’ve identified your reader, and you’ve decided on a logical organization. It’s time to determine the best medium for your message. Our June 4, 2012, eTips newsletter discusses informal, semiformal, and informal media in “When Medium Is Well Done: Choosing the Correct Medium for Your Message.” Whether you choose text message, email, personal letter, form letter, slide presentation, report, or some other document will depend upon both your intended reader and the content of the message itself.

    Summation

    Practice viewing things from a reader’s perspective. Notice when you receive a message that leaves you confused, and puzzle out how it could have been better presented. Pay attention to messages that work well, and use them as models. Consider SEA, BEBE, and AIDA each time you begin writing. And choose the best medium to deliver your messages. These “location” practices will pay off in more “real estate” as a business writer.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Category5 TV

    Jumping into Writing

    Monday, September 09, 2013

    Recently, we received the following comment from a visitor:

    I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing. I've had difficulty clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out there. I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin.

    Here’s a brief answer:

    Those first 10 to 15 minutes aren't really wasted if a beginning results. However, to feel more centered and less scattered, remember to think of writing as a process instead of just jumping in.

    1. Take time to brainstorm ideas without critique. This can be either just before writing or during the course of the day, as ideas occur—in a grocery line, for example.
    2. Choose the best idea for your current purpose.
    3. Examine and expand on your chosen idea; decide what you're going to write about it.
    4. Write a draft.
    5. Review and polish.

    As you can see, writing is step 4 of a 5-step process. The 10 to 15 minutes you describe are actually capturing steps 1–3. Approaching each of those steps separately can help focus your efforts, resulting in better, more satisfying writing.

    Put another way, writing isn’t skydiving. We can’t just take a leap and expect the gravity of our need to hurl us someplace specific.

    Writing is more like a footrace—ready, set, go! A bit of prep work lends us the best start, and even then there’s some inertia to overcome before we reach our stride and make progress toward our goal.

    Writing isn’t skydiving. And even if it were, we’d need to prep a parachute to avoid jumping to a bad conclusion. 

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Laura Hadden

    Why MBA-Bound Johnny Can’t Think

    Friday, June 28, 2013

    “I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.”

    ― Flannery O'Connor

    In “Why MBA-bound Johnny can’t write,” Michael Skapinker reports about an MBA professor forced by his dean to drop a weekly writing exercise from his classes. Students objected so strongly to writing a one-page weekly memo that the dean conceded.

    Their reasoning? According to Skapinker, “The students said that in business today they did not need to know how to write. ‘E-mails and tweets are the medium of exchange. So,’ they argued, ‘the constant back-and-forth gives one an opportunity to correct misunderstandings caused by unclear thinking and writing.’”

    I’m stunned at that rationale. Business leaders report regularly that unclear thinking and writing cost money. The bigger an organization, the more time-consuming and costly that miscommunication becomes. Writing skills save money by communicating accurately. They also help focus thinking—as both the Flannery O’Connor quotation above and the students themselves indicate.

    I’m even more stunned that a business-school dean seems ignorant of this need for clear communication. For students to dictate—through the dean—what their professor will teach to prepare them for business, seems to me the very definition of backward.

    On the other hand, it may help to explain why the value of an MBA continues to erode.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Keith Williamson

    Type Casting

    Friday, March 15, 2013

    Many people currently writing for a living started with a typewriter. If you’re younger than that, please stick with me; this post is actually about computers.

    One great thing about typewriters was the tab stop. If you were writing a semiblock letter, for example, you could set a tab stop for the center of the page. Then hit the tab key and “zing” the carriage would go right to that spot. Nobody hit “space, space, space, space…” ad infinitum to reach the center. Even releasing the carriage with one hand and sliding it with the other was troublesome. “Tab, zing” was absolutely the way to go.

    Now here’s the thing: Computer word processors also have a tab system, and it’s even easier to use. In most software, you just hover the mouse pointer where you want a tab, then “click” and it’s set. Want more than one tab? “Click, click,” and they’re set too.

    What’s more, you can even choose the type of tab you need. In most software, just click the tab icon on the left side of the screen. Left-justified is the default, followed by a center tab, then right-justified, then a decimal tab. (Your software may also have a bar tab, first-line indent, and hanging indent in that location.)

    The trouble is, it seems virtually no one knows about these tab controls. So in order to space text out, people use “tab, tab, tab” or “space, space, space” until things look right on their screens. Unfortunately, when they pass a file to someone else who uses a different program—or even the same program on a different computer—the alignment is all messed up. That’s especially true if the document gets edited at all. Indents and tabs slide from one line to another, and text starts jamming together or stretching far apart.

    All for the lack of a simple “hover” and “click.”

    I challenge you to find the tab controls on your computer. Use them to ensure your own text remains in place when your file goes to someone else’s machine. It’s an easy way to make the world a little better for us all.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Laineys Repertoire

    Give Readers a Break – Part II

    Thursday, January 31, 2013

    In the previous blog entry, I talked about breaking up long sections of text, to make them friendlier for online readers. Someone suggested explaining how to choose where to break. Here are a couple of suggestions, demonstrated for your own adaptation.

    As our example text, let’s use the first paragraph from a 1919 version of Steam, Its Generation and Use, by Babcock & Wilcox Company.

    While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C. In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level. He clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere. The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron. Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere. Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes. By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.  

    The Casual Approach

    Often you can just “feel” your way through a text, breaking where it seems natural. Keys to watch for in the text are the introduction of subtopics or specific examples. Supporting details can sometimes serve as break points, but only if they are followed by a sentence or two of explanation. Avoid starting a paragraph break with a pronoun. (Unless you’re given authority to change the pronoun to the noun it represents.)

    Here’s the example text again, numbered, with my breaking thoughts following.

    (1) While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C. (2) In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level. (3) He clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere. (4) The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron. (5) Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere. (6) Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes. (7) By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.  

    It’s surprising to realize that selection has only seven sentences! Let’s consider them as break points.

    1. States the overall theme. Online such a sentence can often stand on its own.
    2. Closely related to the first point; should probably stay with it.
    3. A specific subtopic and a good candidate for a break. Unfortunately, it starts with a pronoun.
    4. An even more specific subtopic and good candidate for a break.
    5. A supporting point without further details; best not broken.
    6. A supporting point without further details; best not broken.
    7. A supporting point without further details; best not broken.

    All things considered, here’s how I would break the paragraph for online use:

    While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C. In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level.

    [Hero] clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere.

    The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron. Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere. Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes. By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.  

    You’ll note I replaced “He” with “Hero” in the second paragraph, for a clearer read. Square brackets are an accepted way to signal that sort of change or insertion.

    The Outline Approach

    A more formal way to decide how to break a paragraph is to actually outline its ideas. Here’s an outline for our original sample paragraph.  

    I. While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C.

    A. In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level.

    B. He clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere.

    C. The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron.

    1. Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere.

    2. Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes.

    3. By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.

    I’ve chosen to make the topic sentence and its first supporting point an opening paragraph. The second supporting point introduces a sufficiently new idea to be a paragraph of its own. The third supporting point and its three details are clustered into a third paragraph.

    As I consider that outline, it occurs to me that point "C" and its subpoint "1" could stand as a paragraph describing the physical construction, while subpoints "2" and "3" could serve as a separate paragraph about the device's action. Let's look at the text one more time, with that change. 

    While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C. In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level.

    [Hero] clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere.

    The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron. Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere.

    Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes. By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.  

    I hope this discussion is of some help to you as you do a final edit before posting text online. Your readers will certainly appreciate your added efforts.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Les Chatfield