Writing Style – The Readers of Business Documents

We all know the adage write to the reader. And we all agree it makes perfect sense. Why then do most business writers neglect their readers when they prepare an email, a letter, a proposal or a report?

I maintain it is because they don’t really understand who today’s readers are. Think about it. Would you agree today’s readers are busy, impatient, overloaded with paper or screen information, multi-taskers, and skim readers?

If this is the case, then when you write you have to make it easy for your reader (a busy skimmer) to obtain key information easily.

One good trick is to keep your sentences short. In letters and reports, the average sentence length should be 18-20 words. In e-mails and websites, keep the length to between 15 and 18 words.

Writing Style – A Man of Adverbs

I met a young man who by his conversation and dress gave the impression of someone who could easily climb a career ladder. Then, I read some of his reports and emails.

For the most part, they were a mind dump of things he found interesting in his job. Not only did they require the reader to travel through a meandering stream of information to reach the final point, but the sentences themselves were filled with “fluff.”

He was a man of adverbs. Every verb came with a descriptor that instead of making the thoughts forceful only made them appear bombastic and weak. Projects were “aligned nicely with organizational goals.” Teams would “work actively and co-operatively to support the program.” His unit would be “totally involved in the transition.”

Business writing is all about subjects and verbs. Adverbs and adjectives help to make sentences more interesting, but they should be used with care. In these instances, “nicely,” “actively,” “co-operatively,” and “totally” are not measurable. They don’t add to the meaning.

My young friend would have written more strongly if he had eliminated them all together: Projects were “aligned with organizational goals.” Teams would “work to support the program.” His unit would be “involved in the transition.”

Writing Style – The alphabet soup of emails

During a recent workshop, I gave the participants an opportunity to vent their pet peeves regarding emails. One manager said he was not comfortable with staff members including personal remarks in their messages. He didn’t consider it professional, and it could be construed as harassment.

The other participants looked blank until someone figured out what he was talking about. LOL. LOL is cyber shorthand for laughing out loud. Unfortunately, the manager was not aware of this and assumed he was being sent lots of love.

You may have seen similar abbreviations: ROTL (rolling on the floor laughing), LMAO (laughing my, er, ankles off). These notations are used to convey laughter and anger, approval and disapproval, love and hate — and everything in between — with just a few quick keystrokes.

However, more and more people are complaining about them. As my manager did, the shorthand may be misinterpreted. In other instances, readers say these abbreviations make the writer look lazy, or they create an unprofessional image.

Unless you know that the recipient is really into it, I would not use shorthand for business emails. Keep it for instant or text messaging.

Writing Style – I can no longer write with a pen or pencil!

Whenever a business person says he or she can no longer write with a pen or pencil, I automatically know two things about them.
One, they edit their documents on their computer screens.
Two, their work will most likely contain typos, extra words, or missing words.

It is extremely difficult to edit or to proofread from a computer screen. Your eyes will gloss over the words, and you will read what you think you wrote rather than what is actually there.

Although some people are convinced that the computer can provide a sufficient grammar and editing check, nothing beats proofreading from a hard copy. True, the computer will pick up many errors, but the program is not sophisticated enough to determine how you are actually using the words or if you have omitted any.

Now there are some writers who tell me they just don’t have time to print their documents, particularly if they just want to send a quick email. All right then, for these people here are two ways to limit the risk:

  1. Hold a straight edge (sheet of paper or ruler) against the screen to prevent your eyes from darting.
  2. Enlarge the type to at least 150% so the errors stand out more.

These two techniques will reduce your chance of missing errors, but I still believe nothing will replace editing from a print copy.

Writing Style – To Justify or Not to Justify

I recently received an email from someone curious about the rules for justifying reports.

Justification relates to the alignment of text. When the text is aligned at both margins of a document, it is called “fully justified.” When it is aligned only on the left margin, it is said to have a “ragged right” margin. (This is the way this message is written.)

It is surprising how people and organizations differ as to what is considered acceptable. There is really no right or wrong answer. My own preference is to use the ragged right margin style if the text runs more than four inches across. Most readers seem to prefer it. It provides readers who skim with a place for their eyes to hook before moving onto the next line. They don’t tend to skip as many lines.

On the other hand, some writers feel that a fully justified report appears more attractive and looks highly professional.

By the way, whether you are using either style, I recommend using 1-inch margins on both sides if the report is unbound or stapled at the top right. If the report is bound, use a 1.5-inch left margin and a 1-inch margin on the right.

Minute Taking – What to record/what to ignore

A woman in Florida asked, “Not receiving proper training, I’ve been resorting to recording verbatim minutes which can take hours, sometimes days. I’ve come to realize this is unnecessary and impractical … When there is a discussion, do I need to include who is commenting on what?”

This is a very good question – and a common one. In my experience, many minutes are just too long. Committee members don’t have time to read them. But what do you cut out? There are no hard or fast rules here, and there is no template that will fit every meeting.

My starting point is the purpose of minutes. Minutes are to be a communications tool for people who were not present, a history for the group, and a mechanism to assign and check on future actions.

Therefore, for the most part, few organizations require verbatim transcripts of a meeting. (There are exceptions, e.g., legal proceedings, union negotiations.)

When I conduct a minute taking workshop, my overall advice is to record a point only once. Do not belabour arguments and do not record names unless:

  • Someone asks to have their own or someone else’s name included for s specific purpose.
  • A person has been assigned a task.
  • Your group’s chosen parliamentary rules require it with a motion.
  • The name is needed for the history of the group.
  • It is to list who was present.

He said/she said dialogue and repetitive arguments or discussion are not needed.?The minute taker’s role is to provide a summary of what occurred at the meeting – not a regurgitation.

My book, The Minute Taker’s Handbook, provides more information for note takers. It is available at www.csae.com

Writing Style – A Business Case in the Real World

In today’s workplace, it is a wonderful skill to be able to write a business case.

In fact, many business schools spend weeks training their students how to write a comprehensive proposal that covers all angles: Situational Assessment, Problem Statement, Project Description and Objectives, Solution Description, Cost and Benefit Analysis, Financial Assessment, Implementation Timetable, Critical Assumptions and Risk Assessment and Recommendations.

Yet in reality, few managers have time to read such detailed documents. Therefore, the reports are often ignored, placed on the back burner or referred to someone else or to a committee to explore. The best business cases are those that can be read and understood quickly by the recipient. The preferred length is one page.

This does not mean that all the information mentioned earlier is not considered and researched. In fact, a one-page proposal normally takes longer to prepare, because the writer has to fully understand the idea being proposed and all of its ramifications. Then she has to focus on the reader, his needs and his “fear factor.”

Remember it is always easier for a reader to say “no” when it comes to a proposal. Saying “no” often means no complications, nothing to go wrong, and no financial downside. Therefore, to persuade a busy reader every detail must present a strong argument for him to say “yes.”

A good business case includes all the details that will sell the idea to the specific reader, and it can be done in one page!

Writing Style – One Space or Two

Whenever I conduct a grammar workshop, a participant will invariably ask, “How many spaces should you leave after a period?” The answer is one — for a computer. (You use two spaces after a period when working on a typewriter.)

It is amazing how concerned some people are about this issue. Frankly, I don’t seriously believe a reader will be distracted from your work whether you leave one or two spaces — just be consistent. However, some people do tend to focus on this item. That’s probably why you have a feature on your software program to assist you.

Click on Tools / Options / Spelling and Grammar / Writing Style: (set for Grammar and Style) / Settings / spaces required between sentences.

You then have three options: check for one or two spaces or don’t check. I would recommend setting the feature to either the one or two spaces. That way, at least, your material will always be consistent.

Here’s something interesting though. People often wonder why grammar changes. One of the reasons is technology.

We were taught to always put a punctuation mark at the end of every sentence. But what happens if the sentence ends in a website or an email address. If I add a period, I may confuse my readers about the address. Therefore, in these specific instances (websites and email addresses) I would not put anything at the end of the sentence. Hopefully, I am at the end of a paragraph.

Email Tip – Organizing Letters and Emails

How do people read letters and emails? Remember today’s readers are skimmers, and they want key information quickly. They also try to quickly prioritize a message to determine how much time they need to spend on it.??Because letters have been around so long, people are familiar with their layout. Busy people tend to read the first paragraph and, if the information seems relevant, they will move to the last paragraph to see if they have to take any action. If they can see how the message applies to them, they will then read the middle paragraphs.

But this is a print document. An email is read differently. People read the first paragraph and then decide whether they need to read further or whether they can hit the delete key. Often times, they don’t even get to the last paragraph.

Therefore, the key to a good mail is to put the action you need taken in the first paragraph. From there, the details you use should be put in a descending order of importance – the same as newspaper article.

In my workshops, I tell participants that the last line of a good, professional letter – not one with a clichéd ending – is often the best line to open an email with.

Email Tip – Closing an Email

Karen’s question: “I receive numerous emails daily from staff and other community contacts who end their messages with ‘cheers’ or ‘thanks much.’ Whatever happened to closing with ‘sincerely’ or a simple ‘thank you’? What is the appropriate way of ending an internal email or one received by a fellow service worker from outside your business?”

BizWritingTip response: Emails were designed to get away from the formality of letters. Therefore, “sincerely” is considered too ceremonial for most emails.

When you end an email, the complimentary closing line should be based on your relationship with the reader. If I send a message to senior management or to someone outside my organization, I use a more formal close.

Examples of Formal Close for an Email


Best wishes

Thank you

Note: Yes, you can say “Best regards.” It is not my personal choice, but there is nothing wrong with it.

If I write to a colleague within my company, I am less formal.

Examples of a Neutral Close for an Email



If I send an email to a close friend who works for the same organization, I can be very casual and use an ending that means something to the two of us.

Examples of a Casual Close for an Email

Thanks much

TGIF (Thank God, it’s Friday)

TTFN (Ta, ta for now)



Note: Never use a casual closing when writing to an external reader or to a senior manager.

I know some of you are wondering “why bother putting a closing line on at all.” There are two reasons: First, it just comes across as courteous. If you were leaving a meeting, you would not normally just walk away. You’d probably say “good bye” or “see you later.” The same holds true for emails. You want to sound like one human being talking to another.

Second, most organizations have long disclaimers that get added to messages when they are sent externally. The closing line signals to the reader that the message is actually over. The print below is a legal requirement.