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Contributors: Beth Towle .
Summary:

This resource provides writing guidance for administrative and clerical staff, including, audience awareness, conventions of particular genres, and general business writing tips such as concision and tone management.

Business Writing for Administrative and Clerical Staff

If you are an administrative or clerical staff member, you will likely be doing some kind of writing every day. From emailed memos to formal letters to social media posts, you will need to communicate with others in your office and beyond. Conveying information as efficiently as possible is an important ability to have as an administrative staff member. This set of Purdue OWL resources will help you better understand basic business writing principles, including audience awareness, genre conventions, and general business writing tips such as concision and tone management, as well as sample e-mails.

Contributors: Beth Towle .
Summary:

This resource provides writing guidance for administrative and clerical staff, including, audience awareness, conventions of particular genres, and general business writing tips such as concision and tone management.

Knowing Your Audience

One of the most important parts of business writing is knowing how to write for your specified audience. Different audiences will have different expectations of form, genre, and tone. You will have to adjust your writing based on who you are writing for. As administrative staff , you are often asked to write for multiple audiences, so knowing how to adapt your writing is an important skill and a good first place to start.

Your audience may be broad and require you to use a tone and format that works for many different people with different positions. Your audience may be a small group, or even a single individual, which has its own benefits and drawbacks. On one hand, you have a better idea of who you are writing for and what they already know. However, a smaller, more defined audience may require more detailed writing or a careful balance of tone.

There are many things to take into consideration for audience. What age range might your audience encompass? What familiarity with your office are they likely to have? Are you writing for a younger or older audience? For managers or administrators? Are you writing to the general public or other staff?

Once you have determined your audience, it is easier to know what genre or medium to write in, as well as what tone you should use. Knowing your audience will also help you know what the most important information to covey will be. If you are stuck on a piece of writing, analyzing your audience and figuring out their needs should help you figure out where to start.

Contributors: Beth Towle .
Summary:

This resource provides writing guidance for administrative and clerical staff, including, audience awareness, conventions of particular genres, and general business writing tips such as concision and tone management.

Genre and Medium

Genre and medium are closely related, although a bit different. Genre is the form of your writing (a business letter, memo, report). A medium is the way in which a piece of writing is delivered (email versus a mailed paper copy, for example). Genre and medium are both determined by audience and purpose. For example, if you need to let people in your office know that there will be a test of the alarm system in a few days, a brief email might be the easiest and most efficient way to get that information across. If you need to send an acceptance letter to a job candidate, a formal letter sent by mail or attached to an email might be most appropriate. Expectations of formality will affect what genre you choose. The more formal the purpose, then the more formal the genre.

Choosing a Genre

Genre is a form of writing with set functions determined by its social need. For example, a grocery list is a genre that developed out of a need to remember what you are shopping for at the grocery store. It is a set form of writing with general expectations – brief and to-the-point, in a list format, usually following the store’s layout. Genre is determined by need and audience expectation. A memo delivers information in an expedient way that helps an audience understand a recent event or issue. Meanwhile, a business letter is more formal and detailed, with an audience that might need more background information. It is important to know what information your audience wants and needs in order to establish what genre you will use.

Conversely, sometimes the genre is set for you. You may be asked to write in a specific genre and then have to figure out how the rules of a genre determine what information you will include and why that information must be included. If you are asked to write in a specific, new genre, you can use what you already know about similar genres to help you figure out what you should do. You can also use resources here on the OWL or in business writing manuals to help you better understand a genre. Looking at samples or models of an unfamiliar genre is particularly helpful and a good habit to get into as a writer. Most writers use models as a way to write in unfamiliar genres or to help them improve in genres they already know well.

Choosing a Medium

Along with understanding the genre features of what you are writing, you must also consider the medium in which your writing will be delivered. Although many of these genres will be sent via email, there are still considerations to make about what to include and how to include it. Official letters or correspondence should probably be attached as separate documents to emails. A short memo or note is suitable for just the body of an email. Depending on length and audience expectations, meeting minutes can be sent in the body of an email or attached as a separate document.

Social media posts are the one exception to email rules. Social media is distributed via various platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or weblogs. It is important to remember that social media is meant for a wide and often undefined audience. Your office’s public tweets may be accessed by anyone in the world, for example. For this reason, the medium will be particularly important to how you want to convey information. Please see the section on social media on the next page in order to better understand the particular media demands of social media genres. 

Note: It is important to remember that each office or department has unique genre and medium needs and concerns. If supervisors or colleagues ask you to use a specific set of guidelines or formatting for any business writing genre, you should follow those guidelines first.

Common Business Writing Genres

Genres you may encounter regularly in the workplace include memos, business letters or official correspondence, meeting minutes, and social media posts. Some of these genres already have separate OWL pages built for them (links included), but others are described in some detail below.

Memos

Memos have increasingly been replaced by more generalized emails. However, the guidelines for memos are incredibly important, no matter the medium in which a memo is circulated. Memos should be to-the-point, offer a clear summary, and prioritize the most important information first. Memos should also have a positive tone appropriate for the intended audience. See the our memo resources for more information.

Business Letters

Business letters are still an important genre in business writing. Formal letters that give news or ask for information rely on set guidelines in order to help the reader get the necessary information efficiently and with respect to the reader’s attention. Business letters can be sent by mail or via email attachment, but no matter the medium in which a business letter is circulated, the formal guidelines given for business letters are incredibly important to the genre. See the OWL's business letter resource for more information.

Meeting Minutes

Meeting minutes are a record of the most important parts of meetings. If you are asked to take minutes for a meeting, you should follow several basic guidelines.

  1. Include information about the time and date of the meeting, as well as where the meeting took place. If appropriate, you should also include a list of who was at the meeting. This information helps both you and your reader keep track of what happened when, and it also helps spark readers’ memories of the meeting if they can see when and where the meeting happened.

  2. Only include the most important information and details. Like most other business writing genres, meeting minutes should stick to what the audience needs to know. Long descriptions of events or unnecessary details only allow the important information to get lost. Stick to the most basic points and provide details only when they help the audience better understand.

  3. Keep all minutes uniform. All meeting minutes should be formatted the same way each time. If capitals are used for names, then they should be used for all names. If information is given with time codes rather than numbered points, then time codes should always be given. Meeting minutes should also be uniform in the way names are given. For example, if you refer to a Dr. Johnson in one part of the meeting minutes, you should refer to him as Dr. Johnson throughout the entire document. Similarly, in this case, you would refer to all names in the minutes formally using Dr. Mr., Ms., et cetera.

Social Media

As social media becomes more prevalent in business communication, you may be asked to help develop or run your office or department’s social media accounts. The most popular social media platforms are Facebook and Twitter. Facebook allows you to post information without a word limit, and you can easily include external links, photos, videos, and other media in your posts. Twitter has a 140-character limit, so information needs to be concise and external media or links must be considered carefully before including. Social media writing tends to be more informal than other forms of business writing, but it does require a strong understanding of your audience. Are you giving information to fellow staff members? To current students? To prospective students or donors? How you convey the information and which social media platform you use will be determined by the audience, so it is important to understand what it is your audience needs to know and why they need to know it.

It is also helpful to look at examples of other social media accounts to understand the ways in which social media is used to reach out to specific audiences. The search functions in Twitter, Facebook, and most other platforms allows you to look up similar types of departments or offices or other departments or offices at your own institution easily. Each account should have its own voice, but you can use other accounts as a way to help figure out an appropriate tone for your own social media writings.

Contributors: Beth Towle .
Summary:

This resource provides writing guidance for administrative and clerical staff, including, audience awareness, conventions of particular genres, and general business writing tips such as concision and tone management.

General Guidelines for Business Writing

Use a formal, positive tone

Audience also determines tone. Tone is the way in which something is said and the effect it hopes to produce. Tone is determined by word choice, punctuation, and organization. The more formal the genre you are writing in or audience you are writing for is, the more formal your tone will be. A formal tone utilizes strong organization, standard grammar and punctuation, and carefully-chosen language.

A confident, positive tone should be used for business writing. Do not focus on negatives or what cannot be done; instead, focus on the positives of any given situation or event. By focusing on the positive, you provide a more consistently professional tone in your communication. You should also use clear and concise language, and be courteous and sincere. Because you are writing for a broad audience, all language should be inclusive and non-discriminatory. For example, rather than using the word “chairman,” use “chairperson” in order to avoid gendered titles.

The audience you are writing for will determine the difficulty of language that you use, as well. Avoid technical jargon so that you do not confuse or intimidate your audience. Professional writing should always be clear and easy to read and follow. You should also avoid being too casual with new or unfamiliar audiences. And even familiar audiences should still be written to with a respectful, positive tone.

The following are examples of sentences rewritten to emphasize a more positive and courteous tone:

Weak: You didn’t read the instructions carefully; thus your system has shut down.
Better: Your system has currently shut down. The instructions may contain information to help you restart it.
Weak:I can’t be responsible for delays in finishing the project because you didn’t send me the information in a timely manner.
Better: Please send me the information as soon as possible, and let me know if there is anything I can do to help with this process.

In both of these examples, the statement has been rewritten to be less critical of the reader. The writer’s tone is more courteous and polite and offers assistance or advice to help the reader better complete a task.

Be concise

One of the most important parts of business writing is concision, that is, the ability to say things in as few words as possible. That does not mean dumbing down information or not providing details. Rather, it means highlighting the most important parts of what you want to say in your writing while leaving out less important details or unnecessary information. It also means highlighting the most important points early and succinctly. Learning to be a concise writer takes time and practice, but there are some general rules you can follow:

1. Do not use multiple words when one can suffice. The fewer words you use, the less likely you will lose your audience’s attention.

2. Do not repeat information. If you find yourself saying the same thing over and over again in your writing, you are not being concise. In order to keep your audience’s attention and focus, only give information once. There may be times when you have to repeat specific event or deadline information at the end of the email, in which case you may repeat some earlier information. But otherwise, you should trust your audience enough to assume they only need to be told something once. 

3. Carefully revise and edit before sharing your writing. When you reread something you have written, you will be surprised by how much can be changed. Keeping an eye on concision in particular while rereading and revising can allow you to find areas that are repetitive or wordy. 

Foreground important information

The most important information given in a piece of business writing should always come at the beginning. Give important details, such as meeting dates and times or necessary actions the audience should take, as early as possible. You should subordinate less important details. The most important information is that which your audience will be most interested. For example, if you are sending out an email announcing a meeting, include the time and place of the meeting in the beginning of the body of the email. The agenda for the meeting is also important. Less important details may include background information about the meeting (who called it, the decisions that went into deciding the time and place, who is included, et cetera). While these details may still be necessary for your audience, it is important that the most vital information comes early.  

Use standard grammar and spelling

In order to best reach a wide audience, you should follow standard English rules for grammar and spelling. There is a wide variety of OWL resources related to English grammar and mechanics, which you can easily find via our site map or search function. You should also remember to carefully proofread and edit all of your business writing documents before sending them along in any medium. Asking a colleague or friend to look at a piece of your writing before sending it out may also benefit your writing, especially when you are working in a new or unfamiliar genre.

Contributors: Beth Towle .
Summary:

This resource provides writing guidance for administrative and clerical staff, including, audience awareness, conventions of particular genres, and general business writing tips such as concision and tone management.

Sample E-mails

The following two emails are both good examples of utilizing audience awareness, tone, and emphasis. The first email was sent to a clerical staff member from an administrator, and the second letter is the resulting email written by the clerical staff member based on the task given to her by the administrator.

This email was sent by the administrator to a clerical staff member: 

Elizabeth,
I need to update several of our faculty and teaching staff on the changes in the English department’s process for assigning teaching schedules to Graduate Teaching Assistants. As you know, the old process gave preference to more senior TAs, which led to numerous complaints of unfairness and an overall lack of clarity. Starting next semester, the English department will transition to a new rolling system that divides TAs into four groups alphabetically and ensures each group will be given first preference of teaching times once every two academic years.
This change will go into effect starting January 5, 2015. In your message I would like you to outline the new process and explain the reasons why we need to make this change. Please provide contact information for the assistant department head in case anyone needs further information. Oh, and this information will also need to be copied to the appropriate associate dean.
I appreciate your help with this.

The following email is the result of the email above. The clerical staff member who wrote it has placed the most important information early in the email and uses a professional tone throughout. Additional contact information is provided for the audience, as well.

 

Dear Faculty and Graduate TAs,
The English department has changed its process for assigning teaching schedules to Graduate Teaching Assistants. Starting January 5, 2015, the new process will be a rolling system that alphabetically divides TAs into four groups, with each group getting preference for teaching times once every two years. We are making these changes based on feedback from administrative staff and graduate students worried about the fairness of the system and balancing teaching with coursework.
If you have any questions, please contact the assistant department head, Dr. John Locke.
All the best,
Elizabeth Hamilton