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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    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:


    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

    Augment and Supplement, Spider-Man Style

    Friday, July 27, 2012

    In the first three Spider-Man movies (2002, 2004, and 2007), Peter Parker's super powers were due entirely to a radioactive spider's bite. In the most recent film, our hero's enhancements are more in keeping with his comic-book origins. This makes them perfect for comparing the words augment and supplement.

    In the comic series, Peter Parker's natural strength, speed, and agility are augmented by the radioactive spider's bite. In other words, they are boosted. They already existed, but have been made better.

    The comic-book Peter Parker was a boy genius before becoming a super hero. After the bite, he used his chemistry and engineering knowledge to create wrist-mounted web shooters. He even developed different web formulas for different purposes. These web shooters supplemented his spider abilities. In other words, the devices added something new to his crime-fighting repertoire.

    But what about his "spider sense"?
    It's debatable whether the radioactive spider's bite augmented Parker's human senses or supplemented them with an entirely new ability. I tend to think of his "spider sense" as a supplement. What's your opinion?

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by rayand

    Business Writing in the Information Age: The 2020 Workforce

    Wednesday, February 08, 2012

    More than half of the U.S. workforce will be independent by 2020, according to a forecast by consulting firm MBO Partners. That's 70 million people, compared to a reported 16 million today. Members of this expanding independent workforce include

    • people with fixed-term contracts,
    • freelance consultants,
    • people working through temp agencies,
    • on-call workers, and
    • business owners with fewer than five employees.

    Nor is this increasing shift simply a matter of a depressed economy. Among those currently independent, the vast majority say they intend to stay so.

    The 2020 forecast makes four further predictions:

    1. The future workforce will reflect a "growing demand for experts and seasoned skilled workers," including people aged 55 and up, who are moving their on-the-job knowledge to independent careers.
    2. "Independence [will be] fueled as new social communities and collaborative technologies continue to rise."
    3. State and federal governments will respond with "increased regulation and tighter enforcement" of labor laws.
    4. "Independent workers will require a 'passport for independence'" to carry benefits such as retirement and healthcare from project to project, employer to employer.

    Seasoned Skills
    Obviously, one of the "seasoned skills" mentioned is clear communication, especially given increased "social communities and collaborative technologies." Writing skills will be especially valuable. While increased bandwidth and interconnectedness will certainly improve videoconferencing, scheduling meetings won't be any easier (especially across time zones). Nor will need for textual documentation decrease.

    As people use cloud computing and shared applications more extensively—working on project documents at whatever time best fits their schedule—they'll undoubtedly leave notes for one another, connecting in real time only for brainstorming or clarification. Naturally, the better the written communication, the less the need for clarification.

    Implications for Individuals
    Implications for individual workers are clear: Learn to communicate well, including in writing, and adapt to evolving technologies.

    Implications for Businesses
    Businesses will also need to prepare, of course. Beyond putting new technologies in place, they'll need to establish best practices for communicating with this independent workforce. Some of their own full-time employees may become independent contractors, so training invested in them will pay off in the long run.

    As Ben Cashnocha points out in "When Talent Can Easily Find New Opportunity, How Do You Retain Talent?" by fostering employee skills—even knowing those employees may then move on—companies encourage an alumni spirit, create goodwill ambassadors, and expand their own business connections. Weigh the cost of training against these benefits, together with the reduced overhead of a smaller office, and the equation looks pretty simple.

    This then is a glimpse at the working world of the near future. The Information Age is truly dawning. It's an era of networking and communication. Are you ready?

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Ross Angus

    Thin Is In, for Business Writing and Presentation

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012

    Take a look at the Beatles in 1964, arriving in New York for their first U.S. television appearance (on the Ed Sullivan Show). Note those skinny ties and narrow jacket lapels. Now skip over the broad sweep of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s to today: Thin is back in style.

    That's as true of business writing as of haberdashery. Text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook have driven us to write leaner copy. People just don't have time for lengthy messages. With its PLAIN Writing Act, even the U.S. government is driving this push for succinctness.

    Happily, the shift to leanness is also making information presentation increasingly visual. Graphic elements like headings and bullet lists have become commonly accepted for highlighting key points, of course. But well-designed infographics are used more and more to make complex data digestible. Further, with increased bandwidth available, online audio and video are replacing text for quick consumption of information. (I recently repaired my washing machine, for example, after watching a home-appliance store's YouTube video.)

    Given the rise of smartphones and tablet computers, this trend toward "thin" is only going to continue, especially online. Short text is helpful text. Multimedia options that help viewers quickly find what they need (as opposed to multimedia dress-up) will be rewarded with more visitors.

    For a further glimpse of this slim-lined future, take a look at HTML5. It's a match made for mobile computing. The days of Flash-heavy or (heaven forbid) Flash-only sites are numbered.

    If you're writing for the Web, or anyhow influencing your company's Web presence, and you're not already browsing with a mobile device, it's high time to start. It's the only way to really understand how well your site works for your visitors, or doesn't. You may also want to begin chanting this mantra: "Thin is in."

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by JonoMueller