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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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    Stylists Aren’t Rulers

    Friday, November 21, 2014
    The world is waiting for your fabulousness, don't forget your crown! (CC)

    In language, there are grammar rules, and then there are styles. Let’s consider, for example, using a series in a sentence.

    English grammar says that a series ought to be parallel.

    Don’t write this: Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and wrote his name on the paychecks.

    Do write this: Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and the paychecks.

    Then style comes into play. Oxford style says a comma should come before the last item in a series.

    Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and the paychecks.

    Associated Press style says that the final comma is unnecessary.

    Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets and the paychecks.

    So certain rules change according to which style you are following. Easy enough, you might say. Just use the right manual.

    The trouble is, however, that grammar itself doesn’t have a rule for every situation. At the very least, some rules are obscure.

    Consider, for example, the situation described in “My Big Fat Greek Blog Post.” Never in my education as an English major did anyone ever teach that adjectives are placed in order of opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose. Nor does the possessive adjective “my” fit any of those categories.

    Such gaps become most evident when teaching a language to non-native speakers. One of my daughters teaches English to adults in Belgium. Recently, her students asked which of these is correct: “A friend of Mary’s” or “A friend of Mary.” She suggested that both are correct and mean the same thing, but the first puts a slightly greater emphasis on Mary.

    Then the students changed one word. What about “A photo of Mary’s” versus “A photo of Mary”? In this case, of course, the meanings are entirely different. Depending on what they wanted to say, the students would have to choose one phrase or the other.

    At times like these, grammarians are forced to invent a rule to describe (or fit) the situation. In a way, such scenarios define grammar—a set of rules describing how people use language. The language comes first; the description comes second. And style trails along after that.

    —Lester Smith

    Mastery via Imitation

    Wednesday, July 02, 2014

    "Smile" photo from MeytalCohen.com

    Recently, on Facebook, I stumbled across drummer Meytal Cohen’s excellent cover—with Jennifer Lynn and Christine Wu on electric violins—of System of a Down’s “Toxicity.” It led me down a rabbit hole of other drum covers by Cohen, ultimately to discover that she left Israel at age 21 to pursue a dream of making music in Los Angeles. What’s significant here is that she mastered her trade by carefully listening to and modeling the performance of drummers she admired. In August of 2013, she leveraged that skill to an extremely successful Kickstarter project to fund her own original album.

    This reminded me of reading that Hunter S. Thompson once transcribed, on typewriter, both The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, just to get a feel for what it meant to write a great novel. Or to quote William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, “Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.”

    Similarly, educators often assign “sentence modeling” to students as a way to have them absorb effective constructions and styles. The students choose sentences they admire, then rewrite them with different words while preserving the original structure.

    As Lynn Gaertner-Johnson points out in “Copy What Works,” the same strategy can both save us time at work and lead us to mastery of business writing. By modeling our own writing on other successful documents in our workplace, we shortcut the writing process, while simultaneously training ourselves to write most effectively.

    So don’t be afraid to use writing templates. Just be sure to adjust their contents to the current needs of your project.

    —Lester Smith

    He Said What?

    Friday, October 18, 2013

    Forgive me if you’ve heard this one:

    A new pastor delivers a sermon at a church. After the service, he stands at the door, shaking people’s hands, getting to know names and faces. Everyone says, “Nice to meet you, Pastor,” except one old curmudgeon who says, “That was a terrible sermon.”  

    The next person in line steps up quickly and says, “Don’t pay any attention to him, Pastor. He doesn’t really think things through, just repeats whatever he hears.”

    To be honest, there’s a lot of that going on in business writing. Trying to impress a client, we end up repeating phrases like these:

    • full-service solutions provider
    • cost effective end-to-end solutions
    • uniquely innovative solutions
    • value-added services provider
    • smart services capabilities
    • collaborative partner approach

    Strung together, they result in a sentence like this one I found online: “[We] uniquely deliver innovative solutions, unmatched expertise, and smart services capabilities using a collaborative partner approach.”

    Let’s analyze that sentence one word at a time. (We’ll skip “and” and “a.”)

    • Uniquely is a bold claim. It says “no one else in the world does things like we do.” Most readers are likely to be skeptical.
    • Deliver is too strenuous a verb in this context. It draws attention to itself, and away from the main idea.
    • Innovative has become a throwaway term in our age. Everyone claims to be innovative. Worse, uniquely and innovative battle each other in the sentence. On the one hand, they’re redundant; on the other, uniquely trumps innovative, deflating that second word.
    • Solutions has become the bland, white-bread business term of our century. It’s also a nominalization—turning a strong verb to a weaker noun. Consider how much stronger it sounds to say, “We solve problems” than “we provide solutions.”
    • Unmatched is just another word for unique. It invites the same skepticism.
    • Expertise is as bland and empty as solutions. Similarly, it turns expert (a strong noun or adjective) into a longer, weaker noun.
    • Smart and services are inseparable in this sentence, but what do they mean? The term smart services is either jargon (which should be avoided) or a specific product (which should be capitalized).
    • Capabilities undermines the offering of services. Imagine telling a guest in your house, “We can provide you with hot coffee capabilities.”  
    • Using is better than the common utilizing, but is it really necessary at all? Some of the sentence’s bloat could be reduced by changing using a to through, for example.
    • Collaborative should be assumed in business. Does it really need to be restated here?
    • Partner seems redundant after collaborative, unless the idea is that “we partner with other businesses to meet your need.” And if that’s the case, it should be stated more clearly.
    • Approach is a cautious word. A gazelle approaches water, alert for predators. The word hardly seems fitting in the face of unique and innovative and unmatched expertise. Note also that it is another example of turning a verb to a noun.

    So what is this sentence actually trying to say? I’m guessing it means the following:

    We offer expert, innovative Smart Services tailored to your specific needs.

    If that doesn’t cover it, add a second sentence with details. Make the writing clear and specific, not bombastic and full of buzz words.

    For more on this topic, you might enjoy Jason Fried’s 2010 Inc. post, “Why Is Business Writing So Awful?

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by mpclemens

    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

    Double Jeopardy

    Monday, April 15, 2013

    Edgar Degas - Madame Jeantaud in the mirror (1875)

    As you may know, in formal English it is improper to use two negative words together to emphasize a point—as in, “I didn’t never say that.” Logic argues that two negatives cancel each other to make a positive, in this case meaning, “At some point in time I said that.”

    There are occasions, however, when doubled negatives do suit a purpose, even in formal English. That is, when you intentionally want to negate a negative to create a positive. Here’s an example:

    She couldn’t not notice that he was barefoot beneath his business suit.

    This sentence implies that she tried to be polite and ignore his bare feet, but they were too obvious. Granted, this is a somewhat clumsy sentence, perhaps better written as “She couldn’t avoid noticing…” or “She could hardly help but notice…” 

    A perhaps more legitimate example comes in this sentence:

    The lecture on global financial trends turned out to be not uninteresting.

    This suggests that the writer expected the talk to be less than interesting and was surprised. Or the sentence could be intended as a modest statement of praise.

    Of course, neither the “barefoot” example above nor this “lecture” example belong in good business writing. Neither is concise or clear.

    But they do illustrate that writing correctly is more than just a matter of memorizing grammar rules. Communication is a dynamic, living thing. Just as human beings are dynamic, living creatures. That's something worth reflecting on.

    —Joyce Lee