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    Lessons from a News Writer

    Wednesday, February 05, 2014

    A few months ago, I attended an excellent book reading by pop-culture author and essayist Chuck Klosterman. During the Q&A portion of the reading, a journalism undergraduate expressed frustration with the inverted-pyramid structure of news writing, an organizational method placing the most important details of a story up front. The student felt this upside-down approach stifled his creativity.

    “I’m more interested in writing feature stories, with interesting, non-linear organization,” the student addressed Klosterman. “What advice can you give me?”

    “You’re not going to like my answer,” Klosterman responded. “But I’m a supporter of the inverted pyramid; it makes writing accessible. It helped me greatly in my early career.”

    I imagine this response surprised the student. Why would a skilled feature writer like Klosterman endorse such a simple approach to sharing news?  

    Klosterman explained how he started his career at a small-town newspaper, writing stories in the inverted-pyramid style until the task became like clockwork. Doing so helped him focus on reporting the most important information and fulfilling the needs of his audience.

    This exchange connects to business writing in a number of ways.

    First, delivering information in a direct manner is often the best approach in business. A direct approach saves the reader time and highlights the most relevant information. Just as most news stories follow the inverted pyramid, most business correspondence should lead with the main idea, using the SEA organization method

    The exchange also highlighted the payoff of practice. Klosterman honed his writing skills through the day-to-day grind of writing and reporting stories, using the inverted pyramid. In the business world, each new writing task presents a similar opportunity. Take something as routine as responding to email. By replying to every email clearly, carefully, and correctly, you will find it easier to draft more complex writing forms. 

    Finally, the student’s frustration unearthed a common misconception about writing—that simple, straightforward writing is unskilled writing, that it doesn’t showcase an author’s abilities. This attitude can lead to unintended consequences.

    Consider a similar scenario from the business world:

    Jerry is assigned to write a proposal at work. He knows his supervisor will read it, and he wants to make a great impression. So he asks himself, “How can I make my writing unique?” “How can I ensure my effort gets recognized?” “How can make sure I stand out?”

    You can probably see a problem emerging. Jerry is focusing is on himself, rather than the ideas he needs to communicate. He’s focusing on style before substance. This approach is unlikely to yield the results he desires.

    Jerry would be better off asking: “What ideas are essential to this proposal? How can I make sure my readers understand these ideas? How can I simplify my writing to improve its readability?”

    The main purpose of business communication isn’t to stand out; it’s to be understood. The best writers in business and journalism shine a spotlight on ideas, not themselves. They write with the needs of the audience in mind. And they organize their ideas in a manner that’s easy to understand.

    Klosterman learned these lessons early in his career. And they opened the door to new and more creative opportunities, just as they can improve your own writing and standing in the workplace.

    —Tim Kemper