Business Writing: A Brief Guide


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The purpose of this guide is to brief the reader about business writing. By the end of this guide, the reader should be able to write a business report/letter, an email, a memo, a complaint, an apology, and professionally delivering negative and positive messages. Subsequent sections will guide the reader through the journey of what to do and what to avoid when writing a professional message regardless of its type.

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Business Writing: A Brief Guide

  1. 1. Business Writing: A Brief Guide Heba Elshandidy Sep 2009 The purpose of this guide is to brief the reader about business writing. By the end of this guide, the reader should be able to write a business report/letter, an email, a memo, a complaint, an apology, and professionally delivering negative and positive messages. Subsequent sections will guide the reader through the journey of what to do and what to avoid when writing a professional message regardless of its type. 1 The Business Writing Process Prior to going through any details, the reader should be get acquainted with the four steps of the business writing process, which are: firstly, planning to write; secondly,organising the writer’s thoughts; thirdly,writing the first draft; and finally, editing the document. The forthcoming subsections will further explain each of these steps. 1.1 Planning to write A good planning strategy always starts with determining the purpose of the writing, followed by analysing the reader, and ends by choosing the suitable writing style. These three steps will guarantee a successful writing that meets the expectations of both the reader and the writer. More information about these steps are presented respectively. 1.1.1 Determining the purpose of writing Having a clear purpose helps identifying the information about which the reader want to learn from the message. Before writing, the information the reader already know about the subject should be determined, as the purpose of the message should only cover new or additional information. In order for a document to have a legitimate purpose, that purpose must be: a) worthwhile, b) delivered at the correct time, and c) relevant to the writer’s organisation 1.1.2 Analysing the reader In order to successfully analyse the reader, the following questions should be answered: 1. How many people are going to read that message? When the writing is addressed to a large group of individuals, a common interest should be the focus of that writing not not alienate any of the readers. 2. How will readers react to the provided information? Anticipating the possible reactions of the readers helps the writer to address any doubts or fears prior to publishing the work. In such a way, the acceptance of the readers, to the message, will be increased. 1
  2. 2. 3. What is the reader’s level of understanding to the offered information? Knowing the readers’ knowledge of the subject helps determining the amount and the type of information to be included in the message. 4. How the information will be used? If it is not stated in the message how readers can use and benefit of the presented information, they may and will disregard the entire message. 1.1.3 Choosing the suitable writing style When writing any piece of information, there are always to styles to do that, the formal method and the informal method. • The formal style: it is usually used for official document. When using this style, one should refrain from using: a) first person pronounces (e.g. as I or you), b) contractions (e.g. don’t or it’s), and c) colloquialisms (e.g. dead as a doornail) and slang words (e.g. cool). • The informal style: it is usually used in memos or letter reports addressed to a single individual or a small group of individuals. When using this style, there are no clear line of restrictions; it all depends on the intuition and the common sense of the writer. 1.2 Organising the writer’s thoughts Writers should divide their thoughts into main- and sub-points using bullets and numbering formatting. For example, they can use integers for numbering the main points and letters for indicating the associated sub-points. To be able to organise a document, the following elements should be considered: a) the main topic is clearly stated, b) the way in which the information will be presented is explained, and c) all the evidences supporting the presented information are included. 1.3 Writing the first draft After finishing planning and organising, it is the turn of writing the first draft. In order to do that, writers needs to: a) establish their credibility, b) avoid comments that could be interpreted as rude or undermining, c) emphasise the main points of the addressed topic, and d) project the right image by writing professional and accurate messages. 1.4 Editing the document The last step that concludes the business writing process is editing the document before distribution. A successful editing need an accurate proof-reading for the contents of the message. It is highly recommended to proof-read the document at least 3 times. To improve the quality and the credibility of a document, asking an impartial person to proof-read it will undoubtedly help accomplishing that. When writing or editing a document, the writer should ensure that the words are: a) concrete with specific and clear meanings; b)familiar, common, and known to readers; c) not gender-specific, and d) not disability-specific. There are basically four main factors that should be checked for correctness in each document, namely: 2
  3. 3. 1. Contents and organisation: to ensure that the information are presented in a logical order. 2. Readability: to ensure the utilisation of direct and concise statements while avoiding factual errors and confusing statements. 3. Formatting: to ensure that margins, fonts, and styles used in the document are as they should be. In addition to ensuring that the used sentences and paragraphs are short. 4. English structure: to ensure that the document is free of any grammatical, spelling, punctuational or typographical errors. 2 Common pitfalls in business writing • Large or uncommon words that draw the reader’s attention away from the presented information. • Sexist or derogatory language that would offend the reader. • Ambiguous expressions that do not convey the message effectively. • Negative expressions that deter readers from accepting the presented idea. • Wordiness or redundant language. • Jargon that could make readers feel that the writing is ”talking over their heads”. • Clichs that may seem unprofessional. • Inattention to details. • Contradicting statement that sends confusing messages. 3 Writing a good business report A good structure for a paragraph starts with ”topic sentences” stating the subject, to be covered, and how it will be discussed. Followed by ”supporting sentences” to explain the earlier topic sentences. It is important to use transitional words (e.g. however, therefore, and, or, but, etc.) to make the information in paragraphs coherent and to connect one thought/idea to another. • To create an effective sentence, the writing should – be concise, where most sentences should have no more than 20 words, – avoid unnecessary words or repetitious words, – use active voice; passive voice sentences may be used to soften bad news, and – elimintate run-on sentences - typically contain too many ideas and will often confuse the reader - by breaking them up into two or more sentences. • To create an effective paragraph, the writer should – concentrate on one idea per paragraph, – keep paragraphs short with at most 10 or 12 lines long, and – vary the length of different paragraphs in order to keep the attention of readers. • To write a good business report, the writer should – use specific and clear language, – report all relevant facts, – state why information is important, – support ideas with proper evidence, and – limit personal biases. 3
  4. 4. 4 The proper format of a business letter A good business letter should have seven main components, namely, a heading, a date, an inside address, a salutation, a body, a closing, and a signature. Each of these elements is briefed next. 1. The heading • is placed at the left margin, • is located 3 lines or 2 inches from top of the page, and • includes the name, the full address, and the telephone number of the organisation to which the letter is addressed. 2. The date of the letter • is placed two lines below the heading, and • has a formal representation (i.e. September 17, 2005). 3. The inside address • is placed two lines below the date, and • includes the recipient’s name and their position. 4. The salutation • is placed two lines below the inside address, • is followed by the recipient’s name and a colon (e.g. Dear Mark:), and • if the recipient’s name is unknown, then write ”To Whom It may Concern”. 5. The body • is placed two lines below the salutation, • contains the message to be sent, and • in most letters, lines are single spaced paragraphs are double spaced. 6. The closing • is placed two lines below the body, and • contains one or two words (e.g. Sincerely or Sincerely Yours). 7. The signature block • is placed three lines below the closing, and • contains, on separate lines, the sender’s name, title, and contacts. 4.1 Special components to business letters There are other elements that can be used in the writing of a business letter. These elements, however, are not mandatory components to a business letter and are used based on the need. 1. The attention line • is used only when the last name of the recipient of the letter is known or when the letter is directed to a position/a title/a department, • is placed two lines below the inside address or immediately following the company name, and • is followed by a colon, then the recipient’s name. 4
  5. 5. 2. The subject line • informs the reader of the subject of the message, and • is placed after the salutation, at the very top of the page, or immediately before the salutation. 3. The second page heading • is used only when the letter is more than one page long, • includes the recipient’s full name, the date, the page number, and it could also include the name of the recipient’s company, and • two blank lines are left between the heading and the body of the letter. 4. The reference initials • is placed two spaces below the signature block, • the sender’s initials are written in upper case letters followed by a back slash, and • the typist’s initials, usually the secretary, are written in lower case letters after the back slash. 5. The postscript • should be at the end of the letter, and • is written as P.S, PS, and PS:. 4.2 Special notation components to business letters There are some notations that are used only in business letters to provide further details about the nature and the importance of the written information. The four most popular notation components are: 1. Addressee notations • is placed 2 lines above the inside address in upper case letters. • Examples: PERSONAL, PLEASE FORWARD, or CONFIDENTIAL. 2. Enclosure notations • is placed 2 lines below reference initials. • Examples: Enclosure, Enclosure(3), Attachment, or Annual Report. 3. Copy notations • follow reference initials or enclosure notations. • Examples: PC, and C. 4. Mailing notations • are used in case of a special delivery or a registered mail, • are written upper case letters, and • are placed under the copy notation or above the inside address. 5
  6. 6. 5 Guidelines for writing various business documents Besides business letters and reports, there is a set of other business documents that are used in office to communicate ideas, issues, achievements, results, and many other topics. The following subsection will present the guidelines to write an effective memorandum, emails, transmittal letters, apology letters, complaints, and persuasive messages. 5.1 Memorandum A memorandum or a memo is a note, a document, or any other communication form that helps the memory by recording events or observations on a specific topic. To write a good memo, the sender should: 1. describe the objective of the memo clearly and upfront, 2. state what should happen, and 3. provide details about the recipient’s responsibilities. 5.2 E-mail messages Since emails have become a crucial part of our daily communications, knowing how to write an informative non-boring email message has become imperative. An effective email should: 1. address only one topic, 2. include a subject line, in order to give the recipient(s) an idea about the included message in the email, 3. present the most important information firstly followed by information of less importance, and 4. not include confidential messages. 5.3 Transmittal letters Transmittal or cover letters are usually used with curriculum vitae. They are used to brief the interviewer about the qualifications of the applicant, the job to which they are applying, and a reason for meeting that applicant. A good cover letter should: 1. state the reason(s) of sending this information to the recipient, 2. give a brief summary of the materials, in the C.V., to highlight the importance of that information, and 3. inform the recipient what they should do with that message. 5.4 Apology letters When committing a mistake, one must immediately apologise once they figure that out. Whether it is a written apology or a face-to-face communication, one should consider the following: 1. apologise immediately - avoid long apologies - and inform the other party that you care about their business/feelings, 2. focus on actions to correct the mistake and help calm the other person, 3. limit recalling the negative details, to keep the tone of the message positive, and bring in any new information that could help further explain your situation, 4. inform the other person how you plan to prevent the problem from reoccurring in the future, and 5. request a feedback from them to collect any additional information on how to solve the problem or prevent it from reoccurring. 6
  7. 7. 5.5 Complaints Since life is no sunshine rainbow and certainly is not fair, learning how to effectively write a complaint will help people adequately communicate their concerns with their manages about any unresolved issues at work. When someone decide to write a complaint, they should: 1. begin the message with a positive tone - avoid words as problems, wrong, or mixed up - in order to maintain a positive tone, 2. state the reasons for their complaint, 3. suggest an alternative to correct the situation; avoid sounding domineering, and 4. close the complaint confidently. 5.6 Persuasive messages After submitting a complaint, the manager may be reluctant to investigate it or may be biased against you. In this case, you should follow up by sending another message trying to change the manager’s attitude/opinion/view towards the submitted complaint. Such kind of messages is called persuasive messages. These messages are not only used to follow up on negative requests (e.g. a complaint) but also to follow up on positive one (e.g. a salary increase request). The main characteristics of and the guidelines to write an effective persuasive message are briefed next. 5.6.1 Characteristics of a persuasive message A good persuasive message should: • demonstrate the sender’s credibility through testimonials, statistics, research, and other factual evidence, • be discreet by avoiding pushy or forceful language when writing, and • be able to make concessions to encourage the reader to cooperate. 5.6.2 Guidelines for writing a persuasive message To effectively write a persuasive message, the sender should: 1. get the reader’s attention by focusing on the goals of the company/organisation/university, identifying the importance of the sent message, 2. offer ideas for the improving the situation, 3. provide all the supporting evidence, starting with the most convincing ones, and 4. detail the necessary action advised to be taken by the reader in a sense that encourage the reader to accept the suggested ideas. 7
  8. 8. 6 Guidelines for writing a message In general, there are two types of messages: positive and negative. While the former usually delivers good news, the latter type, on the other hand, always come with the bad ones. Regardless of the type of the message, all the news should be delivered in a positive tone with the focus on the bright side of the story. Further details about each type is explained subsequently. 6.1 Positive messages Delivering a positive message always bring happiness to the recipient(s). Though it is a happy news, if not written properly, it might not reflect that happiness. Hence, a positive message should: 1. state the good news clearly, 2. provide the recipient with detailed facts, and 3. summarise the main points. 6.2 Negative messages Sometimes, there are situations where we are obliged to deliver bad news to a peer, a manager, or a subordinate. Though the delivered message is negative, the delivery process itself has to be positive in order to minimise the shock and help the recipient calm down. To write a negative message positively, one should: 1. mix both bad and good news, 2. thoroughly explain the reasons for the bad news, 3. if appropriate, emphasise that you want to maintain your current relation with the reader, 4. if possible, inform the reader how the information you are providing will benefit them, and 5. use positive words and expressions. 8