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Business writing guidelines

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The correct use of language can be quite difficult and learning all its intricacies can take several years. Business and technical writing is not widely known for its adherence to proper English.

As a result, communication with customers or end users can cause some issues. It is important to ensure you communicate clearly with your audience. Your documents need to make sense and convey the required information without ambiguity.

This article is intended to provide a base level of knowledge for the average person. If you already adhere to these principles then you may be ready to delve into advanced language training.

At this base level, there are ten things you can do to improve your business writing:

Use familiar words and minimise jargon
Combine short and long sentences
Open with the main message or point
Use the active voice
Understand formatting
Use tone to influence your reader
Use language that is non-discriminatory
Check grammar for common errors
Correct number usage
Use the correct punctuation

1. Use familiar words and minimise jargon

Using familiar words that readers don't have to look up in a dictionary is very important. If the reader has to break the flow of reading to figure out a word then you have lost some impact.

Only use jargon if it is more precise and the reader knows what it means, or if you define the term for them.

Always define an acronym the first time it is used. Then you can re-use it further in the document. For example: The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has stated...

Also remove any old fashioned wording. In the past terms like 'I hereby confirm', and 'Please note' have been used extensively. They are still used today because that is the way people have done it for decades. These terms add nothing to the content and you will often find their removal still makes sense.
Consider these example pairs:
Please note that the amount received does not fully meet your liability.
The amount received does not fully meet your liability.

In order to finalise this matter, you are hereby requested to forward the full payment.
To finalise this matter, please forward the full payment.

The second version is much more concise and the reader doesn't need to skim over words to get to the main point. Try reading your sentences out loud to hear how it sounds. If it doesn't sound right, consider removing some of the more archaic terms to shorten the sentence.

2. Combine short and long sentences

Using short and long sentences helps to digest information more easily. Put only one idea into each sentence. Use a short sentence to highlight important points.

If you need to provide information that may not be well received, a longer sentence can help diminish the impact. Aim for sentence length of 15 to 20 words and a rough ratio of two short sentences per long one.

3. Open with the main message or point

This is applicable to sentences, paragraphs and documents.

Ensure that sentences and paragraphs begin with the main message or idea, followed by supporting information.

When arranging your correspondence ensure the purpose is clearly stated up front.

4. Use the active voice

A sentence with the do-er of the action coming first has more impact. This is considered the active voice, which is more direct, concise and creates a more personal tone.

This is vital when documenting procedures or providing instruction as it focuses the reader on what needs to be done, and who by.

In some cases you actually would prefer to use the passive voice. This is the case when giving bad news or you want to emphasise the object or action. In such cases you may even remove the do-er entirely.

5. Understand formatting

Effective formatting greatly increases readability.
Use formatting to:
emphasise key ideas
organise information
lead the reader through the document
and to break information into easy chunks.

Try to follow these principles:
Use bullet lists and numbering for lists with more than a few items; or if the items are the key focus
Consider using tables to highlight information
Use appropriate headings to break information into sections
Bold highlights key points
Break information into short paragraphs
Left justify is for text only
Avoid underlining and italics except for document references

If your sentences are formed correctly then the need for certain formatting diminishes.

Using bold is fine for headings however it can be distracting in certain document types. Other documents have a real need for it.

For a technical instruction manual, using bold for button names or fields makes it easier to follow. A lot of users have the manual next to them when performing tasks. With key information in bold, they can see what to do next at a glance; without having to re-read a paragraph.

Identify your audience and the main message of your document, then read it as if you are the recipient. If the formatting detracts from the message or is not appropriate to the target reader, change it.

6. Use tone to influence your reader

Tone is very important when we speak. People can easily recognise when a speaker is happy, angry, or sarcastic. This is not the case in writing and we have to rely on our word choice to convey tone.

When attempting to influence the reader:
Use personal pronouns -you, your, I, we
Use pleasant and positive words
Use a conversational style -write as if you are in the room speaking to the reader
Focus on the reader, not yourself or your business
Highlight what you can do for the reader; avoid mentioning what you can't do.

However, do not use pronouns when writing a report. In a report you must remain objective and don't promote yourself or your views. Based on the facts of the report, the analysis and recommendations need to be stated directly and impersonally.

7. Use language that is non-discriminatory

People have varying levels of what they consider discriminatory. While you may not see any issues with some of the examples below, other people will. It is best to avoid any writing that could be construed as insensitive.
A large part of this is to know your audience. If you are writing for Harvard law graduates, you would use different language and terms than writing for the general public.

i- Sexist writing:
To avoid writing that may appear sexist, there are several options depending on your audience. If your intended readers are all female, then primarily use she and her instead of he and his.

If your writing is lengthy - a hundred pages for example - you can place a qualifier in the introduction. This can be something like: For simplicity of this article, we will primarily use masculine terms such as he and his. Unless specifically stated, all reference to males are equally relevant to females. No offence is intended. You will then need to ensure the article adheres to this statement.

Avoid gender specific terms. The following are some common examples.
Humankind instead of mankind
Workforce instead of manpower
Average person instead of common man

If you use examples or case studies, ensure a mix of male and female participants.

In some cases you can convert your writing into the second person. This means the writing is told through the eyes of the reader. For example: You walked across the street.
This avoids the use of gender specific words, however may not be appropriate for the subject.

ii- Disability or illness:
Emphasise the disability or illness rather than the people that are affected by it.
Wheelchair user instead of wheelchair bound
People with epilepsy instead of epileptics

iii- Age:
Avoid comparing youth with inexperience and age with wisdom. Base experience on skill level or lack thereof, not age. For example, the inexperienced case manager.

8. Check grammar for common errors

Rather than going into a comprehensive grammar check list, there are some common things to keep an eye on when writing.

i- Consistency:
Maintain the same grammatical form within sections. If a sentence or bullet list changes grammatical form the reader can become confused or the message lost. A document with consistent formatting and grammar is easier to read and looks better.

ii-Using That or Which:
That limits information to make the subject more specific.
Which adds more information about the subject.

Examples:

  The documents that have a red binding are classified as important.

In this example, the words that have a red binding limit the type of documents we are discussing.

  The respondents, which were chosen randomly, agreed with the outcome.

In this example, the words which were chosen randomly are adding information about the respondents.

Which should always be surrounded by commas as in the above example.

iii- Subject/verb disagreement:
Singular subjects require singular verbs; plural subjects require plural verbs. In short sentences and paragraphs this is fairly easy to do; however in longer and more complex sentences it is easy to become confused.

iv- Misplaced modifiers
Modifiers are words that add information to another element in a sentence. Modifiers can be adverbs, adjectives, phrases and clauses. Modifiers can be single words or groups of words. These words modify nouns, pronouns and verbs. Misplaced modifiers are positioned so they appear to modify the wrong thing.

Keep the modifier as close as possible to its matching subject or element, preferably next to the word they are modifying.

v- Semi-colons
If you have two independent clauses - meaning they can stand alone as individual sentences, then you can use a semi-colon to join them. These should be closely related ideas.

A semi-colon should be used between items in a list or series if any of the items contain commas.

9. Correct number usage

Number usage can be confusing. Even experts can't fully agree on a standard convention for numbers. The following standards are generally accepted by most. Ensure you are consistent throughout the document.

Spell whole numbers one through nine. Use figures for numbers 10 and above
If a sentence contains multiple numbers use a consistent format, even if it breaks the above convention
Avoid starting a sentence with a number. If necessary use the word not a figure
Always use figures for ratios
Use figures for the time of day. If using 24 hour format include the leading zero for single digit hours and don't use a colon between the hours and minutes. Examples: 2:30pm, 1430 hours or 0345
For percentages, use the symbol % with numbers. Use 'per cent' for number words. Example: four per cent, 18%
Spell out fractions when used in isolation, eg one quarter. Use figures when placed with a whole number
If two numbers are next to each other, spell one and use a number for the other. Example: We tested five 7 inch tablets.

10. Use the correct punctuation

In business writing less punctuation is required due to the preferred use of less complex and shorter sentences. However the following conventions should be followed to ensure effective writing.

i-Upper case
Use upper case for the first letter in names of people, places, months, days, and titles.
Don't use ALL CAPS as it feels like you are shouting and can be quite jarring.

ii- Periods
Use periods at the end of:
complete sentences
abbreviations (St. instead of street) and acronyms (C.I.A. instead of CIA)
complete sentences presented in bullet lists
the last bullet point in a bulleted list when all the bullet points combine to make a complete sentence.

Do not use periods:
after initials
at the end of headings
in addresses.

iii- Ellipsis
An ellipsis looks like three periods in a line, such as ...
For business writing, an ellipsis is used to show the omission of words from a quoted passage. For a technical manual, if a button has an ellipsis as part of the name then include it when referring to that button.

iv- Comma
Use commas:
when listing a number of items
to indicate a pause
after words such as therefore, however and for example
before and after a non-essential descriptive clause
when mentioning a title designation or description.

Do not use a comma between the penultimate and final terms in a list. As a general guide, don't use a comma before the and for the final term in the list.

Use: The letter was brief, informative and well received.
Instead of: The letter was brief, informative, and well received.

v- Colon
Used to punctuate the end of a stem sentence before going into a bulleted or numbered list. They can also be used like this: to make a point.

vi- Brackets
Avoid their use as they can be distracting. If the information is important enough to be in the sentence there is no need to bracket them. If the information is not important, remove it.
The only exception to this is when defining acronyms. For example: The Java Development Group (JDG) have asked...

vii- Quotation marks
Used for quoted material. If you want a word emphasised use bold.

For British English, single quotation marks are used primarily. Double quotation marks are used for a quote within a quote. For US English this is reversed.

For example: The line worker claimed 'I was simply parroting the line manager when he said "stop printing that nonsense" when the department head overheard'.

viii- Apostrophe
Use these to show ownership or to contract two words.

For singular ownership place the apostrophe at the end of the owner's name and add an s. If the name already ends with an s, simply place the apostrophe after the name.

For plural ownership place the apostrophe at the end of the plural word.

When contracting two words, place the apostrophe in place of the missing letters. For example, can not becomes can't.

Final Note
By adhering to the above guidelines your business writing should improve dramatically and your target audience should digest the information easier.

One final point is about creative writing. As it is used to entertain rather than to inform, it follows its own principles. Creative writing can benefit from most of the above, though there are several exceptions. If you are unsure simply read the sentences aloud. If they sound wrong to your ear, then re-write them.

Happy writing.
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Comment
Author:Rartemass
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Expert Comment

by:Jim Horn
Good read.  I had an eight-day IT master's class a couple of years back where one of the days was business writing.  It had many of the points in this article.  It was based on a book called 'Writing to get things done', and the author came in to present his work.
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Expert Comment

by:Raghu Mutalikdesai
Pretty nice! It would be great if you add few examples for the sections (typically good / bad etc.) Nevertheless, you have covered a lot of ground on the topic and I am sure it benefits a whole lot!
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