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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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Puzzled Expression

Friday, September 19, 2014
Summertime means puzzle time

Do you like puzzles? Here are three I've faced. (The third involves writing.)

Outside the Cube

Years ago, someone gave me a Rubik’s Cube. I mixed it all up, then set about trying to solve it. Eventually, frustrated, I turned the top level about 10 degrees, pried out the middle piece on one edge, disassembled the whole thing, and put it all back together in proper order. Puzzle solved.

Hold the Phone

This afternoon, I got a call on my cell phone from an unknown number. Whoever it was rang once and hung up. I did a quick reverse lookup online and learned it’s a spammer. Spammers don’t pay attention to the national “Do Not Call” registry, and my phone service doesn’t support blocking numbers. Which left me with a puzzle: How can I avoid receiving calls from this number?

My solution was to add a “Spam” contact in my phone’s directory, then set that contact to go straight to voicemail. Spammers and bots generally hang up without leaving a message, so from now on I’ll never even know they call. Puzzle solved.  

Write Approach

Writing is simply another type of puzzle—sort of a cross between jigsaw and scavenger hunt. In your mind is an image—however sharp or blurry—of the result you hope to achieve. Laid out before you are a world of pieces that might fit: facts, ideas, opinions, examples. Your job is to sort out the ones you need in this picture from all the rest, then fit them together logically, clearly, and smoothly for other people to view.

Think about that jigsaw metaphor for a moment.

  • In business writing, you typically have a form to follow. That’s something like the edge pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. They outline the contents. Your understanding of topic, purpose, and audience also helps to shape that frame.
  • As you locate pieces that fit together, the picture starts to become clearer in your own mind. When writing, as you learn more about your topic and goals, your purpose comes clearer. In turn, this helps you to identify more pieces.
  • It’s obvious when pieces are still missing from a jigsaw puzzle. In writing, those gaps may not be as immediately evident, but with practice you can spot them. Look for unsupported assumptions, leaps of logic, and imprecise wording. Ask a colleague to read and react. Don’t just gloss over gaps; those missing pieces draw attention away from the overall picture.

Approach writing as a puzzle—rather than, say, a race or an endurance test—and the process will go much more smoothly and successfully. Puzzle solved.

—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

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

Among and Between

Friday, April 18, 2014

Creative Commons photo by berr.e on Flickr

English is called a living language because the words and rules are constantly changing to fit a changing world. The words among and between are good examples of this flux. The simple rule has been to “use between when referring to only two things, and among when referring to more than two.” But following this rule unswervingly results in awkward constructions.

It is correct to use between when considering one-to-one relationships, no matter the number of individuals or things, and no matter if that number is unspecified (see third example here):

The choice for vice president is between Raynar and Kimberlie.

We must decide between New Orleans, Galveston, and Tampa for our vacation destination.

In this global economy, cooperation between nations is paramount.

On the other hand, it is correct to use among to portray meanings such as these—in the midst of, in a group, or to distribute:

The guests felt at ease because they were among friends.

Marcia is among the elite when it comes to her management skills.

The will divided the property among Kris, Linette, and Vaughn.

Here is an example sentence that uses both words correctly:

Traveling on the roads that stretched between the small towns, the reporter wandered among the field hands and asked questions.

It’s important to stay abreast of changes in the language. Be careful, though, to avoid trendy phrases that quickly become dated. Our blog and our mid-month eTips newsletter can help.

—Joyce Lee

How to Write About Big Data

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Big data is big business.

Major industries—from health care, to energy, to retail—shell out billions of dollars for data collection and analysis.

If information is the “new oil,” then reserves are booming. Amazingly, 80 percent of the world’s data was generated in the last two years alone.

Distilling such a massive volume of numbers into meaningful and actionable chunks is a formidable challenge, one that this humble blogger will leave to statisticians and data scientists.

But big data presents a unique challenge to communications professionals, too. For collecting and analyzing big data is one thing. Communicating what it means is an entirely different undertaking.

Data is the centerpiece of much workplace communication, including annual reports, market analyses, executive summaries, and other correspondence. All these forms share something in common: they will be read by a mostly non-technical audience. Yet this same audience may include stakeholders who have to make important decisions and take actions based on the data.

When reporting data, your goal is twofold: (1) Make the data “digestible” and (2) explain its significance. Your communications should focus less on the method of analysis and more on the big-picture results. Accuracy and clarity are paramount.

Organize for Clarity

Your data-based writing can achieve clarity by focusing on one main idea.  Following a three-part organizational pattern similar to SEA will help you develop this idea. This method states the main idea first, follows with details to support it, and ends by calling the reader to action.

When writing about data, use a similar three-part structure:

  • Opening: Introduce the main idea. The main idea is the “big idea,” or insight, that comes from the data. The idea could be an emerging trend, a data-based prediction, a meaningful comparison, a consequential outlier, or something else of value. You should be able to state the idea in a single sentence.
  • Middle: Support the main idea with data. You can do so by pointing out high and low points, changes over time, and other pertinent numbers. If you include tables or graphics, make sure to explain what they mean.
  • Closing: Restate the main idea to show how it impacts your audience. If appropriate, make recommendations based on the data.   

For more complex data analysis, secondary results may need reporting. Highlight these in the middle part with separate supporting paragraphs for each new insight. These paragraphs should follow a modified version of the three-part structure: 1) Begin by identifying the insight; 2) support the insight with data; and 3) close with a conclusion based on the insight.

The middle part is also where you should report and respond to any data that differs from or contradicts your main idea.

Simplify Word Choice

Another way to clarify your data-based writing to simplify your words. Do so by:

  • using plain language;
  • removing unnecessary jargon and complicated language; and
  • defining acronyms and technical terms.

Notice the difference in word choice in these two examples:

A)     By deconstructing numerical research of the wood flooring industry, one can conclude revenue does not necessarily flourish in connection with MBF. If you direct your attention to the MBF and revenue patterns in West Virginia in Table 1, you will infer that the region is a bullish market for sales ($94 million) and a bearish market for production (45 MBF). Meanwhile, Georgia produces 215 MBF annually, while generating less than $27 million in sales. The proposition of a regional production-to-sales correlation is a falsity.

B)      Our analysis of the wood flooring industry fails to show a geographic correlation between sales and production. Table 1 shows that West Virginia is the second leading market for wood flooring ($94 million annual sales) yet is home to only four manufacturers producing 45 million board feet (MBF) annually. Conversely, Georgia floor manufacturers produce upwards of 215 MBF but sold just $26.93 million within the state in 2013. This data suggests production does not drive revenue within geographic regions.

Can you see why the second example is clearer to a general reader? It uses plain language, defines acronyms, and cuts unnecessary jargon.

Adding Visualizations

In discussing how to communicate data, it would a foolish to neglect visualizations. A visualization is a graphic representation of data, such as a bar graph, time lines, or information maps.

Visualizations are powerful communication tools. They often reveal the “big idea” of a data set more clearly than words, helping the audience digest the information. Not surprisingly, visualizations are also more engaging than numbers and words. Some are downright beautiful.   

Thankfully, it doesn’t take a graphic design artist to create an engaging visualization. Many easy-to-use visualization tools are available for free online. Applications like Google Charts, Many Eyes, Tableau, and Visual.ly are a great place to start.

If you decide to build a data visualization for publication, keep in mind these helpful tips from the Data Journalism Handbook:

  1. Focus on one big idea. Your visualization should reflect the “big idea” of the data set. Think about the one impression you want to leave with the reader. Enhance that idea by removing unessential data or information.   
  2. Design for two types of readers. The visualization should be easy enough to understand at a glance, but also offer something of value that will invite the viewer to study it more closely.

As with any communication, accuracy is vital. The final step to writing about data, or creating a visualization for publication, is having one or more trusted individuals check and revise your work.

Good communication is good business. That doesn’t change in our increasingly numbers-driven world. Wherever people are busy crunching numbers, someone needs to communicate what it all means.  

—Tim Kemper