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

    Writing to Explore

    Wednesday, February 09, 2011

    Much of business writing is of the "fill in the blanks" variety. Your company may have standard templates for memos, letters, and reports. The actual content can be organized and filled in by using an SEA, a BEBE, or an AIDA format. That makes planning and execution of common tasks trouble-free and efficient.

    But what if you need to write something more unusual or more personal? What if you feel uncertain of your grasp of the topic or of its reception? Sometimes taking the time for exploratory writing is actually the quickest, most energy-efficient way to complete a writing task.

    Writing expert Peter Elbow compares these two approaches to growing and cooking. In the first, standard templates and forms of organization provide a framework for your piece of writing to grow on. (Imagine a rose bush climbing a trellis, for example.) In the second, ingredients are simmered together until something delicious results.

    Elbow's suggestion in times of uncertainty is to freewrite. Freewriting, he explains, is about turning off the critical-editor part of the brain and just getting words down, ignoring errors in spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and so on. He suggests actually practicing this skill two or three times a week for an hour at a sitting, to develop your own natural writing ability and voice.

    Faced with a tough writing assignment, Elbow recommends a special application of freewriting. In Writing Without Teachers, he presents a scenario in which you have four hours to get a tough piece of writing completed. Elbow suggests spending the first 45 minutes just spilling thoughts on paper, then 15 minutes rereading and thinking about what you've written. That's one hour down. In the second hour, he suggests doing the same (45 minutes freewriting and 15 minutes evaluating), but starting with your new understanding. In the third hour, he suggests freewriting again for 45 minutes to thoroughly explore what the first two hours have revealed, then using the hour's last 15 minutes to plan your final draft - which will itself fill the final hour.

    If you're like me, that approach may seem daunting. I know from experience that freewriting can be tough to start. We are so results-focused that writing to explore looks like time wasted. On the other hand, I also know how effectively freewriting - even just a journal or diary - can improve our writing and thinking skills. That improvement translates directly into time saved.

    Have you had experience with freewriting? What effects has it had on your own business writing? Are you courageous enough to try Elbow's four-hour scenario? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo by Sabrina Campagna

    Rambling in Writing

    Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Rambling is fun sometimes. It can be relaxing to spend a day ambling aimlessly over hill and dale. But when you let your writing ramble, you risk losing the reader - and business. Here are some ways to avoid rambling sentences that confuse or bore.

    • Read your own writing. When you finish writing a piece, read it yourself - preferably out loud. If you have to take a breath in the middle of a sentence, the sentence is probably too long.
    • Count the words. Yes, we mean actually count them. First scan the piece, and if you spy a sentence that is more than two lines long, count the words. If you have more than 20 words in a sentence, shorten it.
    • Divide and conquer. As you read each sentence, ask yourself what the main point is. Each sentence should contain only one main point, and if you find more than one, divide the sentence accordingly.
    • Chuck the conjunctions. If you have a plethora of conjunctions in a sentence, divide it. This includes coordinating conjunctions (and, or, but) and subordinating conjunctions (because, although, when, and so on). Be wary, too, of relative pronouns such as who, which, and that. These introduce clauses that can bloat a sentence if you're not careful.
    • Pare down the phrases. Is your sentence a maze of commas separating a multitude of modifying phrases? Such intricacy may earn points in a literary contest, but in business writing your goal is to be clear and to the point. Cut, divide, and eliminate extraneous material to make each sentence clean and easily understandable.

    You can learn more about sentences beginning on page 152 in in Write for Business: A Compact Guide to Writing and Communicating in the Workplace, just one of the many helpful business-writing materials from UpWrite Press.

    - Joyce Lee

    "Inflammation of the Sentence Structure"

    Wednesday, March 31, 2010

    The following sentences, which come from business magazines and newspapers, all suffer from particular grammatical or stylistic ailments. Here's your assignment: Explain the ailment in each one and then provide a cure by rewriting the sentence. (The first one has been done for you. I'll share my responses for the others in my next blog entry so we can compare notes.)

    • Regular, open, transparent two-way communication reduces feelings of isolation and powerlessness.
      • Ailment: the sentence suffers from redundancy. Don't "open," "transparent," and "two-way" pretty much mean the same thing?
      • Cure: Regular two-way communication reduces feelings of isolation and powerlessness.
    • There is no one-size-fits-all program that works for all people and all organizations.
      • Ailment:
      • Cure:
    • Real estate developers are sitting on the sidelines, absorbing losses for now and hoping to ride out the storm.
      • Ailment:
      • Cure:
    • Wisconsin will receive funds for high-speed rail, updating university infrastructures, clean water, and environmental restoration.
      • Ailment:
      • Cure:
    • During a sentence hearing, an attorney for the state argues for whatever penalty they believe is appropriate.
      • Ailment:
      • Cure:
    • As will all Packer greats, Brett's legacy will be celebrated by the fans.
      • Ailment:
      • Cure:

    Final Thought: My intention here is not to be critical of anyone. I could just as well have picked sentences from my own writing, many of which contain similar ailments. I was simply curious to see what I could find in a few periodicals, and slip-ups like these were few and far between.

    - Dave Kemper

    Note: My title, "Inflammation of the sentence structure," comes from one of my favorite James Thurber quotations: "With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and hardening of the paragraphs."

    Ghastly Gaffes

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    You know quality workmanship when you see it: a car precisely engineered for performance and comfort; a flower arrangement providing a perfect balance of subtlety and splash; a company brochure presenting a clear and compelling story about a new product. Good workmanship holds your attention and leaves a lasting impression.

    Naturally, when you are crafting an important piece of business writing, your workmanship should be at its best to ensure that all of your ideas are clear and read smoothly. An awkward expression or careless choice of words, like an unforgiving soup stain on a tie, takes on far more importance than it should, sometimes becoming the only thing that the reader remembers.

    Part of the crafting process involves checking early drafts for carelessly, sometimes embarrassingly, worded sentences - stains of the worst kind. Here are a few to watch for:

    If you've said it once, you've said it enough: Avoid redundancies in your sentences, or words or phrases used together that mean essentially the same thing. In Fine Print, James Kilpatrick provides these examples: false misrepresentations, a free complimentary dinner, revert back, and reply back. He cites a telemarketing company policy stating that the company will "fire any employees who make false misrepresentations." (As opposed to true misrepresentations?).

    Location, location, location: Do not misplace modifiers in your sentences; a modifier in the wrong location can create some embarrassing images, such as this one cited by Kilpatrick: "Dave helped pass a constitutional amendment to regulate nude dancing through the House." (Lucky House members.) Here's another one: "The commercial advertised an assortment of combs for active people with unbreakable teeth." (People with unbreakable teeth?)

    Note: In most cases, you can correct a misplaced modifier by simply moving it to the proper location: "Dave helped pass a constitutional amendment through the House to regulate nude dancing."

    Missing in action: Avoid dangling modifiers, or descriptive phrases that appear to modify the wrong word or a word that is missing from the sentence. Here's an example: "Having committed to meeting with us, our regular attendance would be appreciated." (Who did the committing?) Here's another example from The Elements of Style: "Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap." (Sorry about the poor health.)

    Note: To correct this problem, simply recast the sentence, which may mean adding a subject: "Having committed to meeting with us, Ms. Brown deserves our regular attendance."

    Give me your tired, your poor, your overused expressions: Watch for cliches, or overused expressions, in your writing. Readers tend to tune out if sentence after sentence is full of cliches. Note that this cliche-loaded sentence really doesn't say much: We need all hands on deck because we have a tough road ahead. Here's another example: Alpha Design decided to stick its neck out rather than throw in the towel.

    Note: To correct this problem, simply reword the sentence using plain English or come up with an original way to express the idea: "Everyone will need to work hard on the new project."

    Now You Try
    Rewrite the following sentences to eliminate any redundancies, misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers, or cliches. Afterward, compare rewrites with a colleague.

    • My final conclusion is that we should reply back to National Auto's attorney.
    • If we put our best foot forward, we may meet the deadline with time to spare.
    • Our engineers are qualified experts with years of academic schooling at leading universities.
    • The flight attendants served cookies to the passengers after warming them.
    • After standing in line for five hours, the manager announced that all tickets had been sold.
    • Using a computer to help diagnose engine problems, the company car was repaired by Oscar at Perfection Auto.
    • Shavonn walked into the committee meeting while the managers were discussing budget cuts by mistake.
    • President Obama shouldn't touch the oil-reserve issue with a ten foot pole.

    Final Thoughts
    Writer William Zinsser calls writing a "negative game" because "very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the second or third time." That's why it is so important to review your writing for sentence problems, including the embarrassing ones identified above, before submitting it.

    - Dave Kemper

    Red Light . . . Green Light

    Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    Using basic punctuation is like swimming or riding a bike: once you learn how, you never forget. Take periods and question marks, for example. You've internalized their uses so that placing them in your writing becomes automatic, much like kicking your legs when swimming.

    But as you know, not all punctuation marks are created equal. Semicolons, colons, commas, dashes, parentheses - these marks can be confusing. For some (like the semicolon), it is because you rarely use them; for others (like the comma), it's because there are so many uses.

    Of course, when you have questions about punctuation, you can refer to a business-writing handbook such as Write for Business or to an online grammar guide for rules and examples. What you might find equally helpful, however, are explanations such as the entertaining ones Patricia T. O'Conner provides in Woe is I (Riverhead Books, New York). She approaches punctuation as road markers, if you will, that direct traffic so readers don't get lost along a stretch of writing.

    Here are her opening explanations for each mark; read and enjoy. (The examples are mine.)

    • The period is the red light at the end of a sentence.
    • Late afternoon meetings stink.
    • "Don't take commas for granted. They're like yellow traffic lights. If you ignore one, you could be in for a bumpy ride."
    • Oscar, tell me how you stay awake.
    • "If a comma is a yellow light and a period is a red light, the semicolon is a flashing red - one of these lights you drive through after a brief pause."
    • By 4:15, I almost always feel the weary dismals coming on; a cup of forty weight is the only remedy.
    • "But remember that a colon is an abrupt stop, almost like a period. Use one only if you want your sentences to brake completely."
    • For productive meetings, follow these guidelines: schedule them for the morning, put a time limit on discussions, and offer frequent flyer miles for participation.
    • "The question mark is the raised eyebrow at the end of a sentence."
    • Who will head the doughnut committee?
    • "The exclamation mark is like the horn on your car - use it only when you have to."
    • Yes! Another pie chart!
    • For parentheses: "Once in awhile you may need an aside, a gentle interruption to tuck information into a sentence or between sentences."
    • He sat next to me and proceeded to describe (in graphic detail) his bout with the flu.
    • "We could do with fewer dashes. In fact, the dash is probably even more overused these days than the exclamation point - and I admit to being an offender myself."
    • She stated the words I hate to hear - next quarter's quotas.

    O'Conner's engaging text also covers all aspects of grammar, from forming possessives to subject-verb agreement, from using pronouns to understanding commonly mixed pairs of words. It deserves a space on your desk, next to a dictionary and writing handbook.

    Here are three other punctuation and grammar guides to consider, all written with a pleasing mix of irreverence, panache, and insight:

    1. The New Well-Tempered Sentence (Ticknor & Fields) by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
    2. Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Gotham Books) by Lynne Truss
    3. Lapsing into a Comma (Contemporary Books) by Bill Walsh

    Final Thoughts: Columnist Russell Baker offers another helpful explanation of punctuation. He says it "plays the role of body language. It helps readers hear you the way you want to be heard."

    No matter what metaphor works for you, just remember that punctuation is there to serve rather than befuddle you.

    - Dave Kemper