Formal Business Writing
Home > Useful Guides > Formal Business Writing

Formal Business Writing

A Guide to Business Writing

"Good business writing is a lot harder than it sounds. For the generation of new executives brought up on mobile phones, and used to communicating by SMS or MMS, it can be particularly daunting." - Sidney Callis.

From the book

Business Writing - A Guide to Doing It Well

by Sidney Callis


1. Introduction

The main purpose of any writing is to communicate. To communicate we need words - plain simple words are best. But writing in a business context is special, because it has to do with our livelihood. Unfortunately many of us, when faced with having to do a piece of business writing, behave as if plain straightforward everyday language - a perfectly good means of communicating - ceases to exist. What takes over when we pick up a pen, or start to tap our keyboard, is often a strange mix of pompous and clichéd language. This sort of writing is self-defeating, it violates all the principles of effective communication.

Many people find the actual writing difficult, but this is probably the smallest problem. The really important part of the job is gathering and organising the material. If there is insufficient you tend to 'pad'. If there is too much, then you become overwhelmed by the task of getting it all in; the document becomes unwieldy and probably unreadable. Good business writing demands careful choice of material and its proper organisation.

The important principles are: Clarity - Simplicity - Brevity

If your writing is 'weird and wonderful' it will not be clear, neither will it be simple enough to understand easily. And if you 'pad', brevity,the essence of good writing, will be lost.

The preparatory work, the thinking about the writing, and planning in advance, will make it the easier to actually write and you will be more successful in achieving your objective. Therefore, to communicate effectively in business writing, the main principles of establishing purpose, identifying the readership, writing well and good presentation of the finished product should be observed.

There is no 'best way' and there are few rules to tell anyone how to write. Some advice: 'get on with it, without interruption or delay'. Few letters or reports are perfect at the first attempt, so at this stage do not get sidetracked into rewriting. Do not worry about getting it right. If you are communicating in writing, it first needs to be written!

One of the main principles of any writing is to pay attention to expression, so say it as clearly as you can.

2. Order of writing

You need to decide the right structure to meet the readers' needs, but don't be tempted to start to write in that sequence. That is not the best order in which to do the writing. It is probably better to start with the detail and follow each line of thinking through, from the problem to the solution. This applies to any piece of business writing, from a letter to a a report. It is also valid for literary essays or academic papers. Make it easy for the reader to follow your argument.

Suggested writing sequence for a report, but follow this scheme for any piece of business writing.

  • Main sections. Work from the problem, through the methods and findings, to a discussion of those findings. There is no need for rigid scheduling — fit the pieces in their slots in your outline, as you write them; shift them about to get 'conclusions'.
  • Recommendations. These arise directly from the conclusions.
  • Appendices. Include here all the detailed data referred to in the main sections.
  • Preliminaries. These are the miscellaneous items that will introduce the report: table of contents; purpose; terms of reference; methodology; background and so on.
  • Summary. This section can only be written when everything else is complete.

3. Getting started

Many people find it difficult to get started on a piece of writing. When faced with a blank sheet of paper, even the most experienced writers can get a mental block.

Here are some ideas to help you get started:

  • Let your rough ideas take form in your mind. Often we cannot get started because the thoughts we want to express are not clear in our own mind. Give yourself time to let your ideas 'simmer', (but don't use this as an excuse to keep putting off getting down to writing).
  • Talk to other people about your ideas. Discussing your thoughts and plans will often bring out new ideas, and will help you form your own ideas more clearly.
  • Write as you think. It is difficult to start writing in a clearly structured way. To get started, just 'dump' all your thoughts down on paper in a totally unstructured way. The important thing is to keep the pen moving and the ideas flowing freely. Offload your thoughts in brief note form so there is not too much to write. Then, go over what you have down on paper. Use it to create an ordered and logical outline structure.
  • Write visually. It may be easier to put your thoughts down in the form of diagrams such as flowcharts, sketches or 'mind maps'. Words are not the only way to get your ideas on paper. Go back over your 'visuals' and use them to create an ordered outline structure of what you plan to write.
  • Write — don't edit. Grammar, punctuation and spelling are initially not important. Getting ideas down on paper is the first step. Tidy up the writing later.

Use any or all of these ideas. Choose those that best suit what you have to write, your own work style and — most important — the one that gets you started on the writing.