This past Thursday, I went to a day-long Fred Pryor seminar called Business Writing for Results, hoping to gain skills that will further my freelance work, as well as techniques and information I can use in teaching the professional writing unit I conduct with my dual enrollment college composition students each spring. Below are my takeaways, as well as lessons from my own experience, which the seminar helped confirm.
When crafting a business e-mail or letter (or any piece of writing, really) the most important thing to keep in mind is your audience–the people or person who will read what you’re writing. First and foremost, you need to make sure they will actually read it. Your message is going to be hard to get across if your reader doesn’t read it to begin with. While you obviously can’t force someone to read your e-mail, memo, collections notice, etc., there are a number of things you can do to increases the chances someone will read it.
Avoid large, dense blocks of text that can alienate your reader. Long, bulky paragraphs can look intimidating–they appear as if they will simply take too long to read. Many readers will be tempted simply to skim over them, or skip them altogether–likely resulting in their missing important information you wanted them to know.
Give your reader frequent visual breaks by utilizing white space and short paragraphs, as well as short sentences and frequent periods. An e-mail of three short paragraphs with white space in between each one looks much more readable than one consisting of a single, large block of text.
Use bullet points and lists, which can make information skimmable and quick to read. See Sample One and Sample Two below. At a glance, Sample Two is likely easier to read. The bullet pointed list stands out from the rest of the text, making the tasks you need to achieve stand out amongst the rest of the text, which is less critical.
Sample One: We are so pleased you have chosen Princess Cruises! Upon boarding the ship, please check in with the attendants, participate in safety training, check your baggage, procure your meal ticket, and find your room. Bon voyage!
Sample Two: We are so pleased you have chosen Princess Cruises! Upon boarding the ship, please:
- check in with the attendants
- participate in safety training
- check your baggage
- procure your meal ticket
- find your room.
Include hyperlinks. If you want your reader to know more about a topic but fear your correspondence running too long for her attention span, provide links for the subjects you hope your reader will further investigate, instead of writing your own sentences about it. If your reader wants the information, she will follow the link for it–and still read your short and sweet correspondence.
Italicize or bold key points to help your reader distinguish what the most important information is, and to improve the ease of finding it.
Use a ragged right margin, as opposed to block. This increases the amount of white space, making your document more reader-friendly.
Be Specific and Proactive
If you are composing a piece of business writing, you are likely trying to get something done. You want your tenant to pay her overdue rent, you want your new hire to hurry up and finish his new employee training, you want a refund for the damaged product you received. In order for these communications to be effective, they must be both specific and proactive; otherwise, your reader may be left with little to no idea of how to respond or proceed.
Include dates whenever relevant. For example, if you are upset because a product did not arrive in its promised 3-day delivery window, you would be wise to include the date you ordered the product and the date it arrived. If your tenant’s rent is overdue, include its original due date, how much time has elapsed since then, and the extended deadline, as well as any monetary amount he might need to know.
Provide names–of yourself, so the recipient knows who to get in touch with, but also of any involved parties. For example, if a store clerk insulted you, including the name of the clerk in your correspondence will allow the business to take more actionable steps in addressing the employee’s rudeness; they will know who to retrain or coach.
Include contact information. If you want a response, and presumably you do, it’s important to make sure you include how your recipient can get in touch with you. Make sure to include an e-mail address, phone number, or mailing address where they can reach you.
Explain what you’ll do and when. If you own a company that ships parts to clients, your shipping confirmation should be specific: “We will ship your model no. 4563-1978 Chevrolet headlights to 432 Any Street, Anywhere, VA 12345, on 15 May 2017. Expect its arrival 5-10 business days after shipping date.” If you wrote a letter of complaint, explain exactly what compensation would satisfy you.
When composing a business correspondence, you may or may not know who you’re addressing. For example, if you’re writing a cover letter, you may not have the contact information of the addressee–and you may not be able to find it. In the event that you can’t find out who you are addressing, or whether the person is male or female (think about ambiguous names like “Pat,” “Ashleigh,” or “Cameron”) or married or single, consider these tips:
- If gender or marital status is ambiguous, use the person’s first and last name, with no title. For example, if you are writing to Cameron Jones, don’t use “Dear Mr. Cameron Jones”–what if Mr. Cameron Jones is really Ms. or Mrs. Cameron Jones? Instead, just address the correspondence “Dear Cameron Jones.”
- Try to avoid “To Whom It May Concern,” replacing it with the person’s job title (or likely job title). For example, if you are writing about a personnel issue, but do not know who the personnel director is, you can address your letter, “To the Personnel Director.” Even if the company does not employ someone by that title, they will get it to the appropriate person.
Active and Passive Voice
I am forever harping on my students to use the active instead of the passive voice, but in business writing, both voices have their advantages. Pick which voice to use based on the goal of your correspondence. Here are some things to consider:
|Active Voice||Passive Voice|
|In the active voice, the subject (in the case below, “We”) performs an action.
Example: We will send your invoice before May 15.
|In the passive voice, the subject (in the case below, “invoice”) does not perform an action, but is being acted upon.
Example: An invoice will be sent before May 15.
|More Examples of Active Voice||More Examples of Passive Voice|
|The shipping department will send your product on Tuesday.||Your product will be shipped on Tuesday.|
|You must pay your bill within the 15-day grace period.||Your bill must be paid within the 15-day grace period.|
|Students should turn their assignment in tomorrow.||The assignment should be turned in tomorrow.|
|Advantages of Active Voice for Business Writing||Advantages of Passive Voice for Business Writing|
|More engaging||Can read warmer and fuzzier; softer and gentler; less direct
Example: You must pay your bill before the 15th of each month vs. Bills must be paid before the 15th of each month.
|Inspires more confidence||Appropriate for scientific and technical writing where no clear actor needs to be identified
|Often smoother and more fluid; easier to read; less clunky or choppy; more concise
Example: The billing department will send a bill next month vs. A bill will be sent by the billing department next month.
|Can avoid placing blame or taking direct responsibility
Example: We apologize for the error that was made in your order vs. We apologize for the error we made in your order.
|More specific and direct|
Obviously, you must consider the context and intent of your correspondence before deciding whether passive or active voice would best suit your purpose. In a billing notice, for example, passive voice might work best in an effort not to offend a customer who may simply have forgotten to pay the initial invoice, or who isn’t late at all. Similarly, passive voice can serve you well if you want to avoid taking direct blame for an inconvenience or issue, or placing direct blame on someone else (such as your reader). On the other hand, if your correspondence requires you to be more direct and specific, active voice will better suit your needs.
Consider These Questions
On a final note, whenever you read a business correspondence and notice yourself skipping sections, as yourself:
Why did I skip this and read that? What engaged me here, and what bored/confused/intimidated me there?
Becoming more self-aware as a reader can help you avoid mistakes when you’re writing.
As you write, ask yourself:
Have I given the reader options, or am I making demands?
Have I used respectful, courteous language?
Have I used a positive approach?
Finally, when you edit your correspondence before sending it out, make sure you consider clarity, brevity, active voice, and simple word choice. Or, as I like to put it, remember your ABCS:
- Active voice
- Simple words.