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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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    Online Writers, Give Readers a Break

    Friday, January 18, 2013

    I’ve been professionally publishing for nearly three decades now. (Where has the time gone?) And over those years, I’ve written texts from just a few paragraphs long to about 400 pages. Once I even edited a manuscript just shy of a million words. (Oh, right. That’s where the time went.)

    More recently, of course, much of my writing has been online. And I’m noticing how essential short paragraphs are in this venue. In a print document, six or seven sentences may make a good paragraph. But online the maximum seems to be no more than three to five.

    To prove the point, let’s consider a bit of Americana, the first paragraph of Mark Twain’s nonfiction account of Life on the Mississippi.

    THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

    That works fine in print, but not so well online, where the reader drowns in a field of gray. Let’s try the same text with a few well-placed breaks.

    THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable.

    Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames.

    No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude.

    The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

    Don’t you find that easier to read? The difference is just three paragraph breaks. Nothing else is changed.

    Now maybe you don’t maintain a blog. But you probably have a Facebook page or a LinkedIn account. And you certainly send emails. All of those can benefit from a few well-placed paragraph breaks.

    And if you ever have reason to post a block of information from a printed company document online, consider the lesson of Mark Twain’s paragraph. Adding a few paragraph breaks may actually enhance the flow of information. What’s best for print isn’t always best for etexts, and vice versa. 

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by USACEpublicaffairs

    Three Steps to Stress-Free Public Speaking

    Tuesday, December 04, 2012

    Some people actually love to speak in public. They welcome “stage fright” as just an adrenaline rush, and being on stage as simply a chance to help others. For them, public speaking isn’t really about being the center of attention, but rather the sharing of information.

    Of course, other people with just as much to share hate to be on stage. While it’s an exaggeration that most people fear public speaking more than death (see “Joyful Public Speaking”), anxiety in front of an audience is certainly real. Fortunately, there are three good tactics for minimizing your fear while maximizing your communication: (1) Prepare, (2) Rehearse, and (3) Focus.

    1. Prepare

    Pythagorus said, “The beginning is half the whole”; nowadays we say “Well begun is half done.” In either case, the point is that preparing your message ahead of time helps take the focus off yourself and onto the information. That shift alone is a great stress reducer.

    Depending upon your personality and the speaking situation, you may decide to prepare a full speech, an outline with topic sentences, or just a list of points to cover.

    • A full speech is best for formal occasions, when every word of every sentence is important.
    • A topic-sentence outline is good for semiformal occasions, when you want to make several specific points but can extemporize from there. (PowerPoint presentations often follow this sort of format.)
    • A list of points is best for an informal occasion, when you will be speaking casually but need to make sure you don’t forget any details.

    2. Rehearse

    Rehearsal and stage fright have an inverse relationship. The more you practice, the less nervous you’ll be just before your presentation. To get the most from your rehearsal, employ the following.

    • Use a voice recorder to capture your rehearsal. Listen to the recording and note any points that would benefit from more emphasis, as well as places where you may stumble. If necessary, change your presentation to improve the former and avoid the latter.
    • Practice at least a couple of times before a mirror. This will help you to perfect physical gestures and gain confidence.

    3. Focus

    Once you’re on stage, don’t rush right into your presentation. Take a moment to get ready.  

    • Focus on your breathing. A few calming breaths will help you start right and keep a reasonable pace.
    • Focus on friendly faces. While breathing, glance over the crowd (if you can see them; if not, imagine friends sitting out there) and smile. This will help to put your audience at ease as well as yourself.
    • Focus on your details. Remember, the point is to share information. The more you can focus on that message, the less self-conscious you will feel about speaking.

    Conclusion

    Preparing, rehearsing, and focusing are pretty much guaranteed to reduce your stress and make your public speaking shine. For practice, consider joining your local Toastmasters club. Membership is even a résumé enhancer.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Evil Erin

    Avoid Sentence Agreement Errors

    Friday, September 14, 2012

    Nothing makes writing look amateurish and unprofessional like basic sentence errors. This week we look at errors in pronoun-antecedent agreement and subject-verb agreement.

    Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement
    First, let’s define some terms. A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun (or noun phrase). An antecedent is the noun (or noun phrase) it stands in for. Pronouns and antecedents must agree in number, person, and gender.

    Number: Use singular pronouns for singular antecedents and plural pronouns for plural antecedents.

    • Everyone on the committee took his or her [not their] seat.
    • All the committee members cast their [not his or her] vote.

    Person: Pronouns may be first person, referring to the speaker(s), second person, referring to the listener(s), or third person, referring to something being spoken about. Always match the person of the pronoun to its antecedent.

    • Survey responders are asked to include an email address with their [not your] submissions.

    Gender: Pronouns may be masculine (he, his, etc.), feminine (she, hers, etc.), or neutral (it, its). Make sure to match the correct gender between pronoun and antecedent.   

    • The tugboat broke loose from its (not her) moorings.

    For more information about pronoun-antecedent agreement, see pages 325-326 in Write for Business and pages 366-367 in Write for Work.

    Subject-Verb Agreement
    The verb of a sentence must agree with the subject in number (singular or plural). Here are two basic examples.

    • Our manager happily agrees to order pizza for everyone. (singular subject and verb)
    • We certainly agree about that great idea. (plural subject and verb)

    Many things can make subject-verb agreement a bit tricky. Here are three examples.

    • Two subjects joined with and call for a plural verb.
    • When two subjects are joined with or, the verb must match the last subject.
    • Collective nouns (class, family, team, and so on) may be singular or plural, depending upon how they are used.

    See pages 323-324 in Write for Business or 363-365 in Write for Work for more explanations and examples.

    —Les

    Photo by Orin Zebest

    Five Elements for Best Business Writing

    Thursday, August 23, 2012

    Q. How can you improve your business writing and speaking? 

    A. Understand that every communication involves five basic elements.

    1. The message: This is what you want to get across. Sometimes we’re not clear ourselves. Writing a draft or two can solve that problem.
    2. The medium: This is the “delivery system”—an email, a memo, a report, a telephone conversation, a speech. Each has its particular strengths and weaknesses to consider.
    3. The context: This is the larger situation around the message. It may include client history, previous messages about the topic, the current financial climate, and so on.
    4. The sender: This is you. As a writer or speaker, you bring a package of skills and knowledge to the task. But you also bring your own suppositions and blind spots.
    5. The receiver: This is who you want to affect. This person also brings a package of skills, knowledge, suppositions, and blind spots to the table—different from your own.

    The Real Secret Is #5
    In two decades of publishing and of teaching writing, the problem I’ve most often seen (including my own communication) is a matter of writing “from” a perspective instead of “to” a perspective. Put another way, the sender is focused on delivering information instead of meeting a receiver’s needs.

    This is why so many messages—from ad copy to company mission statements—fall flat. They’re all about “me” instead of “you.”

    This can’t be emphasized enough. Look through your messages before making them public. Take note of every “I” or “we” and consider how you could recast the sentence to address “you.” Soon you’ll begin to anticipate your receiver’s needs and questions. You’ll be able to provide those answers, and avoid off-topic details.

    You’ll come across as a trusted communicator. And that’s good for business.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo: by rumpleteaser

    Pursuing an Audience in the Information Age

    Wednesday, August 08, 2012

    Recently, on the Bullseye podcast, Tom Bissell spoke about the role of happenstance in publishing. He mentioned Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville—three American writers we might never have heard of if someone else hadn’t brought each to a publisher’s notice.

    Of course, even after a work is published, finding readers can be difficult. If it weren’t for Libribox’s audio recording of Melville’s Moby Dick, I’d never have experienced that book. (Stewart Wills’ lively reading made for a pleasant commute to and from the office.) If not for the ebook version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I’d never have read that work. (Nowadays who wants to carry a 508-page tome around for a month, to dig through in spare moments?) Still, for some technical subjects, I’m best consuming them on paper. Sams Teach Yourself HTML, CSS, and JavaScript All in One, by Julie Meloni, comes to mind.

    As we move further into the Information Age, meeting an audience’s desire for multiple formats becomes increasingly necessary. It also complicates a writer’s task. For example:

    Online…

    In print…

    • writing must be succinct to succeed.
    • short sentences, many paragraph breaks, multiple headings, and bulleted or numbered lists are essential for quick scanning.
    • that same text can seem curt.
    • longer paragraphs with fewer breaks are acceptable, as are pop quotes and multi-column articles.

    While this may seem primarily to involve layout, any writer can tell you that it also affects word choice and sentence structure.  For example, my previous draft of the material above read…

    “To succeed online, writing must be succinct. Yet on the printed page, that same text can sometimes seem curt. A Web page calls for more paragraph breaks, more headings, and more bulleted or numbered lists than a printed page does. On printed pages, pop quotes and multi-column text are more acceptable.”

    That might have worked fine in a book, but not onscreen.

    Making these sorts of choices takes practice. It means noticing what works well in other people’s writing and adapting it to your own. It means thinking like your audience, drawing on your own experiences as a reader, and predicting what your audience will need. That way, you can maximize the chances of your own writing finding its audience and being understood.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo: Moby Dick final chase, from Wikimedia Commons