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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Writing in Someone Else’s Shoes

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Creative Commons "new shoe" photo by Joel Dueck on Flickr

"[Y]ou never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.…"

—Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

In “How to Write Your Own Recommendation Without Getting in Trouble,” Cory Weinberg, of BloombergBusinessweek, reports that MIT’s Sloan School of Management is now requiring applicants to write “a professional letter of recommendation on behalf of yourself.” This is, apparently, an increasingly common trend at both schools and businesses, likely in part because instructors and supervisors have difficulty fitting such writing into their schedules.

It is also an excellent opportunity for students and employees to step outside themselves and take a critical look at how their performance meets with another person’s needs. In the business world, of course, both this sort of personal review and “ghost writing” are common tasks. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are easy.

To understand the problem, let’s start by looking at communication as a triangle:

The better a writer knows the subject, the less distance exists between the two, and the easier it is to write:

Similarly, the closer the writer feels to the reader, the easier it is to write:

To write “a professional letter of recommendation on behalf of yourself” however, requires a sort of mental gymnastics, placing the writer in the role of “subject,” viewed at arm’s length from the perspective of a different person, a supposed writer, with yet another person as the final reader.

Psychologists say that sort of self-reflective distance isn’t even possible for most people until their mid-twenties.

A few weeks ago, my youngest daughter called, facing a similar situation. A professor had agreed to provide a letter of recommendation for a program she was applying for, but asked her to give him a draft to work from. She wasn’t sure where to start, so I volunteered to draft something for her.

“Give me a bullet list of details to work from,” I said, “including how the professor knows you, your grades in his courses, and whatever else you think he might include.” She set to work, her bullet list in effect a first draft. I then composed a letter, “role-playing” the part of a college professor recommending a promising young student. She passed my draft along to him, and he took excerpts from it to plug into what turned out to be an application form.

The trick to writing for someone else this way, as Harper Lee reveals, is to “stand in his [or her] shoes and walk around in them.” Stepping out of your own for a bit gives a whole new perspective. And that’s a very good thing.

—Lester Smith

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

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

Writing in Cars with Boys

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Have you ever bought a used car?

Recently my youngest daughter asked me to look over a used car she was considering buying. The dealer's salesperson smiled and walked us over to it, saying, "Great body. Not a scratch on her." I got in, started the engine, looked over the interior - all in good shape. I got back out, opened the hood and looked at seals, hoses, and so on, then bent down to look at the tires and underbody. The wheel wells were rusted completely through. When I asked the dealer's mechanic about repairing them, he took a look and replied, "The whole underbody is rusted out. I wouldn't feel comfortable selling this car to your daughter."

Now for the other side of the picture. One of the first cars my wife and I owned was a used Buick. Mechanically, that car was wonderful. Cosmetically, it was a mess. The paint was peeling off the roof. The hood had been replaced, and its color didn't match the rest of the car. The rear bumper was falling off and had to be held up with a rope tied inside the trunk. My wife was embarrassed to be seen in the thing, but I loved it: Good on gas, dependable starter even in the coldest weather, a smooth ride, and so on.

Those two cars represent different attitudes about business writing.

Writing teachers often focus on grammar training, punctuation practice, spelling, and correct word usage, as if these were what make writing perform. But this is like paying attention to how a car looks without considering how it runs. A great paint job and leather upholstery do no good if the underbody has rusted through or the engine is broken.

Business leaders often focus on content to the exclusion of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and correct usage, arguing that the only thing that really matters is communication. But this is like driving my old junker back and forth to work. Other people really do care how your ride looks.

Having been a writing teacher, I understand that grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word usage are easiest to grade. Ideas, organization, and voice require more expertise and energy. Working in business, I also understand that communication and delivery speed are essential. Devoting time to proofreading can seem counterproductive. (And maybe we still have some slight resentment toward those teachers who marked up all our papers in school.)

The truth is, of course, that we need both. A piece of writing must be well designed and mechanically sound to communicate. It must have sound ideas, a logical organization, and an appropriate voice for its audience. But it must also look good if we are to be taken seriously. This is where editing and proofreading become important - to ensure correctness in spelling, punctuation, grammar, word choice, and sentence construction. Page design (use of headings, columns, lists, graphics, and so on) is also important, of course, to help readers quickly comprehend your message.

You can find tips about all of these things by using the search box on this site, and more in-depth information in our print publications. You might consider these your toolboxes. Here's wishing you the best on your writing journey.

- Lester Smith

Photo by Ross Griff

Cracking Writer's Block

Thursday, May 05, 2011

We've seen the cliche onscreen countless times: the bleary-eyed writer staring blankly at a keyboard, a wastebasket full of crumpled paper next to the desk. It's the very image of someone facing "writer's block."

Chances are you've faced writer's block at some point yourself. If so, you know that each passing moment just adds to the pressure, making the writing task ever more difficult. So what's a writer to do?

I've found it helps to take a lesson from stonemasons: Just start chipping away. Anyone shaping stone with a hammer and chisel is aware that it's going to take a while. You have to acquire the mindset that this particular piece of writing can't be molded like wet clay. Instead, it will take shape one small gain at a time.

Personally, I start with a list of thoughts, sometimes just significant words, in whatever order they occur to me. I keep going at it until the ideas run dry. Next I begin arranging those ideas or phrases into some sort of order—what should be presented first, what second, what to close with, and so on.

From that basic outline, I can identify some places to begin drafting. Generally that's a matter of noting the softer, easier spots—sections where my notes are richest because my thinking is clearest on them. It's a mistake to tackle the rockier sections just yet. No use banging your head against that stone.

As more words fill the document, momentum builds. Writer's block is officially broken. Confidence grows. New perspectives are revealed on the previously toughest sections of the task. You start to feel like a writer again, a pro. And that feeling more than makes up for any blockage at the beginning.

Do you have any other tips for overcoming writer's block? We'd love to hear them. Just click the "comments" link below.

—Lester Smith

Photo by takomabibelot