Saturday, December 31, 2005

Resolve to Read WORDS ON THE LINE for Better Writing

The end of the WORDS ON THE LINE blog’s first year draws to a close with this seventy-first message of 2005. I hope you have learned something about writing from the commentary that has appeared here, and I thank you for taking the time and paying attention.

You are one of a thousand people reading this blog, but your thoughts on writing mean a lot to me. If you have resolved to be a better writer, then continue reading WORDS ON THE LINE. Also, feel free to e-mail me at if you want me to include a particular topic.

Here’s to your continued commitment to writing improvement. Have a successful 2006!

Happy writing!
Philip Vassallo, Ed.D.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Monday, December 26, 2005

Employment Application Process, Phase 5: Follow-up

The final phase of the employment application process is follow-up. During this phase, you prepare follow-up messages, maintain a filing system, and keep the faith. Seven tips on following-up appear in this installment of WORDS ON THE LINE.

Prepare Follow-up Messages

Follow-up messages fall into four categories:
  • a thank-you message, to express appreciation of the interviewer and interest in the position
  • a reminder message, to remind the reader of your interest and to update the reader on yourself
  • an acceptance message, to accept an offered position
  • a rejection message, to decline an offered position
Below are two suggestions for composing and sending these messages.

1. Keep the message brief. The purpose of these messages is nothing more than to keep yourself in the employer’s memory. Below are samples of each.


Dear Mr. Thomas,

Thank you for the informative and enjoyable interview in your office yesterday. Please extend my appreciation to Ms. Cassidy as well.

I came away from our meeting impressed with The Working Foundation’s philosophy and achievements in effecting public policy. I would be honored to be a part of your organization and welcome the opportunity to become a contributor to its success.

If you have further questions, please call me.

Anna Vassallo


Dear Mr. Thomas,

As promised, I am following up on our last conversation, when you suggested that I contact you to inquire about the planned expansion of your research staff. I remain interested in a position at the Foundation.

If any position opens for which you believe I am suitable, please contact me. I look forward to hearing from you.

Anna Vassallo


Dear Mr. Thomas,

I am pleased to accept The Working Foundation’s offer of employment, as detailed in your March 12 letter.

As we agreed, I will begin my duties as an administrative assistant on April 3, after my two-week notification period with my present employer lapses. I look forward to meeting my new colleagues and working with a fine organization.

Anna Vassallo


Dear Mr. Thomas,

Thank you for your generous offer of employment with The Working Foundation. I have carefully considered your offer, and my decision was a difficult one. I have decided to accept a position with another agency.

I appreciate the professional courtesy that you extended to me throughout the selection process, and I extend my best wishes to you and The Working Foundation in your important work.

Anna Vassallo

2. Send the messages by the most suitable means. Traditionally, these messages were transmitted by postal mail, but today most of them take the form of e-mail. Use your best judgment in deciding which transmission best suits the situation.

Maintain a Filing System

3. Keep a record of all employment-related activities. This practice includes all received and ititiated letters, e-mails, and phone calls as well as interviews.

4. Keep notes of your daily reading of newspapers, magazines, books, and websites in your field of interest. In this way, you keep abreast of the breaking industry developments and transform into a subject-matter expert.

5. Update your résumé periodically. Continue tailoring it to your field of interest.

Keep the Faith

6. Believe in yourself. Enjoy and learn from the job-seeking process. Keep your eye on the prize of getting the job you want by making things happen, and reward yourself for your effort in any small but meaningful way you can.

7. Believe in others. Keep professional contacts, attend professional events and interviews, and get whatever training and management tools you can to enhance your employability.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Monday, December 19, 2005

Employment Application Process, Phase 4: Interview

The fourth phase of the employment application process—interview—is the most critical one. Your résumé and application letter have gotten you this far; now it’s time to show in person that you are as good as your writing claims. To help yourself before, during, and after this big event, read the 20 tips in this installment of WORDS ON THE LINE. They are presented from a multidimensional perspective (emotional, mental, and physical).

Before the Interview


1. Enjoy the process. Psyche up yourself by believing that you are interviewing the employer as much as he or she is interviewing you.

2. Get there early. Settle in and think of your achievements that have brought you to this moment.


3. Know the employer’s purpose for the interview. Review whatever available employer materials that are available. At the least, visit the employer’s website. Understand the qualifications of the position. Consider the entire interview process a learning experience.

4. Know the questions. Consider responses to possible interviewer’s questions and select questions of your own to the employer. (Note: Check out the endless lists of useful commonly asked interview questions on the Internet.)

5. Wait patiently once you get to the waiting room. Read or write interview prep notes.


6. Practice. Try out expressions and responses in front of the mirror and on tape.

7. Dress and groom conservatively. Select a business-appropriate outfit and hairstyle for the interview.

8. Eat safely. Avoid eating anything that may upset your stomach.

During the Interview


9. Treat the interview like a business meeting. Be sure to ask your questions and stick to your agenda.

10. Be positive. Greet the interviewer with a smile and break the ice with a pleasantry to jumpstart the communication process. Show a professional range of emotion and speak tactfully.


11. Listen. If you have prepared properly for this interview, then you do not need to worry about what to say next; let your responses come from what is said rather than what you’ve planned to say. You’ll have time to say your piece.

12. Let the interviewer know you. This includes discussing your strengths and turning your weaknesses into advantages.

13. Beware of leading questions (What is the right way to handle that?) or loaded questions (Don’t you think that’s unfair?). Politely ask the interviewer to rephrase such a question, or frame the question in such a way that it is answerable without being misinterpreted. Of course, avoid asking leading or loaded questions of your own.


14. Stay fresh. Accept water if offered and make yourself comfortable without making yourself at home.

15. Take notes. This practice helps overcome jitters and keeps you focused on the meeting.

16. Show interest. Be animated and maintain eye contact.

After the Interview


17. End on a positive note. Appear optimistic and express appreciation for the interviewer’s time and interest in the outcome (if you like what you’ve heard).


18. Make the interview a learning experience. Create a company rating system based on whatever you’ve gathered about the company’s culture (company philosophy, work environment, staff attitude), work (responsibilities, authority, horizontal and vertical interaction), support (training, compensation, benefits), and commitment (work hours, commute time, out-of-town travel time).

19. Decide whether this employer is for you. Answer whether working for the company will help you fulfill your mission, meet your career goals, sharpen your strengths, and conquer your challenges.


20. Be busy. This entire process is about getting and staying in shape—physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Move on to the next task keeping in mind that your full-time job is finding a job.

This final tip brings us to the fifth and final phase of the employment application process—follow-up—which I will cover in the next installment of WORDS ON THE LINE.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Monday, December 12, 2005

Employment Application Process, Phase 3: Write

In the third phase of the employment application process—write—you compose your résumé and application letter (also known as cover letter), as well as set the framework for reference letters written on your behalf. Many Internet and text resources are available on these subjects, so be sure to supplement what you read here with additional reading.

The Résumé

The two most common types of résumés are the chronological and functional:
  • Use the chronological résumé to focus on your work experience, which should indicate that you are qualified for the job and that your work experience is directly related to your career goal.
  • Use the functional résumé to focus on your skills and accomplishments, and when your work experience is not directly related to your career goal, you are entering the job market for the first time or after a hiatus, or you are making a career change.
Since the difference between the two types of résumés has less to do with content and more to do with structure, it’s easy enough—and a good idea—to have both for your records.

The chronological résumé focuses on work experience and generally follows the pattern listed below:
  • contact data (name, address, phone numbers, e-mail)
  • objective
  • employment (employer, title, responsibilities, accomplishments)
  • education (institutions, degrees, academic distinctions)
  • skills (professional licenses, technical skills, languages)
  • references
The functional résumé focuses on skills and accomplishments. It may list the applicant’s three key strengths (e.g., managerial, communication, technical) and reorganize the bullet points listed under the experience section of the chronological résumé around the headings of those three strengths. Of course, those three strengths should be highly valued by the prospective employer.

Regardless of the résumé type you choose, consider the following additional tips:
When planning ...
  • target your résumé to the prospective employer
  • create a one-page version of the résumé if your standard one is longer
  • update your information regularly
  • use a clear, concise objective that guides the reader through the résumé
  • express accomplishments honestly--do not exaggerate or understate them
When formatting ...
  • design the résumé for easy scanning
  • use conventional titles for headings
When articulating ...
  • use industry-specific language
  • use action verbs to describe responsibilities and accomplishments
  • avoid lengthy sentence-and-paragraph style
  • quantify your experience wherever possible.
When checking ...
  • make the résumé visually appealing (e.g., consistently headed, aligned, and spaced)
  • proofread carefully and have zero tolerance for the slightest flaw
When printing ...
  • use a white or light-colored 8½" X 11" paper stock
  • use laser-printed originals, not photocopies
When sending ...
  • use a neatly typed matching envelope
  • include the résumé, application letter, and letters of recommendation
The Application Letter
The application letter serves the following purposes:
  • introduces you to the prospective employer
  • illustrates your organization, creative, persuasive, and language skills
  • indicates how confident, positive, and self-directed you are
  • shows your enthusiasm about the company and familiarity with the position
  • explains how your unique skills and interests relate to the company’s goals
  • suggests a method for reading the résumé
Many employers believe that a main difference between the résumé and the application letter is that the application letter shows your writing skills better than a résumé. Résumé reviewers may believe that you have had professional help in designing your résumé, but they see the application letter as a demonstration of your creativity and audience awareness. Shrewd personnel associates will read your application letter asking the following questions:
  • Does the applicant possess a strong command of language?
  • Is the applicant informed about the standards of a letter?
  • Did the applicant tailor the letter with the company’s needs in mind?
  • Does the applicant have the strategic skills to explain how acquired skills and experiences would benefit the company?
The goal of the application letter should be to expand—not repeat—the information in your résumé; therefore, you should tailor it to the position you are seeking and the company to which you are applying.
The Recommendation Letter

On the surface, the recommendation letter may seem to be more the responsibility of the referrer than the applicant—but don’t fool yourself. The more guidance that you give the referrer in writing the letter, the better the recommendation will reflect what you want it to.

Start by requesting the recommendation letter of someone whose credentials, accomplishments, intelligence, and personality you highly regard. Be certain that the person holds a high opinion of you as well. Let the referrer know what you want included in the letter. While you’re at it, develop an outline for the recommendation.

The elements of a recommendation letter are as follows:
  • applicant’s full name and relationship to the writer
  • length of time applicant and writer were associated
  • applicant’s work ethic
  • applicant’s interpersonal skills
  • applicant’s accomplishments
  • applicant’s goals
  • applicant’s potential contributions to the employer
The next installment of WORDS ON THE LINE will cover Phase 4 of the employment application process: Interview.
To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Monday, December 05, 2005

Employment Application Process, Phase 2: Research

In the research phase of the employment application process, you cover all bases to make sure that no appropriate job opporutunity goes unnoticed. Available job-research sources are so plentiful that you may have a harder time in selecting the best ones for you than you would in choosing the best job prospects. The three most widely used research sources, which this installment of WORDS ON THE LINE covers, are as follows:
  1. job placement offices
  2. print (paper and electronic) sources
  3. personal connections
1. Placement Offices

Job placement offices fall into two types: non-fee-based and fee-based. The non-fee-based offices are actually not free. For examples, university job placement offices offer their “free” service to tuition-paying students, and professional association job placement services limit their clientele to dues-paying members. But these sources are great starting points because many of these services make your résumé available to a wide range of business and government employers. They also provide many helpful tips on writing résumés and cover letters. On the other end of the recruitment business are fee-based organizations, which tend to have more established relationships with a broader range of industries, or more focused relationships with specialized industries. Since the nature of their business is driven by their ability to earn commissions based on the quality of prospective employers and candidates they generate, their industry insights might be more extensive. Their service is available for a fee—often up to 10% of first year’s salary—sometimes payable by the candidate and sometimes by the employer. Be sure to find out what your financial obligations before signing any agreement with such organizations.

Here’s a final tip about placement offices: None of them can possibly be better than You, Inc. You should consider yourself a virtual placement office by aggressively write or calling the companies in which you’re interested and communicating periodically with receptive parties.

2. Print Sources

Print sources include the more traditional paper category and the exponentially growing electronic category. Many of the electronic sources have made the paper sources seem redundant. Paper sources include three areas (reference guides, area newspapers, and specialized periodicals); electronic sources include two areas (Internet job postings and corporate websites).

Among paper sources, the most common reference guides, all available at most libraries, are Occupational Outlook Handbook, Guide for Occupational Exploration, F&S Index of Corporations, National Directory of Employment Services, Encyclopedia of Business Information Services, and College Placement Annual. Area newspapers are often indispensable in finding local jobs. Specialized periodicals, such as professional journals, industry or trade journals, and company newsletters, are of special use if your job interests are industry-specific.

The fastest, most comprehensive and current way of finding employment and getting help with your résumé is through the Internet. There you can find public and private sources—free or billable—offering career counseling, instructions for writing résumés and application letters, models of résumés and cover letters, articles on featured employers, data on industry trends and current salaries, and relocation guidance. Through the Internet you can post your résumé for free with many of these job boards or directly with potential employers. Below are some of these web sites:
Finally, many corporate web sites have an employment section providing information on applying for a position with them.

3. Personal Connections

Tap the resources of professors, employers, internship directors, alumni members, family, and friends. They can help you in the following ways:
  • letters of recommendation
  • referrals
  • industry information
  • company information
  • regional information
  • interview contacts
The next installment of WORDS ON THE LINE will cover Phase 3 of the employment application process: Write.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Monday, November 28, 2005

Employment Application Process, Phase 1: Self-Assess

In the self-assessing phase of the employment application process, you decide what type of career and job best suits your interests and ability. Being honest with yourself by not inflating your talents and accomplishments will be useful here. You need to be able to look at yourself as others see you. Doing so will go a long way in helping you throughout the employment application process. You will:

  • have a better idea of what skills, experience, accomplishments, and interests your résumé should highlight
  • decide on which skills you want to develop
  • be able to narrow your job search more effectively
  • be clearer in reevaluating your job prospects based on what’s best for you
  • know better what to listen for, how to respond to questions, and what questions to ask during the interview process

Self-assessing requires a job candidate to complete four important tasks:

  1. Discover Personal Values
  2. Identify Career Goals
  3. Determine Personal Strengths and Challenges
  4. Develop a Career Plan

Let’s look at these four points one at a time.

1. Discover Personal Values

Answering key questions about yourself not only helps you narrow the focus of your job hunt, but also jumpstarts your thinking about queries during the inevitable interview. Discover what matters most to you by answering these questions:

  • Which of my qualities do I value most?
  • Which qualities do I most want to develop?
  • What challenge have I met that gave me a deep sense of satisfaction?
  • In what situation have I shown a great sense of responsibility?
  • In what situation have I initiated collaboration to solve a problem?
  • In what situation have I contributed toward improving a policy or a process?
  • What kind of professional work do I most enjoy?
  • In what kind of professional work am I most accomplished?

2. Identify Career Goals

Identifying your interests and goals is valuable for at least two reasons:

  • It helps you create a fresh, realistic, and clear statement for the job objective section of your résumé.
  • It addresses the reality that most people value job satisfaction more than any other aspect of their employment—even salary.

Evaluating your qualifications is not as simple as answering questions about your skills. How, for instance, can you be sure that you are being realistic in your self-assessment? Have you been too generous or too negative in your appraisal? Are you evaluating yourself based on the job requirements needed or the skills in greatest demand?

With your values and mission in mind, answer the questions below to determine your career goals:

  • In what field do I want to work?
  • For what organization do I want to work?
  • With what kind of people (e.g., positions, personalities) do I want to work?
  • In what position do I want to work?
  • What work-related skills (e.g., research, information management, people management, communication, creative, technical, interpersonal) do I most want to use?
  • Where (geographically) would I like to work?
  • Am I willing to travel?
  • What are my baseline salary requirements (amount, terms)?

3. Determine Personal Strengths and Challenges

Many interest and personality inventories used routinely by corporations are available to help you look at yourself with an unbiased eye and within a structured framework. (Search the Internet to learn more about them.) Many of these instruments have received short shrift or a bum rap from human resources directors; however, no can deny that the pervasiveness of these personality measurement tools have dramatically influenced how interviewers approach their job of posing questions and listening to candidates’ responses to them.

Get started here by listing ten adjectives that best describe your strengths (e.g., focused, artistic, logical), and ten that describe your challenges (e.g., discreet, patient, collaborative)—and then go to work on using your strengths in correcting those challenges.

4. Develop a Career Plan

Developing a career plan starts with a simple statement: “I am a professional.” Professionals live professional lives by:

  • joining at least one professional association
  • reading industry-related books and periodicals
  • attending industry-wide conferences, seminars, panels, lectures, and discussions
  • visiting industry-related web sites
  • learning about the major players and issues in their field
  • tracking industry trends

You may consider sharpening your strengths and conquering your challenges by offering your talents to nonprofit and corporate voluntary programs, choosing projects suited to your areas of strength, and seeking mentors to get their feedback on your progress. Such work will make you feel useful and cultivate your contacts list.

The next installment of WORDS ON THE LINE will cover Phase 2 of the employment application process: Research.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Monday, November 21, 2005

Get a Job! Tips for the Job Seeker

I recently received an e-mail from a student and now a friend, Marco D. DeSena, formerly a member of the prestigious New York City Urban Fellows program. Having just completed his Master of Science in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, Mr. DeSena was eager to reshape his résumé for his return to the United States and entry into the job market. He politely asked about this blog, “Where’s the résumé section?”

I knew someone would ask sooner or later, but thanks to Mr. DeSena’s gentle nudging, I will devote this installment and the next five of WORDS ON THE LINE to what I consider the five phases of the entire employment application process: self-assessing, researching, writing, interviewing, and following-up.

I have had the pleasure of helping many people create and fine tune their job application materials as well as grooming job seekers for key interviews. With the experience of listening to their concerns in preparing for their dates with destiny—and sharing their joy upon receiving favorable news from prospective employers—I will look at the tasks of the employment application process from the perspective of the candidate.

A fully focused and engaged job seeker should be adept in the following five phases, in chronological order:
  1. Self-assess, to identify your career goals, preferred job and organization, and strengths and weaknesses as a job candidate
  2. Research, to learn about the job market and available positions in your field of interest
  3. Write, to craft the résumé that best tells your qualifications as they relate to your prospective employer’s needs
  4. Interview, to express your key qualifications and to listen for your interviewer’s cues about the prospective employer's integrity, culture, and direction.
  5. Follow-up, to maintain a positive focus, keep tabs on prospective employers, and adjust your approach to the employment application process as needed.
In the next installment of WORDS ON THE LINE, I will focus on the first phase of the employment application process: self-assessment.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Monday, November 14, 2005

A Tip for Writing Minutes

In my 2001 article, “Meeting of the Minutes: Writing Meeting Minutes,” I mentioned a major obstacle to writing effective meeting summaries: The writer ranks among the lowest of those attending. Often the staff members assigned to writing the meeting summaries do so because no one else wants to write them; therefore, if they see the meeting straying from the agenda item, their deference to the speakers would preclude them from insisting that the speakers stick to the topic. On the other hand, if the highest ranking person were to take notes for the minutes, he or she would likely keep discussions as focused and brief as possible—thereby making the composing job as easy as possible.

I can vouch for the reality of either situation, having sat in both seats. I remember as a junior manager having to write minutes for an executive meeting that I had thought would cover three agenda items and run one-half hour. It ended after three hours, covering only one of the three items at a level far too technical and politically charged for me to fully comprehend. I spent hours on the phone and in executives’ offices the next day deciding how to best write the minutes. But I also remember taking great pleasure as a marketing director leading a meeting of staff who reported to me, and as a trustee in which the executive director served at my pleasure. In both of these cases, I never hesitated to say, “Since that’s not an agenda item, let’s talk about it after the meeting.” The result: short meetings and brief minutes.

So why not have the meeting leader write the minutes? What a sure way to protect people’s time and ensure a smooth composing process. This is the standard practice at Carlisle Syntec, a leading manufacturer of roofing systems and products in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, according to Brandon Fuller, a Technical Specialist for the company. As a participant in a three-day technical writing class I delivered in Washington, D.C., last week, Mr. Fuller discussed the procedure: “The meeting leader is responsible for writing both the meeting agenda and the summary.” When asked how well the leader runs the meetings he has attended, Mr. Fuller replied, “They’re pretty efficient.”

If you’re thinking, “I wish more meetings ran like that at my job,” then consider the best practice employed at Carlisle Syntec!

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Reducing Tension

My daughter Helen, who is in the third year of her studies as a music education major at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, recently told me about three challenges she had confronted when singing. First, her voice was not spinning sufficiently, meaning that she needed more vibrato in her notes. Second, her voice occasionally lacked an adequate level of intonation; in other words, she wasn’t entirely in tune on the flat and sharp notes. Finally, she needed better breath management to control her phrasing.

I asked, “How did you solve all three of those problems?”

“I reduced my neck tension,” she answered. “They all had to do with that one thing.”

Her succinct response immediately captured my imagination as a writing consultant. We often solve three problems at once by first discovering and then eliminating their cause. Reducing tension in writing is a great example. It would solve numerous problems, such as procrastination, writer’s block, and stress—all of which in their turn may lead to a lack of confidence, trouble with organizing ideas, and failure to submit reports on time.

So how can we eliminate tension? Chapter 2 (Planning) and Chapter 3 (Drafting) of The Art of On-the-Job Writing cover some of them in detail. First, we should look for the cause of the tension, which may be physical, psychological, environmental, or procedural. Physical sources include exhaustion from working long hours or from performing exceedingly difficult tasks. More obvious ones are incapacitation by an illness or from intoxication. Some psychological sources would be insecurity about one’s writing ability, distractions by pressing personal crises, or discontentment over the performance or attitudes of teammates, managers, clients, or vendors. Alternatively, when discomforted by intolerable room temperatures, poor lighting, or noise levels, or by ergonomic issues such as uncomfortable seating, we are contending with environmental sources. Even if we may not always be able to control these problems, we may have some success in dealing with them.

The procedural sources of tension, on the other hand, are well within our power to manage. If we do not employ the complete writing process—planning, drafting, and quality controlling—then we be unnecessarily contributing to our tension. Here are two quick tips, which are explained in greater depth in The Art of On-the-Job Writing:

  1. Plan before drafting. Tension may be the result of not knowing what to say. Planning by creating an outline, sketching out ideas, or simply listing ideas may synchronize the hands with the brain to make those fingers fly across the keyboard.
  2. Draft before quality controlling. Write a first draft without looking for perfection. Just write with your heart, not with your head. You can always go back and remedy those awkward phrases and imperfect word choices when quality controlling.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

B-ME: A Helpful Mnemonic

Last week I had the good fortune of teaching a Business Writing for Results course for a bright and energetic group of branch managers and associates of Investors Savings Bank. One of the course participants, Kisha Rose, Special Projects Assistant, said that she enrolled to work on the “beginning, middle, and end” of her written messages. When I abbreviated her objective on the flipchart as “B – M – E,” Ms. Rose quipped, “That’s right: I want to be me!”

Ms. Rose invented an apt mnemonic—B-ME—for focusing on the three parts of a message:
  • the beginning, which sets up the reader with the purpose of the document
  • the middle, which states the details that support the purpose
  • the end, which transitions the reader from the details to the next steps
During the course, we covered key points to consider about each part of the message; however, it’s one thing to know the elements of a message, and another thing to include them.

Whatever works for you, Ms. Rose, to remember the structure of letters, memos, and even e-mails. The next time you write a message, just say “I’ve got to B-ME!”

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Tips on Collaborative Writing

In on-the-job situations, collaborative writing poses unique challenges and rewards. We write collaboratively in either of the following situations:

  • when writing in teams for the organization's authorship
  • when writing by ourselves for someone else's signature

Below is a summary of the benefits and drawbacks of collaborative writing as well as helpful hints to make the most of the experience.


Writing collaboratively offers at least five advantages:

  1. More confidence and less stress. Team members tend to support each other through the writing process, and writers do not feel intellectually isolated, as do individual writers.
  2. More ideas. Group brainstorming and planning sessions usually yield more creativity than do writers working independently.
  3. Diverse feedback. Revising, editing and proofreading should be more thorough and reader focused because of the diverse expertise of individual writing team members.
  4. Improved self-criticism. Team writers generally accept criticism knowing that group members share the same goal of an excellent finished product.
  5. Greater team building. Writing collaboratively usually generates greater respect among teammates.


Writing collaboratively poses at least three disadvantages:

  1. Increased time. Since more people are involved in the writing project, the number of work hours to produce the document increases significantly.
  2. Increased cost. As collaborators devote more time to the writing project, the organization spends more to produce the document.
  3. Uneven work distribution. Because some members are more adept at certain writing skills than their teammates, they may carry a greater burden in producing the finished product.


When writing collaboratively, be sure to consider the following tips:

  • Establish a good working relationship with your collaborators.
  • Focus on the final product before all else.
  • Participate actively and constructively at group meetings.
  • Accept criticism with an eye toward improving the document.
  • Keep your content and timeline commitments.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Two Tips for Case Workers Writing Reports

Last week I had a great time in two Write to the Point workshops at the Third Annual Quality Writing for Child Welfare Practice Conference for the New York City Administration for Children’s Services. Some 300 child welfare case workers and supervisors attended the day-long program to discover ways to improve their writing skills.

A Challenging Job

The 80 appreciative professionals who attended my workshops frequently write reports summarizing the conditions, progress, and needs of children—often under trying circumstances. Some have to turn in reports indicating that a child’s well being is at stake. Since time is of the essence in such situations, the case worker is doubly challenged to produce thorough and clear documents. If litigation comes into play, these reports will end up before a judge who must decide what is in the child’s best interest. No small task for the case worker.

Two Tips

During the sessions, I encouraged the participants to write to the point by addressing the critical questions that their readers would ask about the reportable situation. Below are the two main tips that the program participants took away from the sessions.

1. State the point first and the supporting details later. Example:
Upon my visit to the child’s foster home, the child answered the door and allowed me to enter her apartment although she had not previously met me. I asked her if she was alone and she responded that she was. I then asked her if she knew who I was and the purpose of my visit, and she answered that she did not. I then asked her how often she was left alone in the home, and she replied that she walks alone three blocks from school to home every school day and waits until dark before her foster mother arrives. My call to the foster mother’s mobile phone was received by a prerecorded message indicating that the number had been disconnected. I stayed with the child for one-half hour before the foster mother arrived in the apartment. These facts lead me to conclude that she appeared to be unsupervised; therefore, she her safety may be compromised.
The child’s safety is being compromised because she is unsupervised inside and outside the home for lengthy periods. A visit to the child’s foster home revealed the following security-threatening issues:
  • She was left alone in her apartment for at least one hour.
  • She allowed the case worker to enter her apartment although she did not know him.
  • She stated that she walks three blocks home each school day without supervision.
  • She said that she was home alone each school day “until dark.”
  • She cannot reach her foster mother on her mobile phone because it has been disconnected.

2. Make every word count. Example:

WORDY (22 words)

The purpose of this report is to summarize the visit that was made by the case worker to the child’s foster home.

CONCISE (12 words)

This report summarizes the case worker’s visit to the foster child’s home.

The truth is that all professionals must write clearly and concisely on the fly. Yet every field has its challenges of getting to the point. A refresher writing course designed and delivered with your business objectives in mind is a good way to focus on writing to the point.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

I Have Good News and Better News about the Semicolon

How tricky that semicolon is! Some people are not sure whether to use a period (.) or a comma (,) so they use them both (;) and hope the reader will figure out what they mean!

No wonder some of us are so easily confused about the semicolon. When we look up the rule in a reference book, we find four to six pages of technical definitions and obscure examples.


But here’s the good news: While you may think that the semicolon has an endless number of rules, in fact, it has basically only two simple applications:

1. Use a semicolon to separate two complete, closely related thoughts. Examples:

Tina works in New Jersey; Bob works in New York.

We rent the office; however, we own the house.

2. Use semicolons to separate items in a series if any of the items already have commas. Examples:

Last summer we went to Santorini, Greece; Venice, Italy; and Cannes, France.

I have worked with Julia, a waitress; Evelyn, a bookkeeper; Clyde, a teacher; and Harry, an administrator.


And here’s even better news: You can try your hand at applying the semicolon right away in the sentences below. The correct answers immediately follow them, so no peaking until you’re done!

DIRECTIONS: If the semicolons and commas in the sentences below are correct, leave them alone; if they are incorrect, correct them.

1. Syreeta and Kristin are not in their office; they are in the conference room.

2. Neither Vivian nor Lionel will; however, authorize the transaction.

3. Jessica needs to speak with Gisleiny, Chief Executive Officer, Catherine, Chief Operating Officer, Marlene, Chief Financial Officer, and Marcia, Chief Information Officer.

4. Since she is a part of the team; Martha will attend the meeting.


1. The semicolon is correct because it separates two complete, closely related thoughts.

2. The semicolon is incorrect because it is not separating two complete, closely related thoughts. Use commas to separate words and phrases interrupting one complete thought. The correct punctuation is as follows:

Neither Vivian nor Lionel will, however, authorize the transaction.

3. The punctuation is incorrect because the items in a series need semicolons to distinguish the items with their descriptors from the other items and their descriptors. The correct punctuation is as follows:

Jessica needs to speak with Gisleiny, Chief Executive Officer; Catherine, Chief Operating Officer; Marlene, Chief Financial Officer; and Marcia, Chief Information Officer.

4. The semicolon is incorrect because it is not separating two complete, closely related thoughts. Use commas to separate an introductory phrase from a complete thought. The correct punctuation is as follows:

Since she is a part of the team, Martha will attend the meeting.

Keep writing—it’s the best way to become a better writer!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

A Tip (or Two) from a Student: Know Your ABC’s

As a corporate trainer, I am always “mind mining”—learning from the highly skilled professionals whom I teach. What a pleasure it is for me to then share their wisdom with you on this blog. For example, on the June 17 posting, I featured Jong Chan, a Supervising Specialist for the New York State Insurance Department, whose comments and writing samples provided to his fellow students and me a different perspective on writing purposefully. (See

Here’s a new tip, this one from Latisha V. Pace, a sales coordinator for International Flavors & Fragrances. When introducing herself to kick off an effective e-mail writing course, she described her course goal by saying, “I want to review the ABCs of writing: accuracy, brevity, and clarity.” As I wrote Ms. Pace’s goal on the whiteboard, I noted how discrete these three qualities are.

We are accurate by choosing words carefully. Example:

Inaccurate: The weekly sales meeting never begins on time.
Accurate: The weekly sales meeting has begun at least 15 minutes late on the four times our group has attended.

We are brief by making every word count. Example:

Wordy: The purpose of this e-mail is to propose the purchase of a company car.
Brief: This e-mail proposes the purchase of a company car.
Brief: I propose the purchase of a company car.

We are clear by favoring familiar language over unwieldy phrases and jargon. Example:

Unclear: The manager to whom the report must be conferred must be of a rank consistent with statutes as determined by management and documented in the bylaws noted in Section 12.3 of the Policy and Procedures Handbook.
Clear: The manager who receives the report must meet the requirements stated in Section 12.3 of the Policy and Procedures Handbook.

That’s right: Knowing with ABC’s of writing will help improve your correspondence. Being a fan of aphorisms, Ms. Pace left my writing class with one more gem: “There’s also ABC backwards: CBA, which stands for conceive it, believe it, and achieve it." Thank you, Ms. Pace!

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Art of On-the-Job Writing, Part 7

The Art of On-the-Job Writing by writing consultant Philip Vassallo is featured for one last time on the WORDS ON THE LINE blog. The opening and closing chapters of this book, “Being an On-the-Job Writer” and “Staying an On-the-Job Writer,” sandwich the five other chapters, one for each step of the writing process—planning, drafting, revings, editing, and proofreading. It gives many inspirational insights and helpful points to business and technical writers from all levels of the organization and who every day face the pressures of composing purposeful, organized, and correct documents on demand.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 7, “Staying an On-the-Job Writer”:

Having read this book, you should consider now an ideal time to decide what’s next for you as a business or technical writer. No doubt about it: Whether you’re moving up the corporate ladder or growing your own business, you will have to write more as time goes on. Your writing will speak for you in your absence. It will tell your organization, manager, subordinates, clients, and vendors what you think and how you think. You will want your writing to speak as businesslike as your speaking does. This means being purposeful, clear, concise, courteous, consistent, and correct. Let’s take a few moments to recall the twelve key ideas in this book.

1. Writing is a process as well as a product. Mastering the process will make your writing efficient; mastering the product will make your writing effective.

2. The PDQ writing process comprises:

  • planning, when we brainstorm and organize ideas focused on our purpose and audience
  • drafting, when we write a rough copy from beginning to end
  • quality controlling, when we protect our r-e-p by revising, editing, and proofreading

We need to use the entire writing process for challenging documents.

3. The 4S Plan writing product includes:

  • the statement, or purpose and next steps of the document
  • the support, which addresses the reader’s concerns related to the purpose
  • the structure, or organization and format, of the statement and support
  • the style, another word for the balancing of content and context language in the document

You may purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by clicking here:

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Art of On-the-Job Writing, Part 6

The Art of On-the-Job Writing by writing consultant Philip Vassallo is in the spotlight at the WORDS ON THE LINE blog. The book is loaded with useful writing tips and practice exercises to help business and technical writers at any level of an organization.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 6, “Proofreading”:

Now you have written the document, revised it with the 4S Plan in mind, and edited it for accuracy and correctness of expression. As a writer, you now have said precisely what you want to say (statement), thoroughly addressed your readers’ concerns related to your purpose (support), detailed all your points in a logical order (structure), and considered your readers’ viewpoint and checked the way you address your readers (style). As an editor, you have checked the document for effective language and correct grammar, usage, and punctuation. But in the process of making a change here and another change there, you may have created new mistakes, so now is the time to print a hard copy and proofread the document.

Yes, one more look at the document. Do not depend solely on the grammar-check and spell-check features of your word processor. These tools are extremely useful but cannot by themselves find every possible error you might have made. Figure 6-1 shows some checkpoints when proofreading. Using this checklist below will increase your chances of finding an error everyone else has missed.

You may purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by clicking here:

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Art of On-the-Job Writing, Part 5

The Art of On-the-Job Writing by writing consultant Philip Vassallo has been the recent focus of the WORDS ON THE LINE blog. The 231-page book provides numerous tips on getting started, organizing ideas, writing purposefully, editing difficult sentences, and a host of other work-related writing issues.

Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter 5, “Editing”:

The best advice any editor would give to fledgling on-the-job writers is this: “Read your document aloud to hear how it will sound to your reader; if you stumble over your words, so will your reader.” If you’ve revised carefully, chances are the idea is fine, but only the expression of the idea is off. Fix it the natural way. Interpret its meaning and restate it as if the reader were sitting in front of you. For example, say you wrote the following sentence:

As per Jim Armstrong’s request, the reason why I am writing this memo is to instruct you as to the proper methodology for installing a DVD drive into your laptop computer.

Most people do not talk like this. How would you actually say this to a reader? Probably something like this:

Jim Armstrong asked that I provide the following instructions for installing a DVD drive in your laptop computer.

Not only does the language sound more natural, but also you’ve reduced the word count from 31 to 18, and you’ve communicated more directly and clearly to your reader. You do not have to be a grammar expert dissecting sentences to edit documents successfully; you just have to rely on your natural fluency with the spoken word. Editing is no more mysterious than writing it like you would say it.

You may purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by clicking here:

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Art of On-the-Job Writing, Part 4

Excerpts The Art of On-the-Job Writing by writing consultant Philip Vassallo continue to take center stage on the WORDS ON THE LINE blog. The book follows the writing process in examining case studies based on authentic workplace situations.

Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter 4, “Revising”:

On-the-job documents need two elements to be clear in purpose:

  1. a purpose statement, which speaks for the entire document
  2. next steps, which transition the reader from the document to the desired results

The purpose statement should appear in a single sentence. I often call it the “mother sentence” because it is the highest-level sentence in the document, and it speaks for every other sentence in the document. Too often, writers weaken the power of the documents by making one or both of the following mistakes:

  1. They omit the purpose statement in the document because they believe that their subject line does the job by previewing the purpose. For example, they may write in the subject line, “Re: Recommendation for Weekly IT Team Meeting” but fail to state in the document “I recommend a weekly IT meeting.”
  2. They only imply the purpose, thinking that works just as well as an explicit one. For example, they may write, “A weekly meeting with the IT Team would benefit our group as well as IT” but not actually state their recommendation.

Although the purpose statement is only a single sentence, writers should not underestimate its power in guiding them toward creating a complete, clear, and consistent message.

The next steps are equally important because rather than close the document with a this-is-how-I-feel statement, it moves the idea along. Inexperienced writers make at least one of three common mistakes with their next steps:

  1. They omit them altogether, preferring just to summarize what they had just said. For example, they might write, “Therefore, a weekly meeting with the IT Team would benefit our organization.”
  2. They understate them, writing a vague statement like “Please call me if you have questions about this recommendation” which requires nothing of the reader.
  3. They misplace them. They may write, “I will forward to you a possible agenda for the first weekly meeting,” which seems effective; however, they may bury it in the middle of the document instead of placing it where it belongs—at the end.

Next steps are critical to the document because they serve as the call to action. Writers often express anxiety about writing next steps because they feel they must inappropriately demand something of their readers, who may be a level or more above them. But they should not think of next steps as something that their readers should do; maybe the writer can take the next steps himself. For instance, instead of ending with, “I look forward to your response to my recommendation,” why not close with, “I’ll call you on Tuesday to discuss this recommendation”?

You may purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by clicking here:

Friday, September 30, 2005

The Art of On-the-Job Writing, Part 3

This installment of the WORDS ON THE LINE blog continues featuring excerpts The Art of On-the-Job Writing by writing consultant Philip Vassallo. The book offers practical advice for creating and critiquing work-related documents.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Chapter 3, “Drafting”:

Think for a moment about how you break the ice with someone you meet for the first time. You may smile at that person, nod, bow, or extend your hand, depending on your cultural and personal style. But this isn’t all you do; you also use language. Maybe you’ll say nothing more than “hello” or “how are you?” or talk about the weather. But you start using language to get the communication process going. In short, you start the speaking process by speaking.

This sounds easier than it really is. It may require overcoming internal barriers, such as self-consciousness, personal prejudices, language deficiencies, and subject-matter knowledge, as well as external barriers, such as the other person’s language comprehension and attitude about you and the purpose of your meeting. The truth is we’re so used to conversing with people, that speaking comes naturally.

Writing is different because we’re writing for readers who aren’t necessarily standing in front of us. We have to assume what questions the reader may have about our topic. We may not know the reader’s attitude, interest, or knowledge about our topic. Sometimes we might not even be sure if we’re writing to the correct person. Compound these problems with a general lack of confidence about our writing skills or a lack of knowledge about our topic or any other combination of anxieties that we may have about the writing situation, and we’re bound to hit the wall called writer’s block. Perhaps if the readers were standing beside us, they would ask the right questions to jumpstart the writing process. But they’re not. So we must write alone.

You may purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by clicking here:

Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Art of On-the-Job Writing, Part 2

The last and next few installments of the WORDS ON THE LINE blog features excerpts of each of the seven chapters of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by writing consultant Philip Vassallo. The book takes the reader through the writing process and key consideration for each step.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Chapter 2, “Planning”:

Remember the only way to start writing: by writing. This is an important point. You can’t get started by simply sitting there and meditating about your topic. You actually have to move your fingers, either by pushing your pen or pencil across a piece of paper to form words, or by tapping at your keyboard to form them on the screen. Anything else is something other than writing.

How often have you heard someone say, or have you said yourself, “I have a hard time getting started, but once I do start I can’t stop”? Naturally. You needed to connect the brain to the fingers and think through writing. It’s much like the way we speak to one another. When we first meet, some awkward moments may pass. Our speech may be halting, guarded; we may even stumble over a word or two. But once we feel comfortable and connect with each other’s language, minutes fly by and we don’t bother to censor our speech. Words just burst from our brains and pop from our mouths like an endless barrage of firecrackers without our seeming to think about them. Yet we are thinking—thinking through speaking or thinking through listening, depending on which you’re doing at the moment. And if you think about it (no pun intended), as you are now—thinking through reading—you can think about other things while thinking through speaking or thinking through writing. Try it during your next informal conversation with friends about, say, food. As you listen to your friends speak, think about irrelevant matters, such as Neil Armstrong’s moon walk followed by Jennifer Lopez rocking on an electrified stage and see whether you understood what your friends were saying. You probably will. Then as you speak to your friend, think about Jack in The Titanic sacrificing his life to save Rose from drowning in the North Atlantic Sea followed by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing thousands of people at the Lincoln Memorial and see whether your friends understood what you were saying. They probably will. As you read this paragraph, were you thinking about other thoughts and still understanding these words? I’d bet you were.

A problem for people with writer’s block is that they ponder instead of write—which causes their writing minds to go blank. How ironic: They’re stressed out because their minds are blank when they unwittingly caused that very effect! Pondering doesn’t start until we start to meditate, speaking and listening don’t start until we start to speak and listen, reading doesn’t start until we start to read, and writing doesn’t start until we start to write. So all three steps of the PDQ Process—planning, drafting, quality controlling—require us to write.

You may purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by clicking here:

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Art of On-the-Job Writing, Part 1

The next several installments of the WORDS ON THE LINE blog will feature excerpts of each of the seven chapters of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by writing consultant Philip Vassallo.

Reviews of the book have been favorable. Tami Brady of TCM Reviews wrote “These steps (detailed in The Art of On-the-Job Writing) not only take the writer from any writing assignment through to a polished writing product but also help the writer through common pitfalls such as writer’s block, disorganization, and wordiness. Moreover, these methods and steps explained in this book are flexible enough to be used in virtually any writing situation, be that a simple email or memo or a longer more formal report or technical manual.” Martin Levinson of ETC. wrote that The Art of On-the-Job Writing “can be profitably read by writers new to the world of work-related documents, and by experienced professionals, who will also gain from its new approach to clear and purposeful business writing.”

Here’s a brief excerpt from Chapter 1, “Being an On-the-Job Writer”:

Writing is both a process and a product. On-the-job writing success depends on your ability to manage your time (the process) en route to completing a document (the product). Mastering the writing process makes you efficient; mastering the product makes you effective.

The writing process comprises the three PDQ steps: plan, draft, and quality control. When planning, we brainstorm and organize ideas. When drafting, we create a rough copy of those ideas. When quality controlling, we protect our REP: revise the ideas, edit the expression, and proofread a hard copy.

We can assess the writing product by using the 4S Plan: statement, support, structure, and style. The statement is the purpose of the document. The support is the details supporting the purpose. The structure is the organization of the statement and support. The style is the balancing of context and content in delivering the statement and support through the structure.

You may purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by clicking here:

Saturday, September 10, 2005

A Cue from Coleridge

British poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) once wrote, “Works of imagination should be written in very plain language; the more purely imaginative they are the more necessary it is to be plain.”

Remember that wise piece of advice the next time you are struggling for an elaborate word that may not precisely denote the image you are trying to evoke!

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Another Helpful Vocabulary Website: Building a Better Vocabulary

Building a Better Vocabulary is actually a page from A Guide to Grammar and Writing, a website created and operated by Charles Darling, a professor of English at Capital Community College in Hartford, Connecticut. At this site you can strengthen your word power by reading tips for developing your word power, playing word games, taking vocabulary quizzes, and obtaining additional print and electronic resources, .

A Guide to Grammar and Writing does much more for the developing writer. It provides extensive entries in the following critical areas:

  • rhetorical theory
  • essay examples
  • the writing process
  • organizing ideas
  • developing paragraphs
  • grammar and diction guidelines

The site is well worth a visit. Be sure to bookmark it! Here is the link:

Saturday, August 27, 2005

A Heads Up for Logophiles (or Vocabulary Builders)

If your thing is improving your vocabulary or you're just a lover of words, check out Since 1994, this website has grown to a readership of more than a 600,000 worldwide. Its A.WordA.Day is a daily message containing a challenging word, its etymology, and pronunciation, as well as an instance of its use in the world of literature. As a bonus, each entry ends with a quotable aphorism. You can subscribe to have the daily word e-mailed to you. The link is

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Art of On-the-Job Writing Is Now Available

The second edition of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo is now available through FirstBooks. Here is what the publisher has to say about the book:

Become a more effective and efficient writer today!

More than a technical manual of writing style and grammar, this book offers a unique method for achieving workplace-writing success by offering four critical tools: the PDQ integrated writing process (planning, drafting, quality controlling); the 4S Plan for composing writing product (statement, support, structure, style); techniques to move writers from a me-focused style of essay writing to a results-oriented, us-focused business writing style and it-focused technical writing style; and the groundwork for becoming and remaining a successful on-the-job writer through inspirational, memorable, and relevant writing tips.

For 25 years, Philip Vassallo has developed and presented training programs for thousands of administrative, technical, and managerial professionals. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a doctorate in education.

“…can be profitably read by writers new to the world of work-related documents, and by experienced professionals, who will also gain from its new approach to clear and purposeful business writing.” – Martin H. Levinson, ETC: A Review of General Semantics

To order a copy, follow this link:

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Websites for Parents Teaching Their Children

As we approach the beginning of the school year, many anxious parents look for resources to improve their children’s reading and writing skills. I often remind my students who are parents that we cannot become good writers without becoming good readers—the two language skills are conjoined.

Two professional organizations, one focused on reading and the other on writing, offer free excellent resources online. As parents plan their children’s education for the coming academic year, they should explore these organizations’ websites.

The International Reading Association ( is a global professional organization reaching 300,000 people promoting literacy by “improving the quality of reading instruction, disseminating research and information about reading, and encouraging the lifetime reading habit. IRA resources are available to parents in their critical role as their children’s first and most important teachers. Click on “Web Resources” to gain access to discussions on critical literacy issues, teachers’ lesson plans, booklists for children of all ages, and parents’ resources.

The National Council of Teachers of English ( represents 60,000 members and devotes itself “to improving the teaching and learning of English and the language arts at all levels of education.” Visit the site and click on “Teaching Resource Collections” for valuable ideas on adolescent literacy, elementary English language learners, secondary English language learners, grammar, spelling, college research paper, poetry, and literacy coaching.

Bookmark these two sites. They provide indispensable learning aids and make for fine gateways to other learning resources.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Use the Dialogue Approach in Your Writing

One technique to focus readers--and yourself--on the content of your message is to use the dialogue approach. Imagine handing your document to your reader, who asks, "What are you giving me?" What would be your answer?
  1. If it were a proposal to hire a new intern for the summer, you might say, "This review of our human resources in the audit division provides the rationale for employing an additional intern from May 31 through September 2."
  2. Say you are writing to request a refund of your laptop computer during its warranty period. You would respond, "I am requesting a full refund of your UCOMP357 in accordance with the terms of the warranty."
  3. A summary of your last team meeting would begin, "This is a summary of the ACE Team's last strategic meeting on August 3."
  4. Perhaps it's your response to a customer request for a credit, in which case you could start, "We are responding to your credit request of July 31, 2005."
The opening purpose statement should ground the reader in the context of your message. Better yet, it should ground you during the composing process. Knowing that sentence helps you to determine what else you need to write--and not write--in the sentences that follow it. Do not underestimate the importance of a purpose statement!

Sunday, July 31, 2005 A Dictionary of Dictionaries may be sufficient for most writers seeking a quick definition of a word or phrase. For the more specialized or particular searchers, however, may be more useful. It makes available to the searcher some 5 million words in more than 900 online dictionaries from diverse disciplines throughout the world.

As an example of how OneLook works, type in the word writing, and you'll receive not only quick and accurate definitions, but links to 49 dictionaries which carry that entry. Here is the link:

Friday, July 29, 2005


If you could not read the headline as “For Your Information: Acronym Finder, Just in Case,” then reading acronyms may give you the heebie-jeebies. For this reason, you might want to check out The Acronym Finder, a searchable database of more than 2,426,000 abbreviations and acronyms about computers, technology, telecommunications, and military acronyms and abbreviations. Here is the link:

Saturday, July 23, 2005

More on Keeping Emotions in Check

To remember the value of keeping emotions in check when crafting a business message, a writer should need nothing more than to live up to the Chinese proverb, "The palest ink is better than the best memory."

No matter how upset you are, anger does not belong in business writing. After you cool off, your angry document lives on. Let your high emotions motivate you to write the first draft--but then sit on your hands and don't press the send button. Weed out the pointless anger or disappointment in favor of purposefull, direct language. Move the business forward!

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

On Placing Question and Exclamation Marks with Quotations

Logic may dictate that questioning about a question we need two question marks, or when exclaiming about an exclamation we need two exclamation marks. But forget about logic. Here are the rules:

1. Place question marks or exclamation marks outside the quotes when asking a question or exclaiming about a quote that is a statement. Examples:
  • Did you say, "We are leaving at noon"?
  • Stop saying, "We are leaving at noon"!
2. Place question marks or exclamation marks inside the quotes if the quotation itself is a question or an exclamation. Examples:
  • Did you ask, "Where are we going?"
  • Stop screaming, "Wow!"

You should now be clear about the matter. But if you are doubly confused, remember that no one ever promised English to be a perfectly expressed language!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Putting to Rest the Serial Comma Debate

In nearly all my writing classes, I hear the question, "Should you put a comma before and in a series?" The answer is this: It's a matter of preference. Let's see how the issue is handled by two highly respected writer's references, The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual and The Business Writer's Handbook.

The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual (sixth trade edition), edited by Norm Goldstein, gives the serial comma a NO vote. Here is what it says:

Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the final conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.

Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

The Business Writer's Handbook (seventh edition), by Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu, votes YES for the serial comma. Let's see what it says:

Although the comma before the last item in a series is sometimes omitted, it is generally clearer to include it. The ambiguity that may result from omitting the comma is illustrated in the following sentence.

AMBIGUOUS: Random House, Bantam, Doubleday and Dell were individual publishing companies. [Does "Doubleday and Dell" refer to one company or two?]

CLEAR: Random House, Bantam, Doubleday, and Dell were individual publishing companies.

What's my take on the serial comma? I use it, but most of my clients do not. The choice is yours—especially if you pay the invoice!

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Art of Apology in ETC.

The twenty-fifth article of Philip Vassallo's WORDS ON THE LINE column appears in the current issue of ETC: A Review of General Semantics (62.3, July 2005). The article, "The Art of Apology," offers a rationale and strategy for writing a sincere and thorough apology.

WORDS ON THE LINE, Vassallo's widely referenced and praised column on effective writing at work, has been published in ETC. by the Institute of General Semantics ( since 1992. The Institute was founded in 1943 by world-renowned author, lecturer, and politician Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa. The column focuses on a broad range of writing themes, including purposefulness, completeness, organization, style, tone, and e-mail etiquette. It has covered special-purpose messages, such as admissions essays, customer correspondence, evaluation reviews, executive summaries, meeting minutes, proposals, and technical reports. Selected articles from WORDS ON THE LINE have been reprinted in course software, business periodicals, and books by major business and academic publishers. Besides writing the column, Vassallo has also published social commentary, book reviews, poetry, and drama in the periodical. A bibliography of WORDS ON THE LINE appears below.

WORDS ON THE LINE Articles by Philip Vassallo
1. Know the P.R.I.C.E. of Your Writing (49.4) Winter 1992-93
2. Writing from the Heart (50.1) Spring 1993
3. The You Understood (50.2) Summer 1993
4. Fog Lifting and Ice-Breaking in Your Writing (50.4) Winter 1993-94
5. How Clearly Do Your Words Communicate? (53.1) Spring 1996
6. U-Mail, I-Mail — More Effective E-Mail (55.2) Summer 1998
7. Using the 4S Plan to Know Your Writing Strengths and Needs (55.4) Winter 1998-99
8. From Me to Us: Crossing the Bridge from Academic to Business Writing, with Barrett J. Mandel (56.3) Fall 1999
9. Beware the Seven Deadly Sins of Tone (57.1) Spring 2000
10. Protect Your R.E.P.: Revise, Edit, Proofread (58.1) Spring 2001
11. Meeting of the Minutes: Writing Meeting Minutes (58.2) Fall 2001
12. Persuading Powerfully: Tips for Persuasive Writing (59.1) Spring 2002
13. Using the Rule of Six to Convey Complex Content (59.2) Summer 2002
14. Reporting for Results: Creating a Checklist (59.3) Fall 2002
15. Egad! Another E-mail: Using E-Mail Sensibly (59.4) Winter 2002
16. Where Less Really Is More: Executive Summaries (60.1) Spring 2003
17. Writing Correctly Is Not Necessarily Writing Well (60.2) Summer 2003
18. Admissions Essays with a Focus on Getting In (60.3) Fall 2003
19. Using the Customer Service Triad for Client Correspondence (60.4) Winter 2003-04
20. Turning Emotional Energy into Purposeful Writing (61.1) April 2004
21. Getting Started with Evaluation Reports: Answering the Questions (61.2) July 2004
22. Getting Started with Evaluation Reports: Creating the Structure (61.3) October 2004 23. The Two Levels of Writing to the Point (62.1) January 2005
24. The Power of And … Blah, Blah, Blah (62.2) April 2005
25. The Art of Apology (62.3) July 2005

Friday, July 01, 2005

National Study Cites Gap in Writing Skills

A report published this month by the College Board's National Commission on Writing offers key insights into the writing skills of state employees and the value that their employers places on those skills.

The study, Writing: A Powerful Message from State Government, surveyed 49 of the 50 state human resources divisions on behalf on the National Governors Association. It published the following findings:
  • Writing skills are critical for professional state employees. All 49 respondents reported that two-thirds or more of professional employees have some responsibility for writing.
  • Writing is a basic consideration for state hiring and promotion. More than 75 percent of respondents report that they take writing into consideration in hiring and promoting professional employees. Almost 50 percent make the same claim about clerical and support staff.
  • State agencies frequently require writing samples from job applicants. More than 90 percent of respondents in states that "almost always" take writing into account also require a writing sample from prospective professional employees.
  • Poorly written applications are likely to doom candidates’ chances of employment. About 80 percent of respondents agree that poorly written materials would count against professional job applicants either "frequently" or "almost always." Six of ten say the same thing about applicants for clerical and support positions.
  • Writing is a more significant promotion consideration in state government than in the private sector. In placing a high value on employees' writing skills, state government responded at a rate of 10 percent higher than did private sector human resources officials.
  • Memos, letters, and e-mail are universal requirements in state agencies. More than half also report that policy alerts, legislative analyses, and formal and technical reports are "frequently" or "almost always" required. The volume of e-mail causes many state personnel directors to express concerns about the ease with which informal e-mail messages create serious communications problems.
  • Some 30 percent of professionals are below standard in writing, and most states provide remedial writing training or instruction. The percentage is far hhigher for administrative support and clerical staff.
  • Providing writing training costs state government about a quarter of a billion dollars annually. This training is designed as preventive action to ensure that state agencies' correspondence is purposeful and clear.
Once again, the written word takes center stage in a national study. The link to the study is
More information about the improving employee writing skills is available by contacting Philip Vassallo at

Saturday, June 25, 2005

WORDS ON THE LINE Referenced Again

Once again, we've spotted evidence that people around the globe are checking into WORDS ON THE LINE. The April 12 entry, "The Pluses and Minuses of Distance Learning," was referenced in "Wired Temples," a blog created by Robert Micallef, and economics professor who resides in Belgium and the Czech Republic. His blog is on Maltese culture, news, society, people, history, and blogs.

Keep reading WORDS ON THE LINE for useful tips and terrific resources on effective writing. Meanwhile, if you find a print or electronic point of interest and value, feel free to write Phil Vassallo at

Monday, June 20, 2005

Do I Appreciate You, or What You Do?

A common grammatical mistake that we have all seen is in the following sentence:

I appreciate you working on the project.

Since the word working functions not as a verb but as a noun (a gerund), we need a pronoun in the possessive case (your), not the subjective case (you). We appreciate people, places, or things (nouns), not action words (verbs). Examples include “I appreciate Helen,” “You appreciate Chicago,” or “We appreciate mangos”; however, we do not say, “I appreciate do,” "You appreciate go," or "We appreciate eat.”

The correct way to write the faulty sentence is as follows:

I appreciate your working on the project.

OK, but some of us find this sentence too impersonal. After all, we may want to say that we appreciate the person and not the thing the person did. So here’s another option:

I appreciate you for working on the project.

The choice is yours: Appreciate the person for doing something, or the thing the person does. As for me, I have two closing statements, both grammatically correct:

I appreciate you for reading this message.
I appreciate your reading this message.

Friday, June 17, 2005

What’s the Point of Having a Point?

If you have read previous postings on WORDS ON THE LINE, you would know how big I am on placing an explicit purpose statement in business messages. Sentences such as “I propose that we purchase PDAs for the six staff researchers in our Cincinnati office” or “This root-cause analysis reports on the equipment failure in our Tacoma facility on June 3” keep the writer focused while composing the message. They also immediately ground the reader in the writer’s reason for transmitting the message; in effect, they instantly put the reader to work. Therefore, we should be sure to place a purpose statement early in our documents. My book The Art of On-the Job Writing discusses in detail the power of a purpose statement, so I stand behind this principle whenever I lead a corporate writing class.

Sometimes, however, a clearly established relationship with another reader may preclude the need for writing a purpose statement in an informal e-mail. This point was cleverly illustrated by Jong Chan, a Supervising Specialist for the New York State Insurance Department and a participant in one of my recent courses. I assigned to the participants a writing situation in which a trade show produced disappointing results for their company. I assumed that they would write to Larry, the trade show representative, a message in which they either notify him of their intention of no longer participating in his future trade fairs, or asking him for concessions and improvements to guarantee their future attendance.

Mr. Chan, an experienced manager who supervises high-level employees in his organization, chose a different approach, one he called “neutral.” Here it is:


The Chicago Trade Show raised concerns about the cost-benefit results for our company. We believe that it was too expensive and that your advertising underrepresented us.


Notice that he did not write a purpose statement, such as, “We will not attend future trade shows for the following reasons” or “We request a plan of action from you to ensure better results for our next appearance at your trade show.” Nevertheless, I know that I would have responded to the e-mail if I were Larry. After Mr. Chan read his message to the other participants, an audience of 20 professionals representing a broad range of business responsibilities and industries, I asked what they would do if they were Larry and they had received this message. Nearly all agreed that they would call Mr. Chan to see what they could do to keep him as a customer—precisely the result that Mr. Chan expected.

I congratulated Mr. Chan for achieving this interesting trick: being purposeful without writing a purpose. He proved that sometimes we do not need to write a purpose—as long as our readers can read our minds! But even Mr. Chan would agree that for most readers, we should play it safely and assert our purpose.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Watch Those Modifiers!

Someone who felt that men were treated unfairly in his department complained to me about his dilemma, but I could not help laughing when I read what he had written:

Where I work more men lift cartons than women.

What a strange place to work. I wonder if deciding which men get to lift the women is based on seniority. Surely, the complainant meant to write:

Where I work more men than women lift cartons.

Just by changing the position of the phrase than women, he would have achieved clarity. This error, known as a misplaced modifier, is easy to make--especially when writing quickly and not taking the time to edit.

Here is an example of a dangling modifier, a word or phrase attached to a sentence without connecting logically to it:

After raining for five minutes, I decided to leave the park.

This sounds like he had a drippy bladder. He could get arrested for doing that in public! Solution:

After it rained for five minutes, I decided to leave the park.

Editing takes time--but it's time well spent. Keep words and phrases as close as possible to the words they describe. We all want our readers to focus on our meaning, not to chuckle at our blunders.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Another Excellent Web Sighting

If you are looking for another useful writer's resource and have not checked out The Guide to Grammar and Writing by the Capital Community College Foundation, then you should. Developed by Professor Charles Darling of Capital Community College in Hartford, the website offers the following features:
  • a reader-friendly layout for efficient access to the site
  • an in-depth review of grammar and usage
  • a discussion of the principles of composition on the word, sentence, paragraph, and document levels
  • easy-to-follow PowerPoint presentations on various writing topics
  • more than a hundred interactive quizzes on sentence structure, word usage, punctuation, and other grammatical issues
  • excellent aphorisms on writing by famous authors
By the way, the Foundation exists on contributions and would welcome your donation. Here is the link:

Monday, May 30, 2005

SEC Handbook Available Online

Nothing is as intimidating to investors as reading and technical guidelines and abstruse disclaimers related to securities trading. In 1998, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission tried to solve this problem by publishing A Plain English Handbook: How to Create Clear SEC Disclosure Documents.

The 77-page handbook presents excellent tips on documenting language and illustrations for maximum clarity and, therefore, reader benefit. Many instructive examples appear in the chapters "Writing in Plain English" and "Designing the Document," which readers from any business will find helpful.

The link to A Plain English Handbook is