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

    Message in a Bottle

    Wednesday, December 10, 2014

    "cf_message_in_a_Bottle" photo by Tony Persunis licensed under CC BY 2.0 and has been cropped.

    This weekend my daughter who teaches English in Belgium told me about a conversation with a student, which went something like this:

    Student: “You like to write, don’t you.”

    Daughter: “How did you know that?”

    Student: “Oh, you’d be surprised what someone can discover on the Internet. [Laughs.] I read your blog, and was especially touched by the entry about…” That led to further discussion, and a warm human connection.

    The exchange made me think about why anybody writes anything, from blog entries, to advertising copy, to business plans. It isn’t merely to express ourselves, but rather to reach out for a connection.

    To illustrate, let me turn to the 1979 song by The Police, “Message in a Bottle,” with these lines of the chorus:

    I'll send an SOS to the world…

    I hope that someone gets my

    Message in a bottle

    and these first lines of the third verse:   

    Walked out this morning

    Don't believe what I saw

    A hundred billion bottles

    Washed up on the shore

    The point of the song, according to its author, is the comfort of recognizing that we’re all alike in trying to connect—to communicate.

    I believe there’s a deeper lesson to be learned. It has to do with intent.

    In the chorus of the song “Message in a Bottle,” the intent is inward focused. It’s all about “Hey, look at me.” However, in the third verse, the focus becomes outward focused. It’s the sudden realization of “Hey, look at all of you.”

    If the flood of media gushing from the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that “Hey, look at me” doesn’t accomplish much. It’s just more noise.

    “Here’s something for you,” on the other hand, accomplishes a lot. Metaphorically speaking, a sea full of bottles with the same “Here I am” messages is unremarkable, especially to another castaway. But imagine opening a bottle and finding a recipe for coconut soup, or instructions for building a raft and navigating back home, or even just a note saying “I know you feel alone, but we’re all in this together.”

    The point is this: To really stand out, be helpful. When the rescue ships sail, they’ll look for the person with the coconut soup recipe first.

    —Lester Smith

    Stylists Aren’t Rulers

    Friday, November 21, 2014
    The world is waiting for your fabulousness, don't forget your crown! (CC)

    In language, there are grammar rules, and then there are styles. Let’s consider, for example, using a series in a sentence.

    English grammar says that a series ought to be parallel.

    Don’t write this: Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and wrote his name on the paychecks.

    Do write this: Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and the paychecks.

    Then style comes into play. Oxford style says a comma should come before the last item in a series.

    Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and the paychecks.

    Associated Press style says that the final comma is unnecessary.

    Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets and the paychecks.

    So certain rules change according to which style you are following. Easy enough, you might say. Just use the right manual.

    The trouble is, however, that grammar itself doesn’t have a rule for every situation. At the very least, some rules are obscure.

    Consider, for example, the situation described in “My Big Fat Greek Blog Post.” Never in my education as an English major did anyone ever teach that adjectives are placed in order of opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose. Nor does the possessive adjective “my” fit any of those categories.

    Such gaps become most evident when teaching a language to non-native speakers. One of my daughters teaches English to adults in Belgium. Recently, her students asked which of these is correct: “A friend of Mary’s” or “A friend of Mary.” She suggested that both are correct and mean the same thing, but the first puts a slightly greater emphasis on Mary.

    Then the students changed one word. What about “A photo of Mary’s” versus “A photo of Mary”? In this case, of course, the meanings are entirely different. Depending on what they wanted to say, the students would have to choose one phrase or the other.

    At times like these, grammarians are forced to invent a rule to describe (or fit) the situation. In a way, such scenarios define grammar—a set of rules describing how people use language. The language comes first; the description comes second. And style trails along after that.

    —Lester Smith

    Be a Star at Work

    Monday, September 29, 2014
    Plejaden - M45 (star cluster)

    When I was a child, school was like a factory. Subjects crossed student desks in discrete periods of time, and we worked individually to master them. Every test was a solitary effort. Even group activities like sports and music celebrated the individual champion—the star.

    When I graduated, I got a job at an actual factory. Work crossed my table in discrete pieces, and I labored alone (talking was forbidden) to accomplish it as quickly and accurately as possible. If I managed to beat the standard time, I could even earn a piecework bonus. Again, individual effort was the norm, and stellar effort was rewarded.

    However, when you gaze upward at a night sky, it’s obvious that true stars don’t work alone. Constellations are composed of many. The band of the Milky Way consists of 300 billion stars. Similarly, even the US flag has 50, representing the joint efforts of 50 separate states, of some 320 million citizens.

    It wasn’t until I landed a job in publishing that I learned the benefit and joy of working as a team, each of us tackling what we do best, relying on one another. It wasn’t until then that I discovered the fiction of the solitary writer was just that—a fiction.

    Conceiving a topic doesn’t happen in a true vacuum. Even composing a draft is a dialog between a writer and an imagined reader. Editing is done by another person entirely. Proofreading is usually the work of several. And when it comes to business writing, even the initial draft is often composed by multiple writers.

    So when you write, be a true star. Don’t expect to light the sky alone. Rely on others in your quadrant to help get things arranged in clearest black and white. When stars align, great things can happen.

    —Lester Smith

    Mastery via Imitation

    Wednesday, July 02, 2014

    "Smile" photo from MeytalCohen.com

    Recently, on Facebook, I stumbled across drummer Meytal Cohen’s excellent cover—with Jennifer Lynn and Christine Wu on electric violins—of System of a Down’s “Toxicity.” It led me down a rabbit hole of other drum covers by Cohen, ultimately to discover that she left Israel at age 21 to pursue a dream of making music in Los Angeles. What’s significant here is that she mastered her trade by carefully listening to and modeling the performance of drummers she admired. In August of 2013, she leveraged that skill to an extremely successful Kickstarter project to fund her own original album.

    This reminded me of reading that Hunter S. Thompson once transcribed, on typewriter, both The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, just to get a feel for what it meant to write a great novel. Or to quote William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, “Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.”

    Similarly, educators often assign “sentence modeling” to students as a way to have them absorb effective constructions and styles. The students choose sentences they admire, then rewrite them with different words while preserving the original structure.

    As Lynn Gaertner-Johnson points out in “Copy What Works,” the same strategy can both save us time at work and lead us to mastery of business writing. By modeling our own writing on other successful documents in our workplace, we shortcut the writing process, while simultaneously training ourselves to write most effectively.

    So don’t be afraid to use writing templates. Just be sure to adjust their contents to the current needs of your project.

    —Lester Smith

    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