Posts Tagged Professional Writing

How to Correct Two Common Mistakes in Business Writing

The way something is written can say as much about the subject matter as the content itself. Applied to business communications, writing style and tone help reinforce a brand or company culture, while a logical flow of information creates both understanding and credibility.

To keep your readers’ eyes on the content you create—whether it’s a blog post, newsletter, or simple internal communication—proofread (at least twice) for both clarity and correctness.

You don’t need to know all the rules of grammar (and their wonderful exceptions) to edit your own content, and it won’t take much time. All you need is to recognize the most common mistakes, and know what trips you up as a writer and a reader.

Writing: If you’ve collaborated with someone on a document, were changes made to your portion of the writing? What feedback do you receive?

Reading: As a reader, what do you find jarring? Where do you get lost? Confused? Do you feel lost and confused right now?

Chances are that the prose suffers from one or more of the two most common mistakes in business writing –homonyms and sentence structure.

Homonyms

These are words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings. In the sounds-like category, the “it’s,” “you’re,” and “they’re” offenses get the most attention. Other examples of homonym errors, briefly, include board/bored, where/wear/ware, lessen/lesson, to/too, hole/whole, role/roll.

The homonym errors involving contractions are most common because those are the words used most often in our communications (or, um, intended to be used). A good way to figure out the proper usage and spelling is to read the sentence as though the contraction were written out, mindful of whether there is a verb that would indicate two words joined together, as the contraction form.

Reading the entire sentence, or clause if you’re confident, is important because it gives context for proper usage. Here are some examples:

Its

Its is possessive; it’s is a contraction for “it has” or “it is.”

It’s (it is) a lovely day.

The dog licks its paw. (No contraction here. Adding the apostrophe [it’s form] would mean The dog licks it is paw. No.)

Your

You’re (you are) going to be so excited when you see your new walk-in closet.

Their

With their tutus and ballet slippers in hand, the little dancers sit backstage, waiting there until they’re called for dress rehearsal.

Their is possessive, there is a place, and they’re is a contraction for “they are,” whether you’re writing about tutus or technology.

Whose

Who’s (who is) going to the game? Whose vodka is this? The latter is the possessive form. And the vodka is mine.

Run-ons, Comma Splices, Sentence Fragments

Sometimes writers have a lot of ideas and they to cram them into a single sentence it makes it difficult for the reader to take in all those words without a breath between them but somehow meaning is agreed upon between writer and reader and the reader responds to the writer but may address only one of the ideas presented in the original communication because the other ideas got lost in the need for a single sentence per idea and a break between them whether it’s a semicolon to separate clauses that can stand alone or the use of a coordinating conjunction or breaking the content into separate sentences and for fuck’s sake a few different paragraphs too.

Independent clauses (ideas) need to be treated as such. Does the content read as a complete sentence? Two sentences? Can you make three? If the sentence (the thought) isn’t complete, make it so. Read the sentence aloud—how often did you pause for breath? Add commas and coordinating conjunctions (and/but/so) in those places to separate ideas.

Here’s how to untangle the unintelligible:

This is getting to be a long post_maybe I should create a checklist instead. {fused sentence—two whole sentences joined together}
This is getting to be a long post, maybe I should create a checklist instead. {comma splice—two complete and independent thoughts on either side of the comma}
This is getting to be a long post, so maybe I should create a checklist instead. {corrected using a coordinating conjunction}
This is getting to be a long post. Maybe I should create a checklist instead. {corrected by creating two separate sentences}
This is getting to be a long post; maybe I should create a checklist instead. {corrected with a semicolon}

In just about every industry where writing and communication play a key role in bringing a product to market, the subject matter is highly technical, scientific, subjective, or abstract, making it even more difficult to convey information clearly to create meaning with a target audience.

Simple business communication tools like email and instant messaging mean everyone creates, contributes to, or writes a business communication or two, no matter their role in a company.

Keep homonym errors and faulty sentence structure out of your communications, and you can keep jackasses like me from deleting you’re sales pitch because it’s grammar steels clarity from it’s message.

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A Three-Minute Guide to Ethos, Pathos, and Logos in Advertising

This article was originally published on Avenue Right’s Media Buying Automation Blog.

All advertising is, most fundamentally, an attempt to persuade an audience. We want those people to buy our products, to enlist our services, to support an organization or cause.

The media we use to deliver these messages should match the habits of our target audience, and the message needs to remain consistent, however it’s presented within the media mix.

Just as the media buyer needs to incorporate multiple media channels to reach an audience, the ads need to blend a combination of rhetorical appeals to be effective.

It’s not good enough anymore to tell the audience that a treat from Peggy’s Pie Palace is a guilt-free experience—we need some evidence telling us why it’s a low-calorie snack option.

The art of persuading an audience means using the three basic appeals that Aristotle first described: ethos, pathos, and logos.

This means using the appeal of personal character, emotion, or logic, respectively.

Ethos

Ethos is the appeal of a speaker’s/actor’s character or authority, such as the use of local celebrities or the business owner/employees in a company’s advertising.

This appeal gives character and personality to the message, making it easier for the audience to relate to, trust, or place authority in the figure represented.

Ethos may be represented differently in different media. Visual media has the benefit of using images, such as that of sports hero, where text-only ads and auditory media such as radio rely on style, tone, and name recognition to convey ethos.

Pathos

Perhaps the most powerful tool in advertising, pathos is an appeal to the audience’s emotions. It can be used to create feelings of confidence and intrigue in a brand (“established in 1915”), to reinforce value (“find more time for you with Acme Widget”), or to promote a sense of urgency (“don’t spend another night with bedbugs”).

The emotions to which the message appeals may be many and varied: safety, well-being, pride, anger, insecurity, desire.

Logos

Logos is a logical appeal typically marked by facts, figures, and data. This information is quantifiable and helps us rationalize our decisions through hard data on money saved, time saved, higher status, and so on.

One tactic that combines all three rhetorical appeals is telling the audience how many people, just like them, have purchased a product or service. This social proof approach

  • helps lower perceived risk and lessens our insecurity about the purchase (pathos),
  • paints a concrete picture of market share through data (logos), and
  • introduces like-minded characters and personalities through testimonials (ethos).

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On Craft, Career, and Cabernet

Driving downtown to meet some writer friends, I roll down the windows, hoping the breeze will carry away the acronyms of my day (ROI, KPI, CPM, CPA, FFS), sprinkle in a few verbs, and drop them into a marketing plan.

I pull around to the back of the building, find a spot in the bank parking lot. My ride these days is a minivan, and it doesn’t fit in the compact parking spaces along Broadway like the little black car of my graduate student days.

It’s been five years since then, my last writing workshop around that blessed, beat-up and beloved table in Weld Hall library.

This whole writing thing—the impulse to create, revise, destroy, and begin again—is something that stays with us long after the MFA program, no matter the shape of our postgraduate careers. The craft and its dialogue are our pomegranate seeds, and those of us who ate at that old table would never really leave.

Tonight I crave the company of this community, the way it keeps the spirit of writing pure and its language real.

We’ve followed the trail of pomegranate seeds across the river and to another table. This one is dimly lit, filled with MFA alumni rather than students, drinking Cabernet instead of the viscous vending machine coffee on campus, gathered again to discuss current writing projects, curse creative hurdles, and pray for manuscripts submitted.

“It depends on how we define ‘professional,’” one of us would say, “and of what we’ve become the master.”

We’re discussing whether a creative writing degree has any value in today’s workplace for those not interested in teaching, and if so, how those skills might transfer. Participating in that conversation are a software developer (genre: screenplays), a local magazine editor (genre: poetry), a PhD student/professor (genre: fiction), and a marketing director (genre: fiction), all of us MFA program graduates. An interesting mix of viewpoints, to say the least.

Ours is just one of many conversations contemplating the merit of creative writing programs and the MFA degree. Popular arguments against it include the perceived homogenization of writing or the studies heralding a poor academic job market. Most certainly, the fact that academic jobs advertised in the English discipline have declined by 39.8% from 2008 to 2010*  is cause for concern.

But the graduate writing experience amounts to more than “sedentary toil/And…the imitation of great masters,”* sealed with an advanced degree that may or may not lead to a professorship.

In fact, the degree is but a byproduct of an MFA program for the majority of those who attend them, writers driven instead by the craft itself, its exploration and promise of perfection. In an article contemplating what brings people to the table some 70-odd years after the first MFA program (Iowa Writer’s Workshop) was founded, poet/attorney Seth Abramson cites a recent survey finding that “fewer than 20% of MFA applicants consider the credential itself to be their top reason for pursuing a graduate creative writing degree.”*

Given that an advanced degree is typically required for teaching college-level courses, this sentiment signals a new generation of writers with designs on a nonacademic career, seeking the MFA experience in order to further develop the creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills that are very much in demand in today’s job market.

Daniel Pink argues in his book A Whole New Mind that “the MFA is the new MBA.”  His logic makes sense: the routine entry-level tasks that help an MBA break into the job market are being outsourced overseas, and there’s an increasing demand for the kinds of people who can provide the “high-concept” thinking and strategy behind these inputs.  Pink writes*:

…that something first must be imagined or invented. And these creations must  then be explained and tailored to customers and entered into the swirl of commerce, all of which require aptitudes that can’t be reduced to a set of rules on a spec sheet—ingenuity, personal rapport, and gut instinct.

Though industry job openings might not explicitly state “MFA degree required,” the skills learned in graduate creative writing programs are transferable and quite employable.

Is there a large percentage of MFA degree-holders seeking academic jobs? Of course. But, unscientifically speaking, there are just as many who have no desire to teach. The program is driven as much by the trifecta of technique, art, and talent than by any professional goal, academic or otherwise.

Some of us simply focus on our writing. Others go on to become software developers, magazine editors, PhD candidates, or marketers.

Only the writer can determine how best to transfer her craft from workshop into the workplace. Like anything else, it is what you make of it.

The results of a postgraduate survey* from the creative writing program at MSUM , home of that beat-up table in Weld Hall, provides some interesting insight into the professionalization of the MFA degree, even if it’s just a microcosm. Here are some highlights:

  • An equal number of respondents have attained postgraduate employment in a professional/technical writing capacity (44%) as those who hold teaching positions (44%).
  • Of those teaching, 38% have attained the rank of Associate Professor or higher, including one Dean.
  • 48% of the industry-employed MFAers are at or above the mid-management level in their careers.
  • Common job titles include marketing, communications, public relations, and technical writing. The most interesting is perhaps “Teacher, Mortician.”
  • Not reflecting freelance writing, 8% of respondents work full-time in publishing, either as editor, journalist, or publisher.
  • Everyone has published something.
  • 34% of those surveyed did not respond. We like to think it was because they were too busy writing.

Eat Here and Stay Forever

It’s late in the evening. The wine is gone, the crème brulee and coffee on the table, and we realize none of us have actually graduated the MFA program together. We were, in fact, barely classmates.

But we share the same experience of sitting around that table, where together we got to taste the seeds binding our community to its particular craft, to travel that underworld where ideas are translated into art and process is revered over end product.

Exploring the craft of writing before that forbidden lawn  of unbridled creativity becomes unfamiliar or impractical is an experience that we’ll draw from inevitably in our careers, whether in teaching, corporate storytelling, or mortuary science.

The MFA graduate develops a mindset that allows for creative, critical, and analytical thinking–a stage on which to practice freedom in our art, engage in healthy debate and discussion, and advance our writing abilities both technically and creatively, all while participating in good conversation and community.

Sources:

* Modern Language Association. (September 2010). “Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2009-2010.” MLA Office of Research. Web. November 29, 2010. p 1.
*Yeats, William Butler. “Ego Dominus Tuus.” Yeats’s Poetry, Drama, and Prose. Ed. J. Pethica. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print. p. 66-68.
*Abramson, S. (2010). “The New Face of the Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts.” The Huffington Post. Web. Posted: October 28, 2010; Accessed 12/1/2010. Survey conducted by The Suburban Ecstasies.
*Pink, Daniel. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead Trade, 2006. Print.
* Minnesota State University Moorhead (December 2010). Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program Postgraduate Survey. Conducted online, November 1 – November 25, 2010.
*Tsetsi, Kristen. (2010) “Owning is a sloppy second to knowing.” this i believe. Web. Published March 17, 2010. Accessed March 18, 2010.  Fellow MSUM MFA graduate Kristen Tsetsi writes, “I no longer know the grass of forbidden lawns, because I drive past it.”

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Splitting Infinitives with Abandon: The Technician vs. The Artist in Writing & Dance

Freedom of form and expression is a religion for artists, whether they’re writers, painters, sculptors, or performers.

In order to find that freedom and use it purposefully, we learn and master the basic rules, conventions, and technicalities of our art, no matter the medium.

We do this so we can break those rules, make them our own.

Writing lends itself well to an analogy of movement, so let’s compare it to dancing as an example of this study-master-create-destroy relationship, specifically technical/creative writing and ballet/modern dancing.

Both are art forms best practiced on a foundation of technical knowledge, so it will never be a case of either/or but rather and/also—as knowledge and experience grows in one genre or discipline of an art form, it informs our work in other genres. It’s why the technical writer should take a creative writing class, the fiction writer a poetry workshop, the ballerina a modern dance class, the stage actor a ballet class.

The technician (the technical/professional writer, the ballet dancer) versus the artist (the creative writer, the modern dancer).  The latter creates art, while the former creates understanding.

This echoes a concept in an essay I just read for class, if you’ll spare a moment for theory. In “Authors and Writers,” Roland Barthes proposes that language is a structure that can be redefined or lost entirely for the author who functions to create ambiguity (a means), while the writer is bound to language as a vehicle for clarity (an end).

Applied to the real world, it’s why undergraduate writers with romantic notions of coffee shops, turtleneck sweaters, and dark-framed glasses may perceive technical writing as boring, not as sexy and free as creative writing. (If only they knew it was really us in those dark glasses, jacked up on caffeine and pushing deadline for the script of a video that demonstrates new software functionality, not a wandering soul contemplating the influence of religious and social construct in the coming of age of the heroine in a new novel, which surely everyone will read…)

Anyway, as a creative writer I’ve lived through moments of sheer boredom in various gigs as a technical writer, like creating documentation for an open-source content management system that seemed to bear ill will toward the end user who hoped to create, organize, and manage their content. (This boredom came before I started thinking critically about the theory and practice of technical writing.)

However, I’d argue there isn’t a creative writer out there who wouldn’t savor the precision and power of language involved in technical writing, the first step toward artistry and manipulation of structure.

Getting there requires an understanding of the foundation of the technical aspects of the medium, be it movement or language.

The appeal of creative writing—and I am definitely in support of following this path—reminds me of my daughter’s attitude toward dance when she first started (granted, at 2 ½-years-old). She thought hip hop, jazz, or even tap would be preferable to learning the technique of a plié in the five positions at the ballet barre (skipping third), drawn instinctively to what seemed to be a total freedom of expression in movement in the other disciplines.

The freedom of creativity seems more accessible than rules, structure, and technique, at any age.

Just as the dancer learns basic language, positions, and articulations at the barre and puts them together in combinations at center floor, the writer both masters and challenges the conventions of their genre through practice not only in grammar and mechanics, but also craft and artistry in language and storytelling.

Again, we learn the rules in order to break them and re-create them. The act of creating itself is an act of discovery articulated through a re-creation of the set of symbols (language, steps) we learn as technicians.

In creative writing, this is the freedom to split infinitives with abandon, to fragment our sentences for the sake of authenticity or effect, to prefer ambiguity for our Dear Readers over clarity. It’s how we share what Joyce Carol Oates refers to as “the child-self…a sort of flame that continues to burn throughout our lives, to which the writer or artist is by nature more attentive than other adults.”

Too much precision and “correctness” would extinguish that flame for our reader. But of course, it’s the creative writer’s duty to ensure this ambiguity is a result of artistry, not poor command of language and technique. Working outside genre conventions? Make it a challenge to current thinking in the field, not an oversight.

Artistry is a product of both originality and technical mastery.

The trained dancer is bound to the same paradox of technique and control versus creative freedom and individuality. A good example here is in modern dance–you have to know where a traditional position is and be able to “hit it” in order to break it, as dictated by choreography or spirit of the moment.

This reminds me of a statement in a modern piece choreographed by a beautiful and brilliant master. It was a move aptly named the “oh, s%&t!” because it required not a specific form or number of steps, but rather the dancer (me) had to literally throw herself onto the floor—a move that couldn’t possibly be fully scripted or choreographed, and it varied each time. (Writers, ever revised your work with the same sentiment two times in a row? Didn’t think so.)

Technique came in, though, as the momentum of this throw—initiated by the action of an arm toss—recovered into a very specific turn that led into preparation for the next movement.

Creative writers make this “oh, s%&t!” move all the time. We throw ourselves into our craft and work toward something beautiful, but we cannot predict the finer details of the outcome nor the ways in which our audience will perceive it. The artistic and poetic will always grow out of our technical control, the fulcrum on which we balance our turns of creativity and clarity.

References:
Barthes, Roland. “Authors and Writers.” A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
1983. 185-193. Print.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Introduction.” Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. xvi. Print.

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