Wednesday, January 26, 2005

On Placing the Purpose

Many business writers make the mistake of thinking that writing to the point means to always place the purpose in the first sentence of the document. It is true that most internal documents you write—messages to people within your organization—should begin with the purpose because coworkers usually know each other well, accept their working relationship, and understand the need to quickly share the information that will help them get the job done. But this sort of writing can create tone problems if addressed to the wrong reader. For example, imagine writing an e-mail to the CEO of your company with the following direct opening:

You must hire a new associate for our department immediately.

That kind of attitude will not get you far because it appears brusque, arrogant, and demanding. You would probably want to start with the reason before stating the request, an indirect approach, as follows:

We have had several coverage problems in our department since Raymond Burris resigned and Camille Lamb was transferred. Because we have increased our client responsibilities and are facing a deadline on completing the new protocol of Project 1-2-3 during this period, we believe that the support of another experienced associate would help us meet the production commitments, which the department has traditionally fulfilled. Therefore, we request your consideration of hiring an additional associate.

Note how blunt the purpose is in the direct approach (usually a good idea, but not in this case) and how deferential it is in the indirect approach. Good writers know how to begin a message to the point; they also know when to delay the purpose until the reader understands the context. So follow these general guidelines when deciding where to place your purpose:

1. Place your purpose in the first sentence—unless you have a good excuse. (For a good excuse, read Point 2.)
2. Delay the purpose when giving bad news, when writing persuasively, and when the background information would help the reader better understand your message.

Remember to always state your purpose and to never bury it at the end of the message.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Project Gutenberg Is a Must for e-Bibliophiles

Do you need a classical text but do not have the time or the money to purchase it or a friend from whom to borrow it? Try Project Gutenberg, self-described as "the oldest producer of free electronic books on the Internet" with more than 13,000 volumes, most of which are older literary works in the public domain in the United States and, therefore, free of certain copyright restrictions. You may freely download for non-commercial use such masterpieces such Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey, Plato's The Republic, Aristotle's Poetics, Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, James Joyce's Ulysses, Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, and Bram Stoker's Dracula. Here's the link: Happy reading!

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Getting Started As a Creative Writer

It seems that in almost each business or technical writing seminar I deliver, someone will walk up to me during a break asking for advice on writing or publishing a book of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, or children's literature. I immediately suggest taking three proactive steps:
  1. subscribe to a writer's magazine
  2. enroll in a writing course
  3. research publishing markets
The obvious tip I am taking for granted is that the writer should write daily--no excuses. Once that essential is under control, consider these starting points.

Writer's Magazines
All the three magazines listed below provide great tips for novice and even experienced writers. I have at one time or another subscribed to each, so I can vouch for their relevance, accuracy, and readability.

Writing Courses
Most college adult continuing education programs offer writing courses for poets, dramatists, journalists, and novelists. The magazines listed above also advertise or manage writing courses. Online writing tutorials are also available. Go to and search "writing courses" and browse the first few hits.

Publishing Markets
Many creative writing publishers list their submission requirements on the Internet, and some actually accept electronic submissions. For those who prefer books, here are some of the most useful ones:
Remember to read continually for inspiration and knowledge, and to write with whatever time is left over for fluency and productivity. Good luck!

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

National Report Cites Need for Writing Skills in Business

Writing: A Ticket to Work … Or a Ticket Out, A Survey of Business Leaders: A Report of the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges (College Board, September 2004)

A high-profile survey of 120 major American corporations employing nearly 8 million people concludes that in today’s workplace writing is a “threshold skill” for hiring and promotion among professional employees. Survey results indicate that writing is a ticket to professional opportunity, while poorly written job applications are a figurative kiss of death. Estimates based on the survey returns reveal that employers spend billions annually correcting writing deficiencies.

Among the survey findings:

  • Half the responding companies report that they consider writing skills when hiring and promoting professional employees.
  • Two-thirds of salaried employees in large American companies have some writing responsibility.
  • Eighty percent or more of the companies in service sectors, the corporations with the greatest employment-growth potential, assess writing during hiring.
  • Half of all companies take writing into account when making promotion decisions.
  • More than half of all responding companies report that they “frequently” or “almost always” produce technical reports, formal reports, and memos and correspondence. Communication through e-mail and PowerPoint presentations is almost universal.
  • More than 40 percent of responding firms offer or require training for salaried employees with writing deficiencies.
  • Remedying deficiencies in writing may cost American firms as much as $3.1 billion annually.
Your executive, professional, technical, and support staff can learn to:
  • write purposefully in time-sensitive situations
  • enhance client focus by writing consultatively
  • organize complex material effectively
  • edit documents for completeness, clarity, concisesness, and correctness
The writing courses offered by Philip Vassallo, Ed.D. address the reality that writing is a “threshold skill” for both employment and promotion. Dr. Vassallo designs each writing course to cultivate professional writing skills regardless the proficiency level and writing responsibilities of the employee. Contact Dr. Vassallo at for more information.

Monday, January 10, 2005

A Reminder from Alexander Pope

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.*
How true. Just as trained dancers are among the most graceful movers, the best writers are those who consistently apply their practice. When the prolific poet and essayist Alexander Pope wrote those words at the tender age of 21, he was already speaking from experience. In writing, there are no shortcuts; proficiency comes from practice. Keep writing and seek feedback--you'll see improvement!

*Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism, Part II, Line 162. (1711)

Sunday, January 09, 2005

A Writing Tip from William Faulkner

In an interview, William Faulkner, a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, once proclaimed, “The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important.”*

Whatever you write at work, Faulkner's observation is a fine one to remember. Focus the reader on the purpose of the correspondence--not on your inclinations, motivations, or consternations. The document should not be about you but about moving your business forward.

* Malcolm Cowley, Editor. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (New York: Viking, 1957): 120.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Phil Vassallo Designs New Online Business-Writing Course

I have just completed designing a three-credit online business-writing course, titled Business Communication, for the Center for Financial Training Atlantic States. It is one of the most comprehensive asynchronous undergraduate writing programs a student is likely to find anywhere.

The course emerges from my two decades experience in:
  • teaching business writing on the college level
  • delivering hundreds of writing seminars in the corporate world
  • designing curricula and courses for diverse organizations
  • assessing thousands of work-related documents
  • coaching executive, technical, and administrative staff in writing
Business Communication will give students the opportunity to post documents and responses to chapter readings on a course discussion board and receive professional feedback on their e-mails, memos, letters, proposals, reports, and resumes.

To sign up for the course (Business Communication, Course #1870), contact CFT at See you online!

Friday, January 07, 2005

Do Your Homework!

A participant in one of my writing seminars today made an excellent point about preparedness for job interviews. The participant, an administrative support staffer for a New York City government agency, said, "Over ten years ago, I went to the interview for my current job completely unaware of the agency's business. The interviewer asked me just a few questions to see if I knew the basics of the job and hired me. Today that's unheard of. My boss expects job candidates to have researched the agency's mission, objectives, services, and initiatives because that information is so easily available on the Internet."

Without question, employers are forced to do more with fewer employees today; therefore, the job market has never been as competitive. One way to get a jump on the interview process is to research the employer thoroughly. Here's how:

1. Study the employer's website. (If the employer has no website, you might want to reconsider seeking employment there.)

2. Consider the key concerns, markets, services or products, and ventures of the business and determine how your skills match those factors.

3. Prepare a list of questions and comments for the interview.

This is the least you should do. You may also want to conduct an Internet search for any recent media coverage of the employer. By showing your interest in the organization, you will become a more attractive job candidate.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Some Useful Online Writers' References

Here is a short list of online resources that developing business and technical writers should bookmark:

Essential Links ( Supplies a virtual bookshelf of dictionaries, thesauruses, grammar books, almanacs, and other valuable online resources.

Grammarian ( Offers links to numerous excellent grammar and usage websites.

International Writing Centers Association ( Provides many instructional resources on a variety of writing topics.

Plain English Network ( Presents a forum for clear, concise on-the-job writing, and includes standards, models, exercises, and links.

Words on the Line ( Writing recommendations and ruminations by an experienced writing consultant--yours truly.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

A Good Article Search Source

If you're looking for a good source to research over 50,000 books and nearly 400,000 journal, magazine, or newspaper articles, try Self-billed as "the world's largest online library," is an efficient search engine for academicians and other researchers who may not have immediate access to a university library.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

WORDS ON THE LINE Article Receives Praise from Students

Here's a thank you to the two students who found one of my WORDS ON THE LINE essays helpful enough to post positive commentary about it on their blog. They appear below.


Saturday, September 27, 2003

Critique of article written by Philip Vassallo
Vassallo, Philip. "Writing correctly is Not Necessarily Writing Well." Summer 2003. ETC.: A Review of General Semantics. 24 September 2003.

I reviewed an article recently written by Philip Vassallo titled "Writing Correctly is Not Necessarily Writing Well" and I feel the article had a lot of good ideas. Some people have a talent when writing papers which allows them to "fluff up" a paper but after reading the paper there may not be any pertinent information or idea in the whole paper. As stated in the article, grammar is important but if the words do not effectively keep one's attention or the author does not stick to the point then is this really a good paper written well. I agree that more emphasis should be put on the content and structure and when judging a paper this should have more weight then grammar. Just because you know where to put your period doesn't mean you have any worthwhile to say.


Monday, September 29, 2003

Philip Vassallo discusses in his article titled ”Writing Correctly Is Not Necessarily Writing Well” that how we use our words is far more important than the “grammatical correctness”(186). To me this means that I need to be careful that I talk about the topic without using words that do nothing but take up space. I also need to be careful when making comparisons. I need to make sure that the things I am comparing are proportionate to one another. The last detail is that I need to be able to back up my statements. The sources that I use need to be based on truthful facts and that the author on the facts is an authority on the subject. As long as I follow this rules, my essays will be both grammatically correct and will give the reader a more enjoyable experience.