Routine messages include emails, memos, and letters that give information or make requests. For routine messages, you should use plain language and a direct approach.
After completing this chapter, you will be able to
- explain the organization of a direct writing plan and know when to use it
- identify the key elements of a routine request
- identify the key elements of routine request response
- use lists effectively to give routine information and instructions
As Canada is a relatively low-context country, a direct writing approach is often standard for routine messages.
According to Smith, the direct approach frontloads the main point, which means getting right to the point in the first or second sentence of the opening paragraph. The direct approach is used when you expect the audience to be pleased, mildly interested or have a neutral response to the message. Positive, day-to-day, and routine messages use the direct organizing pattern. The explanation and details follow in the body paragraph. Getting to the main idea saves the reader time by immediately clarifying the purpose of communication and thus reduces receive frustration.
Since most business messages have a positive or neutral effect, business writers should become very familiar with this organizing pattern. Frontloading a message accommodates the reader’s capacity for remembering what they see first, as well as respects their time in achieving the goal of communication, which is understanding the writer’s point.
Opening — delivers the main message first. It answers your reader’s most important questions; states the good news; makes a direct, specific request; or provides the most important information.
Middle — explains details of the news or inquiry and supplies background and clarification when needed. If there are further points or questions, they are presented in parallel form in a bulleted or numbered list (maximum five or six items).
Closing — ends pleasantly in one or more of the following ways: provides contact information; asks for action, input, or a response, often by a deadline; tells the reader what happens next; communicates goodwill; or shows appreciation.
Direct-approach messages are the norm in North America, but not every culture responds to direct correspondence in exactly the same way.
In high-context cultures — such as those in China, Japan, and Arab nations— directness is considered rude. In such cases, it is important to establish rapport before citing a problem or making a request and even then to suggest or ask rather than demand. In Japan, where formality is important, it is customary to embed a request and to soften it with preliminaries and other politeness strategies.
On the other hand, people in Western cultures consider a lack of directness to be a waste of their time. When you are communicating cross-culturally, weigh your reader’s tolerance for directness before you launch into your request or response.
Use the Direct Writing Approach to Make Routine Requests: Asking for Information or Action
To write an effective request,
- put the main idea (your request) first
- phrase your request as a question (eg How much is...) or as a polite command using please + an action verb (eg Please call…)
- use a bulleted list for multiple requests or questions
- give a reason for the request or state its benefit after you’ve made your request
- omit unnecessary details
- close in a courteous and efficient way
Use the Direct Writing Approach to Respond to a Routine Request
To write an effective response,
- determine if you are the best person to handle the response
- reply as soon as you can
- begin with the good news or most important piece of information
- do not start with an unnecessary lead-in (I am writing to respond to your email….)
- use formatting like bulleted lists or charts to respond to multiple requests or questions
- provide information in the same order as it was requested
- anticipate and provide additional information that your reader needs
Perhaps the simplest and most common routine message type is where the sender offers up information that helps the receiver. These may not be official memos, but they follow the same structure, as shown in Figure 24.1 below.
Notice here how the writer made the reader’s job especially easy by providing links to the recommended webpages using the hyperlinking feature (Ctrl. + K) in their email.
Replies to such information shares involve either a quick and concise thank-you message (see unit 28) or carry the conversation on if it’s part of an ongoing project, initiative, or conversation. Recall that you should change the email subject line as the topic evolves (see unit 17). Information shares to a large group, such as a departmental memo to 60 employees, don’t usually require acknowledgement and would be slightly more formal in tone. If everyone wrote the sender just to say thanks, the barrage of reply notifications would frustrate them as they try to carry on their work while sorting out replies with valuable information from mere acknowledgments. Only respond if you have valuable information to share with all the recipients or just the sender.
Information or Action Requests
Managers, clients, and coworkers alike send and receive requests for information and action all day. Because these provide the recipient with direction on what to do, the information that comes back or action that results from such requests can only be as good as the instructions given. Such messages must therefore be well organized and clear about expectations, opening directly with a clearly stated general request (see unit 11 on direct-approach messages)—unless you anticipate resistance to the request (see unit 11 on indirect-approach messages)—and proceeding with background and more detailed instruction if necessary as we see in Figure 24.2 below.
Note that, because you’re expecting action to come of the request rather than a yes or no answer, the opening question doesn’t require a question mark. Never forget, however, the importance of saying “please” when asking someone to do something (see unit 13 for more on courteous language). Notice also that lists in the message body help break up dense detail so that request messages are more reader-friendly (see unit 14). All of the efforts that the writer of the above message made to deliver a reader-friendly message will pay off when the recipient performs the requested procedure exactly according to these clearly worded expectations.
Effective organization and style are critical in requests for action that contain detailed instructions. Whether you’re explaining how to operate equipment, apply for funding, renew a membership, or submit a payment, the recipient’s success depends on the quality of the instruction. Vagueness and a lack of detail can result in confusion, mistakes, and requests for clarification. Too much detail can result in frustration, skimming, and possibly missing key information. Profiling the audience and gauging their level of knowledge is key (see unit 5 on analyzing your audience) to providing the appropriate level of detail for the desired results.
Look at any procedures document and you’ll see that the quality of its readability depends on the instructions being organized in a numbered list of parallel imperative sentences. As opposed to the indicative sentences that have a grammatical subject and predicate (like most sentences you see here), imperative sentences drop the subject (the doer of the action, which is assumed to be the reader in the case of instructions). This omission leaves just the predicate, which means that the sentence starts with a verb. In Table 24.3 below, for instance, the reader can easily follow the directions by seeing each of the six main steps open with a simple verb describing a common computer operation: Copy, Open, Type, Paste (twice), and Find.
If you begin any imperative sentence with a prepositional (or other) phrase to establish some context for the action first (such as this imperative sentence does), move the adverb after the verb and the phrase to the end of the sentence. (If the previous sentence followed its own advice, it would look like this: Move the adverb after the verb and the phrase to the end of the imperative sentence if you begin it with a prepositional (or other) phrase to establish some context for the action first.) Finally, surround the list with a proper introduction and closing as shown in Figure 24.4 below.
Though helpful on its own, the above message would be much improved if it included illustrative screenshots at each step. Making a short video of the procedure, posting it to YouTube, and adding the link to the message would be even more effective.
Combining DOs and DON’Ts is an effective way to help your audience complete the instructed task without making common rookie mistakes. Always begin with the DOs after explaining the benefits or rewards of following a procedure, not with threats and heavy-handed ‘Thou shalt nots”. You can certainly follow up with helpful DON’Ts and consequences if necessary, but phrased in courteous language, such as “please remember to exercise caution in construction areas.”
To write clear instructions,
- begin with a statement that clearly explains what the reader will accomplish after following the instructions
- use a numbered list for procedures that must be completed in sequence (for example, a step-by-step guide to using a new technology)
- use bullet points when listing elements that do not need to be considered in a specific order (for example, a list of items to bring to a work convention)
- arrange each step in the order it should be completed (chronological) or in order of importance
- ensure your list contains only ONE instruction per line
- start each instruction with an action verb in the imperative (command) mood to ensure you have good parallel structure
- describe reader benefits at the end especially if you are encouraging your reader to use the process/procedure that you are explaining
Consider the example below of clearly stated instructions.
Setting up your new GTD webcam involves only a few steps:
- Plug the webcam into your computer’s USB port.
- Follow the installation prompts on your screen.
- Restart your computer.
- Open any application that uses your webcam.
- Perform a test to ensure your webcam is positioned correctly.
- Add a background filter to blur the room behind you.
After you’ve completed these five steps, you can begin using your webcam to communicate professionally in virtual meetings.
Notice that the message is divided into three clear parts:
- A direct lead-in that explains the content of the message (to explain how to set up a webcam).
- A list of clear instructions, in parallel form and starting with a strong verb that clearly indicates what the reader should do.
- A closing statement that provides a sense of goodwill and describes why the reader should want to follow the instructions.
To learn more about business writing, complete the Linked In Learning course called Business Writing Strategies with Judy Steiner-Williams. Once you complete the course, you can add the certificate of completion to your Linked In profile.
- Communication at Work Copyright © 2019 by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted. ↵