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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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    Writing to Explore

    Wednesday, February 09, 2011

    Much of business writing is of the "fill in the blanks" variety. Your company may have standard templates for memos, letters, and reports. The actual content can be organized and filled in by using an SEA, a BEBE, or an AIDA format. That makes planning and execution of common tasks trouble-free and efficient.

    But what if you need to write something more unusual or more personal? What if you feel uncertain of your grasp of the topic or of its reception? Sometimes taking the time for exploratory writing is actually the quickest, most energy-efficient way to complete a writing task.

    Writing expert Peter Elbow compares these two approaches to growing and cooking. In the first, standard templates and forms of organization provide a framework for your piece of writing to grow on. (Imagine a rose bush climbing a trellis, for example.) In the second, ingredients are simmered together until something delicious results.

    Elbow's suggestion in times of uncertainty is to freewrite. Freewriting, he explains, is about turning off the critical-editor part of the brain and just getting words down, ignoring errors in spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and so on. He suggests actually practicing this skill two or three times a week for an hour at a sitting, to develop your own natural writing ability and voice.

    Faced with a tough writing assignment, Elbow recommends a special application of freewriting. In Writing Without Teachers, he presents a scenario in which you have four hours to get a tough piece of writing completed. Elbow suggests spending the first 45 minutes just spilling thoughts on paper, then 15 minutes rereading and thinking about what you've written. That's one hour down. In the second hour, he suggests doing the same (45 minutes freewriting and 15 minutes evaluating), but starting with your new understanding. In the third hour, he suggests freewriting again for 45 minutes to thoroughly explore what the first two hours have revealed, then using the hour's last 15 minutes to plan your final draft - which will itself fill the final hour.

    If you're like me, that approach may seem daunting. I know from experience that freewriting can be tough to start. We are so results-focused that writing to explore looks like time wasted. On the other hand, I also know how effectively freewriting - even just a journal or diary - can improve our writing and thinking skills. That improvement translates directly into time saved.

    Have you had experience with freewriting? What effects has it had on your own business writing? Are you courageous enough to try Elbow's four-hour scenario? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo by Sabrina Campagna

    Down and Dirty Business Writing: Nine Steps to Writing Anything Quickly and Effectively

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010

    Business writing is a craft, not an art form. Like all other crafts, it can be broken down into teachable steps that can be practiced and mastered. What follows are nine steps for writing any sort of business document, from start to finish. These are the steps that every professional incorporates into writing, and that every writing student should be taught. Follow these steps, and you will find steadily improved results with steadily decreasing labor.

    1. Establish your goal. In one sentence, state what you hope to accomplish with this piece of writing. The more clearly you state your goal, the easier the rest of your work in this writing will be, so take time to get it right.
      Tip: Sometimes before writing, I actually walk back and forth, imagining I'm explaining my goal to a colleague. Explaining to a friend (even imaginary) is a great way to get past any cloudiness and to the heart of the matter.
    2. List details to include. With your goal in mind, jot down every detail you can think of that must be covered in your final document. These may be arguments for or against the main point, features to be explained, resources a project will need, and so on. Don't worry about accuracy or order; this step is a brainstorming session. The point is to include everything that might be needed.
      Tip: While I like to make a list for this step, some people prefer to cluster or to free write. Choose an option that best suits you and your writing task.
    3. Organize your details. At this point, you should have a clear enough vision of your writing's emerging shape to recognize what details you can cut, what missing details you will need to research, and in what order your details would best be presented. This is often an exciting point in the process, like viewing a landscape from the air, with its checkerboard of fields and lines of highways.
      Tip: If you've made a list on computer, it's simple enough to drag items into the proper order, cut pieces, and add details from your research. You can even turn it into a formal outline, if needed.
    4. Write the body. Once your list of details is organized, it's time to get to the business of writing. Basically, this means turning your details into complete sentences, with supporting sentences to introduce and explain them. Each main point will most likely need its own paragraph, perhaps more. Minor details may be better suited for a list of bullet points. The length of the overall writing, the depth of details, and your audience's familiarity with the subject will determine how much "meat" you'll need to add to the bare bones of your list. Clear transitions will serve as the ligaments holding all this muscle together.
      Tip: Again, imagining that you're explaining things to a friend or colleague can help you decide exactly what to say and how to say it.
    5. Add a conclusion. With the body finished, bring your writing to a close, focusing again on what you originally set out to accomplish. Now that your reader has all the necessary information, you can make a call to action regarding that purpose.
      Tip: There is no need to "beat a dead horse" in your conclusion. If the body of your writing has effectively made its case, the conclusion is just a formal request to act upon it.
    6. Add an introduction. Once the body of your writing is finished, you can most effectively go back and write an introduction. Think of something that will catch your reader's interest, tell that reader what to expect from the writing, and make her or him want to read onward. Think of it as shaking hands and welcoming the reader in.
      Tip: It may seem odd to write the introduction last, but writers often flounder otherwise, uncertain of how to start. Writing this part last avoids that problem.
    7. Take a break. Once you've finished drafting a piece of writing, stop and take a break. Your brain needs time to switch from writing mode to editing mode.
      Tip: Notice that up to this point, your brain should not have been allowed to edit. Just as it's difficult to write and erase at the same time, it's tough to generate text while second-guessing it all.
    8. Reread and revise. If possible, ask a colleague to read your draft and point out problems with clarity and organization. Professional writers have copyeditors for just this purpose, and it definitely improves the final product while also shortening production time.
      Tip: As much as possible, ignore spelling, grammar, and punctuation for now. Concentrate on missing details, unclear arguments, improvements to order, and so on.
    9. Edit and proofread. Once everything else is in great shape, check for spelling, grammar, correct word usage, punctuation, and other such niceties. If these are not your strengths, ask for help. Again, professional writers have proofreaders for this purpose, as do most important businesspeople.
      Tip: Many people make the mistake of editing and proofreading before a piece of writing is really finished. That's sort of like trying to sand and stain a tabletop before it has been planed smooth. You just can't sell a piece of furniture like that.

    Some writers may quibble about the exact points above, suggesting that steps 2 and 3 should actually be joined, or that step 7 isn't really part of the writing process. Some may tell you they never do step 1. The fact remains, however, that every successful piece of writing goes through this stepwise process in one way or another (with step 1 prepared mentally, for instance), and if you follow these steps, you'll find your own writing both easier and more successful.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo: JPO2, Mr. Muddy Suitman

    Writing the Proposal: Prewriting

    Thursday, December 03, 2009

    This week, we're beginning a series of articles on using the writing process to create winning proposals. Today, let's look at how you can use prewriting to get your thoughts ready for the page.

    First, decide on your purpose for writing. What is your objective? What do you expect your reader to do after reading your proposal? What action is required? Find the right verb to describe this action: Do you want your reader to hire you or your company? Fund your project? Change a current goal?

    Second, think about your audience - who will read your proposal? Your target reader will determine the tone you take (formal or conversational) and the words you use. For example, if your audience doesn't understand your trade jargon, you'll have to define certain terms along the way.

    Third, gather support for your proposal. Explain why your ideas or service will make your reader's job, career, or life better. It's important to list the potential benefits of your proposal.

    Fourth, prepare a defense against any objections your reader might have. Do your best to predict opposing viewpoints, and then counter them.

    Once you have considered all of these factors, you are ready to begin writing. Next time, we'll discuss how to organize your ideas into an effective proposal.

    You can learn more about writing proposals beginning on page 67 in Business and Sales Correspondence, just one of the many helpful business-writing materials from UpWrite Press.

    - Joyce Lee

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