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Composing Office Documents

Recommendations for Emails, Memos, and Reports

There are certain guidelines to follow when you write any kind of office document. Other guidelines are specific to the type of document. In this section, I provide some general ideas on composing business documents, as well as some brief, more specific tips on writing emails, memos, reports, and international correspondence.

Some General Guidelines

Know why you’re writing.

Before you write anything longer than two or three paragraphs, write down the answer to this question: Why am I writing? (For example, To secure funds for the system enhancement, To propose a new approach to employee communications) Keep this answer in front of you as you write; it’s your objective. Include nothing in your document that doesn’t relate to or support your objective.

Organize your document.

The most basic, and usually the most effective, way to organize any business document is to present the information in descending order of importance.

An exception to this rule occurs when your reader might be reluctant to accept your point of view. In that case, consider presenting information in the opposite order, from least to most important, gradually bolstering your case and ending with your strongest point. The danger with this approach, of course, is that the reader might lose interest and stop reading.

More complex documents sometimes require additional organizing principles. Some other ways to present information include:

  • Chronological order

  • Compare-and-contrast format

  • Problem-solution format

  • Cause-to-effect format (This approach is good only when you want to explain why something happened or what you think will happen in the future.)

When deciding which format to follow, put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Determine how your readers will logically think about the topic, and pick an organizational method that will match their logic. Whatever organizing principle you use, it’s still a good idea to follow the most-to-least-important guideline within sections and paragraphs of your document.

Omit details that will be of interest to only some readers in the main text. Instead, include them in appendix section at the end of the document.

Make it easy on the eyes.

Aside from using correct spelling and grammar, there are several ways to make your document easy to read:

  • Use wide margins and ample white space.

  • Left-justify your text; that is, align your left margin, and keep your right margin “ragged” for ease of reading and a more inviting look.

  • Indent at least five spaces at the beginning of paragraphs. Another option is to separate paragraphs with line breaks (block style).

  • Indent lists.

  • Use plenty of headings and subheadings.

  • Highlight important points with bullets.

  • Include a table of contents for documents of ten pages or more.

Headings and subheadings guide your readers through your document and show which topics are more important than others. They help readers find information they need so they can scan the rest. Use primary headings for the main sections of the document and subheadings for sections within those sections. Make the headings at different levels graphically distinct. For example:

BOLDFACE SMALL-CAPITAL LETTERS FOR HEADINGS

Boldface Lower-case Letters for Subheadings

Italics for Sub-subheadings

Make the headings as informative as possible. Also make headings at the same level of importance grammatically parallel (for example, all subheads on the same level begin with verbs).

Bullets allow readers to see information at a glance. They are an excellent way to highlight key points, but reserve them for that purpose. Overusing bullets robs them of their impact. There is no set format for bulleting, but here are some guidelines:

  • Limit each bulleted item to a few lines.

  • Make bulleted items grammatically parallel.

  • List only a few bulleted items at a time.

  • Capitalize the beginning of each bulleted item.

  • Be consistent in punctuating items, which can end with a period, comma, semicolon, or nothing at all.

Make it easy to understand.

Visual techniques are not the only way to make your document accessible to the reader; word choice can help or hinder readers’ understanding, as well. Here are some tips for making your document easy to comprehend:

  • Stay in the same person (first, second, or third) throughout the document. 

  • Don’t be afraid to use I. First person is common in business documents now. It can keep writing from sounding stilted, making it clearer and more personal. (I distributed the survey is clearer and sounds more energetic than the passive, The survey was distributed.)

  • Be consistent with verb tenses within sentences and paragraphs: If you start in the present tense, end in the present tense. If you start in the past tense, end in the past tense – unless there is a logical reason to change tenses.

  • Minimize brackets, slashes, dashes, and parentheses. Use contractions unless the document is extremely formal.

  • Don’t use words unless you’re certain of their meaning. If you are even remotely in doubt, look a word up in the dictionary – or don’t use it.

Grab and hold the reader’s attention.

Use strong openings and closings in any document you write. In particular, the first paragraph should grab the reader’s attention – not by being unusual or outrageous, but by presenting most important information clearly and engagingly.

Adopt a conversational tone. Big words and stilted language turn readers off. The simpler and more conversational you can make your writing, the more likely your audience will want to keep reading. Test your writing by reading it aloud to see how it sounds. If it sounds wooden and artificial to you, it will sound that way to your reader.

Use more you words than me words in all but the most formal documents to show respect and consideration for your reader and to support that conversational tone. When your you words (you, your, yours) outnumber your me words (I, me, my, mine), your readers will more readily accept what you tell them without even knowing why.

By all means, sound adult, but not parental. When you give instructions or make recommendations or suggestions, resist sounding superior or protective. Avoid such words and phrases as should, never, always, remember to, and be (or make) sure. Treat your readers as your intellectual equals.

There are several effective ways to end a document. They include reiterating key points, drawing a conclusion or making a judgment, making recommendations, and suggesting a course of action.

Summarize your ideas.

An executive summary at the beginning of a paper is helpful, particularly for longer documents. Like an abstract in a technical paper, an executive summary presents the key ideas of a document in a few sentences or paragraphs (a page at the most). An executive summary allows people who can’t read the full text to grasp your main points quickly.

For extremely long documents, consider including brief summaries at the beginning or end of each section.

Proofread, proofread, proofread.

Use your spell-check tool, but don’t stop there; it won’t catch words that are spelled correctly but misused (to for two, at for an). If you have time, print the document and proof it in hard copy, as errors are easier to catch on paper. Consider asking a strong writer to review it and give you feedback.

Emails

Keep messages short.

Emails are best suited for quick, day-today correspondence. If your message is very important or very long (more than 250 words, or half a printed page) consider sending it as a Word file or making it a memo. Because people receive so many emails daily, a printed document may add weight to what you are saying.

Use informative subject lines.

The recipient of your email should be able to get the gist of your message by scanning the subject line. “Today’s meeting” is more informative than “Meeting,” and “Today’s meeting cancelled” is even better.

Give context.

Include the original email or some other type of context when replying to a message, even if you respond immediately. Most people get dozens of emails daily, and a simple “Yes” or “No” without context can be confusing.

Be conscious of screen length.

Keep your messages short and be conscious of screen length. Have the most important information appear right away, so the reader doesn’t have to scroll down to find it.

Break up paragraphs.

It’s hard enough on the eyes to read from a computer screen without having to slog through a long, dense paragraph. When in doubt, chop things up.

Be professional.

Because emails are often conversational in tone, it is tempting to think of them as a different species from other business documents. But while emails may be less formal than other documents, they shouldn’t be less professional. Follow the same conventions you would in any other business correspondence:

  • Write in complete sentences.

  • Capitalize the beginning of sentences.

  • Use proper punctuation.

  • Proofread before sending. If it’s a particularly important email, print it and proofread it in hard copy.

Two other tips:

  • Avoid using all caps. Not only are they equivalent to screaming, but they can also be difficult to read.

  • Do not use emoticons (smiley faces, etc.). They’re fine for personal emails, but not appropriate in most business contexts.

Assume your email will be forwarded.

People other than the intended recipient may see your email. Emails are often forwarded, and in some cases, companies can even retrieve deleted messages. A good thought to hold as you write an email is to omit anything you wouldn’t want exposed on 60 Minutes.

Memorandums

A memorandum is an informal report that is usually five pages or fewer in length. Confirm this detail in your company, however; some companies want memos to be only one page long.

Common ways to present information in a memo include:

  • Inverted pyramid format (most to least important ideas)

  • Prioritization format (priorities listed in order of importance)

  • Problem-solution format

  • Compare-and-contrast format

  • Chronological order

Two other memo tips:

  • Use Subject or Re lines that are as informative as possible.

  • Alphabetize lists of comparable words, products, or people – especially people – to avoid distracting your readers with “ranking” games.

Reports

A report is longer, more detailed, and often more formal than a memo. Reports should include, at a minimum, the following components:

  • Table of contents

  • Executive summary

  • Body

  • Conclusion

  • Appendix

  • Bibliography

The format or structure of a report is often prescribed precisely by company rules or convention. Before you begin, confirm your company’s format.

If appropriate, include a recommended course of action in the concluding section.

In a report that includes recommendations, it can be quite effective to present the recommendations at the beginning of the document, and then build support for them in the following text. Readers always want to know “Why?” This format leads them to their answers.

Because reports are so dense, they can be difficult to follow. Therefore, it’s particularly important to use lots of headings and subheadings in reports, as well as to leave ample margins and space between topics and to number every page.

In writing formal documents, keep your language as clear and straightforward as in more casual documents, with two adjustments:

  • Avoid contractions.

  • Avoid addressing the reader directly, with conversational references to you.

International Correspondence

Be aware of the culture and the relationship.

If you are corresponding with someone in another country, your company has probably established a relationship with their company. If possible, meet with an individual in your company who can tell you about the relationship between the two companies and perhaps something about the business culture, as well. Having this background information will help you establish an appropriate relationship with the individual(s) with whom you’ll correspond.

Find out how to address the recipient.

Because business relationships in other countries are often more formal than in the United States, address your recipient by his or her last name until invited to do otherwise. Even if you are on a first- name basis when you speak, it’s best to use last names in written correspondence. Also include in their address any honorary titles or advanced degrees they might hold (Ph.D., etc.). One way to avoid offending colleagues from another country is to follow their lead: Mimic the way they address you.

Choose an appropriate tone.

Finding out about the conventions of the other culture will help you choose the appropriate tone. If you’re in doubt, err on the side of formality, as informality is sometimes considered rude in other countries. Avoid words that could be considered demanding (such as must). Do not attempt to be funny; humor usually does not translate well between cultures and is often considered inappropriate. Be unfailingly courteous and respectful.

Avoid slang, jargon, idioms, figures of speech, and emoticons.

When composing a business document that will be read by natives of another country, avoid slang, jargon, idioms, figures of speech, and any other words or phrases that could be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Emoticons are inappropriate in any business correspondence.

Be particularly conscious of spelling.

Correct spelling is extremely important in international correspondence: If a word is spelled incorrectly but is still a word, recipients may find an unintended meaning when they look it up in the dictionary.

Consider approaching your topic indirectly.

In some cultures, it is considered rude to bring up business right away. Soften your approach with personal greetings or the written equivalent of small talk before addressing the subject at hand. Even when discussing the meat of your document, consider using a more indirect approach than you might normally use. In some cultures, subtlety and reading between the lines are the norm.

Don’t assume all cultures are alike.

Do your research on the customs of individual countries, even if they are in similar regions or located close to one another.

Keep in mind that date formats differ.

Many countries other than the United States express dates as follows: 4 September 1973. Keep this in mind when writing and reading numerical forms for dates (9/4/73) so that months and days are not confused. Unless you are filling out forms where the date field is limited to six or eight digits, write out the complete date to avoid any chance of misunderstanding.

Offer alternatives to written correspondence.

To establish a comfort level and reduce the opportunity for misunderstanding, suggest a phone call or videoconference to discuss your topic – but only if you and your correspondent can converse in the same language fluently. Follow up any phone calls with written confirmation of their content, especially any decisions that were made.

Be mindful of time zone differences.

Your contact in another country could be many hours behind or ahead of you, depending on which of the world’s 24 time zones he or she lives in. Find out early in your project the time difference between your two locations, and keep this difference in mind when you correspond. (Ask about “time changes,” too; other countries have their own versions of Daylight Saving Time, and their changes may take effect on different dates.) If you are using email, don’t expect instant responses. Check your contact’s time before placing a phone call.

Confirm format before sending attachments.

If you email attachments, ask your contact what format to use. If your contact cannot access or read the documents you send (and vice versa), discontinue sending attachments and use a mail service (U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, UPS, etc.).

Remember you are representing your company – not yourself.

The impression your contact has of your company may depend almost entirely on his or her impression of you. As sparkling and fun-loving as your personality may be, presenting yourself as a competent, professional businessperson is what matters in this relationship. Represent your company in the way you know your company wants to be represented.

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