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General Guidelines for Business Writing

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.

Contributors: Beth Towle
Last Edited: 2016-10-24 12:22:19

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.

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