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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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    The Tao Te Google

    Tuesday, December 03, 2013

    In the early days of the Internet, anyone with a modicum of HTML knowledge could game the search engines. Search-engine optimization (SEO) experts popped up right and left, charging hefty sums to place their clients at the head of search results. They crammed client pages with search keywords—in titles, meta tags, headings, links, and image descriptions—sometimes even as invisible (white on white) text on the page. When Google came into being, with its strategy of ranking pages by number and quality of inbound links, SEO “black hats” gamed that system by daisy-chaining sites in link-swapping deals.

    Search engines got smarter. Their algorithms started actually punishing such tactics by sending abusive pages to the back of the line. In response, SEO pros studied the changed rules, revised their strategies, and charged more money to retune client sites. An arms race began between evolving search engines and SEO experts.

    In such a situation, it should be obvious who wins. You can play catch-up only so long—especially with a giant with legs the length of Google’s—before you fall behind. And where Google goes, other search engines follow. As a result, the “black hat” SEO specialist is dying out.

    Many things play a part today in a page’s search engine ranking, but all fit under one umbrella: Quality Content. If a page is well written, search engines will recognize its content by natural variations on key terms and phrases. If a page is well organized, with appropriate headings and graphics, search engines will note that as well. If a page is helpful, search engines will note inbound links from other sites of good quality. But if a page tries to cheat, it will suffer.

    If I may borrow a section from the Tao te Ching

    Fill your bowl to the brim
    and it will spill.
    Keep sharpening your knife
    and it will blunt.
    Chase after money and security
    and your heart will never unclench.
    Care about people's approval
    and you will be their prisoner.

    Do your work, then step back.
    The only path to serenity.

    In other words, focus on a true purpose, and the results will come.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Beatnik Photos

    Type Casting

    Friday, March 15, 2013

    Many people currently writing for a living started with a typewriter. If you’re younger than that, please stick with me; this post is actually about computers.

    One great thing about typewriters was the tab stop. If you were writing a semiblock letter, for example, you could set a tab stop for the center of the page. Then hit the tab key and “zing” the carriage would go right to that spot. Nobody hit “space, space, space, space…” ad infinitum to reach the center. Even releasing the carriage with one hand and sliding it with the other was troublesome. “Tab, zing” was absolutely the way to go.

    Now here’s the thing: Computer word processors also have a tab system, and it’s even easier to use. In most software, you just hover the mouse pointer where you want a tab, then “click” and it’s set. Want more than one tab? “Click, click,” and they’re set too.

    What’s more, you can even choose the type of tab you need. In most software, just click the tab icon on the left side of the screen. Left-justified is the default, followed by a center tab, then right-justified, then a decimal tab. (Your software may also have a bar tab, first-line indent, and hanging indent in that location.)

    The trouble is, it seems virtually no one knows about these tab controls. So in order to space text out, people use “tab, tab, tab” or “space, space, space” until things look right on their screens. Unfortunately, when they pass a file to someone else who uses a different program—or even the same program on a different computer—the alignment is all messed up. That’s especially true if the document gets edited at all. Indents and tabs slide from one line to another, and text starts jamming together or stretching far apart.

    All for the lack of a simple “hover” and “click.”

    I challenge you to find the tab controls on your computer. Use them to ensure your own text remains in place when your file goes to someone else’s machine. It’s an easy way to make the world a little better for us all.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Laineys Repertoire

    Online Writers, Give Readers a Break

    Friday, January 18, 2013

    I’ve been professionally publishing for nearly three decades now. (Where has the time gone?) And over those years, I’ve written texts from just a few paragraphs long to about 400 pages. Once I even edited a manuscript just shy of a million words. (Oh, right. That’s where the time went.)

    More recently, of course, much of my writing has been online. And I’m noticing how essential short paragraphs are in this venue. In a print document, six or seven sentences may make a good paragraph. But online the maximum seems to be no more than three to five.

    To prove the point, let’s consider a bit of Americana, the first paragraph of Mark Twain’s nonfiction account of Life on the Mississippi.

    THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

    That works fine in print, but not so well online, where the reader drowns in a field of gray. Let’s try the same text with a few well-placed breaks.

    THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable.

    Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames.

    No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude.

    The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

    Don’t you find that easier to read? The difference is just three paragraph breaks. Nothing else is changed.

    Now maybe you don’t maintain a blog. But you probably have a Facebook page or a LinkedIn account. And you certainly send emails. All of those can benefit from a few well-placed paragraph breaks.

    And if you ever have reason to post a block of information from a printed company document online, consider the lesson of Mark Twain’s paragraph. Adding a few paragraph breaks may actually enhance the flow of information. What’s best for print isn’t always best for etexts, and vice versa. 

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by USACEpublicaffairs

    Thin Is In, for Business Writing and Presentation

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012

    Take a look at the Beatles in 1964, arriving in New York for their first U.S. television appearance (on the Ed Sullivan Show). Note those skinny ties and narrow jacket lapels. Now skip over the broad sweep of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s to today: Thin is back in style.

    That's as true of business writing as of haberdashery. Text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook have driven us to write leaner copy. People just don't have time for lengthy messages. With its PLAIN Writing Act, even the U.S. government is driving this push for succinctness.

    Happily, the shift to leanness is also making information presentation increasingly visual. Graphic elements like headings and bullet lists have become commonly accepted for highlighting key points, of course. But well-designed infographics are used more and more to make complex data digestible. Further, with increased bandwidth available, online audio and video are replacing text for quick consumption of information. (I recently repaired my washing machine, for example, after watching a home-appliance store's YouTube video.)

    Given the rise of smartphones and tablet computers, this trend toward "thin" is only going to continue, especially online. Short text is helpful text. Multimedia options that help viewers quickly find what they need (as opposed to multimedia dress-up) will be rewarded with more visitors.

    For a further glimpse of this slim-lined future, take a look at HTML5. It's a match made for mobile computing. The days of Flash-heavy or (heaven forbid) Flash-only sites are numbered.

    If you're writing for the Web, or anyhow influencing your company's Web presence, and you're not already browsing with a mobile device, it's high time to start. It's the only way to really understand how well your site works for your visitors, or doesn't. You may also want to begin chanting this mantra: "Thin is in."

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by JonoMueller

    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