Table of contents
[Note: Our 'Demystifying Business English' Course is now available, and includes a module on Business Writing]
For better or worse, English is the language of business.
Recent trends, such as remote working, mean that writing is more important than ever.
If you can write clearly, simply and accurately in English, you will save your company time and money.
This means that by improving your writing skills you make yourself more valuable to your company. It means pay rises, promotions, and improved career opportunities.
It’s not about the grammar
Perhaps you worry about making grammar mistakes in your writing. Although it is good if your writing is error-free, this is not the most important thing.
After all, people use English all around the world to communicate with each other, and most people using English are not native English speakers. A supplier in Vietnam writes in English to a customer in Poland.
We don’t expect everyone to have grammatically perfect sentences.
In modern business, the most important thing is time. The ability to get to the point quickly is more valuable than the ability to write without grammar mistakes.
Types of business writing
Business writing includes the following:
- Instant messaging services (Slack, Teams etc.)
- Memos (formal notes sent to employees)
- Proposals (formal offers to do project work)
- Promotional materials
Of these, the most common type of business writing is emails.
Most people rarely send letters anymore and they may only write one report per month, but they might send and receive dozens of emails per day.
So the tips I am going to cover here mainly apply to emails. However, many of the tips are also useful for longer writing, such as reports or proposals.
How is business writing different?
How is business writing different from creative writing?
When you write a story, you improve your writing by adding things, such as adjectives and emotional words.
Look at the following two sentences.
(1) Jack jumped out of the plane.
(2) Taking a deep breath and summoning up all of the courage that he could muster, Jack stepped forward and launched himself out of the aircraft.
The second sentence is better storytelling, because we have added emotions, adjectives and expressive words, such as aircraft instead of plane.
However, business writing works in exactly the opposite way!
Examine these two sentences:
(1) You are hereby requested that, in order to facilitate the application process, form 3B must be completed in full and returned to us at your earliest convenience.
(2) Could you please fill out form 3B and return it to us?
In this case, the shorter sentence is better. It is better because it gets to the point quickly and saves the reader time.
You may also notice that my “good example” uses simpler language.
In modern business writing, it is a good habit to use simpler language. This is good news for English learners. It means you do not need to learn complicated vocabulary to write well!
How is business writing different from spoken English?
When we write, we have time to think about and structure what we want to say. We can choose just the right word that we want.
However, in a basic sense, modern business writing is not so different from spoken English. Look again at our two examples:
(Bad example) You are hereby requested that, in order to facilitate the application process, form 4B must be completed in full and returned to us at your earliest convenience.
(Good example) Could you please fill out form 4B and return it to us?
The first example is bad because it is too different from spoken English and so it does not sound natural. The listener has to spend time “translating” it into normal language.
On the other hand, the second example is already “normal language”. Look closely and you will notice it could be spoken English.
If your emails sound good in spoken English, you are on the right track!
At this point, you might be wondering something. You might be thinking that this style of writing sounds very different from business writing in your own language.
It’s true. In many other languages, business writing is much more formal and elaborate (complex).
In fact, English business writing used to be this way. However, this has changed in the past 50 years or so for the following reasons:
- Time has become much more important as business has become more efficient
- Emails and text messaging have simplified the way we communicate
- Tech companies (with younger CEOs and a more informal style) have influenced the business world
What is modern business writing?
Modern business writing should be friendly, professional and polite.
A professional email should be concise (short and to the point). It shouldn’t contain lengthy sentences (try not to have sentences of over 20 words), unnecessary words or overly formal writing.
Let’s see some examples.
The good, the bad and the ugly of business writing
Dear esteemed team members,
I refer in this email to the meeting which had previously been scheduled for May 11.
Please be informed that the abovementioned meeting shall be postponed for a period of one week and shall be held on the 18th of May.
Should you be unable to attend said meeting, please inform the undersigned at your earliest convenience.
This email is full of bureaucratic (overly formal) language (like abovementioned and undersigned). It does not sound natural. It does not sound at all like how we would say it. It is tedious (boring) and difficult to read.
Mondays meeting is 2b delayed 4 one week. sorry, everyone. Pls let me know whether u can make it or not.
This email has the opposite problem of the first one. It is too informal. We can’t write a business email in the same way we write a text to a friend.
It is not professional to use u instead of you or to ignore grammar and punctuation.
Unfortunately, we will have to postpone this week’s team meeting until Wednesday, May 18.
I apologise if this disrupts anyone’s schedule. Please email me if you are unable to attend.
Our good example is friendly, professional and polite.
Note that it uses short sentences and goes straight to the point. It uses polite language (I apologise, please). It is professional because the language is not too formal or too informal.
Read the example again and note that we could communicate the message in spoken English using more or less the same language.
A foolproof way to structure an email
You might have to write dozens of emails a day (or more). Do you really have time to think about how to structure each one?
You don’t have to. You can apply this simple three-part structure to most formal or semi-formal emails (to people inside your company) that you need to write:
Paragraph 1: reason for writing
Paragraph 2: details
Paragraph 3: action
Here is an example of this structure in an email requesting information:
We are currently seeking a professional cleaning service for our small office. [reason for writing]
Our office area is around 2000 square feet. Since it includes a workshop, we generate a lot of plastics waste and we would like to ensure that this is dealt with in an eco-friendly manner. We require the service twice-weekly and our budget is $200. [details]
Could you provide a quote for us, please? [action]
Mr JC Lawson
And here is the reply. Notice how it has the same paragraph structure:
Dear Mr Dobson,
Thank you for your recent enquiry. We would be very happy to provide cleaning services for your office. [reason for writing]
We have a commitment to helping the environment and I can assure you that your plastics waste will be recycled. For your size of office, a twice-weekly service will cost $190 although we do charge extra if you have wooden flooring. A formal quotation is attached with this email. [details]
If you have any further questions, you can contact me directly at 013 220 9178 and I would be glad to assist. Please also visit our website (wecleanit.com) for a full list of our services. [action]
Brillite Cleaning Services
I hope you can see how this simple structure can be applied to many other types of emails, such as complaints, replies to complaints, rescheduling a meeting and so on.
By using this structure whenever possible, you can then focus your attention on writing the message clearly.
Ten tips to make you a better business writer
Now that we have covered the basics, let’s learn some quick tips to help you improve. These tips may be simple, but they can have a great impact on your writing!
1 Be friendly
Don’t write like a robot! Be friendly, especially when writing emails to clients, customers or colleagues. Use simple words like glad, happy, pleased and so on. Always use positive words where you can.
Which of these is better?
(a) Should you have any enquiries, please contact us at the email below.
(b) We are always ready to help you with any enquiries. Simply contact us at the email below.
Did you choose (b)? (b) sounds friendlier and more natural.
What about these?
(a) Please be informed that your tickets are available for collection.
(b) We are pleased to let you know that your tickets are ready for collection.
Again, (b) sounds friendlier, because of words like pleased (happy) and ready.
2 Use bullet points and numbered lists
My own students often ask me if bullet points are a good habit in reports and emails.
The answer is a clear yes. Bullet points make it easier to locate important information in an email or report.
3 Pay attention to your subject lines
Email subject lines have a clear purpose. They allow us to scroll through our inbox and find the email we are looking for quickly.
A subject line should be descriptive and precise.
Bad example: Enquiry
Good example: Follow-up enquiry (Order no: 3888x)
4 Use numbers and dates
Business writing should be precise and accurate. This means that we always try to use numbers and dates.
Let’s see some examples:
Bad example: We are interested in purchasing some water filters.
Good example: We are interested in purchasing 30 water filters.
Bad example: I will confirm the delivery within two days.
Good example: I will confirm the delivery before November 18.
Avoid using phrases such as tomorrow or in two days. If you write tomorrow on Monday, but the receiver only reads the email on Tuesday, they may misunderstand.
5 Keep emails short
A simple email should be 50-100 words in length. The average sentence length should be 10-15 words. Try to have no sentences longer than 20 words.
6 Remove filler words
We should always think about how to make our emails more concise. For example, examine this sentence:
Please be informed that our service will be offline for a period of one week.
We can shorten it by removing the “filler words” (words with no meaning or purpose except to make the sentence longer):
Our service will be offline for one week.
Remember, our goal is to be concise (short but containing all the necessary information).
7 Think about how to address the receiver
When writing to a customer, never write Dear Sir or Dear Sir/Madam if you know their name (and we almost always know a customer’s name).
You can use “Hi” instead of “Dear”, especially if you have already exchanged several emails with them. Remember, an email should sound friendly.
If the other person addresses you with “Hi Peter” and you address them with “Dear Dr Edwards”, it will sound very strange and unfriendly.
However, if the other person likes to address you using “Dear…”, you should continue to address them in the same way.
It is good to match the tone of the other person.
8 Be actionable
End an email by talking about what action you or the other person will take.
For example, if a potential client has emailed to ask for information about a service, end by explaining how they can make their purchase:
You can order the spare parts directly from me or from our website (www.abcco.com/purchase). Or call me directly at +44 0202 100 158 and I will be glad to assist.
9 Ask direct questions
When we expect the receiver to take action, it is good to phrase the action as a direct question. The question should be as direct as possible, while still being polite.
Bad example: I await your response.
Good example: Can you let me know if you can attend the meeting?
10 Proofread your writing
Always go back over your email or report and check for grammatical errors, spelling mistakes or typos (accidental mistakes).
If possible, ask a coworker or friend to help you check it. Choose someone who you know has a good grasp of English.
I’m an English teacher and I’m always surprised at how many typos I find in my own writing! So, never say to yourself, “I’m sure I didn’t make any (or many) mistakes”.
Remember, you do not need to have perfect grammar to write well in English, but it is a good habit to minimise the number of grammar mistakes.
The next step in improving your business writing
We have covered a lot of great tips in this guide. The next step is to apply these tips in your own business writing.
If your style of writing is very different from the style suggested here, it may take time to change.
However, it is worth the effort to become an effective business writer and to write in a more modern and professional style.
To learn more about the modern style of writing, you can try these two resources:
How to write in plain English (by the Plain English Campaign, based in the United Kingdom)
Federal plain English guidelines (a guide published by the US government)