August 2009
Writing eTips UpWrite Press

SevenSeven Traits of Effective Business Writing

Every job is easier when broken into manageable parts. That's as true of writing as of any other task. The best training programs present writing as a process based on key traits. For an introduction to the seven basic traits of good business writing, visit www.upwritepress.com/writing_resources.

“The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.”

—Norbet Platt

Word Pair of the Month: set, sit

This month’s word pair, set and sit, are prime examples of how a little vocal inflection can change a meaning. Both words are verbs having to do with movement, but the meanings have that little difference so common in English.

First, the word sit is intransitive, meaning it does not take a direct object. True, there are usually other words following, as in the sentence “Please sit in the hall while we discuss the matter.” But you could say “Please sit” and still convey a complete thought.

On the other hand, the word set is transitive and needs a direct object to complete its meaning, as in the sentence “Won’t you set your books over there?” It wouldn’t make sense to say “Won’t you set?” That “sentence” prompts more questions—“Won’t I set what . . . and where?”—instead of conveying a complete thought.

Just remember, use the word set when something is being placed somewhere, and use the word sit when people are placing themselves somewhere . . . in a chair, at a desk, on the patio, and so on.



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August Writers’ Forum Topic

What daily distractions do you encounter in your workplace? Are they environmental or personal? Are some days worse than others? Which of these distractions are most bothersome, and how do you deal with them?

We received a variety of comments about daily distractions, many of them environmental in nature. Joanne C., a training specialist in Nashville, wrote:

The most frequent and frustrating distractions I have at work are both environmental and personal. Environmental: The temperature. It is so cold where I sit that I often wear a sweater, drape a shawl over my legs, and drink hot tea. Several coworkers use portable heaters at their desks (yes, in the middle of summer). Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to adjust the temperature on our floor.

Personal distractions from people who just want to chat for a few minutes are sometimes welcome and necessary. But too many in one day, along with phone calls and administrative requests that keep me from my primary projects, get on my nerves. Most of the time I just want to be left alone to write my training materials.

And sometimes the biggest personal distraction is myself. I get sleepy, “snacky,” or sluggish from sitting too long. It’s easy to lose focus when you’d rather be walking (or running) outside in the fresh air, shopping for all the birthdays that hit during the month, or working on more interesting personal writing projects. In these moments, I remind myself to be thankful that I get to spend most of my workday writing, and it helps me appreciate and enjoy my job more.

Some distractions come from outside the office, as those suffered by Janice Kahan, a medical records coder in a Chicago suburb. She writes:

The metro Chicago area has a good network of commuter trains, but this can sometimes be a mixed blessing. My job is very detail oriented, and focus is critical for entering accurate records. Unfortunately, the railroad line is a few short blocks from my office, and every time a train goes through, the noise is sudden and distracting—especially when it includes a whistle blast! Some of my coworkers plug in to music to block out the noise, but I’ve never liked doing that. Now I’ve learned to set my watch by the runs, and to anticipate them. I have to admit I’ve gotten used to it, but when I first started here it was pretty nerve wracking.

Not all distractions come from the outside, though. Adit Mitra, a Baltimore-based Web designer, both enjoys and bemoans the fact that he works in a friendly place.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like my coworkers. We have a pretty loose atmosphere in my office, and we have periods of downtime when we can relax. Sometimes that’s really great, and we have gotten very friendly. But sometimes people have time when I don’t, and they want to talk or share stories when I just want to get my work done so I can go home! I didn’t want to offend anyone, but I needed to make it clear that I can’t always take time to talk. So I made a small sign that says “Available to schmooze” on one side and “Can we talk later?” on the other. I stick it to the side of my desk as the situation warrants. It really works great, and I’ve noticed that a couple of other people have copied the idea.

Sometimes the distractions are inside of you, as described by Shari Wyczewski, who operates a small home-based costume company in Houston.

I run a creative business, designing and making costumes and formal wear, including one-of-a-kind wedding dresses. Sometimes I just hit a wall creatively and can’t seem to come up with the right design for a customer. That’s my biggest distraction—creative block. If I sit at my design table and obsess over it, I become distracted by the tiniest things—dust on a windowsill, dull pencils, you name it. I have to deal with it by getting up and walking around, making a cup of tea, maybe going for a short walk. If I don’t think about a project for a while, I usually get fresh ideas when I come back to it. The funny thing is, my brother is a mathematician, and he says he does the same thing when faced with a difficult problem. Guess creativity is relative, hey?

Finally, Rob Hanson, a forest ranger in Yosemite National Park, wrote back with tongue in cheek:

Distractions? Every morning I look out on thousands of acres of natural beauty, every night I look up at more stars than a banker has worries. I protect the environment, rescue animals in distress, teach children about natural history, converse with people on vacation, and generally live in open air and peace. With the exception of a forest fire or a poacher, how in the world could I possibly be distracted from perfection?

All we can say is wow, we’re impressed he wants to improve his writing skills!

Late, but Noteworthy

We had a latecomer to last month’s writers' forum about level of intimacy with coworkers and thought it was worth including here. Laura Curvin, Content Manager for T-Mobile, wrote this about her “family” of coworkers:

I worked my way through college as a clerk in a record store where I bonded with teammates and customers who shared my (somewhat cliche) distrust of the corporate world. Back then, I’d have scoffed at the notion of a corporate family…so of course that’s exactly where the laws of irony led me. Since leaving retail, I’ve worked in a variety of corporate roles and have experienced a range of team dynamics, from dispassionate to doting. My current team definitely feels like family. Sometimes we’re dysfunctional. Sometimes we forget our differences with the aid of adult beverages. Some of my teammates are like distant cousins. Others are like siblings. We gossip with and about each other. We fall in and out of favor, but we tend to present a united front regardless of our differences. When the work gets crazy, human connections keep me sane.

A Final Thought

Did you ever notice how people change the way they speak depending on whom they are talking to? For example, I’ve found that when I talk to my nephew from Texas, I tend to develop a little twang. When I talk with my neighbor from South Africa, my speech becomes a wee bit more formal to better match her lovely lilting accent and more formalized structure. Spoken language is a great equalizer, but written language presents an even more powerful image. A reader automatically thinks more highly of someone who writes clearly and correctly. So go with the slang and twang when you talk with friends, but keep that writing formal and crisp to create the best possible impression.



Our Staff Writers’ Blog

Get the latest insights into writing from our staff writers. So far this month, Dave Kemper has discussed “Writing Potholes,” and Joyce Lee has explained “The Case for Nouns.” In addition, our “Using the Right Word” series has covered five commonly misused word sets:

Visit our blog for these and other great articles!

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Coming in September

Creating Effective Tables

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