Since 1997, the Business Writing Center has provided business writing courses to business writers from over 7,000 companies around the world. During the last 12 years, the Center has identified the best business writing practices businesspeople are using that have an impact on readers, based on the Center’s business writing courses. This article describes the 21 best practices for business writing.

1. Decide what you want the reader to know, believe, or do.

For your business writing to have the impact you want to have, you must decide what you want from the readers and expect to get it. Having unclear goals for business writing is the primary reason writers may experience writer’s block.

You may take thirty seconds to think through your goals for a short report, or your committee may take three days to decide what you want to accomplish during a six-month writing project. This training presents the types of goals you normally will have for your business writing and brief summaries of how the goals should shape your writing.

Your first priority is to provide the reader with what he or she expects to receive and needs to receive from your business writing. If you aren’t sure what the reader expects or needs, find out.

Write the goals for your business writing in reader terms. That means you should describe what the reader will know, believe, or do. For example, “Jim will know the contents of the new travel form” states what Jim will know. On the other hand, “To explain the new travel form” is a statement of what the writer will do. It doesn’t describe what the reader will be able to do. The business writing could explain the new travel form very well, but Jim may not understand a word of it or read it. The goal of the business writing isn’t to explain the new travel form; the goal is for Jim to know the contents of the new travel form.

To help you write goals in reader terms, begin the goals with “The reader will be able to . . .”

More on setting goals . . .

2. Understand the reader of your business writing.

Each person who receives your business writing will understand it differently. You must know your reader well enough to have reasonable confidence that this reader will accomplish your goals and satisfy his or her own needs as a result of your business writing. That means you must keep the reader at the forefront of your thoughts as you write.

Who are the readers of your business writing?

Identify all of the potential readers.

  • Requester
  • Person originating the request
  • Reader
  • Reader’s manager
  • Others

Be aware of the secondary readers of your business writing. These are people other than the primary reader who might read the business writing. You must be aware of their reactions if they do read it.

Use the following resources to learn about your readers

  • Identify key words in the request.
  • Learn about the reader from others.
  • Speak or correspond with the reader.
  • Use your common sense—but it takes work.

What are the readers’ expectations for your business writing?

  • Identify the reader’s expectation key words in his or her correspondence to you.
  • Use the requester’s key words to assess what the reader expects.
  • If you aren’t sure what the reader expects, clarify it.
  • In your response, repeat the key words in the request.
  • If the request is numbered, number the responses in your business writing in the same way.
  • If the requester is not the reader, identify the reader’s expectations.

What does the reader need from your business writing?

  • In responses to requests, identify the need key words in the requester’s correspondence to you.
  • Use the requester’s key words to assess what the reader needs.
  • Repeat the key words in the response.
  • Use your understanding of the subject and reader to satisfy reader needs.

How much do the readers know?

  • What does this reader know about you? Start with an introduction to you if necessary.
  • What does this reader know about the subject?
  • What does this reader need to know?

What are the readers’ education and expertise levels?

  • What vocabulary does the reader use?
  • What does this reader know about these types of subjects in general?

Score the readers’ education and expertise

Take a moment and score your readers’ education and expertise levels. Decide which of the following categories the reader belongs in:

  • Naïve, general public, not knowledgeable
  • Some general knowledge, little understanding of jargon, able to understand some principles
  • Astute, knowledgeable, understands the field, knows the jargon

What are the readers’ positions or professional levels?

  • Is the reader an executive, a line worker, or at the board-of-directors level?
  • Does the reader expect a formal, professional presentation in your business writing?

What are the readers’ attitudes about you and the subject?

  • Use the reader’s key words to assess sentiments: comfort, eagerness, anxiety, or hostility.
  • How does this reader feel about these types of subjects in general?
  • How does the reader feel about you?
  • What is threatening in this document?

Assess the readers’ attitudes

Use the following list of types of attitude to estimate what the readers’ attitudes are.

  • Very cooperative, congenial, partnering
  • Willing, open
  • Neutral
  • Unwilling, fearful, or defensive
  • Hostile

Use your understanding of the readers’ attitudes to adjust your business writing so it has the impact you want without negative reactions from the reader.

More on evaluating your readers . . .

3. Develop a strategy for your business writing based on your goals and analysis of the reader.

Use your reader-oriented goal statements and your analyses of the readers to decide on strategies to use so your business writing has the impact you want it to have. Answer these questions to develop your strategies:

What readability level should you use?

  • For educated business readers, keep the text at about a tenth-grade readability level.
  • For the average public, keep the text at around an eighth- or ninth-grade readability level.
  • Use Word’s readability formulas to check your writing occasionally.
    Read about readability tests in Word . . .

What level of difficulty should you use?

  • Use vocabulary the reader uses.
  • If the reader knows little about the subject, define and explain more.
  • Keep your vocabulary and content at the reader’s level, usually the tenth-grade level.
  • Minimize unnecessary detail.
  • Decide how much you want to teach the reader.

Should the explanation be abstract or concrete?

Abstract

  • Open to interpretation
  • Collaboration with the reader
  • Involves the reader
  • For readers who know the subject well

Concrete

  • Single interpretation
  • No deviation from expectations
  • Uses examples
  • Includes more details
  • Uses visuals

Should the business writing feedback loop be abstract or concrete?

Abstract

  • The reader may decide how to respond.
  • The reader may decide when to respond.
  • Leaves open alternatives for the response.
  • Leaves open the content the reader may include.

Concrete

  • The feedback loop requires a single method of response.
  • It requires a response by a certain date or time.
  • It allows no alternatives for the response.
  • It specifies in detail what the reader must provide in the response.
  • It has observable, measurable means to ensure the reader complied.

What level of formality should you use in  your business writing?

  • Archaic (do not use)
    • “aforementioned” (16th century)
    • “as per your request” (18th century)
    • “under separate cover” (14th century).
  • Formal (when the reader expects it)
  • Business (for normal business writing)
  • Business informal (for readers you know well)
  • Informal (do not use)

What tone should you use in your business writing?

  • Cooperative
  • Encouraging
  • Helpful
  • Personal
  • Close or partnering
  • Not
    • Disdainful
    • Antagonistic
    • Impersonal
    • Patronizing

What stance should you use in your business writing?

  • Generally, use “you” and “I,” not “they,” “one,” or “the company.”
  • Write “please,” “thank you,” and “may I.”
  • Avoid lecturing and patronizing. Avoid “You must,” “You should.”
  • Partner with the client.
  • Avoid discriminating language such as businessman, chairman, draftsman, fireman, flag man, man hours, or manpower.

More on developing strategies . . .

4. Write the central idea(s) of your business writing in a few words.

Write the central idea of your business writing in a few words. If you will be communicating more than one central idea, write each. The statement of the central idea will be your guide to writing clear, focused, well-organized business documents. The key words you use in your statement will appear in the introduction to your business writing, openings to sections, and body of your business writing. You should see the key words from the central ideas throughout the business writing.

More on preparing notes . . .

5. Under each central idea, write a word or a few words for each supporting idea or explanation the reader needs to be able to understand your idea.

Public schools teach people to just write without planning the writing before starting. “Write about what you did last summer,” the teacher says. Because teachers probably haven’t taught you to plan before you write, you likely have the impulse to just start writing. That’s inefficient and time-consuming. You end up having to go back and reorganize your business writing after you have a mass of text to work with. Most writers can’t do that very well. They want to include everything they’ve written in their business writing; they’ve lost perspective because they wrote it as they thought and all the words in front of them block their view of the overall ideas.

Just writing without planning also creates writer’s block. If you find you can’t decide how to start your business writing, it’s probably because you don’t have the plan yet. Your thinking is in webs, not straight lines. At each point in your thinking web, your mind could go several directions because you understand the entire subject. However, the reader of your business writing doesn’t have the web in his or her mind yet. To communicate with readers, you must translate the web into individual straight lines of thought. If you just write in your business writing, your mind sees the web and doesn’t know where to start.

Planning before you write helps you decide which lines to explain and where to explain them. As you explain the individual lines of the web in your business writing, the reader will start to see the web in his or her mind. You’ll find it easier to start writing because you know which lines to explain first and in what order to present the rest of them.

Learn to plan the writing first. Write brief notes. Then add details.

More on preparing your notes . . .

6. Organize the central ideas and sub-ideas in your business writing.

Organize the notes in your business writing so they present information the readers need, when they need it. The procedure that follows will seem time-consuming because you must concentrate and proceed slowly as you learn it. However, when you become adept at following these steps through practice, you will perform them quickly and easily. Like the other best practices in this course, they will become second nature to you.

Organize the main (Level 1) points in your business writing first.

Using your notes for the business writing, organize the Level 1 point key terms explaining the central idea according to what the reader needs to be able to understand the central idea. Don’t work with the Level 2 points until you have finished organizing the Level 1 points. Don’t write sentences yet. If you have two or more central ideas in the business writing, decide which central idea the reader needs first and put it first in the document. Then organize the Level 1 points for that central idea. After you finish organizing the Level 1 points for the first central idea in your business writing, organize the Level 1 points for the other central ideas.

Organize the Level 2 points next.

Then organize the Level 2 points under the Level 1 points until you have organized all the Level 2 points for a central idea. That way, you will see the organization of the entire document at a Level 2 depth before going into deeper levels. It is as though you were viewing a summary of the document so you can evaluate whether the information is sufficient, necessary, and organized.

You will also be able to see whether you have written some Level 2 points twice. That will be a signal to rethink the Level 1 points. You may decide you should combine two Level 1 points because you’re repeating Level 2 points in them.

Organize the remaining points at all other levels.

Then go on to the Level 3 points in the same way. Focus on the Level 3 points throughout the business writing before going on to Level 4 points. Continue this process until you have finished all the points whose key terms you have listed.

More on organizing your business writing . . .

7. Write business writing introductions that give the reader all he or she needs to understand your document from the first word.

The introduction to your business writing must be self-contained so that the reader does not have to refer to another document or recall earlier information to be prepared for reading this document.

Describe the context of the business writing.

For all of your business writing, describe the context at the beginning:

  • Why is the reader receiving this now?
  • What is the purpose of this document?
  • What is the problem that led up to this?
  • What are the circumstances that required this e‑mail?
  • What did the receiver request that the sender is now fulfilling?

Include enough to make sure the reader knows the situation. Don’t assume the reader remembers significant facts. Explain all that is necessary to ensure that the reader knows the background and can respond immediately. Leave as much history at the end of the introduction as necessary to inform the reader about the context of the business writing.

List each request you are fulfilling using the reader’s words

If the reader had more than one part to the request, list each part that you are fulfilling using the reader’s words. The reader may have had four questions, or two questions and a suggestion, or other such combination of parts in the correspondence to you. In your introduction to the business writing, follow the organization the reader used and repeat the key words in the questions, suggestions, or other content. Create a list at the beginning so you show the reader you are responding to every point of interest to the reader. Then, in the body of the business writing, repeat the same statements as headings so the reader sees the correspondence between his or her request, your introduction, and your response.

Write the important actions in business writing introductions.

Most business writers put the action the reader must perform or the next action the writer will perform at the end of the document. It should be there, but it should also be at the beginning, for four reasons:

  • Some readers never get to the end of the document. They may not realize an action is required.
  • Many readers skim the beginning to see what the document is all about, then set it aside after they have decided how important it is and when to respond to it. Putting the action just at the end means many readers will not know about the action they must perform, which would escalate the importance of reading the document.
  • The beginning is a very strong position in a business document. The reader will more likely remember the action and perform it if you place it at the beginning.
  • Putting the action in twice, at the beginning and end, increases the likelihood that the reader will complete it.

Write any critical point the reader must know and remember.

At the beginning of your business writing, write any critical point the reader must know and remember. Repeat it at the end.

More on writing an informative introduction . . .

8. For emails, letters, and memos, write a cordial beginning or buffer.

Business writing is an opportunity to build a team spirit with others in your company and a partnering relationship with vendors and clients. When you have an opportunity to begin with a cordial greeting, do so.

“Thanks for sending that report so quickly.”
“You’ve always been incredibly knowledgeable about this client. I need your help.”
“I’m looking forward to hearing more of your good ideas at this meeting. We’ll hold it . . .”
You may have the feeling this is being fake. Readers don’t see it that way when they read such a message in business writing. They’re pleased by it. Of course, the message must always be genuine, and if you begin every email, letter, or memo with such a message, soon people are going to stop reading the first sentences of your business writing. Take the opportunity when it is there to let the reader know you appreciate him or her.

Express your appreciation for the reader’s efforts or help. State the actual occurrence when possible.

Write a buffer if the reader may react negatively to the message in the business writing.

Analyze the reader before you begin the business writing. Ask yourself, “Will the reader react badly to anything in this message?” If so, defuse the reaction by beginning with a buffer in which you reassure the reader as much as is appropriate. Don’t minimize or dilute a message that the reader must hear, even though it may not be good news. However, begin your business writing with a buffer that explains your stance toward the reader in the most positive words appropriate.

More on writing a cordial beginning or buffer . . .

9. State the contents of the business writing just before you begin the body.

End the introduction to your business writing with a statement of the contents of the email, letter, memo, or report. This is your contract with the reader. In your college classes, this likely was called the “thesis statement.”

Example: Below I explain why we need to respond to this problem now.

If you have more than one central idea, state all in a list. Begin explicitly.

Examples:

This email contains three issues:
In this email, I explain the agenda, the location, and the information you’ll need to bring with you.
Below are my two recommendations for the software purchase and a way we can convert the data.

You should be able to summarize your business writing in one sentence. If you have trouble doing so, it may be a sign that your business writing is too long or rambles. However, if necessary, write more than one sentence describing the contents. Then decide whether all of it is relevant to your message.

More on stating the contents of the business writing. . .

10. Build business writing in clearly defined blocks.

The mind cannot hold and work with a large number of ideas all at one time. Readers like to access information in easily digestible chunks rather than one large chunk. That’s why books are divided into chapters and chapters into paragraphs.

To help readers understand and remember your business writing, present the points in clearly defined blocks. That will also help you write more quickly and easily. You will find it easier to write one block at a time rather than try to conceptualize the entire business document and put it into the report as one large whole.

Blocks in your business writing are like cells in a spreadsheet. You want to have accurate numbers in every cell of a spreadsheet so you end up with accurate totals. If you don’t have accurate communication in every block of the writing, you won’t have an accurate total in the reader’s mind when he or she finishes reading your business writing.

Have a name for each block in mind. Use the key words for the block.

When you wrote your notes for your business writing, you used a word or few words for each central idea and for each sub-idea. Those words are key words. You will use them in the headings, opening statements describing what is in a section, and explanations. Those key words are like titles for the block. For example, you might have a “meeting agenda block.” Within the “meeting agenda block,” you might have three sub-ideas that form three blocks: the “business report” block, the “old business” block, and the “new business” block.

Use the names for blocks to evaluate your business writing’s organization and focus.

Using the names for blocks will help you keep them organized and focused. It will also help you keep the key words in mind so you use them consistently as you write.

More on using blocks in business writing . . .

11. Open blocks in business writing with a statement of the contents.

To be meaningful to readers and listeners, your messages must have beginnings and endings. You begin an email, present the message, and end it. You begin a sentence within a report, present the words, and end it. Within your business writing, you begin an explanation, explain the contents, and end the explanation.

Distinct beginnings and endings are especially important in longer business writing containing several ideas or steps. For readers to be able to follow you, they must know when you want them to open up an idea in their minds, pay attention to the explanation, and close the idea so you can go on to another idea. They store each idea in a compartment in their minds, with other similar ideas. When you don’t open each new idea in your business writing, they don’t know where to store the information. When you don’t close each idea before moving to a new one, readers keep trying to put subsequent ideas into the same compartment with the previous, which may create confusion and frustration.

Openings and closings are critical to clear business writing. The clearest business writing tells the reader every time the writer is opening a new idea and when the writer is closing the idea.

Open each block with a sentence stating what is in the block.

Examples:

“We would be better off purchasing new equipment than upgrading the old.”

“Holding training sessions in several remote sites would be better than bringing people in from the field to the home office.”

An opening sentence opens the concept the writer will be explaining in the next few sentences or paragraphs. It isn’t intended to present new information as much as to clue the reader in on which ideas will be coming up next in the business writing.

More on stating the contents in the introduction to your business writing . . .

12. When business writing has clearly defined sections, write headings for the main points using the key terms.

For longer business writing, choose to open the blocks with headings. Headings are your fulfillment of the contract with the reader. In the statement of contents, you agreed to explain certain information. The main point sentences state, one topic at a time, the part the statement of contents contract that you are fulfilling; the headings introduce the main points.

The clearest business writing uses headings containing the same key terms you used in the notes you prepared as you planned the writing. Present them in the same order you used for the organization as you prepared the notes. The headings should be explicit statements of the content to follow so the readers cannot misunderstand. When possible, the headings should be understandable before the reader reads the text.

The levels of headings must also be distinct so they look like an outline of the business writing. The reader should be able to see at a glance the outline levels of the text

More on using headings in business writing . . .

13. Choose block contents for business writing by deciding what the reader needs.

Under each of the sub-point key words you wrote when you organized the notes, write enough to achieve your objectives with the reader. Avoid including more than the reader needs. Examine the information you have included in your business writing to be sure you have included enough to achieve your goals. Will the reader understand the facts and concepts without further explanation?

What does this reader know about the subject, not know about the subject, or actually misunderstand about the subject? If the reader knows little about the subject, you probably need more facts and concepts because your explanation must be more complete. If the reader is very familiar with the subject, you may not have to explain many facts, concepts, and procedures.

Remember that some readers of your business writing will need technical information to be persuaded, while others will be confused by it. Also remember that individual characteristics and knowledge play an important role. If the person just wants the bottom line, including excess information in the business writing may be frustrating. On the other hand, if you’re writing to someone who has limited knowledge of your subject matter, you may need to include a considerable amount of detail. Review your business writing with your knowledge of the reader and your goals in mind.

More on choosing content the reader needs . . .

14. Identify lists in your business writing and break them out.

Identify the lists in your business writing. The entire document may be a list. You may also have lists in paragraphs. If all of the business writing is a list, make the list visible with headings. You might number the headings so the reader sees the list clearly.

In the paragraphs of your business writing, break out all lists with items that are a few words long. For lists with short items, you may leave the list in a sentence.

Some key words or key phrases in business writing require items. Examples are “conclusions,” “recommendations,” “locations,” “topics,” “items,” and so on. When you use the plural of these key words in your business writing, the reader will expect to read a list of whatever the name is. If you have a key word or key phrase for the section that requires a list of items, write a bulleted list or numbered list. Use a bulleted list for items that do not have to be in a specific order. Use a numbered list for items that must be in a specific order, such as steps or a timeline of events.

If the section key word or key phrase name does not require items, don’t create a bulleted list or numbered list for the section; leave the text in paragraph form.

In your business writing, assume you will not put text into a bulleted list or numbered list format. Create a numbered list or bulleted list only when the key word or key phrase name suggests you need a list and the text contains items that fit with the key word or key phrase name.

Read more on bulleted or numbered lists in business writing . . .

To find out whether text in your business writing should be in a bulleted or numbered list, follow this procedure:

  1. Identify a potential key word or key phrase name for a bulleted list or numbered list that you see in the business writing. If you don’t see a key word or phrase, see whether the paragraph contains items. In this case, the key term could be “tasks,” a word that appears in the first line.
  2. Look at the sentences to see whether they are all tasks. If so, change the business writing to a bulleted list or numbered list so all the sentences are list items.
  3. If none of the sentences are tasks, consider another key word or key phrase name. If you find no suitable key word or key phrase name, don’t create a list in the business writing.
  4. If some sentences are tasks but some are not, create a paragraph for the business writing that is not a list; create a list for the text that has a key term name or phrase and has items. The list items will all fit the criteria for being tasks.

Read more about numbered lists and bulleted lists . . .

15. Check each block for focus.

After you have identified the blocks, check to be sure they correspond to your statement of contents in the introduction. If the report is very brief, you can tell very quickly if you have focused on the essential information. In a longer report, check to be sure each block presents a single central idea. Follow this procedure:

  • Compare the first sentence of the block with the last sentence of the block. They should both relate to a single central idea. For example, if your central idea for the first block is the time and place of a meeting, don’t include anything in that block about the agenda for the meeting or how important it is. Focus only on the time and place in that block. A block may develop an idea by taking it from the central idea in the first sentence to a conclusion or extension in the last sentence. If so, examine the block to be sure the progression is clear. The reader must be able to follow the progression easily. If the first and last sentences do not describe the same central idea or you do not see a clear progression in thought so the last sentence is a conclusion of the progression, look at the block to see where the block went off track. You may need to reorganize the block or remove unrelated information.
  • Do you use the same words for the central idea in the block that you used in the statement of contents?
  • Do you use transition and order words such as “first,” “the next step,” and “finally” to establish relationships between central ideas and supporting details?
  • Do any of the details introduce unrelated subjects?
  • Is every detail necessary to clarify the central idea?
  • Does the block contain sufficient detail for the reader to understand the subject presented in the statement of contents?

It is especially important to review the report for continuity. Every fact, statistic, and example within a block should relate to the central idea for that block. Every block should relate to the statement of contents in the introduction. The statement of contents should state your purpose clearly and explicitly. As you review, think about your original goals for writing the report. What, exactly, do you want your reader to know or do after reading your report? Have you included all the information the reader needs to accomplish the goals?

More on checking the blocks for focus . . .

16. Write a conclusion that achieves your goals.

Follow these principles to write a conclusion to your business writing that achieves your goals:

  • If you’re presenting a case, restate the conclusion and main points together.
  • If your business writing builds an appeal or argument leading to a conclusion or action, restate the main points in the conclusion to help the reader see the points with the conclusion. If you are not building to a conclusion and the message is short, do not restate the main points. Repeating the main points will appear contrived and stilted.
  • State the facts the reader must know at the beginning of the business writing and end.
  • If the reader must perform an action, state it at the beginning and end. Include concrete details as necessary, specifying the who, what, when, where, and how applications to the action. Express your willingness to help if appropriate.
  • End your business writing with your interest in being helpful. Write, “Call me or e‑mail me if you have any questions” or “I will help in any way I can. Just contact me.” Saying you are available and willing communicates your wish to cooperate. That builds a partnership spirit.
  • Include follow-up information about next steps: who, what, when, where, and how.
  • If you appreciate the reader’s cooperation or in some other way value the reader’s contribution, state that in the conclusion to the business writing. Reiterate in the conclusion your appreciation for the reader’s efforts or help, even if you stated that in the introduction. If you have nothing real and concrete to say, don’t manufacture something. However, this is the time to build the partnering and team spirit.
  • Provide reassurances after bad news. If the e‑mail presents bad news, you probably started with a buffer to try to reduce the impact of the bad news. End with the same reassurances you used at the beginning. That shows your sincerity.
  • Include a feedback loop for important business writing. Make sure you know the person has received the message, understands the message, and has followed through with any actions.
  • End with contact information. When you write an email, letter, or memo, always include contact information at the end. Provide your phone number, extension, and email address.

More on writing effective conclusions . . .

17. Use paragraphs to organize your business writing.

Use paragraphs to create blocks of thought in your business writing. When you start a new thought, break for a new paragraph. If a fact is very important, place it in its own paragraph.

Shorter, factual business writing will have more paragraphs of one to three lines. Try not to go beyond seven lines. Longer, explanatory reports should have paragraphs of seven lines. When you reach seven lines of text, look to see whether you have changed ideas in the paragraph. If so, break there.

Don’t be afraid of one-sentence paragraphs. They are very appropriate for business writing. However, if you have a series of one-sentence paragraphs, the paragraphs won’t help the reader see the divisions in your thoughts. Every new paragraph will seem disjointed.

Limit paragraphs to one idea. That one idea may be a development from the opening concept to the conclusion at the end. When you seem to be changing ideas, decide whether the second idea fits in the same paragraph with the first. If the reader needs to see the ideas as a close unit or you are developing the paragraph from the opening concept to a conclusion, you may keep them together. Otherwise, if a new idea is clearly different, break for a new paragraph to separate them.

As you edit your paragraphs, give each with a name that states the topic in a few words. If you see more than one idea, decide whether you have two concepts that should be separated or whether you are building to a conclusion by starting with one concept and developing to the next.

Look at the key words in the first sentence and the key words in the last sentence. If they are different, you may have more than one idea in the paragraph.

More on paragraphs in business writing. . .

18. Write concisely.

The more words in a sentence, the more likely it is that readers will forget or distort the meanings of some of the words. Another consequence of using too many words is that readers become mentally fatigued and bored with the text. Reading words, interpreting their meanings, and combining the words to form a whole message take time and energy.

Eliminate deadwood: words that convey no useful information.

Unnecessary words in business writing are deadwood. Eliminating them will not affect the information in the message, but will reduce the time and energy the reader must expend to interpret the information. After you eliminate any deadwood in your business writing, reword the sentences to make them mechanically correct. Read over the message again, focusing on what the writer left. Even though a few of the words may need to be rewritten, the passage will be shorter and much easier to read.

Eliminate redundancies: words and sentences that repeat information unnecessarily.

Business writing often includes the same thing written twice with wording changes so the second version sounds like it is new information, but it isn’t.

See if you can identify the redundancies in this business writing example:

Courage is one characteristic a follower must possess to help the organization achieve its goals. More specifically, a successful follower who helps achieve organization goals must have the courage to assume responsibility, serve, challenge, participate in transformation, and leave. These are five activities that a follower must be able to perform.

The redundancies have been crossed out in this version of the paragraph:

Courage is one characteristic a follower must possess to help the organization achieve its goals. More specifically, a successful follower who helps achieve organization goals must have the courage to assume responsibility, serve, challenge, participate in transformation, and leave if necessary. These are five activities that a follower must be able to perform.

This is what the paragraph looks like when the sentences are combined into one sentence:

To help the organization achieve its goals, a successful follower must have the courage to assume responsibility, serve, challenge, participate in transformation, and leave if necessary.

This paragraph states the obvious, over and over again:

Moving the Graphics Department to the other building has resulted in more space for Accounting. Expanding the size of Accounting employee work areas will give them more room in which to work. That will mean more room for their workstations, supplies, and all of the tools office workers need to use to perform their jobs successfully. A larger work area will make working more pleasant for them. I propose that we expand the size of Accounting’s work areas.

The author of these sentences is wasting reader time. It is much too obvious that “expanding the size of employee work areas will give them more room in which to work.” It isn’t so they can play racquetball. Obviously, if they have more room, the room will be for their workstations, supplies, and other tools. And obviously, if they have a larger work area, working will be more pleasant.

Here is the business writing without stating the obvious:

Moving the Graphics Department to the other building has resulted in more space for Accounting. I propose that we expand the size of the Accounting staff’s work areas to give them more room to work.

More on writing concisely . . .

19. Write clear, simple, straightforward sentences in business writing.

Imagine that a sentence is like listening to a story. You want to begin at the beginning, hear the events in sequence, and end when the story is finished. If the person telling you the story presents the story in the wrong order or inserts information in the middle that doesn’t relate to the story, you’ll become frustrated or annoyed.

View the sentences in your business writing as a story. This sentence interrupts the story for information that disturbs the flow:

I had agreed to look at the data again, at our May 15 meeting in Cincinnati with you the MIS people there, to see why it seems to indicate that the glass container division is losing money.

Prefer to present the story in one, smooth statement. When you have other information you want to put in, place it at the end or beginning of the sentence, or make a separate sentence for it:

At our May 15 meeting in Cincinnati with you and the MIS people there, I had agreed to look at the data again to see why it seems to indicate that the glass container division is losing money.

Revise sentences that contain interrupting information. Locate places in which you can put the information so the sentence flows smoothly. The second sentence in this example has intruded information:

On behalf of the members of the Business Management Society, we submit this request to be included in the March BOTL deliberations. The Business Management Society is a non-profit association of business managers (currently having a membership of 20,000) providing information and training to managers in all business areas.

The writer should have found a way to eliminate the “(currently having a membership of 20,000).” This is the best solution:

On behalf of the 20,000 members of the Business Management Society, we submit this request to be included in the March BOTL deliberations. The Business Management Society is a non-profit association of business managers providing information and training to managers in all business areas.

Usually, you can find a way to place the information in your business writing so it does not interrupt a sentence. At times, you will find that the information was not important enough to put in the sentence at all or that the information is sufficiently out of place to require its own sentence.

If a sentence sounds awkward or odd to you, it will probably sound awkward and odd to your readers. Sometimes business writers try to sound formal and “businessy” by creating sentences they think are more businesslike, but they’re really just odd. Instead, use the same sentences you might use when you speak, with improvements that you are able to make in writing because you can reconsider and revise.

Write strong, active sentences in your business writing. State the actor. Begin with strong verbs.

More on revising and combining sentences . . .

More on writing clear, simple sentences . . .

More on writing strong sentences with active voice . . .

20. Use words the reader will understand.

In your business writing, avoid archaic words and phrases people don’t use in speaking anymore. If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it. A short list of such words follows to give you examples. Many other such words are being intruded into business documents every day. Choose the alternative to the right of each.

as per your letter in your letter
yours of the 10th your December 10 letter
awaiting your reply, we are, omit
in due course today, tomorrow, next week
permit me to say that omit
we are in receipt of we received
pursuant to omit
in closing omit
attached herewith here is

Use words you might speak in ordinary conversation. Avoid slang and colloquialisms, such as “keep on truckin’,” unless you’re writing to someone you know well. However, use simpler, conversational words rather than complex words or phrases such as these. Choose the alternatives to the right of each word or phrase.

accelerated sped up
preceding year last year
predicated based on
assumption belief
financial deficit losing money
ascertain find out, learn

More on writing words the reader will understand . . .

21. Proofread Your Business Writing.

Microsoft Word has a function that checks spelling as you type. The function is useful because you will catch most spelling mistakes immediately after you have typed them.

After you type a word and press the space bar, Word will compare the sequence of letters in the word with the words in its dictionaries. If it can’t find the sequence, it will place a red squiggly line under the word to alert you that the word may be spelled incorrectly. Place your mouse cursor over the word and click with the right mouse button. You will see a pulldown menu. These are the options on the pulldown menu:

  • Possible alternatives for the word will be listed first, bolded. If you really meant to type one of those, just click on it and Word will insert it for you.
  • Click on Ignore all if you want Word to ignore this word any time it sees it in this document. Word will still flag it when you go on to work on another document.
  • Add to dictionary will add the word to your personal dictionary. That way, when Word checks any document you write, it will find the word in your personal dictionary and will not flag it again.
  • Click on AutoCorrect if you want Word to automatically correct this misspelling every time you type it in any of your documents. For example, if you tend to type “yo” when you mean “you” because you are typing quickly, set AutoCorrect to change “yo” to “you” every time you type “yo” and press the space bar. You could do that with words you often misspell as well, such as “timud” instead of “timid.” When you press the space bar after typing that misspelling in any of your documents from then on, Word will correct it automatically. To set AutoCorrect, click on “File” on Word’s menu across the top of the page. Click on “Options” and then “Proofing.” Click on click on the “AutoCorrect Options” button. Type the incorrect spelling in the left column of the window that appears and the correct spelling in the right column. Click on “OK.” Auto correct will correct it automatically from then on, in any document you write.
  • Click on Language to change the language dictionary you want Word to use. Word contains dictionaries for different languages. For example, the British dictionary will not flag “emphasise” or “colour,” but the American dictionary will. Set the dictionary for the language or dialect of English you are using.
  • Click on Spelling if you want Word to enter a spellchecker mode and check spelling throughout the document.

If you are in a specialized field such as medicine or law, type a list of the words you use that are so unusual they will not be in Word’s dictionary. Word will put red, squiggly lines under each as you type the word. Check to be sure you have spelled the word correctly; then click on it with the right mouse button and add it to your personal dictionary. If you have co-workers who also use the words, create a master list and have each person go through the list and add the words to his or her personal dictionary.

Follow this procedure to set the spellchecker to check spelling automatically as you type.

  1. On Word’s menu across the top of the screen, click on “File”
  2. Click on “Options.”
  3. Click on “Proofing.”
  4. Make sure Word has checkmarks in all the options under “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word.”
  5. Click on “OK” to close the window.

Still check for spelling to identify words that are misused but spelled correctly.

The dictionary does not flag words that are in the dictionary but spelled wrong in your text. For example, the word processor would not flag any of the words in “Eye cam too sea ewe too day.” Every word is in the dictionary.

Even though you use the spell checker, you must proofread your writing.

More on using a spellchecker and grammar checker . . .

More on proofreading your business writing . . .

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Business Writing InstructorDr. Robert Hogan teaches the coaching, tutoring, and individualized business writing courses. Dr. Hogan has been training writers for 40 years in universities, colleges of business, consulting companies, and professional writing companies. He has been a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County College, and Illinois State University College of Business. He was manager of communications in a telephone billing company and owner of a company writing documents on contract for government agencies and corporations.

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