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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    Types of Sentences: Complex

    Thursday, March 24, 2011

    A complex sentence has only one independent clause (in red) and one or more dependent clauses (in bold). Dependent clauses usually begin with relative pronouns or subordinating conjunctions.

    When the weather is nice, I walk the dogs for several miles.
    (one dependent clause; one independent clause)
    When we get to the parkway, and if there are only a few people around, Felix and Hairy can run free.
    (two dependent clauses; one independent clause)

    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.

    Types of Sentences: Compound

    Tuesday, March 22, 2011

    A compound sentence has two or more independent clauses without any dependent clauses. The clauses are most often joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, or, so, but), by punctuation, or by both.

    The dogs get weekly baths, so what is that smell?
    It can't be the cat; Missy is a fastidious selfgroomer.

    Note: Correlative conjunctions are also used to join the clauses in a compound sentence.

    Either the dogs got into the garbage or Missy's been mouse hunting.

    In addition, semicolons and conjunctive adverbs can be used in compound sentences.

    Cats and dogs can be "friends"; still, there are certain limitations.

    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.

    Types of Sentences: Simple

    Thursday, March 17, 2011

    A simple sentence has only one clause, which is independent; thus, it has only one subject and one predicate. The subject and/or predicate may be single or compound.

    My dogs bark.
    (single subject; single predicate)
    My dogs and my cat fraternize.
    (compound subject; single predicate)
    Their barking and yowling can startle and annoy.
    (compound subject; compound predicate)

    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.

    Navigate the 7C's for Great E-Mail Subject Lines

    Wednesday, March 09, 2011

    This week a visitor asked "Have you written any articles on the proper use of the 'Subject Line' when sending e-mails?" Although we've discussed the importance of including an effective subject line ("Three Tips to Get the Most Mileage from E-Mail"), those tips don't address the specifics of composing one. Here, then, are the "7C's" that define an effective e-mail subject line.

    Clarity is the most important attribute for a subject line. Your readers should know from the subject line alone what to expect in the e-mail message. In "6 Tips for Better Subject Lines," Lisa Sparks advises, "Think of your subject line as a Tweet." The point is to convey a clear idea despite the short space.

    Even if you're not a Twitter user, take a few minutes to go to Twitter.com and watch the scrolling list of messages there. Ask yourself which ones are most clear, and which leave you uncertain or confused. Now apply that sense to your own e-mail subject headings.

    Sometimes an e-mail subject line can convey the basic message all by itself. For example, "Please Return Health-Insurance Forms by Friday" is a perfectly clear subject heading. The rest of the e-mail message can supply any details, reminding recipients why the new form is needed, how particular blanks should be filled in, where and how to return the forms (by e-mail? by fax? by interoffice mail?), and so on.

    The one problem with the Tweet suggestion above is that Twitter messages are generally too long for an e-mail subject heading. Tweets have a 140-character limit. An e-mail subject heading should usually be a quarter of that (35 characters).

    But "concise" doesn't simply mean "short." Rather, it means "as short as possible, while still being clear." Consider the health-insurance form above. A subject line that simply said, "Insurance Forms" or even "Health-Insurance Forms" might be short, but it isn't actually concise, because it conveys too little information. Bear this in mind when writing your own subject lines.

    One of the most significant purposes of a subject line is to convince the reader to read the e-mail itself. Most of us receive so many messages each day that we have to do triage. Junk gets deleted; ads are skimmed or trashed; newsletters get a quick scan as time allows; important messages that don't require immediate action are flagged for later; and we zero in on messages that need our attention right now.

    Obviously, the subject line plays a main role in that decision process. So think like your readers. Let them know why this message matters, and whether it needs immediate attention. In my e-mail inbox, "Please Return Health-Insurance Forms by Friday" would get a flag, to be dealt with before that deadline. Messages with titles starting "Today Only" would receive an immediate scan and decision.

    Hyperbole has no place in an e-mail subject line. Readers are gun-shy of exaggerated claims, especially in marketing e-mails. So keep things real. Also, it pays to avoid common spammer words like "Free." Most importantly, your subject heading must match the content of the e-mail itself. Any hint of "bait and switch" is a sure way to have a message deleted (and may get the sending address blocked).

    In "Tips for Subject Line Testing," Amanda Hinkle distinguishes between "Actionable vs. Informative" subject lines. The first type relies on verbs to spur action, such as "Return Your Health-Insurance Forms." The second focuses more on nouns, as in "Overview of New Health-Insurance Benefits." You can see how each appeals to your interests in a different way.

    It might be argued that "Convincing" and "Consequential" are synonymous when it comes to e-mail subject headings, but I like to think of them separately. A witty subject line might convince me to open a marketing message, for example. While a more weighty subject line might remind me to add a consequential item to my calendar or to-do list.

    Take care to avoid the following gaffes in your subject line.

    • Blank subject: It can be easy to forget the subject line entirely. When that happens, the recipient has to open the e-mail and scan the entire text to figure out what the message is about. An e-mail with no subject line is at risk of being deleted immediately. Even if opened, the message is off to a bad start.
    • ALL CAPS: WORDS IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS ARE MORE DIFFICULT TO READ. They also make people feel like you're shouting, or that you're using a computer from the early 1980's. All of these hurt an e-mail's credibility.
    • Re: Re: Re: Many e-mail programs add a "Re:" to the beginning of a subject line when you send a reply. Those "Re:"s can stack up, making the subject line progressively less readable. So take care to delete all but one when you reply.

    If you can accomplish all the above, your subject lines will do credit to their e-mail messages and to your business. If you can add a bit of creativity to the mix, so much the better. Again, we all see so many e-mails in a day that anything fresh stands out. Consider the title of this essay, "Navigate the 7C's for Great E-Mail Subject Lines." Does it satisfy all 7C's? If this blog post were an e-mail message, would that subject line have convinced you to open it?

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by ethan lindsey

    Job One: Be Clear

    Wednesday, March 02, 2011

    Artificial diamondMany postings in this blog have advised you that, above all else, your business writing must be clear. And we certainly are not the only ones making this siren call. Just about anyone who writes about writing addresses the importance of clarity. Here are what two famous stylists have to say about the topic.

    • In his book Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art , James J. Kilpatrick says, "…the first rule of prose composition—the rule that must be mastered before it can effectively be broken—is, Be clear! Be clear! And yet again, be clear!"
    • In his book Writing to Learn , William Zinsser states, "We are a society paralyzed by the inability to convey routine information—the inability of the executive to explain company policy in a memo to the staff, of the employee to explain his new idea in a proposal to the boss, of the bank to explain its 'simplified' new bank statement to the customer.…"

    Well, the government has recently added to the dialogue with the passage of the Plain Writing Act of 2010. This act requires federal government workers to write documents that are "clear, concise, and well-organized." Pardon the obvious understatement, but clarity has never been a strength in government prose, so this act is a long, long time in coming.

    What follows are the main guidelines in the Plain Writing Act. All writers—in the public and private sectors—would be well advised to keep these points in mind when developing informational reports and messages.

    Writing Guidelines in the Plain Writing Act


    • Verbs
      • Use active verbs. (The doctor explains…rather than The procedure explained by the doctor…)
      • Use the present tense.
      • Use the simplest form of verbs.
      • Avoid hidden verbs. (The committee discusses…rather than The discussion by the committee…)
      • Use "must" to indicate requirements.
      • Use contractions when appropriate.
    • Nouns and pronouns
      • Don't turn verbs into nouns. (Avoid words such as discussion, explanation, etc.)
      • Use pronouns (you) to speak directly to readers.
      • Minimize abbreviations.
    • Other word issues
      • Use short, simple words.
      • Omit unnecessary words.
      • Omit excessive modifiers.
      • Avoid jargon.
      • Don't use slashes. (and/or)

    Sentences and Paragraph

    • Write short sentences.
    • Keep subjects and verbs and objects close together.
    • Avoid double negatives.
    • Include a topic sentence in paragraphs.
    • Write short paragraphs.

    Aids to Clarity

    • Use examples.
    • Use lists, tables, and illustrations.
    • Design for easy reading.

    Final Thought: Will this act have the intended effect? We can't be sure until federal employees have received "plain writing" training. Let's just hope that in the not-so-distant future, we may have federal documents that clearly tell us what we need to know.

    —Dave Kemper

    Photo by jurvetson.