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.

Featured Product

Write for Work

Our newest book Write for Work, a practical guide to writing and communicating in the workplace. This 8½ x 11 inch work-text is designed specifically to teach writing, grammar, and communication as it applies to the workplace.

Subscribe to the Blog

Add to Google Add to My Yahoo!

Subscribe to eTips

eTips includes the best information for effective business writing, along with helpful advice and updates on evolving communication practices.

Stay Connected

Categories

Tag Cloud

Recent Posts

Archives

    Cyborgs Don't Worry

    Wednesday, January 08, 2014

    In “Write your worries away,” Jo Haigh describes a practice of jotting down worries in a notebook as they occur. She says that this helps to reduce her worry because, “I look at it more objectively for a start, but what is really powerful is when I come back to look at it again, either in a few days, a few weeks, a few months or even years, I realise just how unimportant in real terms it was.”

    I’ve discovered something similar with to-do lists. Writing down a task takes it off my mind. Instead of trying to remember everything that needs doing, and worrying that something may be forgotten, all I have to remember is "Check the to-do list."

    Over the years, I’ve read a few best practices for to-do lists. One is to focus on the three most important items each day (to avoid feeling overwhelmed). Another is to move finished tasks to a “Done” list instead of deleting them; being able to see what’s accomplished is powerful encouragement.

    While many people like Ms. Haigh use paper journals or calendars to track things, I’m a fan of electronic ones. In part, that’s because the order of tasks can be changed easily. With many apps, reorganizing is as simple as drag-and-drop.

    I’ve also discovered the power of cross-platform task apps. Personally, I use Google Tasks to keep a record in the cloud. When I’m at my home or work desktop machine, the app is easily accessed by keyboard. On the road, I can reference the list on my tablet (which later syncs whenever wi-fi is available) or use my smart phone to quickly add tasks, edit them, or rearrange the list.

    In effect, the cloud becomes backup memory for my own brain, a cyborg relationship that allows me to focus on the work at hand. Not only does that reduce stress, as Ms. Haigh describes, it also provides a record of all I’ve accomplished today, this week, this month, this year, and so on. That’s both encouragement right now and a good source of future résumé material.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Pockafwye

    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

    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

    A Contest Can Make Your Business a Winner

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011

    Hand-drawn sweepstakes ticketLooking for a creative way to drive traffic to your Web site, maybe introduce your product to new customers? Of course you are. One idea might be a contest or sweepstakes, offering the chance to open your product to new markets.

    The advantages of having a contest are many, including driving people to your Web site where they will learn more about your company. Most contest entries require an e-mail signup as well, giving you an expanded list for marketing purposes. A contest also humanizes a company and can lend it the rosy glow of being fun. It establishes your brand and gives you a wider audience.

    To prepare, consider the type of contest you are running, and the prizes being offered. Your contest should be related to your product, of course. For example, if you manufacture vacuum cleaners, your main prize might be cleaning related and might be anything from your top-of-the-line vacuum to a month of cleaning service. Naturally, your budget will determine the size of the prize, and your company's purpose will determine the audience. If you run a family theme park, for instance, your prize should be family oriented, but if you are a prestige liquor distributor, your prize would be geared more toward adults.

    Next, write the text to announce the contest on your Web site. This shouldn't be just an explanation of the rules. Use it as a chance to project your company's personality. A contest or sweepstakes should be exciting and fun! Your Web copy should capture that excitement, while also providing the essential facts about how to sign up.

    Follow that friendly information with any legal requirements and contest rules, such as requiring winners to participate in advertisements. You'll want to establish those rules before you post the contest, so that there isn't any confusion later on. Fortunately, the Web is full of contest examples both good and not so good, so that you can best prepare your own text. Oh, and check with your IT people to make sure your system is set up to receive the responses and the increased traffic.

    Remember, too, that a main purpose of having a contest is to spread your brand awareness and draw more people to your site. So make sure the rest of your site is inviting, that menus and text links make visitors want to explore and learn more after they've submitted their contest entries. In effect, your contest is a Welcome mat, but your true goal is to show visitors around the rest of your home. If you need to do a bit of "housekeeping" to prepare your site before launching the contest, that's time well spent.

    Finally, when you do launch your contest, keep the duration short, or people will forget about it or lose interest. Announce all winners and make sure the prizes are delivered in a timely fashion. Generally it's better to run several small contests at intervals than to attempt one long one—even with a bigger prize.

    Here's hoping your contest goes well. Let us know!

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by jma.work

    The Liberating List

    Tuesday, May 03, 2011

    A Kid's Happy ListMany years ago, after a job change, I received the gift of a Day Runner from a friend who wanted to make sure I kept track of appointments. Although the calendar part was certainly handy (and the ruler, and the pencil bag where I kept dice for game design), the most liberating discovery was the stress relief of keeping lists. Especially a to-do list. No more nagging feeling that I might be forgetting something. The only two things to remember were 1.) write things down and 2.) check the list.

    As the years passed, I moved from a Day Runner to a PDA (currently an iPod Touch, with an old ThinkOutside Stowaway Bluetooth keyboard for longer entries), and have continued to polish my list use. One advantage of an electronic list is being able to add, delete, and rearrange entries as needed. One disadvantage is that the list never gets completed, crossed out, and trashed the way a page of paper does. An electronic list just keeps growing and morphing. For anyone with multiple work, family, and social commitments, that can be disheartening.

    Happily, about two weeks ago I stumbled across this year-old post on BNET, "The Best To-Do List You'll Ever Make." No, I haven't returned to crumpling a piece of paper at day's end. Instead, I've adapted the "three things" strategy to the unending electronic list. Which is to say, I move the three most critical items to the top of the electronic list, then put a blank line between them and the rest of it. The top three are for today, the rest for later.

    Voila, the best of both worlds.

    As each "today" item is completed, I delete it. Watching that group disappear gives virtually (pun intended) the same satisfaction as crossing them out on a sheet of paper, wadding it up, and throwing it away. What's more, I still have only one file to be concerned with, rather than a sheet for today and a sheet of everything upcoming.

    How about you? Have you discovered the tension relief of keeping a list? If so, what techniques make it work best? We'd love to hear them. Just click the comments link below.

    Oh, and though my PDA doesn't have a pencil bag, it does have a dice app I use for game design.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Carissa Rogers