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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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    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

    A Quagmire of Idioms

    Thursday, May 30, 2013

    Business has gone global, so your writing may as likely be read by someone in Tokyo or Berlin as in New York or Chicago. Keep that in mind when you write and edit documents, and strive for the clearest, most direct language possible. One particular pitfall to avoid is the use of idioms.

    Idioms are figurative language, colorful and descriptive but easily confusing if taken literally. The trouble is that they are so common we don’t even think about using “ballpark figure” or “making a cold call” until we receive a confused response from a client or customer in another country.

    Imagine you are communicating with a partner for whom English is a second language. You send the following idiom-packed email. Think about the literal translation.

    We asked our bean counter to crunch the numbers, and we believe that if we keep our noses to the grindstone, we can get the ball rolling on production within a month. Then, with the right backing, we should be able to float a loan, and with social media’s word-of-mouth to plug the product, we’re confident it will take off and sell like hotcakes. Our bottom line should be in the black within six months. We know you’ve been through the wringer with this project, but if you stick it out you’ll rake in a substantial bang for your buck. So please don’t throw cold water on the deal by pulling out before we can break even.

    Even between colleagues whose first language is English, idioms like those above are too casual for formal business correspondence. The following rewrite conveys the same ideas with more clarity.

    We asked our accountant to go over the financial figures, and we believe that with some hard work we can be ready to begin production within a month. Then, with help from investors, we should be able to obtain a loan and begin using social media to advertise. This will provide a sales boost resulting in a solid profit within six months. We realize this project has been difficult, but your participation is critical to our success, and if you stay with us you should see a good return on your investment.

    Of course some idioms have become such a part of language that it’s difficult to entirely avoid them, and others are pretty clear in themselves. The best rule is to use precise language and keep your possible readers in mind. Do that, and your message will hit a home run.

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by Phillie Casablanca

    Tactics, Tweeting, and Business Writing

    Tuesday, May 07, 2013

    In On War, Carl von Clausewitz, a professional Prussian soldier, divided military activities into strategy and tactics.  Strategy involves the general goals of an operation; tactics are the details for getting there. For soldiering, a set of basic skills is also assumed: polishing boots, marching in formation, caring for weapons, and so on.

    Business writing can similarly be divided into strategy, tactics, and basic skills. Much of what UpWrite Press shares on this blog and in our newsletters is strategic: using an AIDA approach for persuasive writing, for example. We also often share basic skills in grammar, punctuation, and correct word use.  

    Today I’d like to focus on a tactical issue: using Twitter to develop effective sentence style.

    Why Twitter? It’s because of that 140-character limit. Writing within such constraints forces us to carefully weigh every word, every phrase. (Note, I originally wrote that as “forces us to consider every word, every phrase, very carefully”—nine wasted characters.)  With practice, that conciseness becomes habit—if not during a first draft, certainly when editing.

    • For best practice, write your “Tweets” (Twitter messages) in full words, without online abbreviations like “L8R” (“later”).
    • It’s also best to leave enough characters for a “Retweet.” For example, UpWrite Press Tweets are usually 127 characters or less, to leave room for the 13 characters in “RT @UpWrite: ” (including the space after the colon).
    • Finally, if your Tweet includes a hyperlink, try to place that in the middle of the message, where it’s less likely to get cut off if multiple people Retweet your message.

    A well-crafted Tweet can pack a lot of punch in a short line of text. Practice at Tweeting can improve our writing clarity and editing speed for other business documents. That alone makes it worthwhile. Given that it also promotes your brand presence, if you aren’t Tweeting, it may be time to start.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo from Wikimedia Commons

    Type Casting

    Friday, March 15, 2013

    Many people currently writing for a living started with a typewriter. If you’re younger than that, please stick with me; this post is actually about computers.

    One great thing about typewriters was the tab stop. If you were writing a semiblock letter, for example, you could set a tab stop for the center of the page. Then hit the tab key and “zing” the carriage would go right to that spot. Nobody hit “space, space, space, space…” ad infinitum to reach the center. Even releasing the carriage with one hand and sliding it with the other was troublesome. “Tab, zing” was absolutely the way to go.

    Now here’s the thing: Computer word processors also have a tab system, and it’s even easier to use. In most software, you just hover the mouse pointer where you want a tab, then “click” and it’s set. Want more than one tab? “Click, click,” and they’re set too.

    What’s more, you can even choose the type of tab you need. In most software, just click the tab icon on the left side of the screen. Left-justified is the default, followed by a center tab, then right-justified, then a decimal tab. (Your software may also have a bar tab, first-line indent, and hanging indent in that location.)

    The trouble is, it seems virtually no one knows about these tab controls. So in order to space text out, people use “tab, tab, tab” or “space, space, space” until things look right on their screens. Unfortunately, when they pass a file to someone else who uses a different program—or even the same program on a different computer—the alignment is all messed up. That’s especially true if the document gets edited at all. Indents and tabs slide from one line to another, and text starts jamming together or stretching far apart.

    All for the lack of a simple “hover” and “click.”

    I challenge you to find the tab controls on your computer. Use them to ensure your own text remains in place when your file goes to someone else’s machine. It’s an easy way to make the world a little better for us all.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Laineys Repertoire

    Online Writers, Give Readers a Break

    Friday, January 18, 2013

    I’ve been professionally publishing for nearly three decades now. (Where has the time gone?) And over those years, I’ve written texts from just a few paragraphs long to about 400 pages. Once I even edited a manuscript just shy of a million words. (Oh, right. That’s where the time went.)

    More recently, of course, much of my writing has been online. And I’m noticing how essential short paragraphs are in this venue. In a print document, six or seven sentences may make a good paragraph. But online the maximum seems to be no more than three to five.

    To prove the point, let’s consider a bit of Americana, the first paragraph of Mark Twain’s nonfiction account of Life on the Mississippi.

    THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

    That works fine in print, but not so well online, where the reader drowns in a field of gray. Let’s try the same text with a few well-placed breaks.

    THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable.

    Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames.

    No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude.

    The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

    Don’t you find that easier to read? The difference is just three paragraph breaks. Nothing else is changed.

    Now maybe you don’t maintain a blog. But you probably have a Facebook page or a LinkedIn account. And you certainly send emails. All of those can benefit from a few well-placed paragraph breaks.

    And if you ever have reason to post a block of information from a printed company document online, consider the lesson of Mark Twain’s paragraph. Adding a few paragraph breaks may actually enhance the flow of information. What’s best for print isn’t always best for etexts, and vice versa. 

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by USACEpublicaffairs