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    Give Readers a Break – Part II

    Thursday, January 31, 2013

    In the previous blog entry, I talked about breaking up long sections of text, to make them friendlier for online readers. Someone suggested explaining how to choose where to break. Here are a couple of suggestions, demonstrated for your own adaptation.

    As our example text, let’s use the first paragraph from a 1919 version of Steam, Its Generation and Use, by Babcock & Wilcox Company.

    While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C. In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level. He clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere. The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron. Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere. Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes. By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.  

    The Casual Approach

    Often you can just “feel” your way through a text, breaking where it seems natural. Keys to watch for in the text are the introduction of subtopics or specific examples. Supporting details can sometimes serve as break points, but only if they are followed by a sentence or two of explanation. Avoid starting a paragraph break with a pronoun. (Unless you’re given authority to change the pronoun to the noun it represents.)

    Here’s the example text again, numbered, with my breaking thoughts following.

    (1) While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C. (2) In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level. (3) He clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere. (4) The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron. (5) Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere. (6) Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes. (7) By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.  

    It’s surprising to realize that selection has only seven sentences! Let’s consider them as break points.

    1. States the overall theme. Online such a sentence can often stand on its own.
    2. Closely related to the first point; should probably stay with it.
    3. A specific subtopic and a good candidate for a break. Unfortunately, it starts with a pronoun.
    4. An even more specific subtopic and good candidate for a break.
    5. A supporting point without further details; best not broken.
    6. A supporting point without further details; best not broken.
    7. A supporting point without further details; best not broken.

    All things considered, here’s how I would break the paragraph for online use:

    While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C. In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level.

    [Hero] clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere.

    The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron. Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere. Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes. By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.  

    You’ll note I replaced “He” with “Hero” in the second paragraph, for a clearer read. Square brackets are an accepted way to signal that sort of change or insertion.

    The Outline Approach

    A more formal way to decide how to break a paragraph is to actually outline its ideas. Here’s an outline for our original sample paragraph.  

    I. While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C.

    A. In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level.

    B. He clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere.

    C. The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron.

    1. Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere.

    2. Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes.

    3. By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.

    I’ve chosen to make the topic sentence and its first supporting point an opening paragraph. The second supporting point introduces a sufficiently new idea to be a paragraph of its own. The third supporting point and its three details are clustered into a third paragraph.

    As I consider that outline, it occurs to me that point "C" and its subpoint "1" could stand as a paragraph describing the physical construction, while subpoints "2" and "3" could serve as a separate paragraph about the device's action. Let's look at the text one more time, with that change. 

    While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C. In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level.

    [Hero] clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere.

    The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron. Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere.

    Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes. By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.  

    I hope this discussion is of some help to you as you do a final edit before posting text online. Your readers will certainly appreciate your added efforts.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Les Chatfield

    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

    Down and Dirty Business Writing: Nine Steps to Writing Anything Quickly and Effectively

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010

    Business writing is a craft, not an art form. Like all other crafts, it can be broken down into teachable steps that can be practiced and mastered. What follows are nine steps for writing any sort of business document, from start to finish. These are the steps that every professional incorporates into writing, and that every writing student should be taught. Follow these steps, and you will find steadily improved results with steadily decreasing labor.

    1. Establish your goal. In one sentence, state what you hope to accomplish with this piece of writing. The more clearly you state your goal, the easier the rest of your work in this writing will be, so take time to get it right.
      Tip: Sometimes before writing, I actually walk back and forth, imagining I'm explaining my goal to a colleague. Explaining to a friend (even imaginary) is a great way to get past any cloudiness and to the heart of the matter.
    2. List details to include. With your goal in mind, jot down every detail you can think of that must be covered in your final document. These may be arguments for or against the main point, features to be explained, resources a project will need, and so on. Don't worry about accuracy or order; this step is a brainstorming session. The point is to include everything that might be needed.
      Tip: While I like to make a list for this step, some people prefer to cluster or to free write. Choose an option that best suits you and your writing task.
    3. Organize your details. At this point, you should have a clear enough vision of your writing's emerging shape to recognize what details you can cut, what missing details you will need to research, and in what order your details would best be presented. This is often an exciting point in the process, like viewing a landscape from the air, with its checkerboard of fields and lines of highways.
      Tip: If you've made a list on computer, it's simple enough to drag items into the proper order, cut pieces, and add details from your research. You can even turn it into a formal outline, if needed.
    4. Write the body. Once your list of details is organized, it's time to get to the business of writing. Basically, this means turning your details into complete sentences, with supporting sentences to introduce and explain them. Each main point will most likely need its own paragraph, perhaps more. Minor details may be better suited for a list of bullet points. The length of the overall writing, the depth of details, and your audience's familiarity with the subject will determine how much "meat" you'll need to add to the bare bones of your list. Clear transitions will serve as the ligaments holding all this muscle together.
      Tip: Again, imagining that you're explaining things to a friend or colleague can help you decide exactly what to say and how to say it.
    5. Add a conclusion. With the body finished, bring your writing to a close, focusing again on what you originally set out to accomplish. Now that your reader has all the necessary information, you can make a call to action regarding that purpose.
      Tip: There is no need to "beat a dead horse" in your conclusion. If the body of your writing has effectively made its case, the conclusion is just a formal request to act upon it.
    6. Add an introduction. Once the body of your writing is finished, you can most effectively go back and write an introduction. Think of something that will catch your reader's interest, tell that reader what to expect from the writing, and make her or him want to read onward. Think of it as shaking hands and welcoming the reader in.
      Tip: It may seem odd to write the introduction last, but writers often flounder otherwise, uncertain of how to start. Writing this part last avoids that problem.
    7. Take a break. Once you've finished drafting a piece of writing, stop and take a break. Your brain needs time to switch from writing mode to editing mode.
      Tip: Notice that up to this point, your brain should not have been allowed to edit. Just as it's difficult to write and erase at the same time, it's tough to generate text while second-guessing it all.
    8. Reread and revise. If possible, ask a colleague to read your draft and point out problems with clarity and organization. Professional writers have copyeditors for just this purpose, and it definitely improves the final product while also shortening production time.
      Tip: As much as possible, ignore spelling, grammar, and punctuation for now. Concentrate on missing details, unclear arguments, improvements to order, and so on.
    9. Edit and proofread. Once everything else is in great shape, check for spelling, grammar, correct word usage, punctuation, and other such niceties. If these are not your strengths, ask for help. Again, professional writers have proofreaders for this purpose, as do most important businesspeople.
      Tip: Many people make the mistake of editing and proofreading before a piece of writing is really finished. That's sort of like trying to sand and stain a tabletop before it has been planed smooth. You just can't sell a piece of furniture like that.

    Some writers may quibble about the exact points above, suggesting that steps 2 and 3 should actually be joined, or that step 7 isn't really part of the writing process. Some may tell you they never do step 1. The fact remains, however, that every successful piece of writing goes through this stepwise process in one way or another (with step 1 prepared mentally, for instance), and if you follow these steps, you'll find your own writing both easier and more successful.

    - Lester Smith

    Photo: JPO2, Mr. Muddy Suitman

    Revising and Editing Sales Proposals

    Thursday, December 31, 2009

    When you revise and edit a sales proposal, you can't check everything at once. Instead, look at your work one trait at a time.

    • Start with your ideas. Make sure - first and foremost - that your proposal is accurate, with triple-checked figures and details. Check that you provided the information your reader most needs.
    • Next, check your organization. Does the information follow a logical order and use an approved format for a proposal?
    • Make sure your voice is confident and sincere, demonstrating a concern for the reader's needs and a desire to provide the best service or product.
    • Then focus on each word, making sure it is as clear as possible. If necessary, define any technical terms that might raise questions in the reader's mind.
    • Check your sentences for smoothness and flow, adding transitions where needed.
    • Next, check your copy for errors, paying particular attention to punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and grammar.
    • Last of all, review your design to make sure you have followed specifications for solicited or unsolicited proposals. Make sure that any graphics are neat, attractive, and properly placed.

    Sales proposals generally follow a specific format, but that's no reason your proposal can't stand out as a model of clarity, attractiveness, and readability. The more professional your proposal looks, the more likely it is to be accepted.

    You can learn more about sales proposals beginning on page 67 in Business and Sales Correspondence, one of the many helpful business-writing resources from UpWrite Press.

    - Joyce Lee

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