Learning to Write Workplace Documents
Upon completing this chapter, you should be able to
- describe the purposes of the workplace documents identified in the module;
- given a sample workplace document, identify if the formatting has been correctly applied, and if not, correct it;
- given a scenario, write a sample workplace document applying the correct formatting and following the FAST acronym for writing;
Written business communication requires skill and expertise. From letters to reports, the way you use the written word counts. Written documents provide a record of a correspondence, which is key in situations where legal concerns may arise. In cases like this, it’s important to be able to demonstrate that the message was sent and received and determine what dates this occurred.
The written communication you produce represents you and your company, so your goal is always to make it clear, concise, and professional, regardless of the type of message you are sending.
This chapter will introduce five key types of written business documents that you will encounter during your professional life. These are email, memos, letters, fax cover sheets, and short reports. You will also learn about the acronym FAST, which will help you stay mindful about the appropriate Format, Audience, Style, and Tone of your document.
Think back to what you learned in the Foundations module about the purpose of communication. You may recall that a message usually has one of three intentions: to inform, persuade, or entertain. When you are writing workplace documents, you’ll usually be focusing on the first two intentions, inform and persuade, though you might choose to entertain when you have a lighthearted message, such as an email invitation to an office holiday party.
Most commonly, memos, fax cover sheets, and short reports are intended to inform. These deal with facts only, and their messages are usually neutral—they are not likely to create an emotional response, either positive or negative.
Emails and letters may be strictly informational, or they may be persuasive in some way. For example, you may write an email to ask a colleague to volunteer for an event the company is sponsoring. You’ll need to persuade the receiver to give up a Saturday afternoon to help out the company, but perhaps you can persuade them by letting them know that the boss is taking everyone to dinner afterwards!
Whatever your message, remember that different types of workplace documents can align with different purposes. You’ll use what you’ve learned about audience and communication channels to help you choose the right one; rely on your plain language writing, grammar, and punctuation skills to craft a clear message; then use the skills you develop in this chapter to format your document appropriately.
Before we dive into the types of documents and their uses, we’ll need to consider an important part of writing that makes up your documents: the paragraph.
A strong paragraph contains three distinct components:
Topic sentence. The topic sentence is the main idea of the paragraph.
Body. The body is composed of the supporting sentences that develop the main point.
Conclusion. The conclusion is the final sentence that summarizes the main point.
The foundation of a good paragraph is the topic sentence, which expresses the main idea of the paragraph. This guides the reader by signposting what the paragraph is about. All the sentences in the rest of the paragraph should relate to the topic sentence.
Developing a Topic Sentence
Pick up any newspaper or magazine and read the first sentence of an article. Are you fairly confident that you know what the rest of the article is about? If so, you have likely read the topic sentence. An effective topic sentence combines a main idea with the writer’s personal attitude or opinion; this is called the controlling idea. It orients the reader and provides an indication of what will follow in the rest of the paragraph. Read the following example.
Creating a national set of standards for math and English education will improve student learning in many provinces.
This topic sentence declares a favourable position for standardizing math and English education. After reading this sentence, a reader might reasonably expect the writer to provide supporting details and facts as to why standardizing math and English education might improve student learning in many provinces. If the purpose of the essay is actually to evaluate education in only one particular province, or to discuss math or English education specifically, then the topic sentence is misleading.
Five characteristics define a good topic sentence:
Provides an accurate indication of what will follow in the rest of the paragraph.
Contains both a topic and the writer’s position on it.
Is clear and easy to follow.
Does not include supporting details.
Engages the reader by using interesting vocabulary.
When creating a workplace document, use the “top-down” approach—keep the topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph so that readers immediately understand the gist of the message. This method saves busy colleagues precious time and effort trying to figure out the main points and relevant details.
Headings are another helpful tool. In a text-heavy document, break up each paragraph with individual headings. These serve as useful navigation aids, enabling colleagues to skim through the document and locate paragraphs that are relevant to them.
Identifying Parts of a Paragraph
An effective paragraph contains three main parts: a topic sentence, the body, and the concluding sentence. A topic sentence is often the first sentence of a paragraph. It expresses a main idea combined with the writer’s attitude about the subject. The body of the paragraph usually follows, containing supporting details. Supporting sentences help explain, prove, or enhance the topic sentence. The concluding sentence is the last sentence in the paragraph. It reminds the reader of the main point by restating it in different words.
Read the following paragraph. The topic sentence is underlined for you.
After reading the new TV guide this week, I had just one thought—why are we still being bombarded with reality shows? This season, the plague of reality television continues to darken our airwaves. Along with the return of viewer favourites, we are to be cursed with yet another mindless creation. Prisoner follows the daily lives of eight suburban housewives who have chosen to be put in jail for the purposes of this fake psychological experiment. A preview for the first episode shows the usual tears and tantrums associated with reality television. I dread to think what producers will come up with next season, but if any of them are reading this blog—stop it! We’ve had enough reality television to last us a lifetime!
The first sentence of this paragraph is the topic sentence. It tells the reader that the paragraph will be about reality television shows, and it expresses the writer’s distaste for these shows through the use of the word bombarded.
Each of the following sentences in the paragraph supports the topic sentence by providing further information about a specific reality television show. The final sentence is the concluding sentence. It reiterates the main point that viewers are bored with reality television shows by using different words from the topic sentence.
Paragraphs that begin with the topic sentence move from the general to the specific. They open with a general statement about a subject (reality shows) and then discuss specific examples (the reality show Prisoner).
Now take a look at the following paragraph. The topic sentence is underlined for you.
Last year, a cat travelled 130 miles to reach its family, who had moved to another state and had left their pet behind. Even though it had never been to their new home, the cat was able to track down its former owners. A dog in my neighbourhood can predict when its master is about to have a seizure. It makes sure that he does not hurt himself during an epileptic fit. Compared to many animals, our own senses are almost dull.
The last sentence of this paragraph is the topic sentence. It draws on specific examples (a cat that tracked down its owners and a dog that can predict seizures) and then makes a general statement that draws a conclusion from these examples (animals’ senses are better than humans’). In this case, the supporting sentences are placed before the topic sentence, and the concluding sentence is the same as the topic sentence.
This technique is frequently used in persuasive writing. The writer produces detailed examples as evidence to back up his or her point, preparing the reader to accept the concluding topic sentence as the truth.
Sometimes the topic sentence appears in the middle of a paragraph. Read the following example. The topic sentence is underlined for you.
For many years I suffered from severe anxiety every time I took an exam. Hours before the exam, my heart would begin pounding, my legs would shake, and sometimes I would become physically unable to move. Last year I was referred to a specialist and finally found a way to control my anxiety—breathing exercises. It seems so simple, but by doing just a few breathing exercises a couple of hours before an exam, I gradually got my anxiety under control. The exercises help slow my heart rate and make me feel less anxious. Better yet, they require no pills, no equipment, and very little time. It’s amazing how just breathing correctly has helped me learn to manage my anxiety symptoms.
In this paragraph the underlined sentence is the topic sentence. It expresses the main idea: that breathing exercises can help control anxiety. The preceding sentences enable the writer to build up to his main point (breathing exercises can help control anxiety) by using a personal anecdote (how he used to suffer from anxiety). The supporting sentences then expand on how breathing exercises help the writer by providing additional information. The last sentence is the concluding sentence and restates how breathing can help manage anxiety.
Implied Topic Sentences
Some well-organized paragraphs do not contain a topic sentence at all. Instead of being directly stated, the main idea is implied in the content of the paragraph. Read the following example:
Heaving herself up the stairs, Luella had to pause for breath several times. She let out a wheeze as she sat down heavily in the wooden rocking chair. Tao approached her cautiously, as if she might crumble at the slightest touch. He studied her face, like parchment; stretched across the bones so finely he could almost see right through the skin to the decaying muscle underneath. Luella smiled a toothless grin.
If you think of a paragraph as a hamburger, the supporting sentences are the meat inside the bun. They make up the body of the paragraph by explaining, proving, or enhancing the controlling idea in the topic sentence. Most paragraphs contain three to six supporting sentences depending on the audience and purpose. A supporting sentence usually offers one of the following:
Sentence: The refusal of the baby boom generation to retire is contributing to the current lack of available jobs.
Sentence: Many families now rely on older relatives to support them financially.
Sentence: Nearly 10 percent of adults are currently unemployed in the United States.
Sentence: “We will not allow this situation to continue,” stated Senator Johns.
Sentence: Last year, Bill was asked to retire at the age of 55.
The type of supporting sentence you choose will depend on what you are writing and why you are writing. For example, if you are attempting to persuade your audience to take a particular position, you should rely on facts, statistics, and concrete examples, rather than personal opinions. Read the following example:
There are numerous advantages to owning a hybrid car. (Topic sentence)
First, they get 20 percent to 35 percent more miles to the gallon than a fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicle. (Supporting sentence 1: statistic)
Second, they produce very few emissions during low-speed city driving. (Supporting sentence 2: fact)
Because they do not require gas, hybrid cars reduce dependency on fossil fuels, which helps lower prices at the pump. (Supporting sentence 3: reason)
Alex bought a hybrid car two years ago and has been extremely impressed with its performance. (Supporting sentence 4: example)
“It’s the cheapest car I’ve ever had,” she said. “The running costs are far lower than previous gas-powered vehicles I’ve owned.” (Supporting sentence 5: quotation)
Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future. (Concluding sentence)
To find information for your supporting sentences, you might consider using one of the following sources:
- Reference book
- Previous experience
- Personal research
An effective concluding sentence draws together all the ideas you have raised in your paragraph. It reminds readers of the main point—the topic sentence—without restating it in exactly the same words. Using the hamburger example, the top bun (the topic sentence) and the bottom bun (the concluding sentence) are very similar. They frame the “meat” or body of the paragraph. Compare the topic sentence and concluding sentence from the previous example:
Topic sentence: There are numerous advantages to owning a hybrid car.
Concluding sentence: Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future.
Notice the use of the synonyms advantages and benefits. The concluding sentence reiterates the idea that owning a hybrid is advantageous without using exactly the same words. It also summarizes two examples of the advantages covered in the supporting sentences: low running costs and environmental benefits.
You should avoid introducing any new ideas into your concluding sentence. A conclusion is intended to provide the reader with a sense of completion. Introducing a subject that is not covered in the paragraph will confuse the reader and weaken your writing.
A concluding sentence may do any of the following:
Purpose: Restate the main idea.
Sample: Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States.
Purpose: Summarize the key points in the paragraph.
Sample: A lack of healthy choices, poor parenting, and an addiction to video games are among the many factors contributing to childhood obesity.
Purpose: Draw a conclusion based on the information in the paragraph.
Sample: These statistics indicate that unless we take action, childhood obesity rates will continue to rise.
Purpose: Make a prediction, suggestion, or recommendation about the information in the paragraph.
Sample: Based on this research, more than 60 percent of children in the United States will be morbidly obese by the year 2030, unless we take evasive action.
Purpose: Offer an additional observation about the controlling idea.
Sample: Childhood obesity is an entirely preventable tragedy.
A strong paragraph moves seamlessly from the topic sentence into the supporting sentences and on to the concluding sentence. To help organize a paragraph and ensure that ideas logically connect to one another, writers use transitional words and phrases. A transition is a connecting word that describes a relationship between ideas.
There are numerous advantages to owning a hybrid car. First, they get 20 percent to 35 percent more miles to the gallon than a fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicle. Second, they produce very few emissions during low-speed city driving. Because they do not require gas, hybrid cars reduce dependency on fossil fuels, which helps lower prices at the pump. Alex bought a hybrid car two years ago and has been extremely impressed with its performance. “It’s the cheapest car I’ve ever had,” she said. “The running costs are far lower than previous gas-powered vehicles I’ve owned.” Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future.
Each of the underlined words is a transition word. Words such as first and second are transition words that show sequence or clarify order. They help organize the writer’s ideas by showing that he or she has another point to make in support of the topic sentence. Other transition words that show order include third, also, furthermore, initially, and subsequently.
The transition word because is a transition word of consequence that continues a line of thought. It indicates that the writer will provide an explanation of a result. In this sentence the writer explains why hybrid cars will reduce dependency on fossil fuels (because they do not require gas). Other transition words of consequence include as a result, so that, since, thus, and for this reason.
To include a summarizing transition in her concluding sentence, the writer could rewrite the final sentence as follows:
In conclusion, given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example in the near future.
The following chart provides some useful transition words to connect supporting sentences and concluding sentences.
|For Supporting Sentences|
|above all||but||for instance||in particular||moreover||subsequently|
|aside from||correspondingly||however||likewise||on one hand||to begin with|
|at the same time||for example||in addition||meanwhile||on the contrary|
|For Concluding Sentences|
|after all||all things considered||in brief||in summary||on the whole||to sum up|
|all in all||finally||in conclusion||on balance||thus||ultimately|
Transitional words and phrases are useful tools to incorporate into workplace documents. They are used within paragraphs to connect one sentence to the next, and are also found at the beginning and end of each paragraph, so that each is seamlessly connected to the next. They guide the reader through the document, clarifying relationships between sentences and paragraphs so that the reader understands why they have been written in that particular order.
For example, when you are writing an instructional memo, it may be helpful to consider the following transitional words and phrases: before you begin, first, next, then, finally, after you have completed. Using these transitions as a template to write your memo will provide readers with clear, logical instructions about a particular process and the order in which steps are supposed to be completed.
Preparing a Workplace Document
When you sit down to write a document at work, you’ll need to consider who the audience is and what the purpose of your message is (to inform, persuade, or entertain). With that information you can decide which document type (channel) to use.
A good approach is to outline the document first, marking out where each element belongs. For example, if you have chosen to write a letter, you might first identify the location of each address, the date, the salutation, the signature, and so on. This will help you to create the structure of your document and make the writing process (and, further, the editing process) much easier.
When you are writing a workplace document, you will choose whether to approach your topic directly or indirectly. A direct message gets to the point immediately within the document, whereas an indirect message sandwiches the key point (often bad news) between other information (positive or neutral detail) so as to “soften the blow” of an undesirable communication.
Electronic mail, usually called email, is probably familiar to you. It may be used similarly to text messaging or synchronous chat, or as a quicker way to receive and send information that would traditionally be written in a letter. It can be delivered to a mobile device. In business, it has largely replaced printed letters for external (outside the company) correspondence, as well as taking the place of memos for internal (within the company) communication (Guffey, 2008). Email is best for fairly brief messages.
Many businesses use automated emails to acknowledge communications from the public or to remind people that reports or payments are due. Your job might require you to populate a form email in which standard paragraphs are used, but you choose from a selection of sentences to make the wording suitable for a particular scenario, for example.
Emails are often informal when used for personal communication, but business communication requires attention to detail, awareness that your email reflects you and your company, and a professional tone so that it may be forwarded to any third-party if needed. Email often serves to exchange information within organizations. Although email may feel informal, remember that when used for business, it needs to convey professionalism and respect. Never write or send anything that you wouldn’t want read in public or in front of your company president.
Tips for Effective Business Emails
- Proper salutations should demonstrate respect and avoid mix-ups in case a message is accidentally sent to the wrong recipient. For example, use a salutation like “Dear Ms. X” (external) or “Hi, Barry” (internal).
- Subject lines should be clear, brief, and specific. This helps the recipient understand the essence of the message. For example, “ABC Sales Proposal attached.”
- Close with a signature. Identify yourself by creating a signature block that automatically contains your name and business contact information.
- Avoid abbreviations. An email is not a text message, and the audience may not find your wit cause to ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing).
- Be brief.
- Format cleanly. Include line breaks between paragraphs for ease of reading.
- Do a three-stage review (including structural edit, copy edit, and proofread) before you press send. It will take more time and effort to undo the problems caused by a hasty, poorly written email than to get it right the first time.
- Reply promptly. Watch out for an emotional response—never reply in anger—but make a habit of replying to emails within 24 hours, even if only to say that you will provide the requested information within 48 hours.
- Use “Reply All” sparingly. Do not send your reply to everyone who received the initial email unless your message absolutely needs to be read by the entire group.
- Avoid using all caps. Capital letters are used online to communicate yelling and are considered rude.
- Test links.
- Email ahead of time if you are going to attach large files (audio and visual files are often quite large) to prevent exceeding the recipient’s mailbox limit or triggering the spam filter.
- Give feedback or follow up. If you don’t get a response in 24 hours, email or call. Spam filters may have intercepted your message, so your recipient may never have received it.
Let’s look at two examples of business email. The first is an email form, and the second is a custom message written specifically for the situation and audience.
Example Email Form:
Subject: Welcome to the [our name] Store.
Dear [customer name],
Thank you for registering with the [our name] Store.
You can manage your personal information from the “My Account” section of the website when you sign in to the [our name] Store.
Here, you can change your contact details and password, track recent orders, add alternate shipping addresses, and manage your preferences and profile, all in this single convenient location.
Thank you for your interest in the [our name] Store!
We look forward to your next visit.
Example Custom Email:
To: Sean Carlson Physical Plant Manager, XYZ Corporation
From: Miles Nickel, Construction Site Manager, McCrady Construction
Sent: Monday, March 05, 2015, 2:47 p.m.
Subject: Construction Interruptions
I know employees of XYZ Corporation are looking forward to moving into the new ABC Street building in June, but recently, groups of employees who do not have business here have been walking through the building. These visits create a safety hazard, interrupt the construction workers, and could put your occupancy date in jeopardy.
Please instruct your staff members who haven’t already been moved to ABC Street to stay out of the building. If they need to meet with someone who has already moved, they should conduct their business and leave promptly via the nearest staircase.
We need to avoid further interruptions so our construction workers can get the building ready for occupancy on schedule. If you have any questions, please call me.
Miles Nickel, Construction Site Manager, McCrady Construction
1234 Main Street
Big City, B.C. P8C 9D9
(555) 123-4567 x222
Check Your Understanding
A memo (or memorandum, meaning “reminder”) is normally used for communicating policies, procedures, or related official business within an organization. It is often written from a one-to-all perspective, broadcasting a message to an audience, rather than a one-on-one, interpersonal communication. It may be used to update a team on activities for a given project or to inform a specific group within a company of an event, action, or observance.
A memo’s purpose is often to inform, but it may occasionally include an element of persuasion or a call-to-action. All organizations have informal and formal communication networks. The unofficial, informal communication network within an organization is often referred to as the grapevine, and it is characterized by rumour, gossip, and innuendo. On the grapevine, one person may hear that someone else is going to be laid off and start passing the news around. Rumours change and transform as they are passed from person to person, and before you know it, the word is that they are shutting down your entire department!
One effective way to address unofficial speculation is to spell out clearly for all employees what is going on with a particular issue. If budget cuts are a concern, then you could send a memo explaining the changes that are imminent. If a company wants employees to take action, they may issue a memo. For example, on February 13, 2009, upper management at the Panasonic Corporation issued a declaration that all employees should buy at least $1,600 worth of Panasonic products. The company president noted that if everyone supported the company with purchases, it would benefit all (Lewis, 2009). While memos do not normally include a call-to-action that requires personal spending, they do usually represent the organization’s interests. They may also include statements that align business and employee interest.
A memo has a header that indicates who sent it and who the intended recipients are. Pay particular attention to the title of the individual(s) in this section. Date and subject lines are also present, followed by a message that contains a declaration, a discussion, and a summary.
In a standard writing format, we might expect to see an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. All these are present in a memo, and each part has a purpose. The introduction in the opening uses a declarative sentence to announce the main topic. The body elaborates or lists major points associated with the topic, and the conclusion serves as a summary. Let’s examine a sample memo.
To: All Employees
From: Maya James, President, Provincial University
Date: September 21, 2015
Subject: Future Expenditure Guidelines
After careful deliberation, I have determined it is necessary to begin the initial steps of a financial stewardship program that carries Provincial University through what appears to be a two-year cycle of a severe provincial shortfall in revenue and subsequent necessary legislative budget reductions.
Beginning September 24, 2015, the following actions are being implemented for the General Fund, Auxiliary Fund, and Capital Fund in order to address the projected reductions in our provincial aid for the remainder of this year, 2015/2016, and for the next year, 2016/2017.
Only purchases needed to operate the university should be made so that we can begin saving to reduce the impact of the 2016/2017 budget reductions.
Requests for out-of-province travel will require approval from the Executive Committee to ensure that only necessary institutional travel occurs.
Purchase, including in-province travel and budget transfers, will require the appropriate vice president’s approval.
Please understand that we are taking these prudent steps to create savings that will allow ProvU to reduce the impact of projected cuts in expected 2016/2017 legislative reductions. Thank you for your cooperation. Please direct any questions to my office.
Five Tips for Effective Business Memos
Always consider the audience and their needs when preparing a memo. An acronym or abbreviation that is known to management may not be known by all the employees of the organization, so, if the memo is to be posted and distributed within the organization, your goal should be clear and concise communication at all levels with no ambiguity.
Professional, Formal Tone
Memos are often announcements, and the person sending the memo speaks for a part or all of the organization. While it may contain a request for feedback, the announcement itself is linear, from the organization to the employees. The memo may have legal standing, as it often reflects policies or procedures.
The subject is normally declared in the subject line and should be clear and concise. If the memo is announcing the observance of a holiday, for example, the specific holiday should be named in the subject line—for example, use “Thanksgiving weekend schedule” rather than “holiday observance.”
Memos are always direct, meaning they get to the point quickly and the purpose is clearly announced.
Memos are a place for just the facts and should have an objective tone without personal bias, preference, or interest on display. Avoid subjectivity.
Check Your Understanding
Letters are brief messages sent to recipients that are usually outside the organization. They are often printed on letterhead and usually take up one or two pages.
While email may be used more frequently today, the business letter remains a common form of written communication. It can serve to introduce you to a potential employer, announce a product or service, or even to communicate emotions. We’ll examine the basic outline of a letter and then focus on specific types.
Your organization may have its own letter format, but this chapter outlines common elements across business letters. There are many types of letters, and we’ll look at two primary purposes—good news and bad news—in this chapter. We’ll first discuss the elements of a block-style letter.
Letters may serve to introduce your skills and qualifications to prospective employers, deliver important or specific information, or serve as documentation of an event or decision. They may deliver information with a positive, negative, or neutral tone. Regardless of the type of letter you need to write, it can contain up to 16 elements in five areas. While you may not use all the elements in every case, they are listed in the following table.
A letter has five main areas:
- The heading, which establishes the sender, including address and date
- The introduction, which establishes the purpose
- The body, which articulates the message
- The conclusion, which restates the main point and may include a call-to-action
- The signature line, which sometimes includes the contact information
When formatting a full-block business letter, keep in mind the following guidelines:
- Apply single spacing throughout
- Use 1” – 1 ½” margins
- Left-justify all contents
A sample letter is shown below with guiding notations in bold. Rather than placing the return address at the top of your page, you could instead use company letterhead showing the logo and company address.
Example Letter (Guide)
Return Address (if not in letterhead logo):
123 Cockburn Road
Anytown, MB A1M 2P3
Date: September 14, 2015
Recipient Note (optional): CONFIDENTIAL
Ms. Zoe Maeve
123 Arbuthnot Drive
Anytown, AB T1A 2B3
Salutation: Dear Ms. Maeve:
Subject Line (optional): The myth of the paperless office
Introduction: This letter is to inform you that the myth of the paperless office, where you will not be required to produce hard copy letters on company letterhead, is just that: a myth.
Body: While email has largely replaced letter writing for many applications, several reasons for producing a hard copy letter remain. The first is that many employers still produce letters as a normal part of business communication. Next, we must consider that papers sales in business have increased across the last decade, showing no signs of the decrease we would associate with the transition to the paperless office. Finally, business letters may serve many functions, and your proficiency in their production will contribute to our personal and professional success.
Conclusion: Letter writing is a skill that will continue to be required in the business environment of today and tomorrow.
Signature: Murray Moman
Reference Initials (optional): ARJ
Enclosure Notation (optional, if needed)
Copy Notation (optional): cc: Beth Lloyd
Mailing Notation (optional)
Remember that letters represent you and your company in your absence. In order to communicate effectively and project a positive image, you’ll need to:
- be clear, concise, specific, and respectful
- ensure each word contributes to your purpose
- ensure each paragraph focuses on one idea only
- form a complete message
- keep your writing free of errors
Good News or Neutral Information in a Business Letter
Writing a letter that contains good or neutral news is fairly straightforward. Your intention is to get the news across quickly and clearly, while making sure the reader has a positive image of you and your company. You can do this by following these steps:
- State the news simply and directly.
- Give the reasons/details.
- Close with a goodwill statement.*
Bad News in a Business Letter
Saying no is more challenging than saying yes! This is true for all kinds of communication, but in a professional context, this can be challenging because you may not know the recipient of your message personally or be able to predict how they will react. When writing a letter that contains bad news, for example, when you need to tell a customer that they will not be receiving a refund, your challenge is to send a negative message while maintaining a positive relationship between your company and the receiver. Bad news can make the receiver feel a number of emotions, from disappointment to irritation, anger, and confusion. You can minimize these negative effects by structuring your letter in a specific way.
When you write a letter that contains bad news, your goals are to
- make the news easy to understand,
- let the receiver know that there will be no change in status (and avoid further communication),
- leave the receiver with a positive impression of your company.
Direct and Indirect Approaches to Writing Business Letters
There are two different ways to deliver bad news in a letter: the direct approach and the indirect approach. You’ll decide which approach to use based on the type of news you are delivering.
When using the direct approach, you’ll follow these steps:
- State the bad news simply and directly.
- Give the reasons.
- Give an alternative, if possible.
- Close with a goodwill statement.*
* What is a goodwill statement? It is an assertive but professional statement that demonstrates care about ongoing positive relationship.
The following letter uses the direct approach.
Example Letter (Direct Approach):
Dear Mr. Moore:
The reference you are looking for doesn’t seem to have originated with our company. While looking through our record of corporate speeches on the effect of free trade on agriculture, we haven’t come across anything similar to the remarks you mentioned. When I asked Mr. Lockhart, he had no recollection of anyone in the company having made that type of analogy.
We have conducted a quick Internet search and have found a number of sites that may well give you the information you are seeking. The Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada website at www.agr.gc.ca is probably a good starting point for your search.
We hope you find this information helpful.
When using the indirect approach, you’ll follow these steps:
- Begin with a buffer statement.*
- Discuss the circumstances leading to the bad news.
- State the bad news as positively as possible.
- Give a helpful suggestion or alternative.
- Close with a goodwill statement.
* What is a buffer statement? It is a gentle but professional statement that sets the tone of your letter.
Choosing an Approach
You would typically use the direct approach in all business letters, except when
- you are delivering bad news and it is unexpected;
- you don’t know the reader very well, and a negative emotional reaction is likely to occur.
In these situations, the indirect approach is a better choice.
In situations like these, the reasons you would give in the direct approach (in Step 2) could be viewed as excuses, so it is best not to present them. Instead, you should place the bad news in the middle portion of the letter, providing an explanation before it, and closing with positive or neutral language, as in the indirect approach. It is important to avoid a canned, insincere, inappropriate, or self-serving closing in any letter, but particularly so when you are using the indirect approach.
There are three key things to do in a letter that follows the indirect approach:
- Provide proof that persuades the reader to accept the bad news.
- Give the bad news.
- Give options for future success.
The following letter uses the indirect approach.
Example Letter (Indirect Approach):
Clerks in our office must be ready to serve customers by 9:00 a.m. According to company policy, arriving at work on time is a mandatory element of your employment here.
This month you have been late to work four times. Only two late arrivals are permitted before management must intervene. Since you have exceeded those limits, it is necessary for me to give you a written warning and put you on probation.
If you are on time each day within the next 90 days, I will remove this from your employment record. You will then be able to work towards a promotion and salary increase. I would be pleased to discuss this with you at your convenience.
When using the indirect approach, you should follow these guidelines:
- Don’t mislead the reader with an opening that is too positive.
- Do keep reasons as short as possible.
- Do make sure the reader is clear about the bad news.
- Do avoid negative words and phrasing.
- Don’t end with a statement that is artificial.
When you are writing a letter that contains good news or neutral information, you should use the direct approach.
Check Your Understanding
Instructions: Please review the business letter below and then answer the multiple- choice questions that follow.
Aspen Country Lodge
November 14, 2015
12345 Stream Ave.
St. Augustine, FL 34567
As the holiday season approaches, we are reminded of the blessings that are bestowed on us throughout the year. At Aspen Country Lodge, the pleasures we share year after year with our Legacy clients are among our most cherished blessings.
And so, as our staff looks forward to spending time with friends and family, we are also thinking of special friends like you and hoping you are enjoying good health and good cheer. We take pride in being your home away from home and reserve a special place in our hearts for the memories we’ve shared with you.
Thank you for making Aspen Country Lodge part of your annual traditions. Have a blessed Christmas and a peaceful, joyous, and prosperous New Year.
Theodore P. Hyde, Owner/Manager
Aspen Country Lodge • 402 Aspen Way • Cold Bluff, CA 98765 • (303) 346-7889
Fax Cover Sheet
You might think that email has surely replaced fax by now, but that isn’t the case in the business world, at least not yet! You’ll notice that faxes are still commonplace when a signature is needed, or when a legally binding document (a contract, for example) is being transmitted. Some industries (such as medical and legal) still rely on faxes because their transmission cannot be intercepted. When confidentiality is important, a fax may be your go-to document format.
Your organization may have a fax cover sheet template that all employees use, so look for this before you send your first fax, as it will make the process much quicker. In general, fax cover sheets usually have some or all of the following contents:
- Company name or logo
- Name and fax number of receiver
- Name, fax, and phone number of sender
- Number of pages
- Confidentiality Notice
*These are not always included. Use them if you have additional information not covered by the fax contents.
Example Fax Cover Sheet:
FAX Smith & Sons. Ltd.
To: James Milford From: Leonard Smith Fax: (555) 212-0988 Fax: (555) 313-0122 Date: 08/09/2015 Phone: (555) 401-9876
CONFIDENTIAL Pages: 5
Subject: Employment Contract
Please sign and return the attached contract at your earliest convenience.
If you have any questions or concerns, please contact my office.
Reports are designed to record and convey information to the reader and can be used both internally and externally. Reports serve to document new information for specific audiences, goals, or functions. The type of report is often identified by its primary purpose, as in an accident report, a laboratory report, or a sales report. Reports are often analytical or involve the rational analysis of information. Sometimes they report the facts with no analysis at all. Other reports summarize past events, present current data, and forecast future trends. This section will introduce you to the basics of report writing.
Types of Reports
Reports come in all sizes but are typically longer than a page and somewhat shorter than a book. In this chapter we’re focusing on short reports that would typically be up to four pages in length. The type of report depends on its function, and different industries have reports specific to them. For example, science researchers write lab reports, while incident reports are common in health-and-safety environments.
Reports vary by function, style, and tradition. Within your organization, you may need to address specific expectations. This section discusses reports in general terms, focusing on common elements and points of distinction. Reference to similar documents at your workplace may serve you well as you prepare your own report. There are many types of reports, but this section will focus on three types common to the workplace. At times, these may be combined into one longer report.
|Progress Report||Monitor and control production, sales, shipping, service, or related business process.|
|Recommendation Report||Make recommendations to management and provide tools to solve problems or make decisions.|
|Summary Report||Present summaries of the information available on a given subject.|
A progress report is used to give management an update on the status of a project. It is generated at timed intervals (for example, once a month) or on completion of key stages. It records accomplishments to date and identifies any challenges or concerns. It is usually written by the project lead and is one to two pages long.
When you write a progress report, begin by stating why you are writing the report:
- Identify what you’ve accomplished
- List any problems you have encountered
- Outline what work still remains
Conclude by providing an overview of the project’s status and what should be done next.
A recommendation report is used to help management make decisions. The goal of this report is to identify a solution to a problem or suggest a course of action. In it, the writer might suggest that a procedure be adopted or rejected, assess an unsatisfactory situation, or persuade decision makers to make a change that will benefit the organization. For example, the report might suggest ways to enhance the quality of a product, increase profit, reduce cost, or improve workplace conditions. The intention of a recommendation report is not to assign blame or be overly critical, but to suggest improvements in a positive manner. If you’re writing a recommendation report, it may be helpful to get input from your colleagues.
A summary report is used to give management information. For example, if you work in the marketing department, your boss might ask you to find out about your competitors’ online activities so that your company can effectively compete with them. To do this, you would research your competitors’ websites, social media profiles, digital advertising campaigns, and so on. You would then distill what you find down to the key points so that your boss can get the essential information in a short time, and then decide how to act on it. Unlike the recommendation report, the summary report focuses on the facts, leaving it to management to decide on a course of action.
How Are Reports Organized?
Reports vary by size, format, and function. You need to be flexible and adjust your report to the needs of the audience. Reports are typically organized around six key elements:
- Who the report is about and/or prepared for
- What was done, what problems were addressed, and the results, including conclusions and/or recommendations
- Where the subject studied occurred
- When the subject studied occurred
- Why the report was written (function), including under what authority, for what reason, or by whose request
- How the subject operated, functioned, or was used
Pay attention to these essential elements when you consider your stakeholders. That may include the person(s) the report is about, whom it is for, and the larger audience of the organization. Ask yourself who the key decision makers are, who the experts will be, and how your words and images may be interpreted. While there is no universal format for a report, there is a common order to the information. Each element supports the main purpose or function, playing an important role in the transmission of information.
Ten Common Elements of a Report
|1. Cover||Title and image||Like the cover of a book, sometimes a picture, image, or logo is featured to introduce the topic to the reader.|
|2. Title Fly||Title only||Optional|
|3. Title Page||Label, report, features title, author, affiliation, date, and sometimes for whom the report was prepared|
|4. Table of Contents||A list of the main sections and their respective page numbers|
|6. Introduction||Introduces the topic of the report|
|7. Body||Key elements of body include:
|8. Conclusion||Concise presentation of findings||Indicates the main results and their relation to recommended action or outcome|
|9. References||Bibliography or Works Cited||List of citations|
|10. Appendix||Related supporting materials||May include maps, analysis of soil samples, field reports, etc.|
Here is a checklist for ensuring that a report fulfills its goals:
- Report considers the audience’s needs
- Form follows function of report
- Format reflects institutional norms and expectations
- Information is accurate, complete, and documented
- Information is easy to read
- Terms are clearly defined
- Figures, tables, and art support written content
- Figures, tables, and art are clear and correctly labelled
- Figures, tables, and art are easily understood without text support
- Words are easy to read (font, arrangement, organization)
- Results are clear and concise
- Recommendations are reasonable and well-supported
- Report represents your best effort
- Report speaks for itself without your clarification or explanation
Formatting a Report
Make it easier for your reader to comprehend the information in your report by formatting your document cleanly. Here are a few guidelines:
- Use 12pt type in a standard font
- Use 1 ½- to 2-inch margins
- Use headings and subheadings to divide the content into clear sections
- Separate paragraphs using white space
- Use visuals (charts, graphs, diagrams, etc.) where they will help in explaining numbers or other information that would be difficult to understand in text form
Check Your Understanding
FAST: Format, Audience, Style, Tone
When composing your business documents, you will first have to decide which format best suits your purpose. In the foundations module we learned that the medium is the message. Similarly in this case, the format you choose for your business document should also align well with the purpose of your message. For example, an email might be considered semiformal depending on audience and purpose; a business letter is usually considered quite formal as are memos, faxes and short reports. Knowing what you’ve recently learned about the common types of business documents, you must remain mindful that the format you choose tells the audience something about the information they will receive and how important or serious it is for them to pay attention to it.
Once you have chosen the appropriate format for your message, it’s also important to ensure that the formatting is correct. For example, if you intend to send a memo, it should not look like an informal email or a business letter; it should contain all the appropriate elements of a memo that you learned about in the previous section. It needs to be clear to the reader what format you are using and you can make that apparent by ensuring the appropriate formatting of your document.
In the Foundations module you learned the importance of knowing your audience in order to craft effective communications. That is as true as ever when writing business documents. Who you are writing to may be one person or many. The format you choose may make it easy for your document to be accessed by other people (such as email) and include secondary and hidden audiences. But in business writing, of course, your primary audience remains central to your messaging. A helpful approach some communicators use is to try to put themselves in the primary audience’s shoes and ask, What’s in it for me? or Why should I care? or So what? Identifying the audience and being aware of their needs will help you draft a document that is more likely to get their interest.
Style and tone are often considered interchangeable and there are some blurry distinctions between the two. But for our purposes style refers to elements such as active versus passive writing, varied sentence lengths, flow, variety of word use, and punctuation choices. Style gives your writing a type of personality when coupled together with tone. As with the audience and format, it’s important that the style you choose matches with the intended purpose of your message.
Similar in some ways to style, tone refers to the feeling your audience will get when they decode your document. Here you would ask yourself if your tone is formal, informal, positive, negative, polite, direct, or indirect. The purpose of asking yourself this question is to determine whether the tone suits or otherwise enhances the purpose of your intended message.
The acronym FAST not only helps as a guide to remembering the importance of selecting the right format, remembering your audience, and ensuring appropriate style and tone but also helps you remember that in business writing it’s important to get to the point—fast!
Here is a handy tool you can use as you write to remember to use and incorporate the principles of FAST.
This chapter on writing workplace documents began with a review of writing solid paragraphs that include elements like a good topic sentence, body, and conclusion. You then learned about how to prepare a workplace document beginning with an outline and deciding which workplace document to use. You learned about and saw examples of emails, memos, business letters, fax cover sheets, and short reports. Finally, you were introduced to the acronym FAST as a tool to stay mindful of your document and content choices around format, audience, style, and tone.
With this new knowledge you should be well on your way to honing your workplace writing skills, which will be further enhanced in the next section on revising workplace documents.
Elements of paragraphs
- topic sentence
- Emails are an electronic medium often used to send letters, memos, or less formal written communication.
- Letters are typically quite formal, brief printed messages often used to inform or persuade customers, vendors, or the public
- Memos are brief documents used internally to inform or persuade employees about business decisions on policy, procedures, or actions.
- Fax cover sheets must always contain complete information about the contents, sender, receiver, and number of pages. Faxing is relevant as a secure way to transmit sensitive documents.
- Short reports can report progress, summarize information, or recommend. They consist of 10 common elements and are no longer than four pages.
Check Your Understanding
Guffey, M. (2008). Essentials of Business Communication (7th ed.). Mason, OH: Thomson/Wadsworth.
Lewis, L. (2009, February 13). Panasonic orders staff to buy £1,000 in products. Retrieved from http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/markets/japan/article5723942.ece
Attribution Statement (Writing Workplace Documents)
This chapter is a remix containing content from a variety of sources published under a variety of open licenses, including the following:
- Original content contributed by the Olds College OER Development Team, of Olds College to Professional Communications Open Curriculum under a CC-BY 4.0 license.
- Content created by Anonymous for Effective Means for Writing; in Successful Writing, published at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/successful-writing/s10-02-effective-means-for-writing-a-.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.
- Content created by Anonymous for Text, Email, and Netiquette; in English for Business Success, published at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/english-for-business-success/s17-01-text-e-mail-and-netiquette.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.
- Content created by Anonymous for Memorandums and Letters; in English for Business Success, published at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/english-for-business-success/s17-02-memorandums-and-letters.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.
- Content created by Anonymous for Report; in English for Business Success, published at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/english-for-business-success/s17-04-report.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.
Check Your Understandings
- Original content contributed by the Olds College OER Development Team, of Olds College to Professional Communications Open Curriculum under a CC-BY 4.0 license.
- Assessment items created by The Saylor Foundation for the Saylor.org course BUS210: Corporate Communication, published at https://www.oercommons.org/courses/business-administration-corporate-communication-unit-5-quiz/view under a CC BY 3.0 US license.
- Business Letter Assessment created by The Saylor Foundation for the Saylor.org course BUS210: Corporate Communication, published at http://www.saylor.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/BUS210-Business-Letter-Assessment-Fixed.pdf under a CC BY 3.0 US license.