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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    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

    Is Led a Word?

    Tuesday, July 10, 2012

    One common search-engine query that lands business writers on the UpWrite Press site is the question, "Is led a word?" The short answer is "Yes." Led (short e sound) is the correct past tense of the verb lead (long e sound). Consider these examples.

    • Today I will lead my robot army to the zoo.
    • Yesterday I led them to the amusement park.
    • My robots are made of lead.

    Any spelling confusion likely rises from that final usage. Lead with a short e sound is a soft, dense metal that is great for shielding from radiation. It is, however, poisonous. In English, the same word is used for the graphite in pencils.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Ryusuke Seto

    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

    No Passion in the World...

    Wednesday, September 21, 2011

    H.G. Wells Quotation with Alteration Marks

    Do you often have to write for a supervisor? Or are you, perhaps, a supervisor for whom other people have to write? In either case, it's worth noting that not every textual change is a judgment of the writer's ability. Often, changes are made because of a sense of voice. And voice is something unique to each of us.

    In my own work, sometimes I receive and edit text from other writers, and sometimes I have to submit my own writing to superiors. In both cases, textual changes occur. Sometimes it's a matter of correcting errors. (No one can write, edit, and proofread all at the same time. That's why publishing companies have writers, editors, and proofreaders, each focused on a different step.) But just as often, a technically correct piece may be adjusted for tone, perhaps to better match the company's voice.

    Certainly it can be exasperating to pour your best work into a piece of writing and then have it changed - perhaps dramatically. We often hear from office writers worried that their jobs might be in jeopardy because of how much their text gets edited. My best advice comes from the Tao te Ching, "Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity." Do your best. Let it go. Fretting never makes things better. Calm - on the other hand - definitely does.

    For supervisors reviewing other people's writing, I'd point out again the H.G. Wells quotation above. It hangs above my own desk as a reminder not to change things just for the sake of change. If you do make changes to a draft, be aware of how it reflects upon the writer who submitted it. If the changes are to correct errors, make sure the original writer understands those errors, to avoid them in the future. (This may mean firming up your own understanding of the grammar or punctuation rule involved. I work full time in publishing and frequently have to look things up again.) If you can't explain why a change is being made, ask yourself whether it's really necessary.

    I suspect that's what H.G. Wells would ask about my red pen marks above.

    - Lester Smith