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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    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

    Writing Rules: Initialisms

    Thursday, December 31, 2009

    An initialism is similar to an acronym except that the initials are pronounced as individual letters.

    FDA - Food and Drug Administration
    ICC - Interstate Commerce Commission
    SUV - Sport-Utility Vehicle

    Note: Spell out an initialism the first time you use it, followed by its abbreviation in parentheses. Once the initialism has been identified in this way, you may use just the abbreviation.

    (From Write for Business, page 215, and Proofreader's Guide PDF, page 27)

    Writing Rules: Acronyms

    Tuesday, December 29, 2009

    An acronym is a word formed from the first (or first few) letter of each word in a compound term. Periods are not used within acronyms.

    LAN - Local Area Network
    radar - radio detecting and ranging
    RICO - Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (Act)
    scuba - self-contained underwater breathing apparatus

    Note: Spell out an acronym the first time you use it, followed by its abbreviation in parentheses. Once the acronym has been identified in this way, you may use just the abbreviation.

    (From Write for Business, page 215, and Proofreader's Guide PDF, page 27)

    A Self-Serving (or is it Selfserving) Perspective

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    How correct should you be in your business writing? The safe answer, of course, is perfectly correct, especially if you are of a certain age, and attended Catholic grade schools. Correctness, according to most nuns, was next to godliness. But times have changed, as have Catholic schools (where have all the nuns gone?) - and so has the way we communicate.

    We speak face to face, we text message, we tweet, we e-mail, we blog, we write letters, we write reports.… If you put the forms of communication on a continuum, the honest answer to the opening question might be, "That depends on the form."

    You can be a little ungrammatical when your communication is more spontaneous than deliberate, more informal than formal; but as you move up the scale, correctness becomes more of an issue.

    Do we expect error-free conversations in text messages? Of course not. What would constitute an error when texting, anyway? How about in e-mail? An error here or there in a message to a colleague shouldn't be cause for concern, whereas errors in an e-mail to a client or customer should be. How about a departmental memo? By all means, take care whenever your writing is exposed to multiple readers.

    But why this concern about correctness in the first place? Does it really matter if you misplace an apostrophe or use to in one sentence when you really mean too. Not if you ask me. But you'd get a different answer from the "correctness Nazis" out there, individuals who thinks that the world begins and ends with perfect punctuation and grammar.

    Some people say that it's a matter of clarity - a missing or misplaced comma can change the meaning of a sentence, or a shift in verb tense may cause serious confusion. There are plenty of books that address slip ups like these. Eats, Shoots and Leaves is one. This #1 New York Times bestseller has the following subtitle: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

    The title, of course, shows how a misplaced comma can completely skew an idea. It should read "Eats Shoots and Leaves," describing an animal's eating habits. But if you put this idea within the context of a complete text, the mistake becomes far less an issue. We would get the message. Am I condoning this error? No, I'm just saying that these things happen, and they seldom deprive the reader of following a writer's line of thinking.

    Other people say that the issue is a matter of respect - that providing clear, accurate copy shows that you truly value the reader's time and interest. It's hard to dispute this argument. But no one in his or her right mind would send out an important letter or share a quarterly report without making sure that the copy is clear and correct, even if that means having a professional copyeditor check the writing for errors. (Remember the communication continuum.)

    The best argument in my mind is completely self-serving. You want your letters and reports to be clean because it makes you look good. Image may not be everything in the business world, but it's right up there. Making a good impression in your writing may help you secure a job, and later, help you advance your career. For this reason alone, pay attention to correctness.

    Final Thoughts
    There is a time and place for everything, including checking for errors, and that time is late in the development of a piece of writing. Focus on your ideas first. Once you're satisfied that you have something worthwhile to say, then carefully attend to the accuracy of your writing. It makes no sense to do otherwise.

    "We will sell no wine before its time" was once a successful slogan in the wine industry. Turn that a bit - "I will not check my writing for errors before it's time" - and the slogan will serve you well as an editing reminder.

    - Dave Kemper

    Writing Rules: Capitalizing Titles of Specific Courses

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009

    Words such as history, business, science, and technology are proper nouns when they are used in the titles of specific courses, but they are common nouns when they name a field of study.

    Professor Sajev teaches Global Business Ethics. (title of a specific course)
    Which professor teaches the biology course? (a field of study)

    Note: Language classes and school subjects that are followed by a number should be capitalized.

    Ms. Ott teaches Spanish and Geography 101.

    (From Write for Business, page 207, and Proofreader's Guide PDF, page 19)