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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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    Read This Fine Print

    Thursday, June 16, 2011

    Cover of book: Fine PrintWhen I need a break, I often pull out a favorite book and read a few pages. One such book is Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art, by James J. Kilpatrick. I enjoy the book for two reasons:

    1. I love Kilpatrick's writing voice, which you can hear in this passage: "The last sentence of a piece of writing, known in the trade as a cracker, is almost as important as the first. It is the snap of the ringmaster's whip, the slam of a young lady's door."
    2. And he offers great advice about writing. For example, one section of Fine Print serves as a usage guide, but not your typical guide that explains when to use their, there, and they're and such. Here are a few of his suggestions.

    basically: This word carries no meaning, so avoid it.

    Our company has basically two concerns… (The word adds nothing to the idea.)

    believe/think: In informal communication either one will work. But in more formal communication, Kilpatrick makes this distinction: Use believe when emotions or feelings are involved and think when you referring to reasoning and thought.

    I believe in love at first sight, but I think that it is a rare occurrence.

    due to/because of: According to Kilpatrick, most editors prefer because of in the following type of sentence.

    The meeting was canceled because of [not due to] a scheduling conflict.

    each other/one another: Use each other when referring to two people or things and one another for more than two.

    Mr. Abbott and Ms. Laird always interrupt each other.
    The accountants help one another during tax season.

    envy/jealousy: Envy what belongs to someone else and be jealous of your own possessions.

    ACME Manufacturing is envious of our production schedule.
    We become jealous of our plans when other companies inquire about them.

    got: According to Kilpatrick, got is a "belch of a word" that should be avoided.

    She received or has [not got] the report from the legal department.

    more important/more importantly: Kilpatrick prefers more important or of more importance when used as the beginning of a sentence. To his mind, more importantly sounds "puffed up and pretentious."

    learning experience: As Kilpatrick states, "Is there any experience that is not in some sense a learning experience?" It's best to avoid this phrase.

    lot/lots: Either of these words may work well in casual conversation ("We collected lots of shells at the beach"), but avoid them in formal communication.

    might/may: Here's one way to decide which one to use. Might suggests more doubt than may.

    We might win the contract if we change our pricing.
    We may get the contract soon.

    only: Watch where you place this word. Rather than "The friends were only texting in the evenings" (they were texting then and doing nothing else) try "The friends were texting only in the evenings" (they weren't texting at other times). Rather than "He only had four hits in August" (nothing else happened to him in August) try "He had only four hits in August" (his hits in August were minimal).

    over/more than: In formal communication, use over to mean "on top of" as in "Drizzle the olive oil over the potatoes." And use more than when you talking about a period of time: "She has managed the kitchen for more than 20 years."

    try and/try to: We know what is meant in this statement: "If I just try and eliminate the sweets, I will fit into my favorite dress." But what the weight watcher really means is "If I just try to forget the sweets, I will fit into my favorite dress."

    Final Thought
    Get a copy of Fine Print if you are a writer by trade or if writing is a major part of your job. Then enjoy the book in little sips as I do. Ten or fifteen minutes of Kilpatrick is always enjoyable and instructive.

    —Dave Kemper

    Job One: Be Clear

    Wednesday, March 02, 2011

    Artificial diamondMany postings in this blog have advised you that, above all else, your business writing must be clear. And we certainly are not the only ones making this siren call. Just about anyone who writes about writing addresses the importance of clarity. Here are what two famous stylists have to say about the topic.

    • In his book Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art , James J. Kilpatrick says, "…the first rule of prose composition—the rule that must be mastered before it can effectively be broken—is, Be clear! Be clear! And yet again, be clear!"
    • In his book Writing to Learn , William Zinsser states, "We are a society paralyzed by the inability to convey routine information—the inability of the executive to explain company policy in a memo to the staff, of the employee to explain his new idea in a proposal to the boss, of the bank to explain its 'simplified' new bank statement to the customer.…"

    Well, the government has recently added to the dialogue with the passage of the Plain Writing Act of 2010. This act requires federal government workers to write documents that are "clear, concise, and well-organized." Pardon the obvious understatement, but clarity has never been a strength in government prose, so this act is a long, long time in coming.

    What follows are the main guidelines in the Plain Writing Act. All writers—in the public and private sectors—would be well advised to keep these points in mind when developing informational reports and messages.

    Writing Guidelines in the Plain Writing Act

    Words

    • Verbs
      • Use active verbs. (The doctor explains…rather than The procedure explained by the doctor…)
      • Use the present tense.
      • Use the simplest form of verbs.
      • Avoid hidden verbs. (The committee discusses…rather than The discussion by the committee…)
      • Use "must" to indicate requirements.
      • Use contractions when appropriate.
    • Nouns and pronouns
      • Don't turn verbs into nouns. (Avoid words such as discussion, explanation, etc.)
      • Use pronouns (you) to speak directly to readers.
      • Minimize abbreviations.
    • Other word issues
      • Use short, simple words.
      • Omit unnecessary words.
      • Omit excessive modifiers.
      • Avoid jargon.
      • Don't use slashes. (and/or)

    Sentences and Paragraph

    • Write short sentences.
    • Keep subjects and verbs and objects close together.
    • Avoid double negatives.
    • Include a topic sentence in paragraphs.
    • Write short paragraphs.

    Aids to Clarity

    • Use examples.
    • Use lists, tables, and illustrations.
    • Design for easy reading.

    Final Thought: Will this act have the intended effect? We can't be sure until federal employees have received "plain writing" training. Let's just hope that in the not-so-distant future, we may have federal documents that clearly tell us what we need to know.

    —Dave Kemper

    Photo by jurvetson.

    Being "Irresponsible and Rash"

    Wednesday, February 02, 2011

    Paint spatters on sidingAt one point in his career, abstract artist Jackson Pollock's creative process consisted of splattering and pouring paint on his canvas. As he stated, "When I am painting, I am not aware of what I'm doing." Even if he were thinking during the heat of creation, he claims not to have been aware of it. Science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury must operate in much the same way because he says, "Thinking is the enemy of creativity."

    From my perspective, creativity is really a mindset, a way of being open to new and original ideas. All of us enter this mindset with varying degrees of regularity. People like Pollock and Bradbury may happen to enter it more often, and perhaps more productively, than most of us.

    A "Sneakily Outrageous" Inventor
    I learned about inventor Steven M. Johnson in a recent opinion piece by Allison Arieff in the "Opinionator" section of the New York Times. And I am confident in saying that this man is able to trigger his creativity just as effectively as any artist or sci-fi author. Here are a few product ideas that he has imagined:

    • A desk that transforms into a hidden sleeping chamber, great for late afternoon naps
    • A dashboard toaster oven to toast bagels on the way to work
    • A self-shortening car perfect for tight parking spaces
    • Homes purchased by the room
    • A briefskate, which is a briefcase that turns into a skateboard

    Johnson says that nothing gets to exist in his creative world if it doesn't have at least two functions, as in the examples above - or in his version of an exercising bike that can also operate a washing machine. He gets away from his desk when he is trying to be creative, because he wants to "avoid the connotations of earning a living." Instead, he needs to feel "irresponsible, rash, and dreamy."

    Johnson laments at the current lack of creativity in the workplace: "It annoys me that an untrained person like myself can think up products easily and yet this nation seems to sit helplessly passive and waiting to be saved somehow." His feelings mirror what business leaders see in many of their new hires - the inability to think outside the box, so to speak. (See my previous posting.)

    A Creative State of Mind
    Since originality and innovation are so needed and valued in the business world, being able to unlock your own creativity will obviously serve you well. You will be at your creative best if you . . .

    • Observe Looking is one thing, observing is another. Get into the habit of studying something until it tells you about itself.

    • Receive Be open to all types of thoughts and feelings. Experiment. Think bold thoughts.

    • Wait Your most creative ideas may occur when you least expect it.

    • Accelerate But also take advantage of creativity when it hits. Share your original thoughts with others, write about them, apply them, expand on them.

    • Manage Don't expect creativity to be a linear process. Instead, expect detours and unexpected side trips.

    Final Thought: Who would have thought that getting a little abstract from time to time - splattering and pouring out ideas - may be your source of economic success in the future?

    - Dave Kemper

    Photo by mindluge.

    A Whole New Approach to Business

    Wednesday, January 26, 2011

    Daniel Pink, in his excellent book A Whole New Mind, proposes that we are entering (or already in) the Conceptual Age, in which businesses need to promote creativity and divergent thinking in order to prosper. The Conceptual Age? What happened to the Information Age? Haven't countless companies established great wealth, and millions of individuals established worthy careers, based on knowledge and information technology? Yes they have. Thank you very much.

    But according to Pink, three factors are severely weakening the value of the information-based model in this country: (1) Asia, (2) automation, and (3) abundance.

    • Asia: As you know, more and more information entry and retrieval work is being outsourced to Asian countries (read: India) because it can be done so much more cheaply there. That is only going to become more common.

    • Automation: As you also know, technology works so quickly and efficiently we mere humans have no chance when it comes to working with information. As Pink reports, because of technology, even safe careers such as law, accounting, finance, and "mainstream" programming are no longer that safe.

    • Abundance: Pink's third factor, abundance, is interesting. He claims U.S. consumers have so much (because of the wealth generated during the Information Age) that we are no longer content with simply purchasing more stuff. Instead, we are becoming more interested in products that are truly innovative and/or have added value - beauty, worthiness, meaning, etc. Such products go beyond mere function.

    According to Pink's thesis, then, existing and start-up companies need to move past the literal and logical thinking that has driven the Information Age, and instead champion originality and innovation. The subtitle of Pink's book is "Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future." Brain theory, of course, tells us that the right hemisphere of the brain controls our ability to think creatively.

    Final Thought: You may work in a company that has already gone in this direction. (Many dot com companies are truly innovative.) If so, we'd like to hear what are you doing. Or we'd simply like to hear what you think of Pink's thesis? Do U.S. businesses need to become more conceptually based?

    - Dave Kemper

    Photo by digitalbob8.

    Eye Appeal

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    If you're like most of us, your first actions at a car dealership are predictable. You run your hand along the lines of a model that interests you; you open the driver's door and inhale the car's newness, taking in all of the gadgetry and options along the dash. You may then sit behind the wheel, envisioning yourself driving down the road.… If first impressions were all that counted, you'd buy the car on the spot.

    Your immediate reaction to a piece of business writing will run in much the same way. You'll show at least some interest in a letter or report, and see what it has to say, if it is stylistically pleasing to the eye. Of course, the opposite is also true: Unless you're initially attracted to the writing (and not expecting it), you may simply set is aside - or worse yet, just throw it away.

    To ensure that your own business writing receives the proper interest, pay careful attention to its appearance. Your company may have formatting and design guidelines to follow; otherwise, you can find plenty of help online or in any reliable business-writing handbook. (Check out Write for Business for a thorough coverage of formatting and design.)

    You already know many of the nuts and bolts of good design: Quality letterhead, standard formats (a letter should look like a letter), conservative font styles that are easy to read, and so on.

    Random Design Tips

    Here are a few tips about design that may be new to you and that you may not find in a typical resource. (I had to hunt many Net sites, such as the Purdue Online Writing Lab for this information.)

    • Remember the 25-second rule: Typically, you may have no more that 25 seconds of a businessperson's time, so first impressions in business writing are critical.
    • Keep typical reading habits in mind: No one actually reads every word in most business correspondence. In reports, for example, the conclusions or recommendations may be all that some people will read. So make sure that you clearly label key parts in your writing, if that is standard procedure for that form.
    • Use small chunks of copy: Smaller chunks of copy are much more pleasing to the eye than long, dense blocks of text, so use short paragraphs.
    • Consider adding headings: Well-placed headings and subheadings suggest that the writing will be easy to navigate. A different font style (san serif -without tails) and a slightly larger point size will make them more readable.
    • Be careful with columns: Columns may look nice, but limit yourself to two columns per page. More than that and your writing will appear busy.
    • Check the top and bottom of your pages: They should appear neat and clean. That means you should avoid…
      1. widows, or single lines of text that sit alone at the top of a page,
      2. tombstones, or headings or subheadings at the bottom of a page,
      3. orphans, or first lines of paragraphs at the bottom of a page, and
      4. split lists, or lists divided between two columns or pages.
    • Watch for balance: Business writing is effectively designed if it can pass the quadrant text, which means that the information on the page is balanced throughout the four parts of the page. However, know that readers typically read from left to right and from top to bottom, which means that readers will first look at quadrants 1 and 2.
    • Evaluate the overall design of your writing: A document works design-wise if it appears…
      1. organized (logically arranged),
      2. ordered (containing headings and subheadings),
      3. accessible (using bulleted and/or numbered lists), and
      4. varied (including special features such as columns and graphics).

    Final Thoughts: My hope is that this blog entry appears readable and is, in fact, easy to navigate. If not, please let me know what I could or should have done differently. Also, I would be interested in additional tips that you would like to share, especially those that may not be appear in the typical list of design do's and dont's.

    —Dave Kemper

    Photo by Podknox