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: