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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    A 1-2-3 for Writing Instructions

    Monday, April 27, 2015
    Confused drawer?

    I recently became a first-time homeowner, which has been quite the learning experience. Among the many lessons I’ve learned is that Do-It-Yourself projects are not as simple as they look on HGTV.

    My lack of DIY acumen has resulted in an unhealthy amount of time browsing instructional Web sites, manuals, and videos. Along the way, I’ve encountered a surprising number of poorly written instructional materials. Common problems include unclear commands, undefined technical terms, missing steps, and mislabeled diagrams.

    These problems are particularly unfortunate for us novice DIYers, who rely on instructions and best-practice models to get jobs done. Poorly written instructions make it difficult to complete jobs safely and correctly, which compounds frustration.

    But it doesn’t have to be so. Here are some tips for making instructions easy to follow and understand.

    1. Write for beginners. If you’re writing to a general audience, imagine the person with the least knowledge of the subject, and write to that person. Keep in mind that this reader is likely apprehensive to get started. Hold his or her hand through the process using words and visuals.
    2. Outline and test your steps. Create a list of numbered steps, and test them out. Are they in the correct order?  Are additional actions needed to complete the task?  Remember, you are walking your readers through each step. Don’t assume they will take an action that is not explicitly stated.
    3. Write each step as a command. Command sentences get right to the point, providing readers with a clear directive of what to do next. These sentences use active verbs and an implied subject (you). So instead of saying “The seat should be attached to the chair back with four long bolts,” say “Attach the seat to the chair back using four long bolts.”
    4. Use simple language, and define technical terms. I recently worked my way through a set of instructions that included a step to “Inset the CHAMFERRED END of side stretchers into the holes of the chair’s back legs.” Besides the questionable command (should “inset” be “insert”?), what really bothered me was the all-caps treatment of the (misspelled) word chamfered. It’s not a term I was familiar with, but the all-caps treatment indicated that it was important. The instructions neither defined the word nor showed an illustration of its meaning.
      The lesson for instructional writers is this:  Even if you are fluent in the language of the task at hand, the language may be foreign to your readers. Avoid technical words and insider language. And when a technical term is necessary, define it through words or visuals. Also, take the time to proofread and spellcheck your work.
    5. Use pictures, illustrations, and labels wisely. Visual elements, when used correctly, are hugely beneficial. Make sure your visual elements are big enough to see and detailed enough to understand. This includes the list of materials needed to complete the task. Labels and directional graphics such as arrows are a few ways to improve the readability of visual elements.
    6. Observe someone using your instructions. Nothing serves like a real-life test. So ask a friend or colleague (someone unfamiliar with the subject) to put your instructions into practice while you watch—without intervening. Take notes about any points of hesitation or confusion, and revise your instructions for better clarity.

    In conclusion, remember that people turn to instructions when they don’t know how to do something. Your job is to provide the help they need, in the clearest, simplest terms. 

    —Tim Kemper

    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

    It’s a Gusher!

    Wednesday, November 20, 2013

    Let’s talk about raw petroleum for a moment. Bubbling out of the ground it’s of little real use. You can burn it for heat, if you can stand the smoke, and you can use it for lubrication, but that’s about it.

    With a little refining, though, petroleum can power an automobile, or a diesel engine, or a jet plane, or even a rocket ship! The more refined, the more powerful it becomes.

    Some people treat business writing like raw petroleum. They feel that ideas bubbling up and spilling over should be enough for communication. While it’s true that this may generate some flames, the problem is the smoke. Poor organization, unclear word choice, grammatical errors, and such make the message more difficult to comprehend.

    Writing requires refinement for best effect, and like petroleum fuels, the clearer it is the more powerful. The more time and effort spent in preparation, the more quickly and effectively a piece of writing can achieve its goals.

    Does your writing just chug along, coughing and sputtering? Refine it with the seven traits of effective communication: (1) strong ideas, (2) logical organization, (3) appropriate voice, (4) precise word choice, (5) smooth sentences, (6) correct copy, and (7) polished presentation.

    We recommend the Write for Business handbook for more information about these traits, as well as common grammar and spelling errors to avoid, an array of typical business forms, and more. Preview the table of contents to see how this handbook could help with business writing in your office. 

    —Lester Smith

    Photo from Wikimedia Commons

    Jumping into Writing

    Monday, September 09, 2013

    Recently, we received the following comment from a visitor:

    I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing. I've had difficulty clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out there. I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin.

    Here’s a brief answer:

    Those first 10 to 15 minutes aren't really wasted if a beginning results. However, to feel more centered and less scattered, remember to think of writing as a process instead of just jumping in.

    1. Take time to brainstorm ideas without critique. This can be either just before writing or during the course of the day, as ideas occur—in a grocery line, for example.
    2. Choose the best idea for your current purpose.
    3. Examine and expand on your chosen idea; decide what you're going to write about it.
    4. Write a draft.
    5. Review and polish.

    As you can see, writing is step 4 of a 5-step process. The 10 to 15 minutes you describe are actually capturing steps 1–3. Approaching each of those steps separately can help focus your efforts, resulting in better, more satisfying writing.

    Put another way, writing isn’t skydiving. We can’t just take a leap and expect the gravity of our need to hurl us someplace specific.

    Writing is more like a footrace—ready, set, go! A bit of prep work lends us the best start, and even then there’s some inertia to overcome before we reach our stride and make progress toward our goal.

    Writing isn’t skydiving. And even if it were, we’d need to prep a parachute to avoid jumping to a bad conclusion. 

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Laura Hadden

    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