From the October 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

Pop quiz time! If you've ever wondered how much you know about new product development and business writing--and, honestly, hasn't it been keeping you awake at night?--here's a quick true/false test to gauge your aptitude in these two areas.

Question #1: Taking a "me-too" approach to product innovation never works. Unless you've created something entirely different from everything else on the market, you're better off not pursuing it.

Question #2: To improve your business writing, the best advice would be to simply follow the basic grammar rules you learned in school.

Question #3: To come up with new product ideas, it's a good idea to read an assortment of newspapers and magazines--even if it means taking time out of your workday to do it.

Question #4: A "tangent" is a diplomatic way to describe what happens when a writer fails to stick to the point of their correspondence. You know, like when you digress and begin discussing something totally irrelevant, or you ramble, or you just go on and on and on.

So how did you do? The answers to the first two questions are false; the answers to the last two questions are true. The good news is that we're not assigning grades--on the contrary, we're assigning reading in the form of The Complete Idiot's Guide to New Product Development and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Terrific Business Writing (Alpha Books, $16.95 each, paper).

Once you get over your initial reluctance to pick up anything with the word "idiot" on the cover, you'll realize these books serve as handy refresher courses on topics of concern to entrepreneurs. What's more, thanks to graphics and pull-out boxes that emphasize key points, you probably won't feel as if you're back in school.

Written by Edwin E. Bobrow, New Product Development covers everything from thinking of new products in the first place--not an easy task for either veteran or early-stage entrepreneurs--to legal, marketing and distribution issues. "The world is clogged with ideas," Bobrow reassures. "The veins of new product notions run deeper and thicker and are more varied than the riches of a Wild West gold rush. The key is to prospect for these nuggets in a targeted way rather than randomly groping the hills or idly waiting for time and the winds of change to expose the ore."

Likewise, Marcia Layton's Terrific Business Writing encourages readers to be pro-active and work to improve their company communications. Unnecessary, you think? Something to only get around to mastering in your spare time? Untrue, insists Layton: "Communicating effectively can mean business success or failure."

Whew! And you thought it was stressful to take a pop quiz.

The New Bottom Line

Does the world really need another book about socially responsible business practices? Although bookstore shelves are filled with works detailing the various means by which commerce merges with conscience, that shouldn't keep you from delving into The New Bottom Line: Bringing Heart & Soul to Business (New Leaders Press, $33.95 cloth).

Again, the territory is familiar. But editors John Renesch and Bill DeFoore are smart enough to mine insights from some of the most well-known authorities on the subject--Ken Blanchard, Tom Peters and The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, to name just a few. The thoughts and writings that Renesch and DeFoore compile from these and other authorities challenge readers to go beyond conventional business thinking.

Say, for instance, you view the workplace strictly in terms of who gets what and what gets done. Entrepreneurs with this type of attitude should beware, according to interpersonal communications expert Laura Hauser. "Companies who implicitly or explicitly demand that their employees check their spirits at the door . . . cannot tap into the full potential of their employees nor the full potential of their business," Hauser warns. "They will simply see higher activity and lower productivity, decreased morale, and disappointing business results."

Don't flirt with disappointment--and don't skip The New Bottom Line. Even familiar territory can yield worthwhile information.