Business writing

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Writing, for want of a better metaphor, is like a journey in which you, the writer, do the traveling, and your reader views the slide show once you are home.   Almost always, writing occurs after the journey or event--the event being research, a project, a meeting, an internship, thinking and planning--you name it.  In most academic writing, the writer attempts to reconstruct the journey and take the reader along. 

Generally, business writing differs from academic writing in a significant way.  If you are writing an essay, you usually lay out your foundation then proceed to expound on your thesis--allowing the essay to grow and develop as you take your reader, step-by-step, through your thinking process, your journey.  Business writing is usually not like this.  It is not a travelogue of your journey, allowing the reader to travel with you; rather, it is a detailed account of the end of the journey and a description of the milestones. 

For example, if you are writing a report about a business decision, you do not describe all the intricacies of the peaks and valleys of your journey to reach that decision.  You do, however, give your reader a report on your decision, an overall view of the trip, and a listing of the alternatives with an explanation as to why they were discarded.  Your reader is not given the whole slide show recreating your trip but only sees the highlights and the final destination.

Business writing, then, is briefer and more concise than many other types of writing.  Business is busy--your letter, memo, or report may only have a thirty second reading (if that) with no time for mulling or pondering.  You had better get to the point quickly, support your reasoning, and finish fast. 

Business writing is often like an inverted pyramid, also.  You begin broadly and finish with a narrow focus--a focus directing your reader's attention to where you want it--convincing or persuading your reader of your facts, reasoning, decision, etc. 

There are some niceties involved with business writing, however.  When delivering bad news, for example, you don't leap right in but work up to your message using diplomacy and tact.  Furthermore, you don't waste the reader's time by being obscure nor do you patronize.

Finally, business writing has some accepted formats, such as how to organize memos, reports, and letters.  In addition, business writing has some generally accepted practices:  writing concisely, using bullets and headings, employing short sentences, creating brief paragraphs, and getting to the point quickly. 

Examples of business writing are: Memos, letters, creating visuals, proposals, reports, the executive summary, instructions, resumes and cover letters, common English errors and presentations.


Memos and letters are the two most common types of business communication.  Memos resemble letters in that they communicate information and are commonly used in the world of business writing.  However, memos differ from letters in several important ways:


  • Memos are almost always used within an organization

  • Memos are usually unceremonious in style

  • Memos are normally used for non-sensitive communication (communication to which the reader will not have an emotional reaction)

  • Memos are short and to-the-point

  • Memos have a direct style

  • Memos do not have a salutation

  • Memos do not have a complimentary closing

  • Memos have a specific format that is very different from a business letter









Memos usually have one-inch margins on all four sides, and the writer's initials always appear next to the name at the top of the memo.

The top line of a memo usually says "Memo" or "Memorandum."   The company logo or letterhead frequently goes above this.  Some companies omit the words memo or memorandum, although this is not the norm. 

Below the word "Memo" or "Memorandum" is the date, the name of the person or persons to whom the memo is sent, the name of the writer or sender (with the writer's initials written-in by hand), followed by a very short description of the memo's topic.   Sometimes the order of these four items is altered; however, they are always present.  These four items are double-spaced and a solid line is frequently drawn below them, separating them from the memo's message.

 Some points to remember about good memo writing are as follows:

 Be kind to your reader--use headings and bullets as necessary to make the memo easy to read and key points stand out.

 Be concise--long sentences with complex construction do not belong in memos.  Keep memos short and to-the-point.

 Come to the point first--always use a bottom-line statement at the very beginning of a non-sensitive memo.


Remember memo format--never use a salutation or complementary closing with a memo.

Identify your attachments--if your attachments become separated from the memo, your reader will know that they were supposed to be there and can ask for them.
Be coherent--limit each paragraph to only one idea.  Keep your sentences flowing smoothly, and keep them short.
Use a business-like tone--use the first person (I or we); use short, simple words; be as informal as the situation allows; use concrete, specific words.

 Proofread your work--always read your work (or have someone else read it) before you sent it out.

 Identify your audience--identify the person or persons to whom you are writing.  Think about what they know, who they are, what they want to see or hear, how they are situated.  Clarify your audience's background, context, and environment.   Never, never, never write without identifying your audience first.


Business letters are common types of business correspondence, and we are all familiar with them. However, they are unique forms of communication and differ from business memos in several important ways:

Letters circulate outside the organization, rather than remaining within an organization.
Letters can communicate sensitive messages (information to which the reader may react emotionally) and, therefore, do not have direct organizational patterns. In this case, they are circumspect rather than getting right to the point.
Letters can also be written with the purpose to persuade or convince the reader and may not have direct organizational patterns. In this case, they are circumspect, also.

Note that in the example above, all the elements of the letter except the logo are on the left side of the page. Your company name and address; the recipient's name, title, company, and address; the letter's main text; the sender's typed name and title; and the attachment, enclosures, cc. are all single-spaced. You double-space or triple-space between your company's address and the date. You double-space or triple-space between the date and the recipient's name, between the recipient's address and salutation, and between the salutation and the letter's main text. You also double space or triple-space between the letter's main text and the closing (which is usually the word "sincerely"). Leave about four lines for your written signature, and double-space or triple-space between your title and the ending lines. The main text always single-spaced. Each paragraph is not indented but begins at the left margin. Double-space between the paragraphs.


Many business letters are written to inform the reader about a decision--improving past decisions, making current decisions, or planning future decisions. Primary to writing about a decision is the task of defining the focal issue--defining what is, was, or will be decided. When the focal issue is too large, there are too many options available, and it will be difficult to write about. If the focal issue is too small, it may be impossible to persuade your readers to agree with you. Secondary to writing defining the focal issue is to write about the alternative courses of action. These alternatives must agree with the focal issue (that is, they must be possible solutions to the problem). Finally, you must write a compelling argument for the one course of action decided upon or recommended with the selection reasons clear.

When writing about a decision, include the following:

  • an overview that clearly defines the focal issue

  •  all necessary background information--including the relevant alternatives  

  • clear discussion of the merits of the alternatives  

  • a compelling recommendation for one course of action with clear reasons for selection


Using visuals in business writing is the embodiment of the old adage, "a picture is worth a thousand words."  Visuals consist of tables and figures which are used to visually represent information in a vivid, easily understood manner. Visuals emphasize material and can present material more compactly and with less repetition than text. Tables are numbers or words arranged in rows and columns; figures are everything else.

Creating good visuals depends on always following these rules:

 Check the source of the data

Determine the story you want your visuals to tell

Select the correct visual to tell the story

Follow the conventions when creating visuals

Use color and decoration with restraint

Make sure the visual is accurate


Tables are used when the reader must identify exact values. Tables arrange data in a manner that makes them easy to read and understand.  Table identification and title are placed above the table.  Source information and any notes are below the table.

 Table 1: 2000 Sales by Region (thousands of dollars)





1st Quarter





2nd Quarter





3rd Quarter





4th Quarter





Source: Sales by Force: How to Sell Anyone Anything by Donna L. Shaw, 1932. Printed with permission.

Note: The above data and source are purely fictional and do not reflect reality.


Pie Charts compare parts to a whole and can show percentages.

      Figure 1: Regional Sales


Source: Sales by Force: How to Sell Anyone Anything by Donna L. Shaw, 1932. Printed with permission.


Bar Charts compare one item to another, compare items to one another, compare items over time, identify values, or show frequency.


Grouped bar charts compare several aspects of each item:


Figure 2: Travel Expenses


Source: Sales by Force: How to Sell Anyone Anything by Donna L. Shaw, 1932. Printed with permission.


Deviation bar charts show negative and positive values:

 Figure 3: Regional Sales


Source: Sales by Force: How to Sell Anyone Anything by Donna L. Shaw, 1932. Printed with permission.  

Segmented, subdivided, or stacked bars sum the components of an item:


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