How to Write in Formal Business Style

The majority of business documents, including letters, memos, and reports, should be written in a formal style that imparts a professional tone. The following guidelines for writing a formal business document will help you craft the proper style and tone to convey your message.

  1. Take into consideration the company culture when determining the formality of the document or correspondence. Draw the line at being too formal, however. Using a phrase like "It has come to our attention..." instead of "We noticed..." might come off as sounding stiff and overbearing.
  2. Use positive language, even when delivering bad news. For example:
    • Negative: Because of increased instances of employee theft, the supply closet will remain locked until further notice.
    • Positive: Unfortunately, we have had to lock the supply closet because several items have been found to be missing or unaccounted for; however, we appreciate your ongoing assistance in helping us resolve this problem.
  3. The tone should be courteous and professional, as well as strong and confident, without being abusive. For example:
    • Abusive: You will attend the mandatory staff meeting on Wednesday, regardless of your schedule.
    • Courteous, yet strong: We appreciate you rearranging your schedule so you can attend the mandatory staff meeting on Wednesday.
    • Accusatory: You did not follow the instructions and now the client is unhappy.
    • Professional and non-accusatory: Clients will not be happy if the instructions are not followed.
  4. The use of appropriate language is always preferred in business settings, whether you are speaking or writing. Avoid the use of slang, as well as discriminatory or derogatory language.
  5. Correct grammar, spelling, and sentence structure will impart a professional business image. Sloppy writing, on the other hand, will reflect badly on the company.
  6. Active voice is generally preferred because it is more direct, shorter, and clearer. In active voice, the subject performs the action; in passive voice, the subject does nothing. For example:
    • Passive: The report was read by Don. (The subject, report, is doing nothing, it is passive.)
    • Active: Don read the report. (the subject, Don, is performing the action of reading.)
  7. On a final note, if you are overly emotional about something, particularly the topic of the document, you may not be writing objectively, so consider waiting until the next day to write the document if possible.
Author: Janie Sullivan

Janie Sullivan, MBA, MAEd, has been teaching adult learners for over 20 years. She has taught online over 15 years, specializing in writing, communications, and small business applications. Janie directs the Center for Writing Excellence where she offers writing, editing, and formatting services for writers. She has been published in several newspapers and magazines as well as multiple online sites. She teaches communication, business strategy, leadership, and management courses. Janie has published a book "Develop and Deliver an Online Class." This is the third book she has written about writing and teaching online. She also has published a novel and an anthology of short stories.

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