Achieving a Professional Writing Style

The style of your writing refers to how you express yourself rather than what you say. Style affects the tone of your communication and thus gives the reader an indication of what you are feeling or thinking. Follow these recommendations to project a professional image in your writing style:

1.       Use Positive Language

As much as possible, communicate messages in a courteous manner with positive language. Even when you have to communicate bad news, it is possible to word your message positively. The key to wording messages positively is to say what you can do, not what you can't do. This approach to writing can have a powerful impact on the way the message is received, as the following examples illustrate:

Negative Wording

Positive Wording

We will not be able to approve the budget until the analysis is complete.

We will be able to approve the new budget once the analysis is complete.

We cannot issue you a refund without a receipt; you can only receive store credit.

We will be happy to issue you store credit.

We cannot approve your travel request until your supervisor signs this form.

We will be happy to approve your travel request once your supervisor signs this form.

2.       Use the "You" View

The "you" view refers to a style of writing where the reader's needs are emphasized, rather than the writer's. Considering the reader's needs and point of view is a smart business strategy, and a great way to provide excellent customer service. Notice how the writer-focused messages below sound self-centered, while the reader-focused messages (written with the "you" view) sound concerned and professional.

Writer-Focused Message

Reader-Focused Message ("You" View)

To prevent us from losing money, our bank now requires identification when cashing large checks.

To protect your account, we ask for identification when cashing large checks.

So that we may bring our customer records up-to-date and eliminate the expense of duplicate mailings, please update your address information with us.

So that we may keep your records up-to-date and not bother you with duplicate mailings, please update your address information with us.


3.       Use a Conversational Style of Writing

Business writers should strive to use conversational, everyday language, rather than overly formal language. Overly formal writing can convey a pompous image; it can also interfere with the clear communication of your message. Look at how much simpler and clearer the following messages become when more conversational language is used:

Too Formal

Conversational

It will behoove us to henceforth complete all documentation within two business days.

Please complete all forms within two business days.

The board has initiated discussions pertaining to the new policy.

The board began talking about the new policy.

Pertaining to the contracts, all employees are herewith instructed to return the contracts to the undersigned.

Please return the contracts to me.

 4.       Use Inclusive Language

As a courtesy to readers, business writers should strive to use language that does not exclude people. For example, instead of saying, The attorneys brought their wives to the dinner, you could say instead, The attorneys brought their spouses to the dinner. The second sentence conveys the same meaning but does not exclude the female attorneys and their husbands. One could also substitute the word significant other for spouses so as not to exclude unmarried people.

Similarly, try to avoid using non-inclusive job titles that imply that only a man or woman could hold a particular position. The following are some non-inclusive job titles and their gender-neutral substitutes:

Non-Inclusive Job Titles

Gender-Neutral Substitutes

Mailman

Mail carrier

Workman

Worker

Waitress

Server

Policeman

Police officer

Fireman

Fire fighter

 5.       Use Predominantly Active Voice

Business writers should strive to use mostly active voice in their writing because it is clearer, more vigorous, and less wordy. In active voice sentences, the subject is the doer of the action, while in passive voice sentences, the subject is acted upon. Notice the difference in style between these active and passive voice sentences:

Active Voice

Passive Voice

The board voted on the proposal.           

The proposal was voted upon by the board.

The president notified Human Resources of the change in personnel.

Human Resources was notified of the change in personnel.

Susan scheduled the meeting for July 21.

The meeting was scheduled for July 21.

Note that in the second and third sentences above, we needed to add subjects (the president and Susan) in order to change the sentences to active voice.

Sometimes it is more appropriate to use passive voice, especially when you don't want to draw attention to the doer of the action. For example, consider these two sentences:

Active Voice

Passive Voice

Susan knocked over the coffee pot in the conference room, ruining the table.       

The coffee pot was knocked over in the conference room, ruining the table.

If we need to communicate the fact that the table was ruined, but we don't want to embarrass Susan, then passive voice would be the best choice in this situation.

Writers should also use passive voice to place emphasis on the most important information in the sentence. For example, consider the following two sentences:

Active Voice

Passive Voice

Betty scheduled the meeting for 4:00 Tuesday.

The meeting was scheduled for 4:00 Tuesday.

If it is not important to know who scheduled the meeting (Betty), then we should use passive voice to make the meeting the subject of the sentence, rather than Betty. This places emphasis on the most important information in the sentence.