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11.2 Writing Style

Learning Objective

  1. Demonstrate your ability to prepare and present information using a writing style that will increase understanding, retention, and motivation to act.

You are invited to a business dinner at an expensive restaurant that has been the top-rated dining establishment in your town for decades. You are aware of the restaurant’s dress code, which forbids casual attire such as jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. What will you wear? If you want to fit in with the other guests and make a favorable impression on your hosts, you will choose a good quality suit or dress (and appropriately dressy shoes and accessories). You will avoid calling undue attention to yourself with clothing that is overly formal—an evening gown or a tuxedo, for example—or that would distract from the business purpose of the occasion by being overly revealing or provocative. You may feel that your freedom to express yourself by dressing as you please is being restricted, or you may appreciate the opportunity to look your best. Either way, adhering to these style conventions will serve you well in a business context.

Figure 11.2

Your writing style reflects on you when you are not there to represent yourself. Make sure your style is professional.

The same is true in business writing. Unlike some other kinds of writing such as poetry or fiction, business writing is not an opportunity for self-expression. Instead it calls for a fairly conservative and unadorned style. Writing styleAlso known as voice or tone; the manner in which a writer addresses the reader., also known as voice or tone, is the manner in which a writer addresses the reader. It involves qualities of writing such as vocabulary and figures of speech, phrasing, rhythm, sentence structure, and paragraph length. Developing an appropriate business writing style will reflect well on you and increase your success in any career.

Formal versus Informal

There was a time when many business documents were written in third person to give them the impression of objectivity. This formal style was often passive and wordy. Today it has given way to active, clear, concise writing, sometimes known as “Plain English.”Bailey, E. P. (2008). Plain English at work: A guide to business writing and speaking. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. As business and industry increasingly trade across borders and languages, writing techniques that obscure meaning or impede understanding can cause serious problems. Efficient writing styles have become the norm. Still, you will experience in your own writing efforts this “old school versus new school” writing debate over abbreviations, contractions, and the use of informal language in what was once considered a formal business context. Consider the following comparison of informal versus formal and bureaucratic styles.

Bureaucratic: Attached is the latest delivery data represented in topographical forms pursuant to the directive ABC123 of the air transportation guide supplied by the Federal Aviation Administration in September of 2008.

  • Formal – Please note the attached delivery data for July 2009.
  • Informal – Here’s the delivery data for last month.

While it is generally agreed that bureaucratic forms can obscure meaning, there is a debate on the use of formal versus informal styles in business communication. Formal styles often require more detail, adhere to rules of etiquette, and avoid shortcuts like contractions and folksy expressions. Informal styles reflect everyday speech patterns and may include contractions and colloquial expressions. Many managers prefer not to see contractions in a formal business context. Others will point out that a comma preceding the last item in a series (known as the “serial comma”) is the standard, not the exception. Some will make a general recommendation that you should always “keep it professional.” Here lies the heart of the debate: what is professional writing in a business context? If you answered “it depends,” you are correct.

Keep in mind that audiences have expectations and your job is to meet them. Some business audiences prefer a fairly formal tone. If you include contractions or use a style that is too casual, you may lose their interest and attention; you may also give them a negative impression of your level of expertise. If, however, you are writing for an audience that expects informal language, you may lose their interest and attention by writing too formally; your writing may also come across as arrogant or pompous. It is not that one style is better than the other, but simply that styles of writing vary across a range of options. Business writing may need to meet legal standards and include references, as we see in the bureaucratic example above, but that is generally not the norm for communications within an organization. The skilled business writer will know his or her audience and will adapt the message to best facilitate communication. Choosing the right style can make a significant impact on how your writing is received.

You may hear reference to a conversational tone in writing as one option in business communication. A conversational toneWriting style that resembles oral communication., as the name implies, resembles oral communication in style, tone, and word choice. It can be appropriate for some audiences, and may serve you well in specific contexts, but it can easily come across as less than professional.

If you use expressions that imply a relationship or a special awareness of information such as “you know,” or “as we discussed,” without explaining the necessary background, your writing may be seen as overly familiar, intimate, or even secretive. Trust is the foundation for all communication interactions and a careless word or phrase can impair trust.

If you want to use humor, think carefully about how your audience will interpret it. Humor is a fragile form of communication that requires an awareness of irony, of juxtaposition, or a shared sense of attitudes, beliefs, and values. Different people find humor in different situations, and what is funny to one person may be dull, or even hurtful, to someone else.

Although there are business situations such as an interview or a performance self-evaluation where you need to state your accomplishments, in general business writing it is best to avoid self-referential comments that allude to your previous successes. These can come across as selfish or arrogant. Instead, be generous in giving credit where credit is due. Take every opportunity to thank your colleagues for their efforts and to acknowledge those who contributed good ideas.

Jargon is a vocabulary that has been developed by people in a particular group, discipline, or industry, and it can be a useful shorthand as long as the audience knows its meaning. For example, when writing for bank customers, you could refer to “ATM transactions” and feel confident that your readers would know what you meant. It would be unnecessary and inappropriate to write “Automated Teller Machine transactions.” Similarly, if you were working in a hospital, you would probably use many medical terms in your interactions with other medical professionals. However, if you were a hospital employee writing to a patient, using medical jargon would be inappropriate, as it would not contribute to the patient’s understanding.

Figure 11.3

Sewing, like many other fields of expertise, has its own jargon.

Finally, in a business context, remember that conversational style is not an excuse to use poor grammar, disrespectful or offensive slang, or profanity. Communication serves as the bridge between minds and your written words will represent you in your absence. One strategy when trying to use a conversation tone is to ask yourself, “Would I say it in this way to their face?” A follow-up question to consider is, “Would I say it in this way in front of everyone?” Your professional use of language is one the hallmark skills in business, and the degree to which you master its use will reflect itself in your success. Take care, take time, and make sure what you write communicates a professional tone that positively represents you and your organization.

Introductions: Direct and Indirect

Sometimes the first sentence is the hardest to write. When you know the two main opening strategies it may not make it any easier, but it will give a plan and form a framework. Business documents often incorporate one of two opening strategies regardless of their organizational pattern. The direct pattern states the main purpose directly, at the beginning, and leaves little room for misinterpretation. The indirect pattern, where you introduce your main idea after the opening paragraph, can be useful if you need a strong opening to get the attention of what you perceive may be an uninterested audience. Normally, if you expect a positive response from the reader you will choose a direct opening, being clear from the first sentence about your purpose and goal. If you do not expect a positive reception, or have to deliver bad news, you may want to be less direct. Each style has its purpose and use; the skilled business writer will learn to be direct and be able to present bad news with a positive opening paragraph.

Adding Emphasis

There are times when you will want to add emphasis to a word, phrase, or statistic so that it stands out from the surrounding text. The use of visual aids in your writing can be an excellent option, and can reinforce the written discussion. For example, if you write that sales are up 4 percent over this time last year, the number alone may not get the attention it deserves. If, however, near the text section you feature a bar graph demonstrating the sales growth figures, the representation of the information in textual and graphical way may reinforce its importance.

As you look across the top of your word processing program you may notice bold, italics, underline, highlights, your choice of colors, and a host of interesting fonts. Although it can be entertaining to experiment with these visual effects, do not use them just for the sake of decoration. Consistency and branding are important features of your firm’s public image, so you will want the visual aspects of your writing to support that image. Still, when you need to highlight an important fact or emphasize a key question in a report, your readers will appreciate your use of visual effects to draw their attention. Consider the following examples:

  • Bullets can be effective when used with discretion.

Take care when using the following:

  1. Numbers
  2. With subheadings
  3. In serial lists
  4. As they can get
  5. A bit overwhelming to the point where
  6. The reader loses his or her interest

Emphasis can be influenced by your choice of font. Serif fonts, such as Times New Roman and Garamond, have decorative ends that make the font easy to read. Sans serif fonts, like Arial, lack these visual cues and often serve better as headers.

You can also vary the emphasis according to where you place information within a sentence:

  • Maximum emphasis. Sales have increased across the United States because of our latest promotion efforts in our largest and most successful market.
  • Medium emphasis. Because of our latest promotion efforts in our largest and most successful market, sales have increased across the United States.
  • Minimum emphasis. The United States, which has experienced a sales increase, is our largest and most successful market.

The information at end of the sentence is what people often recall, and is therefore normally considered the location of maximum emphasis. The second best position for recall is the beginning of the sentence, while the middle of the sentence is the area with the least recall. If you want to highlight a point, place it at the beginning or end of the sentence, and if you want to deemphasize a point, the middle is your best option.McLean, S. (2003). The basics of speech communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Active versus Passive Voice

You want your writing to be engaging. Which sentence would you rather read?

  • A – All sales orders are processed daily by Mackenzie.
  • B – Mackenzie processes all sales orders daily.

Most readers prefer sentence B, but why? You’ll recall that all sentences have a subject and a verb, but you may not have paid much attention to their functions. Let’s look at how the subject and verb function in these two sentences. In sentence A, the subject is “Mackenzie,” and the subject is the doer of the action expressed by the verb (processes). In sentence A, the subject is “sales orders,” and the subject is the receiver of the action expressed by the verb (are processed). Sentence A is written in active voiceSentence structure in which the subject carries out the action.—a sentence structure in which the subject carries out the action. Sentence B is written in passive voiceSentence structure in which the subject receives the action.—a sentence structure in which the subject receives the action.

Active sentences tend to be shorter, more precise, and easier to understand. This is especially true because passive sentences can be written in ways that do not tell the reader who the doer of the action is. For example, “All sales orders are processed daily” is a complete and correct sentence in passive voice.

Active voice is the clear choice for a variety of contexts, but not all. When you want to deemphasize the doer of the action, you may write, “Ten late arrivals were recorded this month” and not even mention who was late. The passive form doesn’t place blame or credit, so it can be more diplomatic in some contexts. Passive voice allows the writer to avoid personal references or personal pronouns (he, she, they) to create a more objective tone. There are also situations where the doer of the action is unknown, as in “graffiti was painted on the side of our building last night.”

Overall, business communication resources tend to recommend active voice as the preferred style. Still, the styles themselves are not the problem or challenge, but it is how we use them that matters. A skilled business writer will see both styles as options within a range of choices and learn to distinguish when each style is most appropriate to facilitate communication.

Commonly Confused Words

The sentences in Table 11.6 "Common Errors in English" focus on some of the most common errors in English. You may recall this exercise from the introduction of this chapter. How did you do? Visit the “Additional Resources” section at the end of the chapter for some resources on English grammar and usage.

Table 11.6 Common Errors in English

1. accept or except The office will _______ applications until 5 p.m. on the 31st. accept Attendance is required for all employees _______ supervisors. except
2. affect or effect To _______ the growth of plants, we can regulate the water supply. affect A lack of water has a predictable _______ on most plants. effect
3. e.g. or i.e. Please order 2,000 imprinted giveaways (_______, pens or coffee mugs) e.g. Charge them to my account (_______, account #98765). i.e.
4. its or it’s The department surpassed _______ previous sales record this quarter. its _______ my opinion that we reached peak oil in 2008. It’s
5. lay or lie Please _______ the report on the desk. lay The doctor asked him to _______ down on the examination table. lie
6. pressure or pressurize We need to _______ the liquid nitrogen tanks. pressurize It might be possible to _______ him to resign. pressure
7. principle or principal It’s the basic _________ of farming: no water, no food. principle The _______ reason for the trip is to attend the sales meeting. principal
8. regardless or irregardless _______ of what we do, gas prices are unlikely to go back down. Regardless _______ of your beliefs, please try to listen with an open mind. Regardless (Irregardless is not a standard word; see your dictionary)
9. than or then This year’s losses were worse _______ last year’s. than If we can cut our costs, _______ it might be possible to break even. then
10. that or which _______ type of marketing data did you need? Which Karen misplaced the report, _______ caused a delay in making a decision. which
There are several kinds of data _______ could be useful. that
11 there their, or they’re The report is _________, in the top file drawer. there __________ strategic advantage depends on a wide distribution network. Their
__________ planning to attend the sales meeting in Pittsburgh. They’re
12. to, too, or two Customers need _______ drive slower if they want to save gas. to After sales meeting, you should visit customers in the Pittsburgh area _______. too
In fact, the _______ of you should make some customer visits together. two
13. uninterested or disinterested He would be the best person to make a decision, since he isn’t biased and is relatively _______ in the outcome. disinterested The sales manager tried to speak dynamically, but the sales reps were simply _______ in what he had to say. uninterested
14. who, whom, who’s, or whose __________ truck is that? Whose __________ going to pay for the repairs? Who’s
__________ will go to the interview? Who To __________ should we address the thank-you note? whom
15 your or you’re My office is bigger than _______ cubicle. your _______ going to learn how to avoid making these common mistakes in English. You’re

Making Errors at the Speed of Light

In business and industry there is increasing pressure to produce under deadlines that in some respects have been artificially accelerated by the immediacy inherent in technological communication devices. If you receive an e-mail or text message while you are in the middle of studying a complex problem, you may be tempted to “get it out of the way” by typing out a quick reply, but in your haste you may fail to qualify, include important information, or even check to make sure you have hit “Reply” and not “Reply to All” or even “Delete.” Take care to pause and review your text message, e-mail, or document before you consider it complete. Here is a quick electronic communication do/don’t list to keep in mind before you click “send.”

Do remember the following:

  • Everything you access via an employer’s system is subject to inspection.
  • Everything you write or record reflects you and your business or organization, even if it is stored in a Google or Yahoo! account.
  • Respect personal space by not forwarding every e-mail you think is funny.
  • Use a concise but relevant and informative phrase for the subject line.
  • E-mail the receiver before sending large attachments, as they may exceed the limit of the receiver’s in-box.
  • Attach your intended attachments.

Key Takeaway

An appropriate business writing style can be formal or informal, depending on the context, but it should always reflect favorably on the writer and the organization.


  1. Select at least three examples of writing from different kinds of sources, such as a government Web site, a textbook, a popular magazine, and a novel. According to the style characteristics discussed in this section, how would you characterize the style of each? Select a paragraph to rewrite in a different style—for example, if the style is formal, make it informal; if the selection is written in active voice, make it passive. Discuss your results with your classmates.
  2. What are some qualities of a good business writing style? What makes certain styles more appropriate for business than others? Discuss your thoughts with a classmate.
  3. Find an example of formal writing and write an informal version. Please share with your classmates.
  4. Find an example of informal writing and write a formal version. Please share with your classmates
  5. You are assigned to a work team that has to come up with a formal declaration and an informal explanation for the declaration. The declaration could be a memo indicating that your business will be observing a holiday (each team should have a different holiday).
  6. How would you characterize your writing style? Do you need to make modifications to make your style suitable for business writing? Write a one- to two-page essay on this subject.