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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    One Word, Many Meanings: account

    Wednesday, February 22, 2012

    English contains many words that are used as different parts of speech, with different meanings. One such word is account, a term that often crops up in business and elsewhere.

    As a noun…
    account may mean

    • a description, whether written or verbal: He gave an account of events that happened at the conference.
    • a reason for one's actions: It was on that account that she decided to sign the contract.
    • a financial tool, such as a checking or savings account in a bank, or a credit-card account.
    • importance, often used in the negative to refer to something of low value: That detail is of no account.

    As a verb…
    account may be transitive (needing an object) or intransitive (not needing an object).

    In the transitive form, the verb account may mean

    • to analyze: After accounting the situation thoroughly, we will act.
    • to consider: You should account yourself lucky to have escaped that situation.

    In the intransitive form, account is usually followed by the preposition for, and may mean

    • to cause: Her careful preparation accounted for much of our success.
    • to provide a reason: He was asked to account for his extra hours.

    In idioms…
    account is often used in the following ways:

    • The phrase on account of suggests a reason for something: On account of that embarrassing interview, I didn't get the job.
    • Another phrase, hold to account, suggests blame or responsibility: She will hold to account anyone who arrives late.

    As you can see, the word account can be applied in several different ways. Use the term carefully to ensure clear business communications.

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by o5com

    One Word, Many Meanings: counter

    Tuesday, January 31, 2012

    In our increasingly interconnected world, English plays a dramatic role in business. Consequently, it pays to recognize that many English words can serve as different parts of speech, often with very different meanings. One such example is the word counter.

    As a noun…
    counter is commonly used in the following ways (among others):

    • a flat marker used in games
    • a long, level surface where transactions are conducted (e.g., a display counter) or where food and drink are prepared or served (as opposed to a table, which is generally lower and not as long)
    • a person or device that counts
    • a stiffener around or within the heel area of the upper part of a shoe

    As a verb…
    counter is typically used in one of the following ways:

    • to oppose (as in working against a current trend)
    • to defend or react (as in a debate or in the game of chess)

    As an adjective, adverb, or prefix…
    counter conveys negation, opposition, or reverse action, as in these examples:

    • The results were counter to expectations. (predicate adjective)
    • Jeeves acted counter to my express wishes. (adverb)
    • We added a counterbalance to even the scales. (prefix)

    In idioms…
    counter can be used to indicate the sale of nonprescription drugs (over-the-counter medications) or a secret, perhaps illegal transaction (payment under the counter).

    For both native English speakers and for those who use English as a second language, being aware that a single word can convey many meanings is helpful—especially as we strive for clear communication within a global business community.

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by Thomas Bresson

    As You, Like, Like It

    Wednesday, December 21, 2011

    "Like" is a frequently misused word nowadays. Basically, there are just two correct uses: as a preposition when presenting a comparison…

    "Time creeps like a turtle."

    and as a verb meaning "to have positive feelings for"…

    "Bears like honey."

    Often, however, "like" is misused as a conjunction, when "as" should be used instead. Consider the old cigarette advertisement that erroneously declared, "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." While the ad campaign was memorable, the grammar was wrong. So wrong, in fact, that you can use it as a memory aid for how not to use "like."

    In recent decades, "like" has also become used as a casual "filler" word in popular vernacular, especially among the young: "So we were, like, going to meet, like, at the park. But then it, like, started to rain." It is also often coupled with a form of "be" for use in place of "said": "So I was like, 'I don't believe it,' and he was like, 'It's totally true.'" Neither of these uses is acceptable for business.

    That casual employment has, however, led to one possible permanent addition to "like's" repertoire. In a Vanity Fair article a couple of years ago, Christopher Hitchens quoted novelist Ian McEwan as suggesting that as an interjection, "like" creates hyperbole and emphasis, as in the statement, "It was, like, the worst movie ever." Still, we would not suggest this usage for business communication.

    So why bother discussing these casual usages of "like" at all? Well, language does slowly shift and change, especially spoken language. (See our blog entry, "Not Just One but Four Grammars—And Why That's Good.") So what might be unthinkable in one context (such as a report or a formal speech) might be more acceptable in another (a casual brainstorming session, for example). Only by understanding the difference between formal rules and casual usage can we be certain to communicate effectively.

    —Joyce Lee

    P.S. As a fun exercise, count how many times a construction with "as" appears above. In which of them might someone mistakenly use "like"? J.L.

    Photo by Paolo Camera

    Writing in Cars with Boys

    Thursday, October 06, 2011

    Have you ever bought a used car?

    Recently my youngest daughter asked me to look over a used car she was considering buying. The dealer's salesperson smiled and walked us over to it, saying, "Great body. Not a scratch on her." I got in, started the engine, looked over the interior - all in good shape. I got back out, opened the hood and looked at seals, hoses, and so on, then bent down to look at the tires and underbody. The wheel wells were rusted completely through. When I asked the dealer's mechanic about repairing them, he took a look and replied, "The whole underbody is rusted out. I wouldn't feel comfortable selling this car to your daughter."

    Now for the other side of the picture. One of the first cars my wife and I owned was a used Buick. Mechanically, that car was wonderful. Cosmetically, it was a mess. The paint was peeling off the roof. The hood had been replaced, and its color didn't match the rest of the car. The rear bumper was falling off and had to be held up with a rope tied inside the trunk. My wife was embarrassed to be seen in the thing, but I loved it: Good on gas, dependable starter even in the coldest weather, a smooth ride, and so on.

    Those two cars represent different attitudes about business writing.

    Writing teachers often focus on grammar training, punctuation practice, spelling, and correct word usage, as if these were what make writing perform. But this is like paying attention to how a car looks without considering how it runs. A great paint job and leather upholstery do no good if the underbody has rusted through or the engine is broken.

    Business leaders often focus on content to the exclusion of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and correct usage, arguing that the only thing that really matters is communication. But this is like driving my old junker back and forth to work. Other people really do care how your ride looks.

    Having been a writing teacher, I understand that grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word usage are easiest to grade. Ideas, organization, and voice require more expertise and energy. Working in business, I also understand that communication and delivery speed are essential. Devoting time to proofreading can seem counterproductive. (And maybe we still have some slight resentment toward those teachers who marked up all our papers in school.)

    The truth is, of course, that we need both. A piece of writing must be well designed and mechanically sound to communicate. It must have sound ideas, a logical organization, and an appropriate voice for its audience. But it must also look good if we are to be taken seriously. This is where editing and proofreading become important - to ensure correctness in spelling, punctuation, grammar, word choice, and sentence construction. Page design (use of headings, columns, lists, graphics, and so on) is also important, of course, to help readers quickly comprehend your message.

    You can find tips about all of these things by using the search box on this site, and more in-depth information in our print publications. You might consider these your toolboxes. Here's wishing you the best on your writing journey.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo by Ross Griff

    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