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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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    Are You Versed in Peer Critique?

    Thursday, May 12, 2011

    I’ve long admired the quirky acting style of John Lithgow. So I’m happy to report that the two of us have something in common: We’re both poetry promoters.

    Lithgow’s The Poets' Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family is a wonderful introduction to a wide range of verse from across history. Besides the poems themselves—from William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Dylan Thomas, and others—the book presents a short historical introduction to each, delivered in Lithgow’s delightful writing style. What’s more, the print book includes a CD with a wide range of celebrities reading these poems, from Lynn Redgrave to Kathy Bates to Morgan Freeman and others. But I particularly recommend the audiobook version, which integrates the histories (in Lithgow’s voice) with those poetry readings. Play it in your car while commuting to and from work. Your life will be the richer.

    As for my own promotion of poetry (besides recommending books), in my spare time I’m president of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. It’s a small way of thanking Wisconsin for supporting my own growth as a poet and writer.

    You might assume that as a poet I have an innate sense of rhythm and tone. To a certain extent, that’s true. But I’ve learned to always ask someone else to read my work aloud before I submit it for publication. Often, I discover that the rhythm I’ve been hearing in my head isn’t the rhythm other people use. By the same token, where I might imagine an ironic tone, or a gentle one, or something else, my reader may react altogether differently. From reader reaction, then, I’m able to target the weak spots in a piece and work to revise them until the poem accomplishes just what it’s intended to do.

    The same is true of business writing. What you think you’ve written isn’t necessarily what your reader understands. This makes peer critique essential. (Seriously, a colleague critiqued this very blog entry before I posted it.) What distinguishes the professional writer at this point is a willingness to lay the blame for any miscommunication on the text, rather than on the reader, and the dedication to refine that text to make things smooth and clear.

    Do you ask a peer to read your text before it’s published? If not, give it a try. If the person is hesitant to comment, ask him or her to point out specifically the one strongest thing and the one weakest thing about the piece. That will be a good starting point both for revising your writing and for building a critique relationship.

    Be sure to let us know how it works out! Just click the “Comments” link below.

    —Les

    The Sour Sixteen: Avoiding Writing Errors that are Bad for Business (Part II)

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011

    Last week we celebrated the second week of the NCAA basketball tournament by creating our own "Bizzaro" version of the Sweet 16, but with business writing in mind. In part one of "The Sour Sixteen." we examined eight writing errors that you should steer clear of anytime you're writing important workplace documents. While the NCAA tournament field is down to its Final Four, we'll delve into eight final writing problems. Before we begin, here is a quick look back at the first half of the list. Notably

    1. Lack of focus
    2. Missing important proper nouns
    3. Using slang
    4. Forcing artificial language
    5. Using the wrong word
    6. Missing comma after introductory elements
    7. Faulty subject-verb agreement
    8. Incorrectly joined sentences

    The next four problems concentrate on two important traits of writing, voice and sentence fluency.

    1. The writing sounds too informal
      A professional writing voice is a lot like proper business attire. Just as you wouldn't wear a T-shirt and athletic shorts to a formal business meeting, you shouldn't write a memo that includes slang and emoticons. In workplace writing, it is best to avoid an informal voice altogether. An informal voice is characterized by frequent contractions and personal pronouns; humor and slang; and shorthand and emoticons. It is perfectly appropriate to use an informal voice when you're jotting down notes or gathering your thoughts, but when it comes to drafting workplace documents or e-mail, opt for a more formal tone.
    2. The writing sounds too formal
      Yes, there is also a point when business writing can sound too formal, or stiff. Grasping this point may seem contradictory after reading the previous rule about informal voice. However, there is an appropriate medium between the two. We call it "The Business Middle." The Business Middle is a conversational but professional voice. It uses friendly and natural expressions but is still free of humor and slang. Notice the difference in these two passages:
      Formal and stilted: This correspondence is in reference to the position of Software-Training Specialist at Evergreen Medical Center. My decision is to agree to the conditions of employment for that position that were expressed to me…
      The Business Middle: Thank you for offering me the position of Software-Training Specialist at Evergreen Medical Center. I am happy to accept the position at the annual salary of…
      The Business Middle is appropriate for most business letters, workplace e-mails, and memos. If you're writing a more formal document, such as one dealing with legalities or bad news, it's best to use a more serious and objective tone. One final thought on the levels of formality: If you're struggling to find a happy medium between informal and formal voice, it's best to err on the side of formal. After all, it's always less awkward to be a bit overdressed rather than noticeably underdressed.
    3. The writing is too negative
      Another problem relating to voice occurs when the writing comes across as overly negative. A negative tone is one that focuses on a problem, rather than a solution; it is accusatory rather than cooperative. Here are some tips for achieving a positive writing voice:

      Focus on…
      • The subject, not the personalities of the people involved
      • Solutions, not the problem
      • Strengths, not weaknesses
      • Suggestions, not threats
    4. The sentences are too repetitive
      Effective writing flows smoothly from sentence to sentence. If you start all your sentences the same way, you risk creating choppy writing. Choppy writing is predictable and hard to read, which is why you should vary the beginnings and length of your sentences. Consider the difference in fluency in the following examples:
      Repetitive: The report shows that first-quarter earnings continue to improve. The report's findings show that we should reinvest.
      Varied: The report shows a marked improvement in first-quarter earnings. If earnings continue to rise, we should reinvest.
      To improve the fluency of your own writing, consider different ways to begin sentences, or ways to combine ideas.

    The last set of errors focuses on English language rules. Business writing and business correspondence must follow the correct use of punctuation, capitalization, spelling, words, and grammar. Sometimes these language errors are hard to spot, but even the most obscure error can be bad for business. As you will see, the following mistakes can create confusion, which prevents clear and straightforward communication.

    1. Unnecessary shift in tense
      A shift in tense happens when a writer uses two different tenses in the same sentence when only one is needed. Such an error can distort when something is happening.
      Shift in tense: I prepared the invoices and verify all the expense reports.
      Corrected: I prepared the invoices and verified all the expense reports.
      Make sure the tense (past, present, or future) remains consistent throughout each sentence.
    2. Indefinite pronoun reference
      An indefinite pronoun reference results when it is unclear which word or phrase a pronoun refers to.
      Unclear: Once they transferred to the new site, the new owners gave the workers a new benefit package. (They could refer to the workers or the owners.)
      Clear: Once the employees transferred to the new site, the new owners gave the workers a new benefit package.
      You can fix an indefinite pronoun reference by using more specific words to rename the subject or by rearranging the sentence.
    3. Missing comma in compound sentence
      A compound sentence made up of two independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as sentences) needs a comma and a conjunction to properly link the two clauses. Oftentimes, writers will ignore the comma before the conjunction, even though the conjunction itself is not strong enough to hold the two clauses.
      Incorrect: I was unhappy with the conversation so I called Jim back to resolve our disagreement.
      Correct: I was unhappy with the conversation, so I called Jim back to resolve our disagreement.
    4. Missing commas around additional information
      When a group of words adds information that is not needed to understand the sentence, you should set off the extra information with commas.
      Example: Third Community Bank, which was founded in 1957, is opening three new locations in the area.
      Remember, commas are needed only when the phrase (extra information) can be left out of the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence.

    So there you have 16 writing errors that are bad for business. Think about them the next time you're assigned a writing project at work. By making a point to avoid them, you'll improve the transparency of your communication. And that's good for business.

    —Tim Kemper

    Photo by Frank Douwes

    Using Punctuation: Colon to Introduce a List

    Monday, March 28, 2011

    A colon is used to introduce a list.

    A good employee needs two things: a good attitude and a willingness to learn.

    Note: Don't use a colon to introduce a list if no summary words are used. (The summary words two things appear in the sentence above; there are no summary words in the sentence below.)

    A good employee needs a positive attitude and a willingness to learn.

    For more business-writing tips, browse our blog or use the search box atop the page. Or purchase our handy Proofreader's Guide ebook or Write for Business handbook.

    Using Punctuation: Colon to Introduce Explanatory Material

    Friday, March 25, 2011

    A colon may be used to introduce a word or words that explain or summarize the main clause.

    There is no future in any job: The future lies in the person who holds the job.

    For more business-writing tips, browse our blog or use the search box atop the page. Or purchase our handy Proofreader's Guide ebook or Write for Business handbook.

    Using Punctuation: Colon as a Formal Introduction

    A colon may be used following an independent clause that introduces a formal statement, a question, or a quotation.

    Malcolm Forbes once offered this thought: "Failure is success if we learn from it."

    For more business-writing tips, browse our blog or use the search box atop the page. Or purchase our handy Proofreader's Guide ebook or Write for Business handbook.

    The Sour Sixteen: Avoiding Writing Errors that are Bad for Business

    Thursday, March 24, 2011

    If you're a sports fan like me, there's no sweeter time of the year than mid-March, when the NCAA tournament treats us to hours of great college basketball, torn-up bracket sheets, and repeated references to Cinderella.

    It's also a heck of a time of the year for alliteration. "March Madness." "Bracket busters." "Buzzer beaters." "The Final Four." To an outsider it might sound like gibberish, but to college basketball fans, it's the vocabulary of March.

    Today the single-elimination tournament continues with the Round of 16, or as it more commonly called, the Sweet Sixteen. (Alliteration again.) In the spirit of this event, here are 16 errors that can make the difference between winning and losing in your business writing. Today's post will feature the first eight errors. We'll post the final eight next week.

    Naturally, we're calling them the "Sour Sixteen."

    The first four errors could also be categorized as "big-picture mistakes." These are major writing errors that are obvious to everyday readers, and which therefore can seriously jeopardize the quality of your writing.

    1. Lack of focus
      Good writing has a clear subject and purpose. Without one or the other, the writing will lack focus, leaving the reader to ask, "What's this about?" or "What's the point?" If you have trouble formulating a clear subject and purpose, "I want to say _____________ about ___________" is better than nothing at all.
    2. Misspelling important proper nouns
      This one should be obvious. While all types of spelling errors should be avoided, misspelling a client's name or a company's name could drive away business. Be cautious about relying solely on your computer's spellchecker, for it might not recognize the correct spelling of proper nouns.
    3. Using slang
      Slang makes your writing sound unprofessional. It can also undercut your message, confuse readers who are unfamiliar with the expressions, and make the writing sound dated.
      • Unprofessional: We can hook you up with a slick deal.
      • Professional: We guarantee you the best service at the best price.
    4. Forcing artificial language
      If you try too hard to make your writing sound "important," you run the risk of seeming pretentious. Most readers will see right through such writing. Plain English does a much better job of communicating your message.
      • Artificial: It has come to our knowledge that you have made an inquiry pertaining to our line of suction efficiency machines.
      • Plain English: Thank you for your question about our vacuum cleaners.

    The next group deals with smaller but still serious writing errors. These mistakes are easy to miss, so it's important to pay close attention during the revising and editing stage of the writing process.

    1. Using the wrong word
      Many of the most commonly misused words are confused with others that look the same. Make sure you can distinguish each word in the following sets: its, it's; affect, effect; complement, compliment; good, well; than, then; and there, their, they're.
    2. Missing comma after introductory phrases
      Anytime you begin a sentence with an introductory phrase of four or more words, you should place a comma after the introductory phrase (as in this sentence itself). People tend to ignore this rule, but the comma helps readers distinguish introductory material from the main part of the sentence.
    3. Faulty subject-verb agreement
      There are three basic rules to follow when dealing with subject-verb agreement:
      1. With most subjects, a singular subject takes a singular verb, and a plural subject takes a plural one.
      2. Compound subjects joined by and take a plural one, but when the compound subjects are joined by or, the verb should agree with the last subject.
      3. Some indefinite pronouns are singular, some are plural, and some can be singular or plural depending on their placement.
      You can find additional tips for subject-verb agreement of indefinite pronouns on the Write for Business blog and on pages 323-324 of the Write for Business handbook.
    4. Incorrectly joined sentences
      Take care to avoid run-ons and comma splices. A run-on results when two sentences are joined without any punctuation or conjunction. Run-ons are easier to catch than comma splices, which occur when two sentences are joined by only a comma. These errors can be fixed by joining the sentences with a semicolon, with a semicolon and a conjunctive adverb (such as however), or with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, etc.). You could also make the two independent clauses into sentences by separating them with a period.
      • Incorrect: We launched a new Web site everyone should take a look.
      • Correct: We launched a new Web site; everyone should take a look.
      • Correct: We launched a new Web site, and everyone should take a look.
      • Correct: We launched a new Web site. Everyone should take a look.

    Part II of "The Sour Sixteen, outlining the final 8 errors," will be posted next week.

    —Tim Kemper

    Photo by Neeta Lind