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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    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

    No Passion in the World...

    Wednesday, September 21, 2011

    H.G. Wells Quotation with Alteration Marks

    Do you often have to write for a supervisor? Or are you, perhaps, a supervisor for whom other people have to write? In either case, it's worth noting that not every textual change is a judgment of the writer's ability. Often, changes are made because of a sense of voice. And voice is something unique to each of us.

    In my own work, sometimes I receive and edit text from other writers, and sometimes I have to submit my own writing to superiors. In both cases, textual changes occur. Sometimes it's a matter of correcting errors. (No one can write, edit, and proofread all at the same time. That's why publishing companies have writers, editors, and proofreaders, each focused on a different step.) But just as often, a technically correct piece may be adjusted for tone, perhaps to better match the company's voice.

    Certainly it can be exasperating to pour your best work into a piece of writing and then have it changed - perhaps dramatically. We often hear from office writers worried that their jobs might be in jeopardy because of how much their text gets edited. My best advice comes from the Tao te Ching, "Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity." Do your best. Let it go. Fretting never makes things better. Calm - on the other hand - definitely does.

    For supervisors reviewing other people's writing, I'd point out again the H.G. Wells quotation above. It hangs above my own desk as a reminder not to change things just for the sake of change. If you do make changes to a draft, be aware of how it reflects upon the writer who submitted it. If the changes are to correct errors, make sure the original writer understands those errors, to avoid them in the future. (This may mean firming up your own understanding of the grammar or punctuation rule involved. I work full time in publishing and frequently have to look things up again.) If you can't explain why a change is being made, ask yourself whether it's really necessary.

    I suspect that's what H.G. Wells would ask about my red pen marks above.

    - Lester Smith

    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

    Another Perspective on Writing with Style

    Thursday, June 02, 2011

    Blue Sports CarLester Smith's "Stylish Writing" entry last week commented on style as it pertains to voice, which creates the individuality of your writing. Your style comes from the words you choose and the structure of your sentences. Your style makes your writing sound like you.

    But there's another meaning to style in writing, and that is the specific formatting of your work, dictated by your purpose. There are many style manuals—it seems every organization has its own—but the major style manuals are AP (Associated Press), APA (American Psychological Association), MLA (Modern Language Association), and Chicago Manual of Style (often abbreviated CMS). Each contains guidance for formatting your writing, depending on the subject and audience.

    For example, let's look at the serial comma (often called the Oxford comma or Harvard comma, because it is advocated by those august bodies). The serial comma is the one before the conjunction in a list, and writers often wonder if it should be used or omitted. According to many style guides, including APA and MLA, it should be there. CMS also recommends it for clarity. However, the AP stylebook, which is the bible of journalistic writing, says "No" to the serial comma. Is there a reason for this difference? Well, to be honest, it's a matter of practicality: newspapers are always trying to save space, and cutting that comma gives an extra pica to the piece.

    MLA serves well for general writing. CMS does as well, although it actually offers more than one documentation style—the author-title system being like MLA and the author-date system like APA. (Listing publication date just after author names is important in scientific articles. Speaking of which, the Council of Science Editors, or CSE, also has a style manual, for publications dealing with hard sciences.)

    Anyway, to put all this in perspective, the style manual you use is only a tool, designed to make your writing grammatically correct and fitting to your purpose. Each manual's guidelines should be incorporated within your larger personal style to make your writing most effective.

    Note: For a quick yet excellent overview of general style issues, see the famous little volume The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. It's the classic guide for all basic questions about writing and should have a place of honor on your desk. You can find a free copy of Strunk's 1918 edition at Feedbooks.com, in Epub, Kindle, and PDF versions.

    —Joyce B. Lee

    Photo by Michael Bloch

    Arrangement of a Sentence: Balanced

    Thursday, April 14, 2011

    A balanced sentence features a parallel structure that emphasizes a similarity or a contrast between two or more grammatically equal parts (words, phrases, or clauses).

    When writing a press release, start with the most important information and end with the least important data.

    Note: Parallelism means "putting elements of equal value into similar constructions." Parallelism can make your sentences especially clear and add emphasis to your ideas.

    His first full-time job meant the end of impossible budgeting, with an easier life ahead. (Unparallel)
    His first full-time job meant the end of impossible budgeting, and the beginning of an easier life. (Parallel)

    For more business-writing tips, browse our blog or use the search box atop the page. Or purchase our handy Proofreader's Guide ebook or Write for Business handbook.