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Writing Skills in Business


Business writing has seven purposes:

  1. Convey information
  2. Explain a situation
  3. Request action
  4. Seek information
  5. Persuade
  6. Reply to communication previously received
  7. Convey an attitude

The goal of business writing is to have readers under-stand the message completely, clearly, and accurately. A few recommendations by authorities follow.


Effective writers use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation.


  • Use first person personal pronoun (I ) to indicate who is stating the action: Sally and I visited the museum. (not Me and Sally ).
  • Use parallel construction: Managers' days are spent completing reports, interviewing personnel, and attending meetings. (not in meetings. )
  • Make each sentence complete: Please read the article. You will find it a truly moving experience. (not Please read the article. A truly moving experience ).
  • Do not run sentences together: Enter the competition. I think you'll win. (not Enter the competition I think you'll win. )
  • Make the meaning of sentences very clear. Assume you wish to declare limits on your work times. I work only in the mornings. (not I only work in the mornings, which concentrates not on work times, but on activities).
  • Do not and does not, are preferred in formal writing. However, in informal writing don't or doesn't may be substituted. Jones does not have any objections to the changes in the project. I don't have time for lunch.
  • Double negatives are illogical. I don't want any more carrots. (not I don't want no more carrots.).
  • The use of lie and lay determines their meaning. Lay takes an object, while lie does not. I need to lie down. (not lay down). Lay the book on the table. (here lay means to set something down).
  • The past tense of know is known. I have known her for a year (not knowed ).
  • The word from (not than ) usually follows different. Today is different from yesterday.


Spell all words correctly. Use a dictionary if you are not sure how a word is spelled. Following are correct spellings of words often misspelled:

  • accommodation
  • judgment
  • its (possessive) vs. it's (contraction for it is )I dropped the tire off of its mounting. It's Friday.
  • E-mail is now accessible.
  • accept (take) vs. except (excluding)Will you accept my invitation? I want my pizza with everything except onions.
  • lose (misplace) vs. loose (not tight)I'm afraid I'll lose my notes. The nail came loose.
  • than (comparison) vs. then (time)My light is brighter than a spotlight. I went to the bank then saw my customer.
  • I am grateful for your assistance.


Use periods to end sentences that:

  • State fact or opinion: I'm reading a book.
  • Suggest or order action: You should visit Dorothy.
  • Request action in question form: Will you please go.
  • Are indirect questions: She asked when school started.
  • End with an abbreviation: She lives on Palm Ave. (no double period).

Use question marks to end sentences that:

  • Ask questions of fact or opinion: Are students admitted?
  • Close with abbreviations: Is it 7:00 p.m.?

Use exclamation points to end sentences showing strong opinions: Your house is on fire!

Use commas:

  1. After introductory parts of sentences: After studying, she got an "A" grade.
  2. After prepositional phrases: During the meeting, everyone talked.
  3. Before and after "interruptors" within sentences: Please come in, Mrs. Alexander, before guests arrive.
  4. To separate two independent clauses in one sentence joined by a conjunction. I saw her Friday, but she's home now.
  5. To separate series of three or more words, phrases, or clauses: Germans, Russians, and Spaniards were there.
  6. Before and after non-essential interruptors, where meanings would be clear without interruptors: This clock, as you might have guessed, is an antique.
  7. Do not use commas around interruptors that are essential to the meaning: The automobile parked in Stall C-16 is mine.

Semicolons join independent clauses not joined by coordinating conjunctions: Spring is here; it's finally warm!

Use colons where:

  • Series of items follow: Four brothers stand before you: Abraham, Benjamin, Charles, and Herman.
  • Long quotations follow: The mayor said: "Never before have I experienced the joy of knowing that one of our citizens was elected governor"

Use quotation marks at beginning and end of:

  • Direct, exact quotations: "Holidays,' said one speaker, "are students' friends."
  • Titles of book chapters, poems, or magazine articles: The chapter is entitled "Computers and Clocks."
  • Terms possibly unfamiliar to readers, such as An IRA is an "Individual Retirement Account."

Rules for punctuation related to quotation marks include:

  • Periods and commas go inside quotation marks: "I am listening, Father," said Robert, "I am listening."
  • Colons, semicolons, exclamation points, and question marks go outside quotation marks unless part of the quoted material: You said, "No one can solve this puzzle"; I found three who could.
  • Do not use quotation marks around indirect quotations: He said héd leave before 3:00 p.m.
  • Use single quotation marks for quotations within quotations: Virginia said, "I saw the movie 'Titanic.'"
  • Use underscore, all capitals, or italics (but not quotation marks) for titles of books; pamphlets, long poems, magazines, or newspapers; or performing, musical, literary, or visual art pieces.

Apostrophes have two major rules:

  1. To show possession for nouns, not pronouns: The composer's melody is beautiful.
  2. To substitute for missing letters in "contractions": You're the winner!

Some major rules for capitalization are:

  • Capitalize first words in sentences. Eighty-five books were purchased.
  • Capitalize names: Finally Marie visited Portland, Maine.
  • Capitalize and abbreviate titles: Here's Mr. Blake.


Writing effectively requires skillfully transforming correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation into sentences and paragraphs.

Effective Sentences

Main ideas can be emphasized by placement in independent clauses at ends of sentences: From shrewd investments, Martin achieved overwhelming success. Emphasis also comes by comparing or contrasting: He speaks with the force of a thunderbolt. Connecting words emphasize ideas: She's inexperienced; however, look at her sales reports. Positive attitudes increase sentence effectiveness: We appreciate your thoughtful reply. We will study it carefully (versus We cannot understand your reply. )

Effective Paragraphs

Place a central core thought in each paragraph. Central core thoughts may come first followed by supporting sentences.

Wére concerned about declines in sales and profits. Two years ago, sales reached $260 million. Last year they dropped to $214 million. Two years ago, our profit rate was 13 percent on sales. This past year, it dipped to 8 percent.

Ending paragraphs with central core thoughts are equally effective:

Two years ago, sales reached $260 million. Last year they dropped to $214 million. Two years ago, our profit rate was 13 percent on sales. This past year, it dipped to 8 ercent. Wére concerned about declines in sales and profits.

Skillful repetition makes a paragraph effective:

Bosses forgive occasional tardies. They even over-look mistakes. But they never condone a negative attitude.

Climatic paragraphs can generate excitement by sequencing events in order of occurrence:

On June 14, two girls carrying shopping bags entered our men's furnishings department. While one girl talked to a sales associate, the other slipped around quietly loading her shopping bag. Soon, they left by the front door. However, our security patrol spotted them. When the two girls got outside, security nabbed them and called the police.


Whether transmitted via letter, FAX, e-mail, or inter-office communication, appropriate formats create favorable impressions.

Business Letters

Business letters are mailed to persons outside the writer's company:

  • One-inch margins give clean, open appearances.
  • Indent first lines of paragraphs five spaces.
  • Use 10- or 12-point font sizes for most letters and memos.
  • Except for extremely short letters, use single spacing.
  • Most business stationery is 8.5 by 10 inches.
  • On envelopes, place the return address at upper left and the addressee's address in approximate vertical and horizontal center.

Business Memos

Memos go to persons within the writer's company. Their format, which is often informal, is similar to that of business letters.


Business faxes (facsimiles), business letters, and memos have similar formats. Faxes, however, have attached cover sheets listing name, title, organization, address of company, and fax number of both addressee and writer. Also shown is number of pages, counting cover sheets.


Formats for e-mail are less formal than for letters.

  • Avoid capitalizing all words. It is equivalent to shouting.
  • When replying to an earlier e-mail, include a copy of the message you received.
  • Always include subject lines.
  • Make grammatical structures, typing, numbers, and technical information accurate and clear. Compose lengthy messages off-line.
  • Confidentiality cannot be guaranteed with e-mail.

Good Impressions

Always convey a good impression.

  • Write sincerely and courteously.
  • Avoid big words. Do not try to impress.
  • Aim communications to the reader's level.
  • Have appropriate-length messages. Short messages may be curt; long messages may lose readers.
  • Be correct. If the meeting is Wednesday, November 30, do not write Thursday, November 30.
  • Messages should flow smoothly from beginning to end and reach logical conclusions.
  • Get to the point early.
  • Do not pretend to know readers when you actually do not.
  • Avoid gender stereotyped communications.
  • Correctly convey company policy. Consult with colleagues if necessary.

see also Listening Skills in Business ; Reading Skills in Business ; Research in Business ; Speaking Skills in Business


Aaron, Jane E. (2004). The Little, Brown Compact Handbook (5th ed.). New York: Pearson/Longman.

Ellison, Pat Taylor (2007). Business English for the 21st century (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Sabin, William A. (2005). The Gregg Reference Manual (10th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

G. W. Maxwell

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