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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 from Adjoining Seats

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Critiquing another person’s writing can be difficult. Many people are guarded about their work, especially if they’ve not published much. Or they may be self-conscious about their spelling, grammar, or whatever. So they come to the exchange perceiving the critiquer as an adversary, or at best a hurdle to clear, before publication. If the critiquer is a supervisor, tensions may be even higher.

One trick I’ve learned over the years is to start with the best part of their writing. It’s something I originally discovered while editing poetry, where people’s feelings are really at risk, where a harsh word can shut them up like a clam. But it applies to every sort of writing.

When editing a poem, I might say, “This line took my breath away. It’s that good. Understand, however, that it sets a high bar. To do it justice, your other lines need to reach that same measure. Let’s look at the weakest ones and discuss how to improve them.”

My experience has been that with the first statement, authors let me move from across the table to sit beside them, so to speak. The critique is no longer adversarial but instead companionable. They know I’m convinced they’re capable of great things and want only to help. That help is welcomed.

It’s no great stretch to apply this same trick to critiquing a workplace document. Whether the starting point is as simple as “It’s obvious you’ve done your research; now let’s see about sorting and presenting that information as logically as possible,” or “The ideas here are impressive and generally very clear; but I’m somewhat confused in section three,” most people blossom with this sort of approach.

And what of those more cynical souls, who have been beaten down enough that “I really like this part” makes them cringe, waiting for the “but”—the proverbial other shoe to drop? Try inverting the order. Let them bask in the compliment. Imagine saying something like, “Johnson, I’d like to take some time later to polish up your report, but for now, I just wanted to say how impressed I am with your research.” Say it in front of other people. Even the most skeptical find a public compliment difficult to dismiss.

—Lester Smith

Photo by Marc Dalmulder

He Said What?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Forgive me if you’ve heard this one:

A new pastor delivers a sermon at a church. After the service, he stands at the door, shaking people’s hands, getting to know names and faces. Everyone says, “Nice to meet you, Pastor,” except one old curmudgeon who says, “That was a terrible sermon.”  

The next person in line steps up quickly and says, “Don’t pay any attention to him, Pastor. He doesn’t really think things through, just repeats whatever he hears.”

To be honest, there’s a lot of that going on in business writing. Trying to impress a client, we end up repeating phrases like these:

  • full-service solutions provider
  • cost effective end-to-end solutions
  • uniquely innovative solutions
  • value-added services provider
  • smart services capabilities
  • collaborative partner approach

Strung together, they result in a sentence like this one I found online: “[We] uniquely deliver innovative solutions, unmatched expertise, and smart services capabilities using a collaborative partner approach.”

Let’s analyze that sentence one word at a time. (We’ll skip “and” and “a.”)

  • Uniquely is a bold claim. It says “no one else in the world does things like we do.” Most readers are likely to be skeptical.
  • Deliver is too strenuous a verb in this context. It draws attention to itself, and away from the main idea.
  • Innovative has become a throwaway term in our age. Everyone claims to be innovative. Worse, uniquely and innovative battle each other in the sentence. On the one hand, they’re redundant; on the other, uniquely trumps innovative, deflating that second word.
  • Solutions has become the bland, white-bread business term of our century. It’s also a nominalization—turning a strong verb to a weaker noun. Consider how much stronger it sounds to say, “We solve problems” than “we provide solutions.”
  • Unmatched is just another word for unique. It invites the same skepticism.
  • Expertise is as bland and empty as solutions. Similarly, it turns expert (a strong noun or adjective) into a longer, weaker noun.
  • Smart and services are inseparable in this sentence, but what do they mean? The term smart services is either jargon (which should be avoided) or a specific product (which should be capitalized).
  • Capabilities undermines the offering of services. Imagine telling a guest in your house, “We can provide you with hot coffee capabilities.”  
  • Using is better than the common utilizing, but is it really necessary at all? Some of the sentence’s bloat could be reduced by changing using a to through, for example.
  • Collaborative should be assumed in business. Does it really need to be restated here?
  • Partner seems redundant after collaborative, unless the idea is that “we partner with other businesses to meet your need.” And if that’s the case, it should be stated more clearly.
  • Approach is a cautious word. A gazelle approaches water, alert for predators. The word hardly seems fitting in the face of unique and innovative and unmatched expertise. Note also that it is another example of turning a verb to a noun.

So what is this sentence actually trying to say? I’m guessing it means the following:

We offer expert, innovative Smart Services tailored to your specific needs.

If that doesn’t cover it, add a second sentence with details. Make the writing clear and specific, not bombastic and full of buzz words.

For more on this topic, you might enjoy Jason Fried’s 2010 Inc. post, “Why Is Business Writing So Awful?

—Lester Smith

Photo by mpclemens

Three Secrets to Business Writing: Location, Location, Location

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Q. “What are the three most important things about real estate?”

A. “Location, location, location.”

In real estate only one thing is preeminently important. But business writing is a multifaceted endeavor, in which location can mean different things.

Location as Perspective

A common weakness of business writing is a focus on the writer instead of the reader. That’s only natural: as writers, we are in our heads, striving to push a message out. But unless we can connect with a reader, the effort is pointless.

Think of a time you’ve tried to navigate around a Web site, or through some instruction manual, only to be frustrated. The trouble wasn’t that the writer had nothing to say, but rather that it wasn’t expressed well for you, the reader. To succeed, writers have to put themselves in a reader’s position.

Here’s a recent pointed example. A young man emailed a résumé to a prospective employer, only to be chastised and rejected because he’d used the email address at his current employer, and he sent it at 10 a.m. on a workday.

Maybe he was on a vacation day. And maybe his work email address is his only email address. It doesn’t matter. All that does matter is the reader’s perception that the message was sent on during work hours from a company machine.

Or consider two solicitations I’ve received today from editorial-service companies. Both businesses seem legitimate, with experience in the field. But the first solicitation contains several random acts of capitalization, and the second displays a prominent dangling modifier. Consequently, neither solicitation shows an awareness of me, its reader, a member of a publishing company that relies on accuracy in such things.

Location of Thesis

For best effectiveness, the thesis (main point) of your message should take a different location depending upon your purpose.  Good-news messages call for a direct, up-front, SEA approach. Bad news calls for an indirect BEBE approach with the thesis delayed. Persuasive messages call for an indirect AIDA approach, in which the thesis comes after groundwork is laid. See our explanation of “Trait 2: Logical Organization” for more definitions of these three approaches.

Location as Medium

So you’ve identified your reader, and you’ve decided on a logical organization. It’s time to determine the best medium for your message. Our June 4, 2012, eTips newsletter discusses informal, semiformal, and informal media in “When Medium Is Well Done: Choosing the Correct Medium for Your Message.” Whether you choose text message, email, personal letter, form letter, slide presentation, report, or some other document will depend upon both your intended reader and the content of the message itself.

Summation

Practice viewing things from a reader’s perspective. Notice when you receive a message that leaves you confused, and puzzle out how it could have been better presented. Pay attention to messages that work well, and use them as models. Consider SEA, BEBE, and AIDA each time you begin writing. And choose the best medium to deliver your messages. These “location” practices will pay off in more “real estate” as a business writer.

—Lester Smith

Photo by Category5 TV

Jumping into Writing

Monday, September 09, 2013

Recently, we received the following comment from a visitor:

I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing. I've had difficulty clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out there. I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin.

Here’s a brief answer:

Those first 10 to 15 minutes aren't really wasted if a beginning results. However, to feel more centered and less scattered, remember to think of writing as a process instead of just jumping in.

  1. Take time to brainstorm ideas without critique. This can be either just before writing or during the course of the day, as ideas occur—in a grocery line, for example.
  2. Choose the best idea for your current purpose.
  3. Examine and expand on your chosen idea; decide what you're going to write about it.
  4. Write a draft.
  5. Review and polish.

As you can see, writing is step 4 of a 5-step process. The 10 to 15 minutes you describe are actually capturing steps 1–3. Approaching each of those steps separately can help focus your efforts, resulting in better, more satisfying writing.

Put another way, writing isn’t skydiving. We can’t just take a leap and expect the gravity of our need to hurl us someplace specific.

Writing is more like a footrace—ready, set, go! A bit of prep work lends us the best start, and even then there’s some inertia to overcome before we reach our stride and make progress toward our goal.

Writing isn’t skydiving. And even if it were, we’d need to prep a parachute to avoid jumping to a bad conclusion. 

—Lester Smith

Photo by Laura Hadden

Why MBA-Bound Johnny Can’t Think

Friday, June 28, 2013

“I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.”

― Flannery O'Connor

In “Why MBA-bound Johnny can’t write,” Michael Skapinker reports about an MBA professor forced by his dean to drop a weekly writing exercise from his classes. Students objected so strongly to writing a one-page weekly memo that the dean conceded.

Their reasoning? According to Skapinker, “The students said that in business today they did not need to know how to write. ‘E-mails and tweets are the medium of exchange. So,’ they argued, ‘the constant back-and-forth gives one an opportunity to correct misunderstandings caused by unclear thinking and writing.’”

I’m stunned at that rationale. Business leaders report regularly that unclear thinking and writing cost money. The bigger an organization, the more time-consuming and costly that miscommunication becomes. Writing skills save money by communicating accurately. They also help focus thinking—as both the Flannery O’Connor quotation above and the students themselves indicate.

I’m even more stunned that a business-school dean seems ignorant of this need for clear communication. For students to dictate—through the dean—what their professor will teach to prepare them for business, seems to me the very definition of backward.

On the other hand, it may help to explain why the value of an MBA continues to erode.

—Lester Smith

Photo by Keith Williamson