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What this handout is about

This handout explains principles in business writing that apply to many different situations, from applying for a job to communicating professionally within business relationships. While the examples that are discussed specifically are the application letter and cover letter, this handout also highlights strategies for effective business writing in general.

What is business writing?

Business writing refers to professional communication including genres such as policy recommendations, advertisements, press releases, application letters, emails, and memos. Because business writing can take many forms, business writers often consider their purpose, audience, and relationship dynamics to help them make effective stylistic choices. While norms vary depending on the rhetorical situation of the writer, business writers and audiences tend to value writing that communicates effectively, efficiently, and succinctly.

If you have been assigned a genre of business writing for a class, it may help to think about the strategies business writers employ to both gather and produce knowledge. A business communicator or writer may use the following forms of evidence: statistics, exploration of past trends, examples, analogy, comparison, assessment of risk or consequences, or citation of authoritative figures or sources. Your knowledge of and relationship to your audience will help you choose the types of evidence most appropriate to your situation.

Who is your audience?

To communicate effectively, it is critical to consider your audience, their needs, and how you can address all members of your audience effectively. As you prepare to write, think about the following questions:

  • What are your audience’s priorities and expectations?
  • What does your audience need to learn from your document?
  • How will you grasp the attention of readers when you are competing for their attention?
  • How will you help your reader move through your document efficiently? When is it effective to use bulleted lists, visuals, boldface, and section headers to guide your reader’s attention?
  • What does your audience most need to know?
  • What is your audience expecting? Is your goal to satisfy their expectations, or do you want to surprise them with a new idea?
  • How will you communicate about setbacks? When is it appropriate to spin bad information with a positive outlook? How will stakeholders, customers, or employees respond to bad news?
  • In general, how can you tailor the organization and style of your writing to address your audience’s considerations and needs?

When answering the last question, don’t overlook the following considerations:

Title. Is it appropriate to address your audience by their first name, or is a salutation needed? Are you addressing someone who prefers to be addressed by a formal title such as Dr. or Professor? If you are writing about a third party, do you know what title and pronouns to use? When the name of the person you’re writing to is unknown, then it is customary to address your letter “To Whom It May Concern.” But this may be impolite if the person’s name is known or easily discovered. You can find more information on titles, names, and pronouns in our handout on Gender-Inclusive Language.

Language. If you’re writing in English, ask yourself: Is English the first language of all your audience members? Are you using idioms or other expressions that might not be clear to someone with a different background in English? For example, are you using expressions that require U.S.-specific cultural knowledge?

Culture. Does your audience have different customs and cultural norms? How might these customs and norms impact the way they receive your message?

Once you understand your purpose and your audience, you can begin to consider more specific elements, like organization and style.

What is your purpose?

To get a better sense of how the purpose of your writing will impact your style, it can be useful to look at existing messages and documents from the organization with the following questions in mind:

  • What type of document is it (e.g. email, cover letter, social media post, memo, etc.)?
  • What is the general length of the document?
  • How is the document organized?
  • How long are the paragraphs or sections?

How is business writing organized?

A common organizational pattern used across genres in business writing is OABC: Opening, Agenda, Body, and Closing. While the exact content of your opening, agenda, body, and closing may change depending on your context, here is the overall purpose of each component of the OABC pattern:

  • Opening: This section introduces the reader to the purpose of your document or the subject matter you’ll be discussing. It lets them know why you are communicating with them and why the information is important to your reader.
  • Agenda: This section lets the reader know, more or less, what to expect from the rest of the message. You can think of it like a roadmap for your document.
  • Body: This section is where you make your main points and communicate your overall message to the reader. This section is often the longest part of a business document.
  • Closing: Here, you reiterate the main points for the reader and include any follow-up actions or recommendations as necessary. In most cases, you may request a meeting to discuss your ideas further.

What style considerations are common in business writing?

Business writers tend to prioritize clear and concise communication. When writing in business, carefully considering the following style elements, along with your purpose and audience, can help you communicate more effectively:

Active voice. One skill in business writing is how to tactfully take ownership or distribute blame for certain actions. Active voice refers to a sentence structure that places the actor of the sentence as its grammatical subject. In general, active voice comes across as clearer, more direct, and more concise than passive voice, which are all elements of good business writing. However, the passive voice can be a useful tool in legally-sensitive writing, because the passive voice can convey what has occurred without naming names.

Jargon. Generally, your audience will prefer plain, straightforward language over jargon, because it allows them to read your writing quickly without misunderstandings. However, you may encounter what looks like jargon. Ask yourself if this language may be functioning as shorthand or whether it’s helping establish expectations or norms in business relationships. Understanding your audience and why they may choose to either use or avoid jargon will help you determine what is most appropriate for your own writing.

Tone. While business writing should be clear and concise, “concise” does not necessarily mean “blunt.” As you write, think about how your relationship to the reader and about how your audience may interpret your tone. Consider the following examples:

    Nobody liked your project idea, so we are not going to give you any funding.
    After carefully reviewing this proposal, we have decided to prioritize other projects this quarter.

While the first example may be more direct, you will likely notice that the second sentence is more diplomatic and respectful than the first version, which is unnecessarily harsh and likely to provoke a negative reaction.

If you are wondering how your audience will respond to your writing, it may also be helpful to have a disinterested reader provide you with their impression of your message and tone after reading the document. What is the take-home message? Does any language stand out as surprising, confusing, or inappropriate? Where is the writing more or less persuasive? If you would like more ideas, see our handout on getting feedback.

Revising

There are many circumstances in which business writing is your opportunity to make a first impression, such as in a cover letter. In these scenarios, attention detail is especially important. A useful strategy for revising a piece of business writing is to use the acronym CLOUD: Coherence, Length, Organization, Unity, and Development. Contemplating each of these elements can help you to think about how each section communicates your ideas to your audience and how the sections work together to emphasize the most important parts of your message.

Going through the CLOUD acronym, you can ask yourself questions like:

  • How coherent is each individual component of your document?
  • Does each component follow length guidelines (if provided) or otherwise convey your message concisely? Our handout on conciseness gives 7 common writing patterns that make writing less concise that you may want to keep in mind when writing for business.
  • Is the information clearly organized?
  • How unified is the message conveyed by all of the components taken together?
  • Are your ideas fully-developed, or might your reader find themselves with any important questions?

As you answer these questions and start revising, revisiting your purpose, audience, style, and structure can help you address the concerns you’ve identified through CLOUD. Once you’ve considered these elements, soliciting feedback from another person can help you ensure your draft is clear and your ideas are fully-developed. Proofreading can help you identify errors and assess the tone of your document, while reading your draft aloud lets you hear your words and estimate your own tone.

Examples of business writing

Now that you’re ready to start writing, you may want to see some examples of business writing to guide your drafting process. Below, you can learn more about and see examples of two business writing contexts: cover letters for applications and cover letters for sending information. For more examples, explore the University Career Services’ Resumes and Letters portal.

Cover letters for applications

Maybe you have been asked to write an application cover letter for a job or a scholarship. This type of cover letter is used to introduce yourself and explain why you are qualified for a given opportunity, and your objective is to catch the reader’s attention and convince them that you are a qualified candidate for the job. Although this type of letter has some unique considerations and conventions, it still follows the OABC organization pattern and is generally 3-4 paragraphs in length.

  • Opening: In the opening section of your letter, indicate your reason for writing. This generally includes mentioning the job title (if applicable) and how you heard about the position. Be specific about how you learned of the job.
  • Agenda: In a cover letter, your agenda section sets the stage for a discussion of your qualifications by first summarizing your interest in the position, company, or organization. What sets you apart from your competitors? Why are you interested in working in this particular position or company? This section may be combined with the first paragraph.
  • Body: This is where you highlight your qualifications for the job including your work experience, activities that show your leadership skills, and your educational background. If you are applying for a specific job, include any information pertinent to the position that is not included in your resume. You might also identify other ways you are a good fit for the company or position, such as specialized skills you have acquired. Illustrate how the experiences and skills from your resume qualify you for the job rather than merely repeating information as it is presented in your resume.
  • Closing: Now that you have demonstrated your interest and fit to the reader, it is time to request an interview and, if necessary, refer them to your resume. State how you can be reached and include your contact information for follow-up. Be sure to close the letter by thanking the reader for their time and consideration before typing and printing your salutation and name.

Two sample letters of application are presented below. The first letter (Sample #1) is by a recent college graduate responding to a local newspaper article about the company’s plan to build a new computer center. The writer is not applying for a specific job opening but describes the position he seeks. The second letter (Sample #2) is from a college senior who does not specify where she learned of the opening because she is uncertain whether a position is available.

Sample #1

6123 Farrington Road
Apt. B11
Chapel Hill, NC 27514

January 11, 2020

Taylor, Inc.
694 Rockstar Lane
Durham, NC 27708

Dear Human Resources Director:

I just read an article in the News and Observer about Taylor’s new computer center just north of Durham. I would like to apply for a position as an entry-level programmer at the center.

I understand that Taylor produces both in-house and customer documentation. My technical writing skills, as described in the enclosed resume, are well suited to your company. I am a recent graduate of DeVry Institute of Technology in Atlanta with an Associate’s Degree in Computer Science. In addition to having taken a broad range of courses, I served as a computer consultant at the college’s computer center where I helped train users to work with new systems.

I will be happy to meet with you at your convenience and discuss how my education and experience match your needs. You can reach me at (919) 233-1552 or at krock@devry.alumni.edu. Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Raymond Krock

Sample #2

6123 Farrington Road
Apt. G11
Chapel Hill, NC 27514

January 11, 2020

Taylor, Inc.
694 Rockstar Lane
Durham, NC 27708

Dear Ms. LaMonica Jones:

I am seeking a position in your engineering department where I may use my training in computer sciences to solve Taylor’s engineering problems. I would like to be a part of the department that developed the Internet Selection System but am unsure whether you have a current opening.

I expect to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering from North Carolina State University in May and by that time will have completed the Computer Systems Engineering Program. Since September 2019 I have been participating, through the University, in the Professional Training Program at Computer Systems International in Raleigh. In the program I was assigned to several staff sections as an apprentice. Most recently, I have been a programmer trainee in the Engineering Department and have gained a great deal of experience in computer applications. Details of the academic courses I have taken are included in the enclosed resume.

If there is a position open at Taylor Inc., please let me know whom I should contact for further information. I look forward to hearing from you soon. I may be reached at my office (919-866-4000, ext. 232) or via email (Brock@aol.com). Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Rebecca Brock

Cover letters for sending information

Some cover letters simply provide a record of the transmittal of information—say, sending your resume to a recruiter or submitting your project for a class—and may even take the form of an email. Although they are short, to-the-point, and often only one or two brief paragraphs in length, these messages still follow the basic guidelines of business writing by using the OABC organization pattern in a more condensed format:

  • Opening: Briefly explain what you are sending and why.
  • Agenda: In an optional second paragraph, you might include a summary of the information you are sending as an agenda for your reader. A letter accompanying a proposal, for example, might point out sections in the proposal that might be of particular interest to the reader.
  • Body: You could then go on to present a key point or two explaining why your firm is the best one for the job.
  • Closing: You might end your letter with acknowledgements, offer additional assistance, or express the hope that the material will fulfill its purpose.

The following are examples of these kinds of cover letters. The first letter (Sample #1) is brief and to the point. The second letter (Sample #2) is slightly more detailed because it touches on the manner in which the information was gathered.

Sample #1

Your Company Logo and Contact Information

January 11, 2020

Brian Eno, Chief Engineer
Carolina Chemical Products
3434 Pond View Lane
Durham, NC 27708

Dear Mr. Eno:

Enclosed is the final report, which we send with Eastern’s Permission, on our installment of pollution control equipment at Eastern Chemical Company,. Please call me at (919) 962-7710 or email me at the address below if I can answer any questions.

Sincerely,

Nora Cassidy
Technical Services Manager
ncassidy@company.com

Enclosure: Report

Sample #2

Your Company Logo and Contact Information

January 11, 2020

Brian Eno, Chief Engineer
Ecology Systems, Inc.
8458 Obstructed View Lane
Durham, NC 27708

Dear Mr. Eno:

Enclosed is the report estimating our power consumption for the year as requested by John Brenan, Vice President, on September 4.

The report is the result of several meetings with Jamie Anson, Manager of Plant Operations, and her staff and an extensive survey of all our employees. The survey was delayed by the transfer of key staff in Building A. We believe, however, that the report will provide the information you need to furnish us with a cost estimate for the installation of your Mark II Energy Saving System.

We would like to thank Billy Budd of ESI for his assistance in preparing the survey. If you need more information, please let me know.

Sincerely,
Nora Cassidy
New Projects Office
ncassidy@company.com

Enclosure: Report

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Baker, William H., and Matthew J. Baker. 2015. Writing & Speaking for Business, 4th ed. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Academic Publishing.

Covey, Stephen. 2002. Style Guide for Business and Technical Writing, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Franklin Covey.

Locker, Kitty, and Donna Kienzer. 2012. Business and Administrative Communication, 10th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

O’Hara, Carolyn. 2014. “How to Improve Your Business Writing.” Harvard Business Review, 20 Nov. 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/11/how-to-improve-your-business-writing.

United States Government. 2011. “Federal Plain Language Guideline.” Plain Language, March 2011. https://www.plainlanguage.gov/guidelines/.

University of North Carolina Writing Program. 2019. The Tar Heel Writing Guide, rev. ed. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Writing Program.


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License.
You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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