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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    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

    Parallel Writing for Clarity

    Monday, October 15, 2012

    Unparallel construction uses words, phrases, and sometimes clauses that are inconsistent in form. This inconsistency can result in jarring, confusing, choppy writing. Here are some examples and corrections of unparallel writing.

    • Verb forms. The verb forms in a series should be consistent.

    Unparallel: We emailed, faxed, and had texted our customers to alert them of the change.
    (Verb forms shift from past to past-perfect tense.)

    Parallel: We emailed, faxed, and texted our customers to alert them of the change.
    (All verbs are past tense.)

    Famous example: “I came; I saw; I conquered.” —Julius Caesar

    • Phrases. The types of phrases used in a series ought to be consistent.

    Unparallel: After networking all day, talking to many customers, and then to seal several big deals, the team was tired.
    (Verbals shift from gerunds to an infinitive.)

    Parallel: After networking all day, talking to many customers, and then sealing several big deals, the team was tired.
    (All verbal phrases use gerunds.)

    Famous example: “[G]overnment of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” —Abraham Lincoln

    • Clauses. When two or more clauses are used to make an overall point, parallel construction can add emphasis and clarity to the message.

    Unparallel: The board met every day for two weeks, they would pore over the financial reports, and the members had to make some hard decisions.
    (The clauses use different subjects and verb forms.)

    Parallel: The board met every day for two weeks, they pored over the financial reports, and they made some hard decisions.
    (Using parallel subjects and verb forms unifies the three clauses into a strong point.)

    Famous example: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” —Benjamin Franklin

    Keeping elements parallel gives them equal weight, creating balance and rhythm in your writing, which sends a clear message to your reader.

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by far closer

    Big Trouble in Little Commas

    Tuesday, September 25, 2012

    Consider the little things that often cause trouble—the speck in your eye, the pebble in your shoe, the drip in your sink, and so on. In writing, one such trouble is the omission or misplacement of commas. Here are quick reminders of three places commas should be used.

    • Following introductory clauses and phrases: Commas are needed to set these off from the rest of a sentence.

      Example introductory clause: Although we had gone over the company’s requirements, the advertising campaign fell woefully short of our needs.

      Example introductory Phrase: By my reckoning, we needed to obtain at least three more sales to finish the year in the black.
    • Between independent clauses: A comma is needed to separate two or more complete thoughts in one sentence. Place the comma before the coordinating conjunction.

      Example 1: Madeleine spoke about making the office more environmentally friendly, and then she introduced our new energy plan.

      Example 2: You can elect to go with the company insurance plan, or you can select the HMA option.
    • Around nonrestrictive modifiers: Use commas to separate modifying phrases that aren’t critical to understanding the sentence.

      Example 1: Chris introduced the new hire, a recent college graduate, to the rest of the team.

      Example 2: The contract, which had been extensively revised, was finally signed.

    Want more? Check out page 258 of Write for Business for more information on using commas to set off different elements in sentences.

    —Joyce Lee

    Image by Brett Jordan

    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

    Another Perspective on Writing with Style

    Thursday, June 02, 2011

    Blue Sports CarLester Smith's "Stylish Writing" entry last week commented on style as it pertains to voice, which creates the individuality of your writing. Your style comes from the words you choose and the structure of your sentences. Your style makes your writing sound like you.

    But there's another meaning to style in writing, and that is the specific formatting of your work, dictated by your purpose. There are many style manuals—it seems every organization has its own—but the major style manuals are AP (Associated Press), APA (American Psychological Association), MLA (Modern Language Association), and Chicago Manual of Style (often abbreviated CMS). Each contains guidance for formatting your writing, depending on the subject and audience.

    For example, let's look at the serial comma (often called the Oxford comma or Harvard comma, because it is advocated by those august bodies). The serial comma is the one before the conjunction in a list, and writers often wonder if it should be used or omitted. According to many style guides, including APA and MLA, it should be there. CMS also recommends it for clarity. However, the AP stylebook, which is the bible of journalistic writing, says "No" to the serial comma. Is there a reason for this difference? Well, to be honest, it's a matter of practicality: newspapers are always trying to save space, and cutting that comma gives an extra pica to the piece.

    MLA serves well for general writing. CMS does as well, although it actually offers more than one documentation style—the author-title system being like MLA and the author-date system like APA. (Listing publication date just after author names is important in scientific articles. Speaking of which, the Council of Science Editors, or CSE, also has a style manual, for publications dealing with hard sciences.)

    Anyway, to put all this in perspective, the style manual you use is only a tool, designed to make your writing grammatically correct and fitting to your purpose. Each manual's guidelines should be incorporated within your larger personal style to make your writing most effective.

    Note: For a quick yet excellent overview of general style issues, see the famous little volume The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. It's the classic guide for all basic questions about writing and should have a place of honor on your desk. You can find a free copy of Strunk's 1918 edition at Feedbooks.com, in Epub, Kindle, and PDF versions.

    —Joyce B. Lee

    Photo by Michael Bloch