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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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

A Quagmire of Idioms

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Business has gone global, so your writing may as likely be read by someone in Tokyo or Berlin as in New York or Chicago. Keep that in mind when you write and edit documents, and strive for the clearest, most direct language possible. One particular pitfall to avoid is the use of idioms.

Idioms are figurative language, colorful and descriptive but easily confusing if taken literally. The trouble is that they are so common we don’t even think about using “ballpark figure” or “making a cold call” until we receive a confused response from a client or customer in another country.

Imagine you are communicating with a partner for whom English is a second language. You send the following idiom-packed email. Think about the literal translation.

We asked our bean counter to crunch the numbers, and we believe that if we keep our noses to the grindstone, we can get the ball rolling on production within a month. Then, with the right backing, we should be able to float a loan, and with social media’s word-of-mouth to plug the product, we’re confident it will take off and sell like hotcakes. Our bottom line should be in the black within six months. We know you’ve been through the wringer with this project, but if you stick it out you’ll rake in a substantial bang for your buck. So please don’t throw cold water on the deal by pulling out before we can break even.

Even between colleagues whose first language is English, idioms like those above are too casual for formal business correspondence. The following rewrite conveys the same ideas with more clarity.

We asked our accountant to go over the financial figures, and we believe that with some hard work we can be ready to begin production within a month. Then, with help from investors, we should be able to obtain a loan and begin using social media to advertise. This will provide a sales boost resulting in a solid profit within six months. We realize this project has been difficult, but your participation is critical to our success, and if you stay with us you should see a good return on your investment.

Of course some idioms have become such a part of language that it’s difficult to entirely avoid them, and others are pretty clear in themselves. The best rule is to use precise language and keep your possible readers in mind. Do that, and your message will hit a home run.

—Joyce Lee

Photo by Phillie Casablanca

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