The term “business writing” covers any piece of writing produced in a business context. I’ll focus here on documents that are produced for internal use (such as memos and plans), and reports aimed at clients.
Most jobs today involve a significant amount of writing, especially as you rise up the corporate ladder. Many of us find writing business documents a daunting process – and often procrastinate over it. This article should help you to gain confidence and to know where to start and how to progress.
As with any forms of writing, your business writing will benefit if you follow the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, editing and publishing).
Planning Your Business Writing
Whatever the piece of writing you’re faced with – whether it’s an email to shareholders or a complex report – you should write a plan before you begin.
In some cases, that plan will be very brief, perhaps a list of bullet points that you want to cover in your email. For longer documents, your plan may include: facts that you need to check or look up; a list of people whose input is required; the titles of sections or subsections; a list of illustrations or diagrams required.
Having a plan means that you can “chunk” a large project into manageable sections. This is a good way to avoid feeling overwhelmed or stuck on your business writing.
Most companies will produce similar types of document on a regular basis. For example, a software company might produce an annual report to shareholders, a monthly newsletter for clients, and a new user guide each time a new software module is released.
For each of these documents, your company should have a standard template. This not only saves a lot of work in formatting a new document each time – it provides you with a structure.
If no templates exist (which is common if you are a member of a very small company, or if you work for yourself) use a previous example of the same type of document to create a template.
When you have to come up with a structure from scratch, consider these possibilities:
1. Chronological Structure
Some documents, especially short ones, are best structured chronologically (in order of time). A good example would be a work plan, stating what needs to be done each week for the next quarter.
2. Alphabetical Structure
If you need to create a document which involves a large number of separate items, consider ordering it alphabetically (A – Z). This applies particularly to glossaries of terms.
3. Topic Structure
In many cases, documents are best split into different topics or areas. For example, a Frequent Asked Questions page for your website could be divided into “about us”, “complaints” and “delivery”, with each section containing several questions related to that topic.
Longer Business Documents
When you produce a long and complex document such as a report, you should provide an overview at the start. This is often known as an “executive summary”. (You may also hear it called an “abstract”, “synopsis” or “overview”.)
Here’s a ficticious example of an executive summary in a report by “Big Brother Corp” for their client “WidgetInc”. Note that a real executive summary would be longer and more detailed:
The main objective of this report is to provide a detailed analysis of WidgetInc’s customer demographics. This was done using standard industry procedures (primarily telephone surveys of randomly-selected customers). Big Brother Corp found that 89% of WidgetInc’s customers are aged under 25, and that 63% are male. It is recommended that WidgetInc targets this segment by advertising on popular game and video websites.
As well as providing an executive summary, long documents require:
- A table of contents
- Clearly-labelled sections and subsections, normally using a numbered structure
Business Language and Style
All business materials should be written in a clear, formal, professional way – but without using technical jargon or buzzwords.
“Clear”, “formal” and “professional” means that you should avoid:
- Vague or ambiguous statements
- Jokes, humor, anecdotes and clichés
- Unsubstantiated facts
- Slang or potentially offensive language
You should also take care over your grammar, punctuation and spelling.
Use your company’s style guide when you’re unsure about a particular point of language, layout or style. If a style guide doesn’t exist, create one. A couple of examples illustrating what you might include are:
- The word government should not be capitalized, unless it starts a sentence
- All titles, headings and subheadings should be in Title Case
(You might decide differently on those points – the organization I worked for used sentence cases for titles, headings and subheadings, following the Guardian newspaper’s style guide.)
Avoid padding out your document with impressive-sounding words that don’t say anything. Your writing should be concise and to the point – it shouldn’t involve waffling.
In many cases, you will also include a title page, diagrams, appendices, footnotes and other supporting material.
Using the Passive Voice
The passive voice is used to avoid attributing an action to a specific subject (person or group). For example:
The data was analyzed according to our protocols.
Joe analyzed the data according to our protocols..
In this case, it is probably appropriate to use the passive voice: the reader of the report is unlikely to need to know who analyzed the data – they just want to know that this was done.
Use passive voice when you do not know the actor, you want to hide the identity of the actor, or the actor is not important to the meaning of the sentence.
However, the current trend in business writing is to use the passive voice sparingly, especially when communicating with customers. It can make a piece of business writing less engaging, and it can also seem evasive.
Much of the writing which you do during the business day will be in the form of emails. Many of these will be simple and straightforward, and you won’t necessarily need to plan them in detail. Even for short emails, you should:
Write a clear subject line
- Write a clear subject line – and don’t forget to change the subject line if you’re replying to an email and introducing a different topic.
- Start with the person’s name, as you would with a letter – it can seem rude or abrupt to launch straight into the body of the email.
- Sign off with an appropriate closing such as “Best regards” or “Warm regards” and your name. In formal contexts where you are not already acquainted with the recipient, use “Yours sincerely” (or, if you don’t know the name of the recipient, “Yours faithfully”).
- Spell-check your email – errors don’t just make you look unprofessional, they can cause confusion, and waste time and resources.
- Be careful not to use jargon or acronyms unless you’re certain the recipient will understand them. This is particularly important for external communications, eg. with clients, customers or the media.
- Be familiar with basic email etiquette.
Keep your emails as succinct as possible, and consider sending an attachment or link to a webpage if you have a lot of information to convey.
A good way to structure an email and to make it easy for the recipient to take in all the information is to use bold subheadings to separate sections on different topics. For example:
We expect one article (text and image) to be delivered each week, by Wednesday noon.
Please supply all images as .bmp files. They should be 600px by 400px, and should have a resolution of 300dpi or higher.
Invoice [email protected] on completion of work.
If you’re sending a lengthy email, you may want to put a one- or two-line summary at the top. It’s also a good idea to make it very clear at the end of your email what action you want. State this clearly, and as a list if appropriate. For example:
Could you please email me with:
- The latest date from Project X
- Your drafted report on Project Y
- The times and dates which you would be available to meet next week
Remember that, even if your business writing is in the form of an email, you should be professional, polite and ensure that you have provided all the information which the recipient is likely to need.
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