The Buzz about Business Writing  - 10 Basic Writing Skills for ESL Learners

Do you find your writing dull and difficult to read? Do you want to know how to get your message across clearly, easily, and quickly so you can use less time on writing and more time to focus on other important tasks?  Hopefully some of these tips of good business writing will propel you toward achieving your written language goals, whether sending a quick e-mail or composing a full-page letter and everything in-between.

So what is the buzz about business writing?

What are the 10 basics for ESL learners?

Get Organized

Know Your Audience

Write Simply

Use the Active Voice

Avoid Lengthy Sentences

Be Specific

Stick to the Topic and Purpose

Share Adequate Content

Be Consistent

Use the Best Medium for Your Message

1. Get Organized

Before you write, it pays to plan. Make an outline of what you want to say. A simple list, some drawings, or even rough handwritten notes will suffice. An outline is a great tool to help you break down what you want to say in small parts so it may be easier to complete. There are lots of graphic organizers that are available free online to help you with the organization of your writing.  After you have completed your outline, it is time to decide on how you will organize the parts of the outline.

The organizational structure depends mostly on the type of written communication. Many documents begin with an introduction, develop several points in the body of the text, and then add a closing summary of the most important points. You can consult additional online sources if you are writing something specific like a business manual, employee handbook, end of year report, sales letter, etc. Looking at different writing samples is valuable.There are several organizational structures that may work best for you depending on just what it is you want to say. You could consider a structure from this list:

  • Order of location

Example:A report on the planets beginning with the closest or farthest planet to the Sun and going in order

  • Order of increasingly difficulty

Example:A computer manual that begins with the easiest material first and then moves to more difficult material

  • Alphabetical order

Example:A directory of employees

  • Chronological order

Example:A history of your company, feature stories, corporate biographies, trip reports, annual reports

  • Problem/Solution

Example:Company report that targets a specific problem(s) and solution(s)

  • Inverted pyramid

Example:News reporting (also journal articles, letters, memos and reports) with the lead paragraph summarizing the text and then the paragraphs that follow adding details to support the main idea

  • Deductive order

Example:Research paper that begins with findings and states supporting evidence

  • Inductive order

Example:Trade journal feature stories that begin with specifics and then lead the reader to the general principles or idea that these specifics suggest

  • List

Example:Articles, memos, instructions, procedures, and reports all can be written from any number of items in a list format2. Know Your AudienceDetermine who the reader is. Your writing needs to be built around the audience’s interests and needs.  If you are writing to a potential business client, do some research on the company before your write to them. The same goes for presenting at a conference. Understand the expectations of your presentation and who makes up your audience.  These are some factors to consider:

  • Job title – Make the tone and content of your writing compatible to the qualifications of your reader. This way, your audience will understand what you are saying and if they already have a certain level of sophistication with the topic, they will be given more.
  • Education – Target the level of your audience and select words and content accordingly. Remember that everyone wants to and deserves to learn something new or read something in a refreshing way.
  • Industry – Know what various markets expect and want to hear. Be careful on this one. Do not be arrogant in your writing. There is always someone who knows more about something than you. There is always someone who can deliver a “better” or “stronger” piece of writing than you. Don’t write beneath what your audience wants and expects to hear either. Write for the age of your audience. Treat adults like adults.
  • Level of interest – What purpose does each audience member have in reading your text? It is completely different if someone is new or recently trained, compared to someone who has a level of experience or familiarity of the information you are sharing. Plan your text accordingly.

3. Write Simply

If you want someone to read what you write, it must be in terms that he/she can understand. Don’t overdo the technical terms unless they are necessary to use. Then make sure you explain the meaning of how the words are used in context.

Avoid jargon. This might be helpful in communicating in specialized fields for the readers who are in that profession, but it loses and frustrates other readers. Avoid clichés and old phases that are no longer used in the English language.

Remember, a relaxed, conversational style is important. Don’t write to impress someone.

Try to write in the fewest number of words necessary to convey the purpose of what you are writing.

Avoid redundancy (examples:  advance plan – use plan; actual experience – use experience, close proximity – use one or the other; end result – use one or the other; grateful thanks – use one or the other; habitual custom – use one or the other; local resident – use one or the other; mutual cooperation – use one or the other; old adage – use adage; past history – use one or the other; self-confessed – use confessed; successful achievements – use achievements; true facts – use one or the other; usual customs – use one or the other; young teenager – use teenager).

Avoid wordy phrases when a shorter substitute will do (examples:  during the course of – use during; in the event of – use if; in the form of – use as; in many cases – use often; exhibits the ability to – use can; ahead of schedule – use early; am in possession of – use have).

Avoid “It is” and “There are” at the beginning of your sentences when possible. Just eliminate these words (examples:  It is expected that the buyers… - replace with The buyers…; There are many customers… - replace with Many customers…).

Avoid using the same phrases in your writing. Try to select a variety of words and phrases.Cut out useless introductory phrases (examples:  with reference to your question, it goes without saying that, at that point in time, by way of response, and it seems unnecessary to point out that).

4. Use the Active Voice

When using the active voice, the action is direct. Your writing is more crisp and concise. For example:  The boss thought the idea was a good one for the company. In the passive voice, the action is indirect. For example: The good idea for the company was thought by the boss.

Which sentence gives a clearer message? Which message does the reader more easily understand?

5. Avoid Lengthy Sentences

Read over your text. If the sentences are too long, separate them into a few sentences. You should vary the length of your sentences to build interest and to add variety.  A helpful guide to determine if sentences are too long is to write the sentence as you speak it without losing your breath.

6. Be Specific

Instead of giving your audience general information that many (or most) of the readers already know, be sure to include important specifics (example:  recommendations, conclusions, figures, and facts).

7. Stick to the Topic and Purpose

When writing, you should try to narrow your topic and purpose of writing. Don’t make your topic too broad as it will be difficult to cover all of the information in a reasonable amount of time and in a reasonable amount of space. Write for a particular purpose.  Is it to inform? Is it to persuade? Is it to entertain? Is it a combination of these purposes?

8. Get Organized

Did you ever read something and when you finished reading it, you went away thinking that the text didn’t really say all that much? Try to expand your knowledge of the topic before you write. Do not pretend to have a lot of knowledge in an area that you are just beginning to explore. If it is an opinion-piece, try to include other points of view. It is also important to back up your information with sources and to ensure your information and sources are relevant and up-to-date. Be selective in your sources. Use them to support your points and main idea and use them sparingly.

9. Be Consistent

If you have a question with grammar, punctuation, capitalization, spelling, abbreviation, word use or anything else, then make sure you consult an online source for assistance. Study English. Take an online ESL class with Arrange for a tutor. Have study buddies. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your writing should be errorless.

Be consistent when you write. If you abbreviate a word, continue to do in the same manner throughout your paper (i.e. US or USA).  If you use a certain type of measurement (standard or metric, or maybe both), follow through with this in the entire text.

Check the first draft of your writing carefully. Make the necessary revisions and corrections. Ask yourself:

  • Does it follow the outlined except for improvements made in completing the text?
  • Have all of the errors been corrected?
  • Does it sound clear and logical?
  • Does it flow smoothly within each paragraph and from paragraph to paragraph?

It might be helpful to read the draft aloud or have someone read it aloud to you. Sometimes just listening to it helps you determine if there needs to be any changes.

After the revisions are complete, you should rewrite your draft into a final version. Compare it with the draft so you did not forget anything. Once again, read it out loud or have someone read it. Ask yourself the same questions as you did before:

  • Does it follow the outlined except for improvements made in completing the text?
  • Have all of the errors been corrected?
  • Does it sound clear and logical?
  • Does it flow smoothly within each paragraph and from paragraph to paragraph?

Then, check neatness. Does the composition look neat?  Are you proud of the final product?

10. Use the Best Medium for Your Message

E-mail has become the chosen form of communication for many types of messages today. An important skill is in knowing when to use e-mail and when not to use it. A good rule to follow is if you don’t want a message made public, then don’t use e-mail. With e-mail, you can never be certain that your message won’t end up in the hands of someone unintended. There are several business communications that should be written and sent in a more traditional way.  These include:

  • If something is personal or private, then it is best not to send via e-mail.
  • If something is “official” in nature, the avoid e-mail.
  • If the topic is sensitive, it is best not to use e-mail.

In addition, popular emoticons are not recommended for business communications. They are not always seen as professional. Not all of your readers will understand what the emoticon means. Here are some popular emoticons that need to be avoided in business writing:

🙂 Smile

😉 Wink

🙁 Frown

😀 Laughed

:-X No Comment

:’( Crying

:-I Tongue in Cheek

:-> Sarcastic

=: O Surprise

Furthermore… a written communication is tangible. You can hold it to read. The features have some impact on the reader. The paper it is written on, the presence of company letterhead, and the written signature all add to the formality of the text. Communications sent in the mail are a good choice for promotional mailings, brochures, and text to introduce your company to potential clients. They are also good for thank you notes for job interviews and for recommendations.


Do you have any questions about writing? Do you have another suggestion to add to the “buzz about business writing”? If so, write to me using the comments section below. I’ll be glad to help out. Speaking of helping out… Check out some of the other articles on our ESL student focused blog. These just might help you out, too.    

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