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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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Tactics, Tweeting, and Business Writing

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

In On War, Carl von Clausewitz, a professional Prussian soldier, divided military activities into strategy and tactics.  Strategy involves the general goals of an operation; tactics are the details for getting there. For soldiering, a set of basic skills is also assumed: polishing boots, marching in formation, caring for weapons, and so on.

Business writing can similarly be divided into strategy, tactics, and basic skills. Much of what UpWrite Press shares on this blog and in our newsletters is strategic: using an AIDA approach for persuasive writing, for example. We also often share basic skills in grammar, punctuation, and correct word use.  

Today I’d like to focus on a tactical issue: using Twitter to develop effective sentence style.

Why Twitter? It’s because of that 140-character limit. Writing within such constraints forces us to carefully weigh every word, every phrase. (Note, I originally wrote that as “forces us to consider every word, every phrase, very carefully”—nine wasted characters.)  With practice, that conciseness becomes habit—if not during a first draft, certainly when editing.

  • For best practice, write your “Tweets” (Twitter messages) in full words, without online abbreviations like “L8R” (“later”).
  • It’s also best to leave enough characters for a “Retweet.” For example, UpWrite Press Tweets are usually 127 characters or less, to leave room for the 13 characters in “RT @UpWrite: ” (including the space after the colon).
  • Finally, if your Tweet includes a hyperlink, try to place that in the middle of the message, where it’s less likely to get cut off if multiple people Retweet your message.

A well-crafted Tweet can pack a lot of punch in a short line of text. Practice at Tweeting can improve our writing clarity and editing speed for other business documents. That alone makes it worthwhile. Given that it also promotes your brand presence, if you aren’t Tweeting, it may be time to start.

—Lester Smith

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Double Jeopardy

Monday, April 15, 2013

Edgar Degas - Madame Jeantaud in the mirror (1875)

As you may know, in formal English it is improper to use two negative words together to emphasize a point—as in, “I didn’t never say that.” Logic argues that two negatives cancel each other to make a positive, in this case meaning, “At some point in time I said that.”

There are occasions, however, when doubled negatives do suit a purpose, even in formal English. That is, when you intentionally want to negate a negative to create a positive. Here’s an example:

She couldn’t not notice that he was barefoot beneath his business suit.

This sentence implies that she tried to be polite and ignore his bare feet, but they were too obvious. Granted, this is a somewhat clumsy sentence, perhaps better written as “She couldn’t avoid noticing…” or “She could hardly help but notice…” 

A perhaps more legitimate example comes in this sentence:

The lecture on global financial trends turned out to be not uninteresting.

This suggests that the writer expected the talk to be less than interesting and was surprised. Or the sentence could be intended as a modest statement of praise.

Of course, neither the “barefoot” example above nor this “lecture” example belong in good business writing. Neither is concise or clear.

But they do illustrate that writing correctly is more than just a matter of memorizing grammar rules. Communication is a dynamic, living thing. Just as human beings are dynamic, living creatures. That's something worth reflecting on.

—Joyce Lee

Type Casting

Friday, March 15, 2013

Many people currently writing for a living started with a typewriter. If you’re younger than that, please stick with me; this post is actually about computers.

One great thing about typewriters was the tab stop. If you were writing a semiblock letter, for example, you could set a tab stop for the center of the page. Then hit the tab key and “zing” the carriage would go right to that spot. Nobody hit “space, space, space, space…” ad infinitum to reach the center. Even releasing the carriage with one hand and sliding it with the other was troublesome. “Tab, zing” was absolutely the way to go.

Now here’s the thing: Computer word processors also have a tab system, and it’s even easier to use. In most software, you just hover the mouse pointer where you want a tab, then “click” and it’s set. Want more than one tab? “Click, click,” and they’re set too.

What’s more, you can even choose the type of tab you need. In most software, just click the tab icon on the left side of the screen. Left-justified is the default, followed by a center tab, then right-justified, then a decimal tab. (Your software may also have a bar tab, first-line indent, and hanging indent in that location.)

The trouble is, it seems virtually no one knows about these tab controls. So in order to space text out, people use “tab, tab, tab” or “space, space, space” until things look right on their screens. Unfortunately, when they pass a file to someone else who uses a different program—or even the same program on a different computer—the alignment is all messed up. That’s especially true if the document gets edited at all. Indents and tabs slide from one line to another, and text starts jamming together or stretching far apart.

All for the lack of a simple “hover” and “click.”

I challenge you to find the tab controls on your computer. Use them to ensure your own text remains in place when your file goes to someone else’s machine. It’s an easy way to make the world a little better for us all.

—Lester Smith

Photo by Laineys Repertoire

Avoid Email Pitfalls

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Email has become the communication standard in business. It’s a fast, inexpensive way to keep connected. Yet email can also pose hazards, ranging from merely embarrassing to outright catastrophic.

Here are four critical things to remember in your own use of email:

  • Email is not private. Many companies have employees sign an agreement that email will be subject to viewing by the management. Even your wireless devices are not necessarily exempt, as Wi-Fi can also be monitored. Sound like “electronic surveillance”? It’s actually just “risk management,” an important part of modern business.
  • Email is forever. As news stories often remind us, off-color or inappropriate emails can return to haunt a person. Emails sent or received on your company computer may be archived and could resurface later. Even if you use a cloud service, your messages can become subject to public scrutiny.
  • Email can be used as evidence. The judicial system has accepted email as proper evidence in such cases of libel, defamation, and even poor practice habits. It’s entirely possible for a “joke” sent in an email to fall into the wrong hands and be construed as harassment. Such allegations can reflect badly on an entire business.
  • Email can be infected. Just like mutating flu strains, new and more dangerous computer viruses are popping up every day. Unless you diligently keep up with the latest anti-virus software, your business computers can be attacked and your vital information and records corrupted or destroyed. And spam often carries infected attachments that may not be recognized by your anti-virus software. So be careful what you open.

Other “hazards” of email may be less severe, but they’re still worth noting:

  • Missing or misleading subject lines: A good subject line provides a precise indication of the message content. Not only does this help convince the receiver to open the message in the first place, it also makes finding that message again later much easier.
  • Unproofed copy: Sloppy writing suggests a lack of concern about details. That’s not a good impression to convey with your message. Don’t let the speed and ease of email tempt you to click “Send” before rereading for typographical errors and other problems.
  • Incomplete information: Although email is fast, that speed can be undermined by a back-and-forth exchange to answer questions or clear up misconceptions. When writing, make your original message as clear and complete as possible before sending. When receiving, read the message thoroughly before writing back with questions. A little care on both ends can avoid time wasted in an exchange of further emails. 
  • The wrong tone: It’s difficult to convey emotion in writing—especially in email, which is often written and read more quickly than other text. Studies show that while most writers think they’ve done a good job of expressing a feeling, and most readers think they’ve done a good job of interpreting it, the actual percentage of understanding is abysmally low. So it’s generally best to reserve email for factual communication, and to use phone, voice chat, or video chat for other messages. If you must convey a potentially emotional message in writing, write a draft, let it sit, revise it, and ask someone else to read it and comment, before you send a final draft.

Despite predictions that email is dying, supplanted by text messaging and voice or video chat, it remains a powerful tool in the business world. And like any tool, it performs best when used expertly. May your own use of email reflect well upon you.

—Joyce Lee

Photo by infrogmation

Is Your Writing Reader-Centric?

Friday, February 08, 2013

Focusing on the reader is key in business writing. Unlike speech, where vocal emphasis helps deliver the message, the business writer must rely on the written word alone. Knowing where to place importance can make the difference in the way your message is perceived. Here are some hints for delivering the most effective message.

First, make your message “you-centric.”

What do your readers need to know about your message? More importantly, what do they want to know? Address any needs or questions they might have and stress how your message will affect them.

Instead of:

We are offering our best customers a new service option featuring enhanced coverage at a low introductory price.

Write:

Because you are a preferred customer, you have the opportunity to try our latest service options, featuring enhanced coverage at a low introductory price.

Next, emphasize the positive aspects of your message.

Avoid negative language, and focus on any benefits the reader will gain.

Let’s say, for example, you are writing to your customers to inform them of an upcoming price hike of your service. This is a negative message, but you can soften the impact through your choice of language.

Instead of:

This letter is to inform you that as of March 1, our monthly rate will increase by 3 percent. This is regrettably necessary to cover our rising costs. Thank you for your continued patronage.

Write:

This letter is to inform you that as of March 1, your monthly payment will increase by 3 percent. We regret this necessary increase and remain dedicated to offering you the very best service at the lowest possible price. Your business is appreciated, and we look forward to serving you in the future.

Note that the second letter sounds more positive and places emphasis on the reader’s importance.

Finally, choose your words carefully to get your message across.

Your words should be strong and clear but should also carry the tone you wish to communicate. For example, you can convey a relationship beyond business by changing:

Thank you for your business

to something more like:

We have enjoyed partnering in your financial journey.

Or perhaps:

Your collaboration has meant more to us than just a business deal.

In “you-centric” writing, your main focus is on your readers. Make your message important to them, make it pleasant, and make it positive. Your results will be gratifying.

—Joyce Lee

Photo by Filippo