Business Correspondence in English: 5 Tips to Make Your Writing Shine
Do you want to feel confident about your business writing? Would you like to send professional memos, emails and letters—without mistakes?
Business English can sometimes feel like a whole separate language. Writing on a business matter is no easy thing, especially if English is not your native language.
So that’s why we’ve put together these 5 helpful tips for you!
- 1. Think About the Type of Correspondence You Should Be Writing
- 2. Be Polite and Sufficiently Formal
- 3. Collect Your Main Ideas and Structure Them Well
- 4. End on a Positive Note
- 5. Check for Mistakes and Then Check Some More
1. Think About the Type of Correspondence You Should Be Writing
Analyze the situation and see if you need to write a note, an email, a memo or a letter.
You can choose to write a note if you are in a hurry and the other person (the addressee) needs to have the information written down as soon as possible. A phone call may not be suitable if you need to transmit (send) very detailed information, like an address.
Here is an example of a note written at the office to a colleague:
Sorry–no time to talk–management meeting starts in 2 mins. Can’t get the overhead projector to work–could you pls print 10 handouts of my presentation asap?
In notes you may use abbreviations, informal punctuation (the dash replaces words) as notes are written in an informal style. People usually write notes to colleagues they know well, so notes can be quite friendly and informal.
People write a lot of emails nowadays. They are a convenient way to communicate because they are fast, they can be sent or forwarded to more than one person at a time, and the tone can be adapted (adjusted) to the situation.
Emails are a better choice than notes when you know the reader will see them in time. They also work better than phone calls when you need to send detailed information, which the other person may not remember after a phone conversation.
Memos are written inside companies to instruct employees, announce policies and delegate (assign) responsibilities. They can be sent on paper, as attachments to emails or even as emails.
The difference between emails and memos is that memos are usually sent to an entire group of people—the whole team or department. For this reason, memos are generally more formal than emails, but this depends a lot on how close people are in that company.
Business letters are usually written from one business organization to another, or as correspondence between people representing organizations. They tend to be more formal than other forms of communication because they are a permanent written record.
Letters can be written to complain, to apologize, to invite or for any reason related to business. Emails can also be written in a very formal style, but letters are still used because they may be taken more seriously by the reader than any other form of communication.
When responding to a note, email or letter, you should generally use the same form of communication as your addressee.
2. Be Polite and Sufficiently Formal
Being polite means choosing the right tone or register. You don’t need to be excessively (too) formal to be polite. Always have the reader in mind when you write.
The relationship you have with the recipient will generally set the tone you use when you write to them. If you are not sure, it’s best to use a neutral tone. It’s generally better to be more formal than informal if you cannot decide what tone to use.
Here are some examples of an informal, neutral and formal tone:
Informal: I’m sorry I can’t help you.
Neutral: I’m afraid I can’t help you.
Formal: I very much/deeply regret that I cannot help you.
Informal: I hope my idea is okay with you.
Neutral: I hope you agree to my suggestion.
Formal: I trust this proposal is acceptable to you.
Informal: Please do this asap.
Neutral: Please take care of this as soon as possible.
Formal: I trust you will give this matter your urgent attention.
The way you begin sets the tone for the rest of your writing. For more examples of formal and informal language, check out this page by the University of Technology Sydney.
Notes are usually addressed to just one person. Since they are really short, it’s okay to just start with the name of the person. Even if notes are short, you should try to always give a brief reason why you are writing (like in the note above “Sorry–no time to talk–management meeting starts in 2 mins.”
Otherwise, you may sound bossy, and you’ll probably end up upsetting the reader and not getting much done. Also, try to use neat handwriting so the reader understands your message.
Beginning emails, letters and memos
The standard beginning for emails and memos is:
Make sure you include a subject that is brief and helpful. It’s a sign of disrespect not to write one, as your addressee probably has a lot of emails to read. You are also more likely to get a reply sooner, if you get your reader’s attention by using a good subject line.
If you are writing an email or a letter to just one person, you need to think about your relationship with this person before you begin writing. If you call each other by first names, you can begin with “Dear John.”
If you want to be more formal, you can use the person’s last name, “Dear Mr. Smith.” If you don’t know the name of the person you have several options:
- Dear Sir – if you know you are writing to a man
- Dear Madam – if you know you are writing to a woman
- Dear Sir or Madam – if you don’t know whether you are writing to a man or a woman
If you are writing a memo to an entire team or department, you can use “Dear all” or “Dear team.”
3. Collect Your Main Ideas and Structure Them Well
When you write, you have time to think. You don’t have this luxury (comfort) when you speak. Make sure you use your time wisely.
Think about the ideas you need to include and decide how to group them. You should use clearly separated paragraphs for each main idea.
After you have decided on the main ideas, make sure you use clear sentences. It’s better to have shorter and clearer sentences than really long ones that the addressee may not understand. If you are not sure about the language you should use, try to imagine the reader is there in front of you.
Especially if you are responding to an email or a letter, make sure you include all the information you were asked to.
When moving from one idea to another, use some connecting expressions to help the reader follow the logic of your arguments. Here are some examples of such expressions:
- To list ideas: firstly, secondly, last but not least
- To contrast ideas: however, on the other hand, nevertheless
- To express cause and effect: consequently, therefore, as a result
4. End on a Positive Note
Even when complaining, think strategically and always be polite. If the reader is offended, you probably will not obtain (get) the result you wanted.
You should end the email, memo or letter depending on how you started it.
If you began with an informal “Dear John,” you can end with:
- BW (meaning “best wishes”; abbreviations are okay in informal writing),
followed by your name.
If you kept your tone neutral, you should end in a neutral way:
followed by your name and position.
If your tone was quite formal, the ending should also be formal. If you started with “Dear Sir or Madam” or “Dear Mr. Smith,” it’s best to end with:
- Kind regards,
- Best regards,
followed by your name and position.
5. Check for Mistakes and Then Check Some More
When you finish writing, proofread your work several times. It’s difficult to pay attention to spelling, vocabulary, grammar and punctuation mistakes all at the same time.
Spelling mistakes can create a bad impression so try using a spell-check tool JSpell or Grammarly to help you edit your writing.
Grammar mistakes can also give the reader a bad impression. Here are some common grammar mistakes you should watch out for.
“Your” confused with “You’re”
- Your — Possessive determiner (specifies a noun), used to describe something that belongs to the person with whom you are corresponding.
Your customer is waiting.
- You’re — Contraction of “you are.”
You’re a valued customer.
“They’re” confused with “Their” and “There”
- Their —Possessive determiner, used to describe something that belongs to the people with whom you are corresponding.
Their manager is in a meeting.
- There — Adverb, used to refer to “that location”.
There is a laptop you can use.
- They’re — Contraction of “they are.”
They’re in charge of marketing.
“Its” confused with “It’s”
- Its — Possessive determiner, used to describe something that belongs to an object.
The computer doesn’t work. Its hard disk needs replacing.
- It’s — Contraction of “it is.”
It’s time we told them the truth.
“Then” confused with “Than”
- Than — Conjunction, used in making comparisons.
My lunch was better than yours.
- Then — Adverb, used to situate actions in time.
We then ordered lunch.
Writing in a foreign language is not easy, especially when your business may be depending on it. But the better you write, the better your reader will feel about you and your ideas.
So use these five tips on your next piece of business correspondence!