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.

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    Power to the Pointer

    Wednesday, August 24, 2011

     The first time I created a PowerPoint presentation, I went a little crazy. I overdid all those neat little bells and whistles - animations, colors, patterns, sounds - so my presentation ended up like a carnival midway.

    And my message was lost in the tumult.

    Learn from my mistake. When preparing a PowerPoint presentation, don't get all caught up in the technology. Animations and such are great, but only if they serve a purpose.

    Now you might ask yourself, so what's the attraction of features like animation anyway? Think about a time you sat through a long, boring lecture that was nothing but a single speaker reading from notes. Do you remember anything from that presentation? Chances are your brain shut off from monotony. Now imagine if the same speech had been presented in colorful bites with movement that woke up your brain. The benefits of a colorful, zesty presentation include grabbing and holding audience attention and connecting main points to visuals so that they can be remembered.

    The trick is to not go overboard and dazzle your audience with so many pyrotechnics that they lose the point of your presentation. Choose interesting but subdued backgrounds for your slides. Make your transitions practical and cohesive, allowing them to signal a wake-up without getting the listener off track. And most important, follow the standard pattern of a good speech: "Tell them what you're going to tell them; then tell them; then tell them what you told them." Using attractive, muted colors, start with a quick overview; give your main points and supporting details; and then wrap it all up with a crisp and efficient listing of your main points.

    That's it. When it comes to PowerPoint, opt for interesting instead of dazzling, and let your message show through.

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

    Empty Words

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011

    Are you a victim of "Empty Word Syndrome"? That's when you're giving a speech or sales presentation, and every other word is "er," "um," or the poisonous "you know." These are empty words, fillers for when you are trying to figure out what comes next, and they can be clear indicators to an audience that you are less than prepared, which undermines your credibility and distracts from the message.

    So how do you avoid Empty Word Syndrome? Simple: by being prepared. Go over your presentation many times beforehand, delivering it as though to an audience. Perform it in front of a mirror, to see what your audience will see. Record yourself and listen for any trouble spots. And here's where writing comes in: Follow along with your written notes (you ARE speaking from notes, aren't you?), and when you find a section where you are groping for words, mark it in red and insert whatever you need to know—a cue or a fact—so you have that information right at your fingertips. You can write in the margins or in the text itself, but use a different color ink to help your eye zoom in on what you need.

    Empty words are also often an indication of nervousness, while silence can be powerful. So if you should find yourself caught in a hole, don't say anything. Calmly scan your notes for a foothold, then look directly at your audience, smile, and continue. (The trick, again, is to have practiced enough so that you know where to look for that foothold, to keep the silence as short as possible.) Therein lies the strength of effective speakers—the ability to maintain their cool and convey confidence to the audience. Words presented with ease and conviction are most convincing and effective.

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by pigsonthewinguk

    Read This Fine Print

    Thursday, June 16, 2011

    Cover of book: Fine PrintWhen I need a break, I often pull out a favorite book and read a few pages. One such book is Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art, by James J. Kilpatrick. I enjoy the book for two reasons:

    1. I love Kilpatrick's writing voice, which you can hear in this passage: "The last sentence of a piece of writing, known in the trade as a cracker, is almost as important as the first. It is the snap of the ringmaster's whip, the slam of a young lady's door."
    2. And he offers great advice about writing. For example, one section of Fine Print serves as a usage guide, but not your typical guide that explains when to use their, there, and they're and such. Here are a few of his suggestions.

    basically: This word carries no meaning, so avoid it.

    Our company has basically two concerns… (The word adds nothing to the idea.)

    believe/think: In informal communication either one will work. But in more formal communication, Kilpatrick makes this distinction: Use believe when emotions or feelings are involved and think when you referring to reasoning and thought.

    I believe in love at first sight, but I think that it is a rare occurrence.

    due to/because of: According to Kilpatrick, most editors prefer because of in the following type of sentence.

    The meeting was canceled because of [not due to] a scheduling conflict.

    each other/one another: Use each other when referring to two people or things and one another for more than two.

    Mr. Abbott and Ms. Laird always interrupt each other.
    The accountants help one another during tax season.

    envy/jealousy: Envy what belongs to someone else and be jealous of your own possessions.

    ACME Manufacturing is envious of our production schedule.
    We become jealous of our plans when other companies inquire about them.

    got: According to Kilpatrick, got is a "belch of a word" that should be avoided.

    She received or has [not got] the report from the legal department.

    more important/more importantly: Kilpatrick prefers more important or of more importance when used as the beginning of a sentence. To his mind, more importantly sounds "puffed up and pretentious."

    learning experience: As Kilpatrick states, "Is there any experience that is not in some sense a learning experience?" It's best to avoid this phrase.

    lot/lots: Either of these words may work well in casual conversation ("We collected lots of shells at the beach"), but avoid them in formal communication.

    might/may: Here's one way to decide which one to use. Might suggests more doubt than may.

    We might win the contract if we change our pricing.
    We may get the contract soon.

    only: Watch where you place this word. Rather than "The friends were only texting in the evenings" (they were texting then and doing nothing else) try "The friends were texting only in the evenings" (they weren't texting at other times). Rather than "He only had four hits in August" (nothing else happened to him in August) try "He had only four hits in August" (his hits in August were minimal).

    over/more than: In formal communication, use over to mean "on top of" as in "Drizzle the olive oil over the potatoes." And use more than when you talking about a period of time: "She has managed the kitchen for more than 20 years."

    try and/try to: We know what is meant in this statement: "If I just try and eliminate the sweets, I will fit into my favorite dress." But what the weight watcher really means is "If I just try to forget the sweets, I will fit into my favorite dress."

    Final Thought
    Get a copy of Fine Print if you are a writer by trade or if writing is a major part of your job. Then enjoy the book in little sips as I do. Ten or fifteen minutes of Kilpatrick is always enjoyable and instructive.

    —Dave Kemper

    Yips on the Links

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011

    Last week while reading an essay titled "7 Tips for Writing Sticky Online Copy," I found myself musing about "Tip #5. Link to other stuff." I'd like to get your opinions.

    Specifically, that section says:

    Link where more info enhances the message or helps the reader, but don’t link frivolously. Too many links can be annoying. Link to info on your own site first and open links in a new window so readers stay on your site. Use links to help readers take action, sign up, request more information or learn more.

    My first quibble involves "open links in a new window." As a Web writer, of course, I'm tempted to do just that. Making each link launch a new window ensures that the main article remains open in the background. That way, when readers close the linked page, they're delivered back to my text. However, as a reader myself, I find these auto-launching links annoying. If I want to open a link in a new page, I know how to right-click it (or scroll-button-click it). If I don't want a new page, a link that forces one is irritating.

    By the same token, I wonder about the advice to make sure "readers stay on your site." Again, this raises the issue of trusting your visitors, of treating them as adults. I'm not certain that trying to corral them is best.

    My final question is about the assertion "don't link frivolously." While that sentiment might seem wise, sometimes a frivolous link shares a bit of joy between writer and reader. It can also expand a reader's knowledge in unexpected ways. For example, one old Webmonkey article casually included a hyperlinked wisecrack about rhesus monkeys. Although that article has since been "lost in time, like tears…in rain," the "frivolous" link both taught me something new and furthered my appreciation of Webmonkey.

    (Similarly, that "tears…in rain" link quickly conveys something about the author of the post you're currently reading. However, despite the "Yips on the Links" title, I should confess I'm no golfer.)

    What are your opinions? Should links launch new windows or let the reader make that decision? Should a Web site seek to retain its visitors or trust them to return on their own? Should blog posts include "frivolous" links or focus only on the information at hand? We'd love to hear what you think. Just click "comments" below.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Clarkston SCAMP

    Eye Appeal

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    If you're like most of us, your first actions at a car dealership are predictable. You run your hand along the lines of a model that interests you; you open the driver's door and inhale the car's newness, taking in all of the gadgetry and options along the dash. You may then sit behind the wheel, envisioning yourself driving down the road.… If first impressions were all that counted, you'd buy the car on the spot.

    Your immediate reaction to a piece of business writing will run in much the same way. You'll show at least some interest in a letter or report, and see what it has to say, if it is stylistically pleasing to the eye. Of course, the opposite is also true: Unless you're initially attracted to the writing (and not expecting it), you may simply set is aside - or worse yet, just throw it away.

    To ensure that your own business writing receives the proper interest, pay careful attention to its appearance. Your company may have formatting and design guidelines to follow; otherwise, you can find plenty of help online or in any reliable business-writing handbook. (Check out Write for Business for a thorough coverage of formatting and design.)

    You already know many of the nuts and bolts of good design: Quality letterhead, standard formats (a letter should look like a letter), conservative font styles that are easy to read, and so on.

    Random Design Tips

    Here are a few tips about design that may be new to you and that you may not find in a typical resource. (I had to hunt many Net sites, such as the Purdue Online Writing Lab for this information.)

    • Remember the 25-second rule: Typically, you may have no more that 25 seconds of a businessperson's time, so first impressions in business writing are critical.
    • Keep typical reading habits in mind: No one actually reads every word in most business correspondence. In reports, for example, the conclusions or recommendations may be all that some people will read. So make sure that you clearly label key parts in your writing, if that is standard procedure for that form.
    • Use small chunks of copy: Smaller chunks of copy are much more pleasing to the eye than long, dense blocks of text, so use short paragraphs.
    • Consider adding headings: Well-placed headings and subheadings suggest that the writing will be easy to navigate. A different font style (san serif -without tails) and a slightly larger point size will make them more readable.
    • Be careful with columns: Columns may look nice, but limit yourself to two columns per page. More than that and your writing will appear busy.
    • Check the top and bottom of your pages: They should appear neat and clean. That means you should avoid…
      1. widows, or single lines of text that sit alone at the top of a page,
      2. tombstones, or headings or subheadings at the bottom of a page,
      3. orphans, or first lines of paragraphs at the bottom of a page, and
      4. split lists, or lists divided between two columns or pages.
    • Watch for balance: Business writing is effectively designed if it can pass the quadrant text, which means that the information on the page is balanced throughout the four parts of the page. However, know that readers typically read from left to right and from top to bottom, which means that readers will first look at quadrants 1 and 2.
    • Evaluate the overall design of your writing: A document works design-wise if it appears…
      1. organized (logically arranged),
      2. ordered (containing headings and subheadings),
      3. accessible (using bulleted and/or numbered lists), and
      4. varied (including special features such as columns and graphics).

    Final Thoughts: My hope is that this blog entry appears readable and is, in fact, easy to navigate. If not, please let me know what I could or should have done differently. Also, I would be interested in additional tips that you would like to share, especially those that may not be appear in the typical list of design do's and dont's.

    —Dave Kemper

    Photo by Podknox