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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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.

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Parallel Writing for Clarity

Monday, October 15, 2012

Unparallel construction uses words, phrases, and sometimes clauses that are inconsistent in form. This inconsistency can result in jarring, confusing, choppy writing. Here are some examples and corrections of unparallel writing.

  • Verb forms. The verb forms in a series should be consistent.

Unparallel: We emailed, faxed, and had texted our customers to alert them of the change.
(Verb forms shift from past to past-perfect tense.)

Parallel: We emailed, faxed, and texted our customers to alert them of the change.
(All verbs are past tense.)

Famous example: “I came; I saw; I conquered.” —Julius Caesar

  • Phrases. The types of phrases used in a series ought to be consistent.

Unparallel: After networking all day, talking to many customers, and then to seal several big deals, the team was tired.
(Verbals shift from gerunds to an infinitive.)

Parallel: After networking all day, talking to many customers, and then sealing several big deals, the team was tired.
(All verbal phrases use gerunds.)

Famous example: “[G]overnment of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” —Abraham Lincoln

  • Clauses. When two or more clauses are used to make an overall point, parallel construction can add emphasis and clarity to the message.

Unparallel: The board met every day for two weeks, they would pore over the financial reports, and the members had to make some hard decisions.
(The clauses use different subjects and verb forms.)

Parallel: The board met every day for two weeks, they pored over the financial reports, and they made some hard decisions.
(Using parallel subjects and verb forms unifies the three clauses into a strong point.)

Famous example: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” —Benjamin Franklin

Keeping elements parallel gives them equal weight, creating balance and rhythm in your writing, which sends a clear message to your reader.

—Joyce Lee

Photo by far closer

Big Trouble in Little Commas

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Consider the little things that often cause trouble—the speck in your eye, the pebble in your shoe, the drip in your sink, and so on. In writing, one such trouble is the omission or misplacement of commas. Here are quick reminders of three places commas should be used.

  • Following introductory clauses and phrases: Commas are needed to set these off from the rest of a sentence.

    Example introductory clause: Although we had gone over the company’s requirements, the advertising campaign fell woefully short of our needs.

    Example introductory Phrase: By my reckoning, we needed to obtain at least three more sales to finish the year in the black.
  • Between independent clauses: A comma is needed to separate two or more complete thoughts in one sentence. Place the comma before the coordinating conjunction.

    Example 1: Madeleine spoke about making the office more environmentally friendly, and then she introduced our new energy plan.

    Example 2: You can elect to go with the company insurance plan, or you can select the HMA option.
  • Around nonrestrictive modifiers: Use commas to separate modifying phrases that aren’t critical to understanding the sentence.

    Example 1: Chris introduced the new hire, a recent college graduate, to the rest of the team.

    Example 2: The contract, which had been extensively revised, was finally signed.

Want more? Check out page 258 of Write for Business for more information on using commas to set off different elements in sentences.

—Joyce Lee

Image by Brett Jordan

Avoid Sentence Agreement Errors

Friday, September 14, 2012

Nothing makes writing look amateurish and unprofessional like basic sentence errors. This week we look at errors in pronoun-antecedent agreement and subject-verb agreement.

Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement
First, let’s define some terms. A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun (or noun phrase). An antecedent is the noun (or noun phrase) it stands in for. Pronouns and antecedents must agree in number, person, and gender.

Number: Use singular pronouns for singular antecedents and plural pronouns for plural antecedents.

  • Everyone on the committee took his or her [not their] seat.
  • All the committee members cast their [not his or her] vote.

Person: Pronouns may be first person, referring to the speaker(s), second person, referring to the listener(s), or third person, referring to something being spoken about. Always match the person of the pronoun to its antecedent.

  • Survey responders are asked to include an email address with their [not your] submissions.

Gender: Pronouns may be masculine (he, his, etc.), feminine (she, hers, etc.), or neutral (it, its). Make sure to match the correct gender between pronoun and antecedent.   

  • The tugboat broke loose from its (not her) moorings.

For more information about pronoun-antecedent agreement, see pages 325-326 in Write for Business and pages 366-367 in Write for Work.

Subject-Verb Agreement
The verb of a sentence must agree with the subject in number (singular or plural). Here are two basic examples.

  • Our manager happily agrees to order pizza for everyone. (singular subject and verb)
  • We certainly agree about that great idea. (plural subject and verb)

Many things can make subject-verb agreement a bit tricky. Here are three examples.

  • Two subjects joined with and call for a plural verb.
  • When two subjects are joined with or, the verb must match the last subject.
  • Collective nouns (class, family, team, and so on) may be singular or plural, depending upon how they are used.

See pages 323-324 in Write for Business or 363-365 in Write for Work for more explanations and examples.

—Les

Photo by Orin Zebest

Five Elements for Best Business Writing

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Q. How can you improve your business writing and speaking? 

A. Understand that every communication involves five basic elements.

  1. The message: This is what you want to get across. Sometimes we’re not clear ourselves. Writing a draft or two can solve that problem.
  2. The medium: This is the “delivery system”—an email, a memo, a report, a telephone conversation, a speech. Each has its particular strengths and weaknesses to consider.
  3. The context: This is the larger situation around the message. It may include client history, previous messages about the topic, the current financial climate, and so on.
  4. The sender: This is you. As a writer or speaker, you bring a package of skills and knowledge to the task. But you also bring your own suppositions and blind spots.
  5. The receiver: This is who you want to affect. This person also brings a package of skills, knowledge, suppositions, and blind spots to the table—different from your own.

The Real Secret Is #5
In two decades of publishing and of teaching writing, the problem I’ve most often seen (including my own communication) is a matter of writing “from” a perspective instead of “to” a perspective. Put another way, the sender is focused on delivering information instead of meeting a receiver’s needs.

This is why so many messages—from ad copy to company mission statements—fall flat. They’re all about “me” instead of “you.”

This can’t be emphasized enough. Look through your messages before making them public. Take note of every “I” or “we” and consider how you could recast the sentence to address “you.” Soon you’ll begin to anticipate your receiver’s needs and questions. You’ll be able to provide those answers, and avoid off-topic details.

You’ll come across as a trusted communicator. And that’s good for business.

—Lester Smith

Photo: by rumpleteaser

Pursuing an Audience in the Information Age

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Recently, on the Bullseye podcast, Tom Bissell spoke about the role of happenstance in publishing. He mentioned Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville—three American writers we might never have heard of if someone else hadn’t brought each to a publisher’s notice.

Of course, even after a work is published, finding readers can be difficult. If it weren’t for Libribox’s audio recording of Melville’s Moby Dick, I’d never have experienced that book. (Stewart Wills’ lively reading made for a pleasant commute to and from the office.) If not for the ebook version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I’d never have read that work. (Nowadays who wants to carry a 508-page tome around for a month, to dig through in spare moments?) Still, for some technical subjects, I’m best consuming them on paper. Sams Teach Yourself HTML, CSS, and JavaScript All in One, by Julie Meloni, comes to mind.

As we move further into the Information Age, meeting an audience’s desire for multiple formats becomes increasingly necessary. It also complicates a writer’s task. For example:

Online…

In print…

  • writing must be succinct to succeed.
  • short sentences, many paragraph breaks, multiple headings, and bulleted or numbered lists are essential for quick scanning.
  • that same text can seem curt.
  • longer paragraphs with fewer breaks are acceptable, as are pop quotes and multi-column articles.

While this may seem primarily to involve layout, any writer can tell you that it also affects word choice and sentence structure.  For example, my previous draft of the material above read…

“To succeed online, writing must be succinct. Yet on the printed page, that same text can sometimes seem curt. A Web page calls for more paragraph breaks, more headings, and more bulleted or numbered lists than a printed page does. On printed pages, pop quotes and multi-column text are more acceptable.”

That might have worked fine in a book, but not onscreen.

Making these sorts of choices takes practice. It means noticing what works well in other people’s writing and adapting it to your own. It means thinking like your audience, drawing on your own experiences as a reader, and predicting what your audience will need. That way, you can maximize the chances of your own writing finding its audience and being understood.

—Lester Smith

Photo: Moby Dick final chase, from Wikimedia Commons