Business Writing Guides
Purpose: Business writing has many purposes, including informing employees, coworkers, or colleagues; giving directions or outlining procedures; requesting data; supplying responses; and confirming decisions. But essentially there are three basic purposes to business communications:
- To persuade to action (we should do this)
- To issue a directive (do this)
- To provide a report or response (here’s what was done, or here’s what we found out)
Begin any writing project with a clear purpose. Why are you writing? What do you need to communicate, and what is the best way to do this?
Format: Should you communicate in a letter, memo, email or report? Each format has its own requirements and conventions as to structure and length, but whatever its format, business writing generally demonstrates some basic qualities:
- It focuses on communicating about one problem or issue
- it is concise—it gets to the point quickly and without excess words or inessential ideas
- it employs short sentences and brief, to-the-point paragraphs
- it uses plain, direct language (no fancy words)
- it uses graphic devices for highlighting (bullets, headings)
Audience: To whom are you writing? Always write for your audience and give them what they need: What is their education, background, company status? What do they need to know to understand and act upon your communication?
Tone: Use a neutral or positive tone where applicable. Try to stress the positive over the negative, even when writing a ‘bad news’ letter or memo. Avoid emotionally-charged words. Strive for a professional, ‘business-like’ voice, and never talk down to your audience.
Style and language: Favor short but clear sentences, not complicated structures. Be concise. Avoid wordy filler phrases (e.g., due to the fact that). Use accessible language, favoring clear, direct, simple words over the showy and fancy. Be specific, not general; concrete, not abstract.
A business communication will have an opening, a middle, and a closing
OPENING: The opening segment makes your purpose for writing clear. The first sentence or two functions much like the thesis statement of an essay, stating the main point and purpose of the communication, and what you want the readers to know or act upon. The opening should be brief, the length of a short paragraph. Use language and key words that alert reader to your subject and purpose. For example, “In response to your request for suggestions about X, I propose….” Or,
“After investigating X, I suggest that the company do Z….”.
BODY: The body develops the main point stated in the opening. It includes information about the event, circumstance, or problem being addressed. It also provides justification for actions or policies undertaken, requested, or recommended.
Organize material in the body logically, usually in two to four short paragraphs. You might present your information in order of importance (most to least important) or by enumerating items (first, second, third). Also consider using graphic devices such as bulleted lists, headings, columns, bolded text, white space and other methods that make the information easy to scan and comprehend. Putting important points or details into lists rather than paragraphs draws the readers' attention to the section and helps the audience remember the information better.
Each paragraph within the body should be short, no more than eight or so printed lines, and it should focus on a single idea expressed in a main sentence. This sentence usually appears at or near the beginning of the paragraph, to state the main idea upfront; but it may appear in the middle of the paragraph, as a pivot point; or at the end, as the conclusion toward which every idea in the paragraph leads. Indeed, every sentence in the paragraph must support the main idea sentence. These supporting sentences will present supporting information that illustrates, explains or otherwise strengthens the main idea.
The following body paragraph is taken from a sample memo proposing a new marketing strategy for clothing company XYZ. Its form illustrates the basic format of main sentence that states a claim, followed by supporting sentences that provide specific evidence and justification for the claim. This example also demonstrates how a heading can be used to highlight the main point of the paragraph and how a bulleted list can highlight key supporting information:
Internet Advertising: XYZ Company needs to focus its advertising on internet sites that appeal to young people. According to surveys completed by the Orion agency, 72% of our target market uses the internet for five hours or more per week. The following list shows in order of popularity the most frequented sites:
Shifting our efforts from traditional media outlets such as radio and magazines to these popular internet sites will more effectively promote our product sales. Young adults are spending more and more time on the internet downloading music, communicating and researching for homework and less and less time reading paper magazines and listening to the radio. As our target consumers go digital, so must our marketing plans.
When you include supporting information from a source, use language cues that tell your reader you are referring to source information: e.g. “According to my investigations,” or “Market research completed by the Orion firm has found that. . . ”. This is called using a signal phrase to introduce your supporting evidence and attribute it to its source.
CLOSING: The closing segment should be a brief, courteous ending. It usually presents information about actions taken or requested, relevant dates and deadlines. If no action is requested, it may offer instead a simple closing thought. Examples: “I would be glad to meet with you about this on . . . .” ; “Thank you for your attention to this matter.” ; “Please review this information and respond to me by . . . .”.
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