A Guide to Business Writing (part 4)
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A Guide to Business Writing (part 4)

A Guide to Business Writing (Contd.)


6. Memos



The purpose of a memo is to communicate as briefly as possible, so that action will follow as quickly as possible. It cannot do this effectively unless its subject and intention are immediately obvious to the receiver.
The importance of memos

The memo is essential in any organisation. Messages need to be sent from one person to another; giving instructions, requesting information, confirming arrangements; a memo is often used for these functions. They may be handwritten on pre-printed memo forms or may be sent by hand, internal mail or e-mail.

The memo is a form of communication used within the organisation. It is not sent to anyone outside the organisation, i.e. clients, customers, business associates.

Memos are important. Take as much care with their composition as with any other item of internal or external communication. For certain specific purposes, memos are usually better than telephone calls or face-to-face communication, for example:

  • to transmit exactly the same information to several people;
  • to confirm the time, date and place of a meeting to a number of people who are to be involved;
  • to put on record the information, policies or decisions reached at a meeting or conference;
  • to confirm, as a matter of record, a decision or agreement;
  • to transmit information, policies or directives to an individual.


A memo should contain information relating to one topic only. Do not combine messages on several topics in a single memo. We are selective in the attention we give to information and we prioritise. If more than one topic is included, there is a risk of paying attention to, and acting on, the information in one part of the memo and ignoring the rest.

Memos which are a permanent record need to be filed. Where do you file a memo which covers several topics? You either need elaborate cross-referencing and indexing, or several photocopies. Keep to the principle of one memo for each topic.

The practice of sending one e-mail covering several memo topics should be avoided. It causes confusion.


A memo should present information in a sequence that is easy and logical for the reader to understand. There should be:

an introductory sentence/paragraph stating the purpose of the memo and enabling the reader to focus attention on the topic;
the main points set out in simple direct sentences, using numbers or bullet points. Longer memos should be set out in clear paragraphs, each dealing with a specific aspect of the topic;
a concluding sentence/paragraph identifying what action the reader needs to take about the information, and when.

All memos should:

  • give date and reference number (where applicable);
  • indicate sender and recipient;
  • give subject headings;
  • deal with each consecutive point in a separate paragraph;
  • indicate clearly what action the memo requires;
  • indicate where appropriate who is responsible for carrying this out.

7. Letters

There are many ways of transmitting the written word - on paper by 'snail mail'; telephonically by fax - or even by 'text'; or electronically by e-mail. But whatever method is used the principles of good writing always apply. Good letter writing can be quickly learned. There is much less space in a letter than in a report, for instance, so say it as clearly as you can. That means following the rules on use of words, length of sentences and paragraphs, correct punctuation and grammar.

To identify the reader is easier, because you know to whom you are writing. You can adapt your style to their needs. However, if you receive a letter in old-fashioned pompous 'officialese' it does not mean that you have to respond similarly. Write back in a clear conversational style - show them a good example! So get to know your reader - watch for their reaction.

But beware - sometimes it is tactful to avoid part of the truth, and it may be prudent not to be too blunt. Letters may offend a reader if too clear, concise, simple and direct. On the other hand, excessive brevity could be rude or disturbing.

The key to good letter writing is courtesy.

  • Always answer letters promptly.
  • Get your correspondent's name correct - with the right spelling.
  • Get their titles right.
  • Be considerate and sincere.

The five 'Cs'

recognise the importance of the relationship between purpose, reader and language and

  • are prepared to be guided by the Five 'Cs' you will have an excellent chance of achieving readability. This is the quality which makes a reader want to go on reading, understanding and being influenced by all that has been written. So:

Be clear. Avoid ambiguities; use correct punctuation; use words tidily; place adjectives and adverbs in the right context.

Be concise. Brevity means selecting and assembling the right words; eliminate 'padding' caused by meaningless and hackneyed cliches, cut out jargon and 'commercialese'!

Be correct. Ensure your facts, figures, data, detail, and all information is correct. In letter construction be sure that grammar, punctuation and especially spelling are correct.

Be complete. Provide all the information/answers to satisfy both the reader and the purpose of the letter. Also, if there are enclosures - enclose them!

Be courteous. Choose and use words to create the right tone which will convey the 'image' to the reader of a warm, helpful, interested human being!

8. Faxes and e-mails

Fax and e-mail are simply different methods of sending the written word. Both are virtually instantaneous - which raises some problems. Both are intensive and generate a level of urgency that a letter falling on your desk does not.

Nevertheless, in spite of urgency do not abandon the letter writing rules that we follow with 'snail mail'.


To be effective a fax should be short - yards of fax paper are a deterrent to reading. Always head a fax with the subject and the addressee's name, rather like a memo. It is not necessary to set out the name and address at the top left.
The greeting, body of the letter and salutation should follow the usual letter writing rules. However, the fax format does give you the opportunity to practise brevity and to move straight to the point of the communication. Be brief, but not terse, and remain courteous.
The fax format provides an ideal opportunity to cut out all the outdated 'commercialese' so often to be found in business letters.


Business communication is about getting your message across clearly and in a professional manner. Writing letters and sending them by e-mail is no different. But people, who are normally competent and confident letter writers somehow find themselves hesitant when it comes to business e-mail. This is probably because it is very hard to find the right tone - it is too easy to drop into the casual conversational mode.

Resist this: write e-mail letters as you would write a normal business letter and then ask yourself: 'How would I feel if I received this message?'

E-mail offers the opportunity for rapid exchange of views and information, rather like a spoken conversation. If this is the case there is little point in formal opening and closing of each exchange. But this does not exempt you from the need to make your language clear and easily understood; in fact more so. For example in international negotiations by e-mail it is vital to be sure that understanding has been accurately created. The e-mail exchange can continue rapidly until both sides are convinced and satisfied that they have reached acceptable agreement.

E-mail may be global but it has not yet broken down international business etiquette barriers. So generally start formally with 'Dear Mr X' which is much better than 'Hi there!' Correct spelling and good grammar are essential - jokes and chatroom shorthand are out. All the rules of good business writing apply; do not drop them simply because the transmission method is so swift. Doing business by e-mail can be a bit impersonal - you need to know your reader exists in the real world! Making contact by phone as well is a good way to build your relationship. Reply to e-mails promptly. A swift 'I'll get back to you' is better than silence.

Remember too that e-mail is not private, at least not when sent in clear. (You may encrypt of course.) Therefore if there is confidential or sensitive material to be transmitted, a private letter may be more suitable. And this is especially important in these days of high security risk and computer fraud. So add confidentiality or security notices to your e-mails: if you are not sure who may read them - be safe rather than sorry.

Do not send large attachments unless you are certain the recipient uses broadband; 'snail mail' may be better if there is time.

Do not send any '.exe' files as attachments unless you are very well-known to the recipient. Any person receiving one of these from a stranger will automatically suspect a virus and be extremely annoyed!

You can place orders, present proposals and finalise contracts via e-mail, but anything requiring a legal signature could still need a follow-up by letter.

There are of course many sorts of firewalls, virus protection programs and defensive setups by providers, but the need to be vigilant and to guard confidentiality is emphatic if you are to operate effectively using this dynamic system.