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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    Writing, and All That Jazz

    Wednesday, February 16, 2011

    Recently, while listening to NPR on the way to work, I heard neuroscientist Dr. Charles Limb describe an experiment to map the creative process. An amateur musician himself, he placed a series of jazz pianists in an MRI machine, gave them a non-magnetic keyboard and earphones, and watched their brains as they improvised music.

    One detail in particular made me happy: He said that during the creative process, the critiquing portions of the prefrontal lobe were quiet, while playful parts of the brain went to work. As one pianist told him, you have to be willing to make mistakes before you can get in "the zone."

    This matches something UpWrite Press has been teaching for years about writing: The early stages should be about generating ideas and copy without worrying about grammar and spelling. Editing for correctness can come later.

    The fact that creativity and critique cannot work simultaneously is something visual artists have long understood. That's why they make a sketch before tackling a project. It's also why poets "invoke the muse" (begging for inspiration) before beginning to versify.

    For more evidence of the need to separate creative time from critiquing time, I'd point to Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson's recent article, "Why Letting Yourself Make Mistakes Means Making Fewer of Them," on the Psychology Today Web site. She says, "Give yourself permission to screw-up. Start any new project by saying 'I'm not going to be good at this right away, I'm going to make mistakes, and that's okay.'"

    Are you convinced yet? Have you tried drafting without critiquing first? Or does something different work for you? If you have a secret for getting the writing ball rolling, we'd love to hear it!

    - Lester Smith

    Photo by ssoosay

    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

    Writing for a Supervisor

    Wednesday, December 01, 2010

    StressOne question the UpWrite Press staff often receives is "How can I write to satisfy my supervisors?" People go on to say, "Often after I write something, my boss marks it up for a rewrite, then the department head marks up the revised version, and our vice president marks up the version after that. By the time it returns to me for a final revision, it bears no resemblance to my original. I lose faith in my writing, or worry that management has no faith in me, and I'm confused about how to proceed."

    Writing in a corporate setting can be tough. After all, the business itself is larger than any individual, and the farther your position is from the top, the more difficult it can be to have a clear view of corporate direction. It should come as no surprise, then, when supervisors (literally "over + seers") call for changes in a document. Here are some tips for coping with the experience.

    1. Don't panic. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, "It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things." Experience teaches that change is inevitable, and calm acceptance is best.
    2. Look for a common thread.
      • Are the changes mainly proofreading marks? That's a relatively easy fix. Refer to a good grammar and punctuation book, or ask a coworker to check your work. (Having a proofreading buddy can both save time and result in more accuracy.)
      • Are they rewrites of specific sentences or paragraphs? That's often an issue of tone. If you can read - and absorb - other examples of writing by your supervisor(s), you'll best be prepared to emulate that style.
      • Are they changes in content or organization? Every business has its own standard for organizing and presenting content. If you can find memos and reports to use as templates, that can save you trouble writing new projects.
      • Are you directed to start from scratch? In writing, sometimes a first draft is an exploratory draft. That's as true in a corporate setting as anywhere. Nor is it a bad thing. Your first draft may have shown your supervisor(s) that what was originally asked for isn't what's actually needed. If you're asked to start fresh, then, consider your earlier work an experiment. Experiments don't succeed or fail; they merely reveal more information. Ask for clarification about the new direction, and start again, cheerfully.
    3. Stay positive. Employers want to see their employees succeed. You are an investment they hope to see pay off. A directive for revision - even extensive revision - isn't about you, but instead about the project. By remaining positive and receptive, with a desire to see the company do well, you'll present yourself as part of the solution.

    Remember, writing is a skill that requires practice. Getting to know a company from the inside also takes a while. It's only natural, then, that writing in a corporate setting should involve some time.

    Do you have any other tips to share about writing for a supervisor? Please click the comments link below to leave your thoughts. Thanks!

    Photo by mas abie

    What's your toughest business-writing challenge?

    Wednesday, October 06, 2010

    For me, it's usually the effort of getting started. Much of my work involves drafting assigned chapters within a larger text. The topics are generally things I'm familiar with, yet every empty chapter faces me like another inert block of granite.

    My solution is to size things up with a list of notes, then start chipping away at the easiest parts. Specifically, I brainstorm a rough outline of everything I think should be included. Next, it's time to put those notes in some sort of logical order, whatever makes the most sense. Typically some points suggest headings and subheadings; others indicate numbered or bulleted lists; and others become topics for paragraphs.

    Then I start writing whatever section seems easiest at the moment. Sometimes that's the chapter opening; at other times I leave the opening to the end, when I've written everything else and actually know what all is included. During the writing, if a section begins to bog down, it's time to either subdivide it into smaller topics or tackle a different part altogether - to avoid growing discouraged.

    As more and more of the chapter takes shape, I always gain confidence, which makes finishing the rest that much easier. Finally, it's time to stand back and take a look at the whole, fill in or trim or polish where needed, and move on to the next project.

    This approach suits a temperament that is by nature more meticulous than fast. If you're more fast than meticulous, I'd love to hear how you approach writing projects. Or if you face a different challenge, why not comment below? Just describing your problem to someone else can help, and someone on our staff may have exactly the advice you need. We're here to be of assistance.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo by ell brown

    To Build a Fire

    Wednesday, September 15, 2010

    If you've never read Jack London's short story, "To Build a Fire," take a moment to do so now. I'm about to give away the ending, and you should definitely experience the tale beforehand. It's just over 7,000 words, well worth a few minutes of your time.

    Finished? I hope you agree that it's a powerful tale, well told. Interestingly, however, when London originally published the story, he wrote an ending in which the man endures and lives, just as the dog does in this version.

    On the surface, that earlier ending would seem appropriate for a tale about survival. But doesn't the version in which the man gives up just short make the point all the more convincingly? That's the ending that makes you want to keep going yourself, much more than "happily ever after."

    Writing itself is frequently an endurance game. That's especially true of large or difficult projects. Our first time writing a business plan can seem overwhelming. Similarly, composing a bad-news letter to a valued client can seem so painful we just want to delay. In such cases, the path to success is often just a matter of taking the first step and keeping going. Take each step you can see at the moment, and the next one becomes evident. Eventually you're out of the wilderness; you've reached your goal.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo by arcticroute.com