Chapter 10: Writing at Work
Purpose is key to a well-written message. However, your writing also needs to change based on the format the message takes. Once you understand your audience and purpose, you will want to choose the form and format of your writing. Your writing could take the form of a business letter, memo, report, or set of instructions. The format or medium of your writing will either be electronic or in print.
Writing at work means you are always representing your employer. If you are using any kind of official communication channel, like your work phone number, email address, social media accounts, or formal document template, remember that what you say and do reflects on your employer. So, write consciously for that format, thinking both about your audience’s perceptions of your content and their overall perception of your employer. Employers have their own identity in the business world. It is your job to ensure that the mission, vision, and values are reflected in any communications you write on behalf of your employer. As per usual, if in doubt, run your writing by your boss if you aren’t sure if you got it right.
Branding and Public Relations
Many organizations have their own logos and communication standards. Larger companies are likely to have templates that they use for official communication purposes. This may include a branded powerpoint slide deck, branded email signatures, branded report templates, and requirements related to colour, font, layout, and more. Each organization uses these elements to reinforce the idea and values of their workplace. It is very important that you learn these requirements early and ask questions if you aren’t sure what the rules are.
If you are acting in an official capacity, you may need to learn and uphold the conventions of your workplace. This is great information to ask when you are first starting out at a new job. If there is a public relations department or a communications department, they can provide you with an orientation and possibly a style guide to follow. If you work in customer service, you may even find that you are meant to follow specific scripts in both your written and verbal communications.
Learn when and how to use your work email account. Avoid conducting personal matters using that account. Because of confidentiality and protection of personal information, you could run the risk of making those communications available for others. Keep a clear divide between your work life and your personal life.
Here are a few tips for writing emails for work:
- Include only the people who need to know. Many employees receive too many emails! When you decide who to address your email to, less is more. Avoid reply all and unnecessary cc’s. If your message needs to be shared later on, it can always be forwarded.
- Write a detailed subject line. Believe it or not, that is all that some people read! As long as your message communicates information that is positive or neutral, state your purpose or request clearly and directly in this subject line. It saves time and will motivate your audience to open the message.
- State your purpose first. Think of the first sentence of your email like a restatement of your subject line. It needs to very clearly communicate why you are writing and what you need from your audience.
- Use complete sentences. All work emails are considered professional correspondence. Avoid using abbreviations, short forms, and overly casual language. You don’t want to look like the writer in our first example!
- Be direct and brief. Respect the time of your audience by avoiding unnecessary detail. Start with the most relevant information in your first paragraph. If you need to provide more detail, do it later in the message.
- Offer a clear next step. Work emails are transactional, so focus on your next step. Before you end the message, be clear about the action that the person needs to take. Be specific and ask for clarification. If you need something done in a particular way or for a specific timeline, explain that clearly. If it is appropriate, you can briefly explain why.
- Follow the conventions. If your employer has a script or other expectation for your writing, follow it closely. Otherwise, follow the general suggestions outlined earlier related to audience, purpose and tone.
Reports follow a variety of conventions and rules. In many workplaces, frequent communication types are often templated. Think back to Chapter XX on Workplace Safety. Did you slip and fall at work? There is likely a specific form you need to fill out and send to your employer. Here are a few tips for writing reports at work:
- Stick to the template. If there is already a pre-set form, complete it as fully and accurately as possible. For example, many customer service roles require you to document your interactions with clients or customers. This form of data collection likely happens at many levels, so you will want to use the conventional structure and language to make it easier for others to track and document.
- Use a model or script. If you are writing a type of report for the first time, you may want to consider asking your supervisor or coworker for examples. In some cases, there may be information that must be provided each time. Look for scripts and models in your employee handbook or other orientation information. If in doubt, ask!
- Be careful what you share. Internal and external reports may also include different kinds of information. Ask your employer if you are uncertain if certain information should be made publicly available. Proprietary information is sometimes protected for a variety of reasons.
Multimedia can be a challenging area to write in. You need to combine the visual and textual combinations with any branding conventions and messaging. Here are a few tips for working with multimedia:
- Plan ahead. It always takes longer than you think to put together a stellar presentation or video. Take the time you need to do it right, especially if you are new to this kind of work. Multimedia can come across very unprofessionally if you pulled it together at the last minute.
- Focus on your audience. It is easy to use multimedia as a crutch. Often we design in ways that are useful and easy for ourself. Take time to revise. Ask yourself what your audience needs to know, and use that to decide which visual and textual information you need to provide.
- Less is more. Try to avoid crowding your communication with too much text or too many visuals. Use white space and document design to make it easy to read and follow. Don’t use your slides as your own personal script.
Social media conventions and platforms are always changing. As this happens, your organization needs to decide how and when they will engage. Brands often express their personality through their social media accounts. Social media is equally about which platforms your organization uses and how they use them. Think carefully about some of the common ways that companies use social media to promote themselves. Kate Sehl (2021) summarizes for Hootsuite some of the reasons why corporations use social media:
- To increase brand awareness
- To connect with specific audiences
- To gauge customer satisfaction
- To provide customer support
- To boost traffic and sales
- To share corporate communications
- To recruit top professionals
- To build a brand community
The marketing team has finalized a few parts of their marketing strategy. They have also paid for a beautiful photoshoot in the airport to support their message. Aimee’s next task is to ensure that her ideas meet the brand standard. She starts by selecting appropriate colours, fonts, and sizes. She then creates a sample version of the same message for all of the airport’s social and print media accounts. The same concept needs to be delivered in email marketing, Facebook ads, Instagram ads, and traditional posters for bus stops and billboards. As she revises her message, she focuses less on the words, which were already approved by Mark, and instead on the conventions and requirements for each platform.
Writing with Bad News
There will be times when you need to deliver a message that your audience does not want to hear. Sometimes, it means you need to say no, refuse a service, or discontinue a relationship. While this is unlikely in most entry positions, as your career progresses, you may need build this skill. These kinds of messages can be perceived as negative. However, bad news is a part of life and a part of work. The same rules apply as above. Focus on your tone and use positive language when you can.
Here are some tips to help you deliver a negative message.
- Consider the form and format of your communication. Maybe a phone call would be better than an email. If you are communicating verbally, either in-person, or over the phone, make some notes of the key points.
- Ensure you are calm when you set out to write. You may need to write the message and wait to send it. You may also want to have someone else read it before you send it.
- Use objective language and avoid assigning blame when possible. For example, instead of saying Tony made an error with your order, simply request an adjustment. Focus on the outcome or the results instead of the blame.
- Apologize if appropriate. If you or the company are at fault, express what you can do it remedy the situation and be specific about the timeframe or consequences. If you aren’t sure about apologizing, ask your supervisor first.
- Consider an indirect approach. If the negative message is unexpected or may cause an emotional response, you can use an indirect buffer. Most people recognize these for what they are, but it still helps, for example, “After a number of impressive interviews, we have decided to hire another contractor to do the work for us.”
Writing with a Team
Writing with a team can be both fun and challenging! Like with any other teamwork tasks (see Chapter 8: Interpersonal Skills), writing with a team requires careful planning and organization. Here are a few tips for writing with a team:
- Clarify the expectations of each contributor. Coordinating the work is often the biggest challenge. Be clear exactly about what each person’s role will be. Some people may have writing tasks, others may only have editing, revising, or research tasks. Allocate the roles according to people’s strengths and knowledge.
- Set realistic timelines. Collaborative work can take longer, but the results are often better! Build time for planning and for checking in on your project. Whenever you can, get your pieces done efficiently (early if possible!) so that others aren’t waiting on you. If you are waiting on someone else, be sure they know what you need and when. Then, just be patient!
- Use technology to support collaboration. Shared documents can make it a lot easier for people to work together, even in real time. You may also consider using technology to outline or plan your writing project. If there is a digitized template to follow, do it!
- Edit for a consistent voice. Consistency in shared documents can be a challenge. You may want to identify one team member to edit for a consistent voice. If it helps, you can also establish a common guide or template to help maintain consistency.
Revising Your Work
Revision is a process of editing and refining your work before you share it with your intended audience. It is about reconciling what you have written with your purpose and audience. This can be a long process of making changes, getting advice, and tweaking. It can also be as quick as a spell-check. That being said, did you know that you should spend more time revising your work than you do on the initial draft? When it comes to building the skill of writing, revision is where the learning happens. With all these elements to consider, it may seem like it would take forever to get a simple email written. However, with enough practice these will become automatic things you look for and do.
When you revise, you may have a few different goals in mind. Eric Grunwald (2016) describes revising as “re-seeing your paper in a new way”. This means, as you revise, that you are taking the time to think about your paper from different points of view. Here are a few points of view you might consider as you revise.
Point of View 1: Revising for Respect
Using respectful language means being inclusive, using social conventions, and avoiding gendered language. Inclusive writing “respects and promotes all people as valued members of society” (Queen’s University, n.d.), avoids stereotypes, and recognizes person-centered language. Use the names, pronouns, and other vocabulary that the person or groups prefer or have given you. For example, look at the name the person uses to end their letter or email, and use that name without shortening it or making assumptions. When you are unsure about which pronoun to use, choose the gender neutral, they. Avoid referring to a person’s age, gender or sexual orientation, culture, ethnicity, race, religious affiliation, or disability unless it is within the specific scope of the email. Some examples of neutral terms follow:
- humankind, not mankind
- chairperson, not chairman
- working hours, not man hours
- E.g. First-year students should open his their orientation package
- Be mindful of appropriate terms
For more information on gender-neutral language visit Legistics Gender-neutral Language.
Point of View 2: Revising for Accessibility
Ensure that you use plain and concise language when writing professionally. Keep your message easy to understand and avoid jargon, emojis, and text speak such as BRB (be right back). There will be times when you will need to use the specialized terms of your industry, but using plain language will ensure everyone can read and understand your message. For example, if you read the following would you get the correct message?
The offline engagement process will ensure all stakeholders can provide feedback on the retail expansion project.
Here is the message again in plain language:
A public meeting will be held with local residents to hear concerns over the re-zoning application.
Point of View 3: Revising for Culture
You may need to do a revision for your writing linked to culture. If you are writing for or about a culture that is not your own, you may need to engage in consultation. Some writing cannot be done by a single person! If you are writing about other people’s experiences, make sure you get their consent and permission. If you are writing for another culture, you may want to make sure that you make references and use examples that are culturally relevant. As you revise, seek feedback from others to ensure you have not accidentally misrepresented others or misunderstood their needs as readers.
Here are some questions you can ask when you are revising for culture:
- How would I feel if I was a member of the group I represented?
- What experiences did I represent? How do they reflect on the group I represented?
- What biases am I sharing? How can I eliminate these?
- What might be triggering in my content? Should I provide a warning?
- Are there stereotypes or microaggressions I may be contributing to?
Editing is making changes to your work to make it stronger. Good editing will help refine your writing to make the action clearer. This means that editing means returning to the three concepts you used when you planned your writing task: audience, purpose, and tone. Most of the time, revision’s purpose is primarily to help make these three elements clearer and easier to understand.
Editing for audience means going back through the writing to look for cues for your audience. If you revised from their point of view, you should see the audience more clearly reflected by the end.
- Is the style of the writing comfortable for my audience (e.g. level of formality, word choice, viewpoint, argumentation style, citation style)?
- Is the writing organized in a way that makes it easy for my audience to act (e.g. purpose stated up front, direct, action items in order, clear next step provided)?
Editing for purpose is primarily about organization and the clarity of your speech. It means that your purpose is easy to find and easy to understand.
- Is my purpose easy to locate?
- Is my purpose stated as clearly and simply as possible?
- Is there the right balance of detail to help express my purpose?
Editing for tone means reviewing your writing for consistency and for style. Editing for tone is primarily about focusing back on the concepts we described earlier in the chapter: directness, confidence, sincerity, and positivity.
- Did I state my purpose first as clearly and accurately as possible?
- Can I omit hedging, vague language, or redundancy to make my writing more confident?
- Can I add information to make my writing more credible?
- Can I rephrase any of my ideas in a positive and audience-friendly way?
In addition to revising for the major elements you planned for at the beginning, there are a few more big concepts worth reviewing. The Writing Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2021) summarizes these main components of as clarity, style, and citation. In other words, revision also tries to answer these big overall questions with a YES:
- Is my writing clear?
- Is my writing consistent?
- Is my writing organized?
Keep it clear. Clarity in writing is often about simplifying. This means you need to omit any extra words, ideas, phrases, or even paragraphs that you don’t need. A lot of writing is vastly improved by deleting unnecessary information. Clarity can also be about improving your word choice. Here are a few tips to improve your clarity:
- Have only one main point per paragraph
- Use simple and easy to understand concepts
- Omit long lead ins, repetition, and cliches
- Avoid jargon and acronyms unless your audience expects them
- Use a thesaurus and a dictionary to find the most precise and accurate language
Keep it consistent. Consistency in writing comes from similarity across the writing you do. This means using a similar structure, format, language choice, sentence structures, and level of formality. Here are a few tips to improve your consistency:
- Consistently use branding and other conventions of your workplace
- Use the same font, headings, and document design throughout your writing
- Follow any templates as accurately as you can
- Document your sources in the same style throughout your writing
Organize your ideas. You may even want to do this by jotting down the key points before you start your actual writing. Progress through your ideas in a clear, logical order to ensure that your audience gets the information they need when they need it. Whenever possible, give the most important information first. Most people remember and choose to continue reading based on what they read first, so place the most important points at the beginning (Goodwin, 2018).
Here are a few tips to improve your organization:
- Identify your main point first
- Use a topic sentence to state the purpose of each of your paragraphs or sections
- Use headings and document design to make your organization easier to follow
- Consider providing an executive summary for longer reports at the beginning
- Make a request at the end
- Offer a concrete next step for follow-up
Acknowledge your sources. Remember, all writing, and not just school writing, requires citations. When you use an idea that isn’t your own, you need to attribute it. This may look different based on your writing task. You may use weblinks, brief in-text references, footnotes, or other forms of citation base don the format. If you aren’t sure which format you should use, ask! Acknowledgment practices are unique to each organization and also to different types of documents. Here are a few tips to help acknowledge your sources:
- Keep careful notes of where all your sources came from
- Learn your workplace’s common citation guidelines
- Become familiar with at least one citation style
- Link to the original source instead of copying content when appropriate
- Uphold copyright guidelines and don’t copy anything without permission
- Ask for help from your supervisor or instructor if you are ever uncertain about how and when to provide a citation
Proofreading is when you do a line-by-line or sentence-by-sentence review of your writing. Your focus should be on the grammar, punctuation, and spelling. By the time you get to proofreading, you are no longer trying to refine the ideas. All you are worrying about is the expression of the ideas. Always proofread your work or ask a colleague to look it over. Regardless of the form, audience, or purpose, proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling will influence your audience’s perception of you and the company you work for.
Here are some proofreading techniques you can try.
Use spelling and grammar checks. Your word processor has these features for a reason! Carefully review all of the underlines in your document to ensure that you have corrected any errors identified by the checks.
Listen to the flow. Try reading the document aloud. Often you can catch trouble spots through where you make mistakes in your reading. You can also have someone else read the document to you. If the document is written on a computer, you can also use a screen reader to read you the document.
Document your errors and feedback you have received. All of us have particular grammar errors we struggle with. If your teacher, supervisor, or other trusted person gave you feedback on your work, take note! It is a great idea to develop a checklist of your common errors, misspelled words, typos, or punctuation challenges. Then, every time you proofread, you check for your own challenges. You will learn a lot!
Read the content out of order. Some people read one paragraph at a time, starting at the bottom. Others read just one line at a time. Block out the content to focus on the words, sentence structure, and grammatical structure.
- Writing for work should be action-oriented with a clear sense of the message’s audience, purpose, and tone
- Plan your writing task and research before you begin
- Follow an example when you are writing in a new format for the first time
- Uphold the branding and style conventions of your workplace
- Spend extra time revising your work to add clarity, consistency, and organization
- “Figure 10.5 Points of view to consider when revising” by Deb Nielsen, Emily Ballantyne, Faatimah Murad and Melissa Fournier is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 licence.
Goodwin, J. (2018). The top 10 business writing skills you should learn today. Magoosh professional writing. https://magoosh.com/pro-writing/business-writing-skills/
Grunwald, E. (2016, March 31). The writing process. MIT Global Studies and Language. https://writingprocess.mit.edu/process/step-4-revise
Kendall College. (2017). Writing Process. Kendall College. https://guides.kendall.edu/writingprocess
Nicoguaro. (2011). Mind Map Guidelines [image]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MindMapGuidlines.svg
Queen’s University. (n.d.). Inclusive language guidelines. Style guide. https://www.queensu.ca/styleguide/inclusivelanguage
Sehl, K. (2021, May 10). Social media for big companies: 10+ inspiring examples. Hootsuite. https://blog.hootsuite.com/social-media-for-big-companies/
The Writing Center. (2021). Editing and proofreading. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/editing-and-proofreading/