Business Writing


Having edited other people’s work as much as I’ve written my own, there are a few things I notice that continually cause writers (including myself!) to stumble. One of the more consistent is knowing when to use italics, when to use quotation marks, and when to capitalize. A full discussion on this topic would prove much too cumbersome for one blog post, so I’d like to tackle only a few areas where I see confusion regarding which of these formats to use.

1. When writing words or letters as words: This phrase alone is confusing! Words as words or letters as words means when when a word is being defined or when the word or letter is being used as the term itself, such as: “The word presumptuous means ‘taking liberties.'” Or, the letter q is always followed by a u.” In these instances, the word that is being used as the term itself–here “presumptuous” and “q” and “u,” is italicized. When a word is defined, the definition, such as “taking liberties,” is placed in quotation marks.

There are some exceptions–of course!–such as when letters are used in indicate scholastic grades, in which case they will be capitalized and not italicized; and when letters are used as shapes, as in “a T in the road.” Again, these letters will be capitalized and not italicized.

2. Foreign words and terms: When you use a foreign word that your readers will probably not know, the rule is to italicize it. If, however, your phrase becomes more like a sentence (or more) instead of just a few words, skip the italics and put the sentence(s) in quotation marks instead.  If you’re using a foreign word or phrase that is common or familiar, neither italicize or put in quotation marks. How do you know if a foreign word is common? If it appears in the dictionary, then it’s considered common. One other rule with foreign terms is that if the term is not in the dictionary and you use the same term several times, you need only italicize it the first time it’s used.

3. Trademarked or branded names: I’ve seen trademarks and brand names written in quotes and/or italicized in some manuscripts that I’ve edited. Neither is correct. Both are simply written with a capital letter. If you’re unsure if a name is trademarked or what the correct trademark is, you can check the International Trademark Association website to verify. Note, too, that trademarks do not need to have the TM symbol written next to them within a manuscript.

4. Titles of works: Of all the various phrases, words, and terms that could be italicized, put into quotation marks, or capitalized, I think none create more confusion than titles of works. Let’s look at just a few different kinds and how to treat them:

• Books, magazines, and newspapers–These titles are always italicized and written in headline style of capitalization. Book forms include booklets and e-books. With magazines and newspapers, be careful to check what constitutes the actual title. In the Washington Post, the is not part of the title and would not be italicized or capitalized. This rule applies to online forms of the media as well.

• Articles and chapters–A single article that appears in a magazine or newspaper or a chapter from a book is put into quotation marks and set in headline form, but never italicized.

• Plays, movies, and television shows–All of these titles are italicized and set in the headline form of capitalization, but…a single episode in a television show is not italicized but put in quotation marks.

• Musical works–These are very similar to movies and TV, where an album title is italicized, but a single work off of an album is put in quotation marks.

• Websites–Website titles are not italicized or put in quotation marks but are written in headline form.

If you are preparing a manuscript for publication, it’s often helpful if you can ask the publisher for a house style guide so you can be certain how they treat various terms. If this is not possible, a general rule is to follow the Associated Press’s  style guide for magazine articles and the Chicago Manual of Style for writing books.

I hope this cleared up some confusion and did not create more! These are little things that you may not think make much of a difference, but paying attention to such details will give your work a more professional appearance.

In case you haven’t noticed my blog’s tag line, it reads: “Encouraging and equipping those who love to write. Rescuing those who don’t.” Today’s post is dedicated to those who may not love to write but their job requires them to do so. I realize that most of my readers are professional writers, but we all know non-professional writers who wish someone else could do their writing for them!

I chose to interview a friend and client of mine, Ignatius (Iggy) Nelson, who fits this description perfectly. Iggy has worked his way up the corporate ladder and has recently discovered how integral writing is to his everyday job. So much so, that if he hadn’t taken matters into his own hands and received training in the area of writing, he probably would not be where he is today.  Let’s hear from Iggy and how he overcame his writing challenges:

1. Tell us a little about your background and how you got into your present industry and job?

I began my career with the City of Palo Alto as a water treatment specialist in 1986. I was in charge of taking water samples and filling out paperwork for processing the samples. In order to advance, I took a lot of classes on water treatment and operating various equipment. My big break came in 2000 when I was selected as a Water Services Manager for another Bay Area city. I was selected for my present job after completing an all-day assessment and am now a Water Superintendent.

2. When you first got started, how much and what kind of writing were you
required to do on a regular basis?


In the beginning there wasn’t much writing at all. Most of my time was spent out in the field. I basically had forms and paperwork to fill out but no real writing.

3. How much and what kind of writing are you required to do now on a regular
basis?

Currently I am responsible for 9 employees and oversee a budget of $5 million. I am continually writing memos and reports as well as other forms of internal communications. I’m also responsible for writing extensive reports and memos to the city council. When I first took on this position, the most stressful part about my job was the writing.
4. Would you have been able to move into the management positions you’ve held if you weren’t willing to write or weren’t successful at writing?
I may have been able to get into management, but it would’ve been a struggle to do well in my positions without being able to write. In my field it’s a big transition going from operations, where you’re doing field work to sitting at a computer all day e-mailing information, preparing performance reviews, and writing reports.

5. Did you ever think starting out that your job one day would require so much
writing?

It really never occurred to me that I would need writing skills if I wanted to advance into management. The writing was certainly more than I expected. Little did I know that my current job, because of the higher salary, would require even more writing. Looking back I should have been concerned about learning to write and not have procrastinated at doing so. I had no idea that someday writing would be a big part of my work.

6. What have you done to help yourself in the area of professional writing?

In 2002 I decided to take a basic writing class at a community college. The first time I took the class I flunked it! But I kept going and didn’t quit. Last year I took a class from the University of Phoenix called Effective Written Communications. Recently I took another class entitled Business Communications.

7. In general, what do you see with your peers and those supervising you when it comes to business writing skills? Do you think most people have prepared themselves for the amount of writing they have to do?

Most of my peers are not at all prepared for business writing. My level of management does not require a college degree or any formal educational training. My supervisors typically have engineering degrees, and they can write pretty well. But most of those in my line of work have not prepared for the future when it comes to business writing.

8. How could you convince someone starting out in a non-writing field that
they will need to be prepared for gaining business communication skills?

I would simply share my story and tell how learning to write has helped me throughout my career. For someone like myself that spent most of his years working out in the field, writing was not a big deal. I never gave it much thought that someday I would need business writing skills. I am convinced that you must have good writing skills to advance in life. My biggest regret is that I didn’t take those writing classes earlier, before I got promoted into management.

Thank you, Iggy, for sharing your story with us. I know there are many other stories out there just like yours. If any of you have a similar “Iggy” story to share, please do so. I think sometimes as writers we take for granted that this is something we can do and don’t really put much thought into it.

But more and more, writing is a major part of nearly any job, especially as that job advances into a managerial capacity. To stay competitive, employees need to know how to write. Often, companies won’t do much to help these employees, so they are forced to do what Iggy did and take it upon themselves to get the necessary training.

I would love to hear your thoughts, feedback, and ideas that may help others in this area.

In my previous post on writing for the online audience, I talked about key words (making sure you have direct, relevant words in your titles and subheads), making your article easy to read (by using bullets, italics, or bolding to capture attention), and using effective formatting (making sure there’s plenty of white space and short paragraphs).

Today, I’d like to add 3 more tips that will help strengthen your online style and effectiveness:

1. Be direct and brief. Leave the storytelling effects to the print media, because with online writing, readers want their articles quick and to the point. In fact, it’s been found that most readers don’t spend much time actually reading online articles at all. They simply scan and skim them to see if what they need is there. If not, they’ll move on.

This has 2 implications for you as a writer:  (1) make sure your important points are easy to find in your article, and (2) don’t let your article get bogged down with unnecessary verbiage.

Think action-oriented when writing online. Get the info into the readers’ hands as quickly as possible, lead them to act on it (if you’re driving them to your website or to a P.O. S.), then get them out! They’ll be forever thankful!

2. Break some grammar rules. Just like you need to leave your flowery prose in your poetry book when you step into the Web, you can also afford to leave behind some grammar rules you’ve learned along the way for the sake of your readers. For example, it’s OK to allow the occasional sentence fragment, if it means it’s helping you be brief and make your point quicker.

I would still suggest using strong verbs instead of passive ones, and writing in understandable sentences, but it’s OK if you end your sentences with a preposition and use “who” instead of “whom” from time to time!

3. Focus on your readers’ needs at all times. Sometimes when we write, it can easily end up being more about us if we’re not careful. Everyone has a story they just have to tell or information they want to get out. That’s fine…for print. But online, it’s all about the reader. What  types of searches are your readers’ doing to find you? What information are they looking for? Make sure you’re delivering what they came to your article to find. That’s one sure way to make certain they come back!

Thanks for joining me for learning about online writing. If anyone has other tips that have worked for you, please leave a comment and share!

Whether you write website or blog material, online articles, or have an online business, writing for an online audience is its own kind of animal. Many of the classic writing rules get tossed aside once you enter the world of the Internet.

Let’s talk about a few tips that will help make your online writing more effective:

1. Think bite-sized. You may have noticed that print magazines all seem to be going the way of the USA Today newspaper, with short paragraphs, text boxes, and bullets. In fact, I recently heard that USA Today is the country’s top newspaper–and I believe their format is the reason why.

People don’t want to spend a long time on any one article, and if there’s too much solid text, they’ll forgo reading it altogether. While you’re starting to see this more and more with print media, this has always been the case with electronic material, and if you want your writing to grab an online audience, you must follow suit.

In particular, keep your paragraphs very short–2-4 sentences tops. And skip a line space in between your paragraphs to increase the amount of visible white space in your article. This keeps your readers from feeling too overwhelmed when they first size up your article to determine if they want to dive in.

Break up your text even more by adding italics, bolding, and numbered or bulleted lists. And, if you have a lot to say, you may want to consider breaking your blog or article into several installments, if that’s possible.

If you’re writing website material, don’t overload each page with too much information. Try to keep each page focused on one aspect of your site. Have one page for your services or products, another for contact information, another that discusses your company’s history, and so forth.  I’ve been to some sites that are so cluttered you can’t find anything. I get very frustrated with such sites and typically leave without getting the information I need.

Also, for websites, make your site visually appealing by having ample white space, very short paragraphs, and lots of  quick snippets here and there that will keep your readers’ attention. No one wants to scroll through line after line of learning how you started your company in your garage and then went bankrupt five times before having the awesome company you have now. Less = more!

2. Pay attention to your key words and titles. Because search engines track down titles and headings more than what’s in the body of your text, be careful how you title your articles and what words you use in your headings. Coming up with clever titles for your work can be fun, but if it’s not drawing search engines to your site, those titles are useless. For online work,  be direct in your titling, and leave the cutesy titles for print media.

This strategy also holds true for any website or blog site. Make sure you’re using plenty of key words that will help promote your product or service on each page. Don’t bury your product descriptions and key words in the body of your text somewhere. Make sure the key words for your products are in your titles and headings as much as possible without looking ridiculous.

One more tip about titles: Studies have proven that articles on “How to _____” (anything) or “Ways to _______ ” (anything) are some of the most popular for online searches. So if you want to write about writing for children, your title should read, “How to Write for Children,” or some variation thereof. You can always conduct a search yourself for your own product or service and see what titles and keywords show up the most.

That’s it for now. Stop back later this week to learn more tips for writing for the online audience.

Did you ever notice how some writers have a way of easing you from one paragraph to another with smooth transitions, interesting topic and final sentences that force you to keep reading, and manage to keep your thoughts organized–all at the same time? That doesn’t come easily. Writing powerful and persuasive paragraphs is hard work.

Here are some tips to get you started:

•  Think through your paragraphs before you write them. Think about your main goal and where you’re headed with each paragraph. Then consider how you will get from one paragraph to the next while maintaining a coherent train of thought for your reader. Outlining your paragraphs using main points and subpoints is very helpful for this.

• Choose your topic sentence wisely. Your topic sentence should tell your reader where you’re headed. Be sure it’s not too vague nor too narrow in scope. And make sure it covers precisely what you will be discussing. It is your vision statement for that paragraph.

• You must decide on a method of organization. Is the information you are presenting prone to being organized chronologically? Or, maybe step-by-step, as if you were sharing instructions? Or, perhaps it should be organized by problem then solution. Think about what you are presenting and which organization method makes the most sense for your information.

• After you decide how to organize your paragraph, write your subpoint sentences, making sure each one fully supports your topic sentence. If you find one that does not, delete it. To keep your reader tracking with you, your paragraph should progress in some orderly fashion with all sentences pointing back to your topic sentence. Do not permit any straggler, off-topic sentences to remain in your paragraph!

• End your paragraph with a sentence that either sums up the paragraph you just wrote or leads into the next paragraph. To write a lead-in sentence, either leave an unanswered question (which will be answered in your next paragraph) or omit some valuable piece of information that the reader simply must have and must keep reading to find out:

“After all, there is only one way to truly make it big as a professional athlete.”

• Use strong transition words to ease your reader into your next paragraph. The goal of transitions is that you don’t recognize that you’re moving to a new paragraph with a brand-new topic sentence and unique vision statement. You don’t want your reader to have to go back to your preceding paragraph looking for something they think they missed because you dove too abruptly into your new paragraph.

Words like therefore, thus, consider, again, or numbering in a sequence with second, third, or finally, work well as transitional words depending on your method of organization.

• Finally, check your sentences for varying length (all short or all long sentences are not effective), proper grammar, and readability. Make sure they flow well one to another. The best way to do this is to read your paragraphs out loud.

In my last post, I  discussed the necessity of having an outline–especially for nonfiction works, although it is handy for fiction as well–and how to set one up. Today I’d like to look at the introductions and conclusions, as well as how to bring outline points together.

First, the introduction:

Regardless of what you’re writing, the goal of your introductory statements should be to make the reader want to keep reading and offer some information about your subject. What exactly you include in your intro will depend on the type of document you’re writing and who your readership is, especially in regards to how much they know about your subject and the formality of what you’re writing.

Your intro for a business report, for instance, will be succinct and include your main points spelled out so the reader doesn’t have to guess where you’re headed. For a magazine article, your intro should present your topic, but may do so in more of a mysterious manner, giving just enough information to hook your reader.  And for fiction, you certainly don’t want to give away much, but you might begin to set up one of your characters or your setting. Or, better yet, dive right into the action.

For a nonfiction piece, your introduction could take the form of a brief summary of what you will cover; the problem your article will solve; or provide some background or history about your subject. Typically, your introduction will not be more than a paragraph for a nonfiction article or business report, unless the report itself is several pages.

I recommend not trying to write your introduction until the rest of your outline is complete and you know exactly where you’re headed. Even with fiction, once you’ve established your timeline and the path your story will travel, it will then be easier to determine the exact place you want to open your story.

Your intro and conclusion should serve as bookends, so to speak, for your work. There should be a sense of fulfillment in your reader after finishing what you’ve written, where he feels as though he has been taken on a complete journey. Nothing should be left undone. A well-thought out conclusion can provide this.

In light of this, your conclusion should:

— in some way reinforce ideas already presented. This is not the place to introduce something new. The only time you can get away with this is if you’re writing fiction and setting yourself up for a sequel. In that case, you’ll want to present a taste of what’s to come. But for any nonfiction work, especially in the business arena, stick with what you’ve already discussed.

— be written either as a summary of your main points; a final push for action; a recommendation (especially for business reports); or simply something to leave the reader thinking. It’s OK to end your piece with a question–even a hypothetical one–if you’re still on topic from your main points.

—  come full circle. You can do this either by relating back to the points in your introduction or through your use of summarization to make sure all your points are tied up nicely.

I’m not recommending you write your intro and conclusion immediately after finishing your outline. In fact, I usually write my intro last, even after the conclusion. I need to know all that I’ve said before I can introduce it or summarize it. But sometimes, these parts may just come to you as you’re writing, in which case, definitely go with the flow!

If you’ve chosen to stick with your outline (even somewhat) before you start writing your draft, there will come a time when you need to connect the dots of your subpoints and main points. Writing the transitions from point to point or paragraph to paragraph can be one of the hardest parts of writing your draft.

Transition sentences are crucial for linking paragraphs together in a logical flow, which helps keep your reader interested. Here are some tips for transitioning (Note: these are more for nonfiction works, although even in fiction transitions need to be smooth, especially if you are changing  your point of view. You need to make it clear to your reader where you are going in your new paragraph or section.):

— Use a sentence that finalizes the preceding paragraph and also brings in the topic of the next paragraph.

— If the new paragraph you’re transitioning into is not at all related to the preceding one, an entirely separate paragraph may need to be written, strictly for the purpose of transitioning. This paragraph would be a set-up, of sorts, for the new paragraph you’re moving into. As you read your draft, if you have two paragraphs together that seem very disjointed, this might help bring them together more cohesively.

—  The use of common transitioning words is helpful to begin your new paragraph: therefore, first, second, finally, next, similarly, besides, as a result, for example, meanwhile , etc.  See which flow more naturally with what you’ve written.

Again, the goal of what you write is to keep your reader reading. If your story or article does not flow well due to illogical connections of paragraphs or disorganization of information, you may well lose your reader along the way. Smooth transitions can greatly help keep your work moving along.

By the way, if you’re a Christian grandparent who has a great story about influencing your grandkids for Christ, I’d love to hear from you! I’m currently looking for stories to share in a compilation book that is now in proposal stage with a mainline Christian publisher. You can read guidelines and get more information here.

Many writers simply dive into their writing projects when the mood hits them and not bother to outline their writing. Then, half way in, they’ll look back over their work and realize they’ve gotten way off track from where they originally started.

Whether you write for business, create non-fiction articles, write educational materials, write for children, or even write novels, outlining your plan of action before you start can save you time and help keep you focused. Additionally, outlining helps create a visual you can use to see the overall structure of your work, and it makes writing your draft and doing reorganization work much easier.

In this first of two posts, I’ll take a look at how to set up an outline and discuss what the beginnings of one should look like.

Before starting your outline, you’ll need to determine how you want to organize your work. Should you organize chronologically or reverse chronologically, or should the elements be organized by a particular related grouping? If you’re writing fiction, you can organize by chapter or by plot line, which often involves a time line, so you can keep track of where your story is headed.

Once you determine how to organize, you’ll then need to group related pieces of information. Group these into major and minor points. Your major points should directly support the purpose or theme of your work, while the minor points would, in turn, support the major ones. If you find minor points along the way that do not support any of your major points,  either get rid of those minor ones, or if you think the information is critical, develop other similar points so you can also create a major point for the group of minor ones. You don’t want any stragglers!

Start off by labeling all these major points with a Roman numeral, beginning with the Introduction. If you’re writing nonfiction, these major points will ultimately become sentences, so you can either turn them into sentence form now, or leave them as words or phrases, developing sentences from them later.

Place your main points or main headings into logical order, based on the organizational method you’ve chosen. If you decided on a chronological organization, your main headings may simply be dates, time frames,  or events.

After your main headings are laid out, arrange each of your minor points under them accordingly, using capital letters.  Make sure your minor points carry equal weight in that they share importance in your story or article. If they do not, move the lesser important ones to become subpoints of the minor points. Label these with Arabic numerals.

Now that you have the basic structure for your outline, next time I’ll discuss creating an introduction, a conclusion, and joining your points in between!

If you have an article or other piece of work in the beginning stages right now, apply these principles to create an outline for it. Let me know how it goes!

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