10. Introduction to Business Writing – Business Communication for Managers

Chapter 10


“Good writing consists of trying to use ordinary words to achieve extraordinary results”.


James Michener1

After completing this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Understand the value of writing.
  • Appreciate the difference between business and academic writing.
  • Understand the essentials of business writing, particularly business grammar.
  • Learn about lower order concerns and higher order concerns in business writing.
  • Appreciate the rules of cultural diversity when writing documents.
  • Follow ethical writing norms.

The value of the written word can never be discounted. We refer to the writings of Aristotle, Socrates, and the Indian scriptures often, and they continue to influence us in more ways than one. Indeed, when there is a clash between oral and written communication, the preference is often for the latter. In business, written communication is used for the following:

  • To record the minutes of minutes
  • To convey routine information/instructions via e-memos, memos, faxes, and e-mails
  • To convey formal information (for instance, specifications, procedures, and regulations) to internal and external customers via letters
  • To display notices at shop floors and offices
  • To distribute information about the company via newsletters and bulletins
  • To convey ideas, research results, or future prospects via reports and proposals
  • To connect with geographically dispersed teams via instant messaging and chat systems
  • To present clear legal notices and briefs
  • To design interesting press releases for the media

In broad terms, the written form of communication serves the following important functions:

  • To keep a record of internal communication documents
  • To inform a large number of people simultaneously
  • To connect with geographically dispersed teams
  • To persuade people

William Zinsser's well-known guide to writing, On Writing Well,2 advises one to write tightly and brightly. This is especially relevant in a world where time is a premium. Writing is difficult, even for the most seasoned professionals, and the more one does it, the better one gets at it. Writing is essentially rewriting. According to Zinsser, being a writer isn't about being a certain kind of person, it's about doing the work. Style is “sounding like you on the page, not like anyone else.”

Writing is valuable. Better writers make better explainers, better persuaders, and better thinkers. Writing is a skill that permits us to market our ideas effectively. Being able to write well also reduces the chances of a misunderstanding and improves the chances of an idea or proposal being adopted.

Good writing is an indicator of an organized mind that is capable of arranging ideas in an orderly and systematic manner for the reader's benefit. It presents an image of professionalism and reliability of the sender. It is in effect a carrier of “meta messages” from the sender to the recipient.

Clear writing leads to clear thinking. Unless an idea is clearly expressed, it remains vague and ambiguous. Writing imparts structure and coherence to the thought process. In fact many great speakers write their ideas down before expressing them to the audience.

Indian scriptures abound with examples of the benefits of the written word. Chanakya, the master strategist of the Maurya era propounded 13 matters that may arise out of writing in addition to six qualities of excellence in writing3 These six qualities are:

  • Subject matter
  • Connection
  • Completeness
  • Sweetness
  • Exaltedness
  • Lucidity

Doing business today requires writing in plain language. Poor writing results in costs no company can afford to pay. Poor writing increases the liability and risks of the organization. Computer manufacturer Coleco lost USD 35 million in a single quarter in 1983—and eventually went out of business—when customers rushed to return their new Adam brand of computers after the instruction manual was found unreadable. Similarly, an oil company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing a new pesticide, only to discover that the formula had already been worked out five years earlier by one of its own employees. However, the report about the findings had been so poorly written that no one had bothered to read it.4

Recruiters writing in the Wall Street Journal's career site say that their number one pet peeve is poor writing and speaking skills. “It is staggering the frequency of typos, grammatical errors and poorly constructed thoughts we see in emails that serve as letters of introduction,” says Chris Aisenbrey, director of global university relations at Whirlpool Corporation. “We still see a tremendous amount of email from students who are writing to the recruiter like they are sending a message to a friend asking what they are doing that evening.”5

Information Bytes 10.1

The National Commission on Writing (in the United States) says in a report that good writing skills are at least as important in the public sector as in private industry. Poor writing not only confuses the general public but also slows down the government as bureaucrats struggle with unclear instructions or have to redo poorly written work.

This year, the commission surveyed human resource directors who oversee nearly 2.7 million state government employees, and found writing skills even more important than in the private sector.

While two-thirds of companies surveyed in the 2004 report said writing was an important responsibility for workers, 100 per cent of the 49 states responding to the anonymous survey said it was an important responsibility. More than 75 per cent said they take writing skills into account when hiring.


Source: Associated Press, “State Employees’ Lack of Writing Skills Cost Nearly $250M,” USA Today (July 4, 2005), available at http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2005-07-04-employees-lack-skills_x.htm?POE=NEWISVA, accessed on June 22, 2011.

Good writing is finding a balance between incomprehensible jargon and a professional, yet casually authoritative, tone.


Economies across the world, and especially in India, are slowly becoming fundamentally knowledge and information based. This in turn is driving the need to communicate expeditiously and in a manner that disseminates knowledge and information succinctly, without ambiguity and across linguistic, cultural, and geographic boundaries. New technologies have revolutionized the way we communicate. As our need to communicate grows, these tools grow more sophisticated, allowing us better quality and volume of communication. Since we are using technology more frequently than talking and listening in the workplace, our daily reading and writing has also increased. However, whether this constitutes productive reading and writing is debatable. When it comes to newer forms of written communication such as e-mails, text messaging, and instant messaging, strange abbreviations, symbols, and emoticons pass for words and have gradually found acceptability.

This is even more prominent at the workplace, as official communication has come to mean a phenomenal number of e-mails exchanged every day, irrespective of whether the recipient is on the other side of the globe or in the next cubicle. Blogging, which is now more popular than it has ever been, is the corporate world's latest vehicle to harvest ideas, share information, and stay connected. Innovative e-mail and text messages are being used for organizational broadcasts and brand-building endeavours for employees as well as customers. Gone are the days of evaluation meetings that happened once a year. A variety of online discussion forums have paved the way for greater democracy in the workplace. Traditional public relations have been replaced by newer strategies powered by the spread of new media. Companies are increasingly realizing that they have to be their own newspapers.



Nowadays, official communication has come to mean a phenomenal number of e-mails exchanged everyday, irrespective of whether the recipient is on the other side of the globe or in the next cubicle.


Technology has definitely shortened response time. Communication nowadays is more informal and conversational. This has facilitated the speed as well as the process of communication. However, one has to remember that this has to be achieved without compromising on the quality of the message.

Experts suggest that far from devaluing the English language, these technologies are, in fact, spawning the revival of reading and writing in the present generation. These technologies have turned the ability to read and write into a distinct social advantage.


Workplace writing includes letters, memos, e-mails, reports (informational or analytical), proposals, manuals (employee policy, instruction, and so on), job descriptions, performance evaluations, brochures, fliers, and financial analyses, among others.

In a professional context, more care is required as far as the writing style is concerned. This is because official communication is stored and retrieved for later reference. Much writing is wasted if concerns related to sensitivity and grammar are not addressed properly. The fallout of hasty communications is that it can skew connotations because of the brevity imposed on the communication. This has forced professionals to be conscious of framing messages appropriately, especially in cross-border communication.

At the workplace there are two kinds of writers: professional writers and professionals who write. Professional writers include technical writers, legal writers, advertising copywriters, and others whose job descriptions focus on writing activities. These writers are in the minority. The second group includes accountants, technicians, managers, and administrators—in short, anyone whose primary occupation is something other than writing. Individuals in the latter category soon discover that the quality of the writing they produce on a daily basis determines how knowledgeable and insightful they are perceived to be and how easily they get promoted.

Most of the time, the writer is juggling contradictory ideas about style, rhetoric, presentation, and the level of detail to be used. To make their writing “look good,” writers are often encouraged to adopt the latest formatting techniques. However, business readers like writing that is clear. Even though readers want the bottom-line first, writers are criticized if they do not give sufficient background information. The end result of skipping the background information is a badly organized letter or memo lacking in clarity and conciseness.

In fact, the simplest and most effective way to approach business writing is to start from these four realities:

  • Business readers are context and content driven.
  • Business readers are pressed for time.
  • Business readers wants the “facts first.”
  • Business readers want solutions.

Good writing is context driven. What works in an academic setting may not work in a business setting. Busy executives are different from academic professors in that they are more pressed for time and may not feel the need to read the entire message. An executive will give up on message piece of writing if it is too wordy and verbose. On the other hand, the academic professor has to read all that is written. The rule “less is more” does not apply to academic writing. Moreover, in academic writing it is the professor who decides the length of the document, while in business writing it is the executive who decides how much is to be written.

Effective written communication requires having a good command over the English language. Good English is not necessarily purposeful English. Good communication is message oriented than language oriented It is audience driven, and is focused on delivering results.
It is always better to go from the general to the specific while communicating. It is always better to ask the audience their preference. Effective communication will depend on whether the audience wants to go from the general to the specific or vice versa.
Writing is a tedious task to be avoided or delegated to other people at the first opportunity. Writing is a vehicle of self-expression. It reveals one's true character and is a passport to promotion.
No one reads anything nowadays. There are people who form impressions about others based on how they write.

Business writing involves incorporating the varied perspectives of all those who read the message. It involves taking into account the sensitivities of a considerable number of people, as the document has to be acceptable to a wide audience. In contrast, a student is writing only for the professor, who gives explicit instructions on how the assignment should be completed.

Executive writing tends to be more conversational than academic writing. In business writing, active voice verbs and a first-person account makes writing energetic and action oriented. Academic writing, on the other hand, veers towards passive voice and third-person statements.

For the content-driven reader, language is merely a mechanism for the smooth transmission of ideas, thoughts, and strategies. It must not draw attention to itself. Rather, it should project ideas in an intelligent and organized manner.

Writing to impress is different from writing to express. Many times, executives use complex, multi-syllable words that confuse rather than clarify. Jargon should be used only when the reader has the same background and understands the context in which it is used. On most occasions, simple words that express the sentiments of the writer in a lucid manner should be used instead of jargon.

Business writing must be result driven. Most communications at the workplace—informational, persuasive, or collaborative—are transactional as well as transformational. In other words, they are result oriented. If readers are merely informed and not transformed, then communication has not really taken place. To illustrate this, imagine that a new office policy has to be announced via e-mail. If the sender simply gives the information in a routine manner, then it is not particularly effective. But if the sender provides information on the new policy by suggesting how the reader can benefit from the change or how readers' lives will be simplified as a result of the new rule, then true communication has taken place. In other words, involving the reader is a foolproof way of gaining commitment.


There are two roadblocks to writing on the job—“writer's block” and “mind block.” These are the result of the education and the professional background of the writer.

Educational Barriers

One of the most significant barriers to good writing is the competency (or lack of it) in the English language. The quality of young professionals is highly variable, in part due to a faulty education system. While English syllabuses in schools and colleges may not be lacking in content, the testing system lacks structure and substance. The four components of English: reading, writing, listening, and speaking are rarely concentrated upon in equal measure and this leads to an inconsistency in the learning process. Few actually read for pleasure these days. All these factors have an impact on writing skills, and the result is a half-baked comprehension of the language. In India, some states changed the age and level at which English could be introduced in schools, resulting in lower confidence levels regarding the language.

Professional Barriers

At times engineers, chartered accountants, and other “numbers” people who work in the technology sector are unable to create clear, cogent prose. They are more interested in design and in constructing equations rather than writing. The following example will make this clearer. “The PE 144e laser jet printer is an upgradation on the PE 10 desk jet with advanced scanning and hypertext options.” The problem with this type of writing is that their non-technical colleagues care little about how the system works and are more interested in what the system can help them accomplish. Being unsure about how to communicate their ideas to non-technical persons results in such individuals preferring to stay in their select comfort zones. This is the problem of the “mind block.”

The good news is that writing skill can be learned. Practice, feedback, and review of one's own writing in comparison with the best practices can help one learn a professional writing style.


This section covers key elements of punctuation, grammar, and the mechanics of business writing. The emphasis is on suitable editing and fine-tuning of text for tonal and grammatical consistency. Not all elements of grammar have been covered; this is not because they are not important, but because a select few have a noticeable impact on business writing. The chapter also covers elements of document design so that the writing is presented in a professional and appealing manner.

Punctuation: Background

Punctuation essentially is a courtesy. Though considered trivial (there is considerable difference between “Let's eat grandma!” and “Let's eat, grandma!”) it helps to convey the essence of the message and makes it easy to read. This is particularly important for today's busy executive.

Punctuation marks are like signals to the reader. In oral communication, we pause, stop, or change our voice and inflection. Punctuation does the same in written communication. Appropriate punctuation is used to clarify or emphasize meanings. Commas, apostrophes, quotation marks, and hyphens are some of the commonly used punctuation in business.

The earliest writing had no capitalization and no punctuation marks. This worked as long as the subject matter was limited to select topics. Writing in ancient times was concerned mostly with recording transactions. Punctuation first came to be used when the written text required signifying breaks and pauses to make sense of the sentence or paragraph. The Greeks and the Romans adopted symbols to indicate pauses. The use of punctuation was standardized with the invention of the printing press.

Punctuation follows some rules. These rules vary with language, location, and time, and are constantly evolving. For example, some language forms such as those used online have different rules.

Commas (,)

A comma is a punctuation mark used to separate various parts of a sentence. The following rules about using commas might be useful in writing grammatically correct sentences.

Rule 1

When starting a sentence with an introductory phrase, use a comma after the introductory phrase. Some examples are:

  • Known for its strong fundamentals and consistent performance, your company had another remarkable year in Fiscal Year 2006–2007.
  • Under the McKinsey-led review of the Council in 2001, it was suggested that we should aim for at least 30 per cent of our work to be endowment-supported.
  • According to the UN, more than 28 per cent of people in India remain below the national poverty line.
  • With its business growing steadily in the 1980s, TCS became the hub for inducting new technology knowledge to India as it started creating the ecosystem for Indian IT professionals with focused academic–industry partnerships, beginning with IIT Bombay and IIT Kanpur and followed by a slew of other engineering colleges.

Rule 2

Use commas to set off expressions that interrupt the flow of the sentence. A phrase that is inserted to qualify a sentence and without which the sentence is still complete should be set off by commas before and after the phrase. A few examples are:

  • Revenue as reported was USD 91.4 billion, up 4 per cent, excluding PCs from our 2005 results.
  • Daily Bread, another acquisition made last year, is engaged in the business of premium bakery products.

However, the following example might be confusing because even though it exemplifies the rule, it has too many sentence breaks: “In a nutshell, to sum up what we have achieved, we are proud to share that your company is the No. 1 player in PCs, mobile phones, projectors, and multi-function devices (MFDs), and No. 3 in servers as well as laser printers, which we just launched this year.”

Rule 3

Use a comma to separate two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (so, and, or, but, for, nor). Remember to place the comma before the conjunction. You can omit the comma if the clauses are both short. Some examples are:

  • We noticed the difference in their work and the work of many others who were earnest and had done their best, but who did not have the training to do the job well.
  • There is a difference between the trained worker and the merely enthusiastic worker.

Rule 4

To avoid confusion, use commas to separate words and phrases in a series of three or more.

Sometimes writers leave out the last comma as can be seen from the following example: “Through its teaching, training, research and field action, the Institute has attempted to address a wide spectrum of issues in rural and urban India across diverse spaces such as communities, families, prisons and custodial homes, the criminal justice system, hospitals and health systems, industries, disaster situations and academia.”

Rule 5

Use either a comma or a semicolon before introductory words such as namely, that is, for example, or for instance, when they are followed by a series of items. An example is: “There are two ways in which we can solve the problem, namely motivating employees and rewarding them.”

Colons [:]

Think of colons as a gate inviting everybody to go in. These are used when you want to emphasize what comes after. The following rules might help you use them correctly.

Rule 1

The information preceding the colon is a complete sentence, and what comes after the colon can be a phrase, another sentence, or a word. An example is: Our commitment to our clients' success is deeply rooted in our unique value proposition: we bring together the best talent in the industry; unparalleled predictability, rigor, and process; and a global footprint to create the greatest possible return on our clients' investments.”

Rule 2

Many business documents include bullet point lists preceded by a colon. The information before the colon may or may not be a complete sentence. If the information before the colon is not a key sentence then the bullet points that accompany the key sentence need to complete the thought. Consider the following example:

Pursuant to Section 217(2AA) of the Companies Act, 1956, the directors, based on the representations received from the operating management, confirm that:

  • In the preparation of the annual accounts, the applicable accounting standards have been followed and there are no material departures;
  • They have prepared the annual accounts on a going concern basis.

Note the use of a semicolon after the first bullet point statement.

Semicolons [;]

A semicolon is used to indicate a close relationship between two sentences. The following rules might help you use it correctly.

Rule 1

A semicolon is often used in place of a full stop or a coordinating conjunction. Examples are the following sentences:

  • The NCAER of 2006 remains true to the vision of its founders; we continue to believe that diversified support is the best guarantee of both accountability and independence.
  • Water and sanitation: Domestic water use pattern in major cities in India; community mobilization for drinking water and open defecation-free villages; and status of garbage workers in Mumbai.
  • TCS became the world's first organization to achieve an integrated enterprise-wide maturity level 5 in both the capability maturity model and the people capability maturity model; these are frameworks conceptualized by the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University to benchmark and appraise the software and people management processes of an organization.

Rule 2

Sometimes a sentence has sub-parts that need to be divided by a semicolon rather than a comma. This is especially common when the sub-parts themselves have commas. An example is the following sentence: “Other important drug-affected countries in the hemisphere also reported seizing impressive amounts of cocaine: Bolivia, 10.7 metric tons; Peru, 15.6 metric tons; Venezuela, 54.2 metric tons; Mexico, 21 metric tons.”

Rule 3

In some cases the conjunction and is used at the end of the sentence after the semicolon, in the second to last bullet point. An example is the following:

Recent adjustments include:

  • Our plans announced in May 2006 to reduce our IT spending by consolidating 85 data centres worldwide into six state-of-the-art centers in three U.S. cities; and
  • Our plans announced in July 2006 to reduce our real estate costs by consolidating several hundred real estate locations worldwide to fewer core sites over the next four years.

Inverted Commas (‘/’ and ‘‘/”)

This is another term for quotation marks. These highlight key points and denote words said by others. When attributing words to authors other than yourself, use double quotation marks. Also use double quotation marks when highlighting a single key point in a sentence. When highlighting several key points in a sentence, use single inverted commas. This works when there are many such key points to be included in the sentence. Consider the following examples:

  • “Sustainable development” was placed at the heart of the WTO's founding charter in 1994. Governments rejected trade that would lead to the depletion of natural resources, calling instead for their “sustainable” use. In 2001, they went further when they pledged to pursue a sustainable development path by launching environmental negotiations as part of the Doha Round. This is the first time in the history of multilateral trade talks that such negotiations have been pursued.
  • The “war on terror” continued to claim lives and to be associated with forced disappearances, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • TCS won the Recruiting and Staffing Best in Class Awards (RASBIC) 2008–2009 for ‘Best Use of Technology in Recruiting’ and ‘Most Innovative Programme/Initiative in Recruiting’ and also received the Finalist Award for the ‘Best Employee Referral Programme’ at ERE Expo 2009 by showcasing the ‘Bring Your Buddy Programme.’
  • “Maitree,” the unique association of employees and families, reaches out to address large-scale societal problems through active employee participation.

En Dashes and Em Dashes (– and —)

An en dash is used to depict ranges and to depict that the two words joined by the en dash have same weightage. For example, “This can be done in 6–10 years” or “the blue–green algae thrives in ocean water.” An em dash, on the other hand, can be used as parenthetical punctuation in a sentence. An example is “the company grew—and there are people who disagree with this—by 15 per cent in 2009.”


According to legendary investor Warren Buffett, one should never invest in a company whose words one doesn't fully understand. Choice of words is very important for successful communication. In order to make messages easily comprehensible, one should use familiar words and simple language. Surveys have revealed that people would actually be much more interested in investing and saving if they actually understood what finance companies were talking about. For example, if the words “good fortune” suffice in a particular case, then the more long-winded “serendipity” need not be used. Similarly, “reading through the text” can be used in place of “perusal.”

It is also a good idea to avoid redundant words. For example, “free gift” doesn't make any sense since gifts are free by definition. Similarly, in “colour blue,” the word “colour” is redundant since “blue” is obviously a colour. It is also a good idea to not use obsolete phrases. Most people use archaic words when communicating with others. This is because people perceive such language to be formal. But most of the time, archaic language appears and sounds unnatural, especially when simpler alternatives exist. Clichéd words like hereby, deliverable, contextualize, deliverable, and therein should ideally be avoided. It is best to sound conversational rather than prosaic. Receivers respond best to simple and conversational language. Exhibit 10.1 provides some examples of such phrases.

Use Concrete Words

Business readers are pressed for time. Brevity and conciseness will always appeal to such readers. They appreciate writing that is specific and unambiguous. Good writing must give clear directions to the reader. Instead of using words like many, some, few, significant, soon, early, and high, one can use precise data. Thus, “many students turned up on the exam day” can be rewritten as “516 students turned up on the exam day.” Similarly, “he called me early” should ideally be written as “he called me at 4 am”.


Exhibit 10.1 Obsolete Phrases and Their Preferred Modernized Forms

Obsolete phrase Preferred modernized phrase/word
By a factor of two Double
Fewer in number Fewer
If conditions are such that If
In the neighbourhood of Near
The question as to Whether

Use Jargon With Care

Jargon or technical language loses its significance if used in a setting other than strictly technical. It is specialist language, which bonds people belonging to the same profession/expertise. It promotes common understanding and quick appreciation of details.

However, in settings other than strictly technical, overuse of jargon may result in pompous expressions that hinder common understanding. Jargon-filled expressions appear incomprehensible to the intended audience and fail to achieve their objective.

Most people know more about Al Gore and his Oscar-winning film on climate change than they do about the Fourth Assessment Report of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC) released in 2007. This is not to undermine the efforts of the UNIPCC—media reports suggest that nearly 3,000 scientists worked to put together this monumental report. But what makes Al Gore special is that he has managed to make the issue of climate change a part of “dinner table conversation.” According to a newspaper report, Al Gore won the Nobel Prize simply because he has been able to reach out to people across cultures and continents on the issue of climate change—even people who are unaware of the scientific reasons for global warming. “even if they don't understand the science behind the issue.” He has actually been able to effect a change in the lifestyle and thinking patterns of young and old alike.

Effective communication requires reaching out to others convincingly. Media reports on climate change are filled with jargon like adaptation, mitigation, carbon sequestration, emission commitments, protocols, and sustainable development, all of which makes no sense to the average reader, as more entertaining and informative stories capture public attention Often the public is left to decipher acronyms like UNFCCC, COP, MOP, and SAABSTA LULUCF, which are so cryptic that only experts can comprehend them. The reader is left to wander in a maze of legalese. Gore winning the Nobel Prize is testimony to the importance of effective communication in spearheading a successful movement.

Use Active Verbs

Using the active voice is always preferable to using the passive voice. For example, the sentence “This challenge can be met with confidence because of the strong foundation that was built during the first half of this decade” should be rewritten as “I am confident we can meet this challenge because of the strong foundation we've built during the first half of this decade.”

Active voice consists of active verbs in which the personal pronoun is highlighted. Sentences that use the active voice give a sense of accomplishment and convey confidence to the reader. The active voice is stronger, direct, and more vigourous than the passive voice. The passive voice, in contrast, sounds dull and uninspiring. Moreover, as in the example used in the previous paragraph, the person taking responsibility is not clearly specified (who meets the challenge?) in active voice.

“Meet” is an active verb that denotes energy and enthusiasm, conveying confidence; “was built” denotes a past action. In comparison “have built” denotes an action that will continue in the future as well.

However, passive voice also has its uses, especially when the subject performing the action is not important, or is relatively unknown. Sometimes it is obvious that the action has been performed by an individual or department and it may not require more specific mention. Passive voice is also used when one has to de-emphasize negative or unpleasant ideas. For example, “The accounts department conducted the audit smoothly” can be rewritten as “The audit was conducted smoothly.”

Use I and We Correctly

First-person pronouns should be used sparingly when the document is technical in nature. Also avoid the use of the “the author” or “the researcher” when writing to your colleagues, superiors, and subordinates. Use of I indicates authority, responsibility, and accountability on the part of the sender. I is used commonly in routine business messages such as memos, letter, or short reports. The use of we occurs when the sender refers to collective actions and opinions, especially when teamwork is involved.

Use of the third person occurs when it is not important to indicate the source of the writing or when the writing is formal/legal.

Avoid Discriminatory Language

Language used in business should be sensitive and bias-free. Many of us don't think much about the words we choose to write. There are expressions that might be biased in terms of gender, race, caste, country of origin, disability, and age. Most firms promote diversity at the workplace and strongly resist the bias created by these expressions. When we write, especially in a professional context, we should make sure that our message does not exclude, stereotype, or offend anyone's sensibilities. At times this may have legal implications as well. Exhibit 10.2 gives us some examples.



Writing, especially in the professional context, should be free from bias and should avoid offending anyone's sensibilities.


Exhibit 10.2 Biased Phrases and their Preferred Forms

Biased phrase Preferred phrase
Office girls Office workers
Policeman Police officer
Chairman Chairperson
Salesman Salesperson
An Indian executive is heading the call centre An executive heads the call centre
Mr Johnson, a black man, has applied for the post Mr Johnson has applied
Runk, 55, took over the company's leadership Runk took over the company's leadership
She is crippled by… She has…

Developing Sentences

The subject, the verb, and the object are the three things that determine how clear a sentence is.

Subject–Verb Distance

Experts suggest that the number of words between the subject and the verb should be reduced for greater clarity. For example, in the sentence “HP wants to create the best technology on the planet,” the subject (HP) and the verb (to create) have virtually no gap between them. However, in the sentence “HP, which has made solid progress towards becoming the world's leading IT Services company, wants to create the best technology on the planet,” the subject and the verb are separated by fourteen words. This makes the sentence unnecessarily long, unclear, and verbose.


Every sentence has an important message to be emphasized. The writer must be clear about the main idea that needs to be conveyed. For example, let's say one has to communicate to employees that the board meeting is going to be held at 4 pm and that employees need to be prepared with all necessary documents. If one writes “The board meeting is at 4 pm today, and you are requested to kindly come prepared with all necessary documents,” the emphasis is on the meeting and not on the preparation of necessary documents. If, on the other hand, one writes “Please come prepared with all necessary documents for the board meeting scheduled at 4 pm today,” it emphasizes the preparation and not the time of the meeting. This longer sentence not only changes the main idea to a dependent clause but also includes unnecessary words.

You also need to show a relationship between sentences. Consider the following information:

  • The board meeting is going to be held at 4 pm today.
  • Please read the agenda carefully.
  • Please come prepared with all necessary documents.

This information can be written in many ways, including the following:

  • The board meeting is going to be held at 4 pm today, and you are requested to read the agenda carefully so that you come prepared with all necessary documents. (29 words)
  • Please read the agenda and come prepared with necessary documents for the 4 pm board meeting today. (16 words)
  • The board meeting is at 4 pm today. Please read the agenda and come prepared with all necessary documents. (18 words)

Use appropriate transitional words or phrases to bridge one idea to the next. They help to provide coherence and direct the readers to a logical conclusion. If you want to expand an idea, you can add the phrases “in addition” or “furthermore” at the beginning of the next sentence so that a link is established. Experts recommend a sentence length of anywhere between 20 to 25 words as a good match for the short-term memory of busy readers.

Whatever style you adopt, be sure that your intended meaning is clear and you use as few words as possible.

Consider the following example:

“We offers an entire spectrum of industrial solutions, from storage to material handling to process equipment and many, many more.”

The sentence is faulty on two counts. First, there is the glaring mistake, “we offers.” It should either be “we offer” or “this company offers.” Second, the entire spectrum of the company's industrial solutions should have been mentioned. The last phrase, especially, should conclusively indicate where the spectrum ends. The phrase “many, many more” appears colloquial. A more professional ending would be desirable.

An improved version of the sentence could be:

“Godrej offers an entire spectrum of industrial solutions, from storage to material handling to process equipment and manufacturing.”

Sentences: The Long and Short of It

A sentence is a series of words that explore a single idea. Generally speaking, a short sentence works well at the start of a paragraph or speech as it grabs the audience's attention, and at the end, where it summarizes and signals completion. With short sentences, the listener understands everything more easily. They are easy to remember, easy to understand, and result in more powerful communication.

Commonly, short sentences have a subject, a verb, and an object. Sentences become confusing when they incorporate too many ideas, that is, too many subjects, too many objects, and too many verbs. Generally, longer sentences can be broken down into smaller sentences.

Rule 1

To shorten sentences, reduce or eliminate flowery or descriptive terms. For example, “During the preceding year, the company was able to accelerate productive operations, which was predicated on the assumption that the company was operating at a financial deficit” can be rewritten as “Last year, the company was able to speed up operations. This was based on the belief that the company was losing money.” Phrases that have been shortened in the second sentence are:

  • During the preceding year
  • Operating at a financial deficit

Rule 2

To shorten sentences, convert them into two separate sentences.

  • Long: At Cancun in September 2003, ministers instructed that their officials continue working on outstanding issues, and that this work be coordinated by the General Council Chairman in close cooperation with the Director-General, with the aim of taking the necessary action by December 2003 to enable members to move towards a successful and timely conclusion of the negotiations.
  • One sentence, total number of words: 57
  • Short Version 1: At Cancun in September 2003, ministers instructed that their officials continue working on outstanding issues, and that this work be coordinated by the General Council Chairman in close cooperation with the Director-General. This was done with the aim of taking the necessary action by December 2003 to enable members to move towards a successful and timely conclusion of the negotiations.

    Two sentences, total number of words: 32 and 28

    Topic of sentence 1: Ministers' instructions

    Topic of sentence 2: Desired end result

  • Still Shorter (Version 2): At Cancun in September 2003, ministers instructed that their officials continue working on outstanding issues. This work would be coordinated by the General Council Chairman in close cooperation with the Director-General. This was done with the aim of taking the necessary action by December 2003, to enable members to move towards a successful and timely conclusion of the negotiations.

    Three sentences, total number of words: 15, 16, and 28.

    Topic of sentence 1: Minister's instructions

    Topic of sentence 2: More information about minister's instructions

    Topic of sentence 3: Desired end result

Either of the short versions can be used. Additionally, a third version with four sentences can also be used.

Rule 3

While short sentences can be effectively used, too many short sentences tend to confuse the reader. At times, a simple sentence must be expanded. This contradiction in writing styles can easily be explained by examining the following example.

  • Short: Runk, 55, will focus on enterprise sales revenue and margin, market sales coverage in global and enterprise accounts, and mid-market coverage, working with HP's channel organization.
  • Long: Runk, 55, will focus on expanding enterprise sales revenue and margin, optimizing go-to-market sales coverage in global and enterprise accounts, and improving mid-market coverage, working with HP's channel organization.

These add-ons are called qualifiers and add weight to the sentence. Here is another example of how qualifiers can be used effectively:

  • Short: The United States and other nations supply the world with goods and services.
  • Long: The United States and other wealthy, well-educated nations supply the world with goods and services steeped in knowledge.

The sentence has been extended by either qualifying the noun or the verb with descriptive words and phrases.

What about our earlier discussion on shortening sentences? A simple rule can be stated here: when in doubt, leave out the add-ons and stick to simple sentences. Extra words such as Expanding, Optimizing, Coverage, and improving give the reader a vivid picture and contribute to the overall picture. However, qualifiers must be used carefully. The following is an example of a sentence that does not work well:

“Runk, 55, a sober man and very sensitive to the needs of the employees, will focus on enterprise sales revenue and margin, market sales coverage in global and enterprise accounts, and mid-market coverage, working with HP's channel organization.”

Qualifiers should add precision, evidence, and technical information to writing. The above add-ons do not do this. More popularly used in fiction writing, they convey emotion and mood to the reader, rather than facts. Also avoid the use of very in business writing as it weakens the sentence: it neither adds precision nor is it technical.

An example of how short sentences used effectively in a paragraph can create a powerful communication is seen in this statement by A.G. Lafley, the Chairman of the Board, President, and Chief Executive of Proctor & Gamble:6

“P&G's billion-dollar brands are platforms for innovation. They are global leaders. Consumers want them in their homes. Retailers want them in their stores. They enable us to bring innovation to consumers around the world effectively, efficiently, and profitably. They make consumers' lives a little better every day.”

Direct and Indirect Statements

Direct statements come to the point clearly and immediately. Indirect statements use phrases like “It should be noted that…,” “It has come to the attention of the board that…,” and “To illustrate the point….”

Instead of writing “Two benefits of listening can be suggested” (7 words), it is better to simply write “Listening has two benefits.” The second sentence has four words. The sentence “In light of his consultations, the chairman reported to an informal TNC meeting on 24 July that the situation was very serious” is an indirect one. Its direct version would be “The chairman reported to an informal TNC meeting on 24 July that the situation was serious.”

Most long reports use indirect statements to provide an appropriate tone and level of formality. Some companies are signaling a change in this trend though. The annual reports of multinational companies such as Unilever and Proctor & Gamble are almost conversational in style and content.

Positive and Negative Expressions

At times, the tone of some sentences appears to blame or accuse readers. The writer may inadvertently appear to suggest that the reader is lying or complaining. The writer is generally unconscious of the effect of his or her words. Sometimes, phrases read as commands and ultimatums, alienating the reader in the long run. Loaded phrases can make readers angry. Examples are:

  • You failed to…
  • Your letter dated…claims that…
  • Kindly ensure compliance with the orders, failing which…
  • You have forgotten…

Avoid angry reactions and restrict the use of negative words and expressions. Frame sentences using positive expressions. Suggest alternative ways to do a particular thing. Focus on what can be done instead of what cannot be done. For instance, “We cannot mail the order as you failed to provide the address” (a negative statement) could be rewritten as “Kindly provide your mailing address so that the order can be mailed to you” (a positive statement). Similarly, the negative statement “All employees must sign the attendance register before 9 am sharp, failing which one day's leave will be deducted” should ideally be written as “So that attendance records are duly maintained, employees are requested to sign the attendance register at the allotted time. It is in the employees' interest to maintain the sanctity of office rules for attendance.”

Organizing Paragraphs

Sentences must be organized into meaningful paragraphs. Paragraphs help the reader to understand the writer's message in totality. The general rule that exists for paragraphs remains the same:

  • Each paragraph must contain a single thought or idea (unity principle);
  • Each paragraph must have a topic or key sentence that indicates the theme of the message; and
  • Each paragraph must connect logically with the previous paragraph.

The ideal paragraph should be short, around four to five lines. A paragraph with more than seven lines is considered long and should be revised. However the criteria for length differ across forms of business writing. For reports, a paragraph can be longer and a length of seven to eight lines is justified. Beyond 12 lines, a paragraph is considered long and should be examined for unity and coherence. This is because reports are lengthy and filled with detail.

For letters, memos, notes, and circulars, the ideal paragraph length is around four lines. These forms of writing have short opening and closing paragraphs and a longer paragraph in the middle. This is attractive to the reader, as the opening paragraph acts as a verbal signpost of the main message that follows it. The closing paragraph is a summary or a call for action. Consider the following example:

“Writing in college and writing on the job differ in many ways. The two types of writing are directed toward different readers who possess different qualities; they serve different purposes and they take different forms. To be successful when they become workplace writers, students must understand the differences in the two kinds of writing and adapt appropriately. In college, teachers and classmates read what you write. These people have at least as much education as you. Writing in the workplace is intended for your boss/supervisor, coworkers, subordinates, clients, customers, suppliers, vendors, lawyers, technicians, sales and marketing representatives, government workers, stockholders, investors, and the general public. These readers may know less than you do about a topic and may have significantly more or less education than you.”

The topic sentence announces the key idea to the reader and ideally should be placed at the beginning of a paragraph. In an indirect plan of writing, however, the topic sentence is placed at the middle or even at the end of the paragraph. This is the sequence in which the previous example was constructed:

  • Writing in college and writing on the job differ in a number of ways. (topic sentence)
  • Key idea is expanded.
  • Evidence supporting key idea is described.

However, the paragraph appears to be too lengthy (126 words and 7 sentences) and can be shortened. One way to do this is to divide the paragraph into two or more logical parts:

“Writing in college and writing on the job differ in many ways. The two types of writing are directed toward different readers who possess different qualities; they serve different purposes, and they take different forms. To be successful when they become workplace writers, students must understand the differences in the two kinds of writing and adapt appropriately.

In college, teachers and classmates read what you write. These people have at least as much education as you. Writing in the workplace is intended for your boss/supervisor, coworkers, subordinates, clients, customers, suppliers, vendors, lawyers, technicians, sales and marketing representatives, government workers, stockholders, investors, and the general public. These readers may know less than you do about a topic and may have significantly more or less education than you.”

The first paragraph gives a general idea about the difference in writing on the job and in college and, after a brief explanation, explains the importance of being aware of such differences. The second paragraph expands on the subject set by the first paragraph and illustrates the difference in the two types of writing.

Note that the topic string (old to new information; basic to complex; past to present; present to future; advantage to disadvantage) makes paragraphs more coherent. The following paragraph will demonstrate this point further:

“‘Sustainable development’ was placed at the heart of the WTO's founding charter in 1994. Governments rejected trade that would lead to the depletion of natural resources, calling instead for their ‘sustainable’ use. In 2001, they went further when they pledged to pursue a sustainable development path by launching environmental negotiations as part of the Doha Round. This is the first time in the history of multilateral trade talks that such negotiations have been pursued.”7

This paragraph shows a movement from the past to the present, which is always a good strategy as it indicates a movement towards progress. Not all paragraphs follow a similar trend. Sometimes, paragraphs are organized into numbered or bulleted lists. This type of paragraph follows a typical style. It starts with the topic sentence, goes on to explain and expand the key ideas, and then states the conclusion.

Most memos, e-mails, and reports use this paragraph form in place of or along with the narrative/prose format. Such a format facilitates quick reading and understanding, especially when the direct style is used to present information. Consider the following example.

“Competition is a normal part of business. We aim to compete and give value to our consumers, customers, and shareholders in three ways:

  • by continually developing new and improved products;
  • by sharing our innovations and concepts with our businesses all around the world; and
  • by striving to lower the costs of our sourcing, manufacturing, and distribution processes while still maintaining and improving the quality of our products.”

Communication Bytes 10.1

Always structure your prose according to readers’ expectations:

  • The subject should be followed by the verb as quickly as possible.
  • The topic sentence should come first to provide the reader context and links to earlier points.
  • Every phrase, clause, sentence, and paragraph should have a single point only.
  • Some new information should be provided at the stress position, such as at the end of the paragraph.

The topic sentence suggests that there are three ways the company wants to compete and give value to its stakeholders. The bullet points provide the evidence for this claim.


The most successful business messages are those where the information is tailored to suit the needs of the audience.

Sender-centric and Receiver-centric Messages

Receiver-focused messages adapt themselves to readers and give them benefits where necessary. Sentences are constructed in a manner that appeals to the sensibilities of receivers. In contrast, sender-centric messages are focused on the sender. They highlight the sender's benefits rather than the receiver's. Sender-centric expressions border on pomposity at times. Exhibit 10.3 shows the differences between these two types of messages.

Information Patterns

There are two ways to present information to readers—direct and indirect.

The direct pattern is suitable when:

  • Readers are to be informed.
  • Readers are in a neutral or positive frame of mind.
  • Readers want the facts first.
  • Good news has to be conveyed.

The indirect pattern is suitable when:

  • Readers have to be motivated or persuaded.
  • Readers are in a negative frame of mind.
  • Readers want the background details first.
  • Bad news has to be delivered.

Exhibit 10.3 Examples of Sender-centric and Receiver-centric Messages

Sender-centric messages Receiver-centric messages
We appreciate your interest in being employed by our firm. This is to acknowledge your application for the position of…
We appreciate the displays you created for the “summer promotion campaign.” We are told that it is receiving numerous compliments from customers. The displays you created for the “summer promotion campaign” are just beautiful. Several of the sales personnel told me that they have received numerous compliments from customers.
We write to you to express our… The news of your promotion came as a happy surprise. Please accept our…
I have scheduled your classes from… Your classes commence from…

The memo in Exhibit 10.4 gives an example of delivering bad news. The indirect pattern is adopted so that employees do not become unmotivated. The memo in the indirect form presents the information in the following sequence:

  • Evidence
  • Topic sentence: key point

If the same memo is presented using a direct pattern then it would present the information in the following sequence:

  • Topic sentence
  • Evidence

This approach may hurt employee sentiments, particularly on the sensitive issue of celebration at festival time. Exhibit 10.5 illustrates this further.

Aristotle, Greek philosopher and master of the theory of persuasive communication, outlined three elements of a persuasive message: logos, pathos, and ethos.

  • Logos: logic and reasoning
  • Pathos: emotional appeal
  • Ethos: credibility of the sender

Most messages contain elements of all three, at least as far as spoken messages are concerned. Written messages use varied appeals to get the message across. Emotion or pathos as the Greeks called it is not expressed as naturally in written messages as in spoken messages. The reason is that written messages are perceived as being more formal in tone, to be stored and retrieved for future use. Emotions relating to sympathy, happiness, joy, pride, exhilaration, excitement, anxiety, and worry are expressed using appropriate terminology so as to not appear “over the top.”

The extract in Exhibit 10.6 has all the ingredients of an effective message in the form of a report addressed to shareholders. The opening paragraphs are emotional as the chief mentor is looking back on the years gone by (pathos). This is followed by “evidence”—the facts and logical arguments illustrating the growth of Infosys. Examples are quoted to illustrate the happy and the not-so-happy events (logos). Ethos is reflected in the persona of Narayana Murthy, Chairman and Chief Mentor, Infosys. He represents Brand Infosys in totality.


Exhibit 10.4 Internal Memo—Indirect Pattern

To: All staff
From: Management
Date: 17/10/2007
Subject: Festival celebration by staff

As you are all aware, autumn is the busiest season of the year. Every year it is a struggle for management and supervisors to find the time and energy to organize the Annual Staff Festival Celebration. Due to extra sales activities and the bumper festival sale scheduled for November, we are truly pressed for time.

This year, therefore, we have decided to postpone the celebration until after our busy season. We apologize that the celebration will have to wait till the new year, but we assure you that it will be worth the wait. Those interested in volunteering to help out with the event can call Ms Sahai, our reception coordinator.

I am sure that the super sales in the bumper festival season will add to the merriment in the festival celebration.

Thank you,


Exhibit 10.5 Internal Memo–direct Pattern

To: All staff
From: Management
Date: 17/10/2007
Subject: staff Festival celebration

This year, we have decided to postpone the Annual Staff Festival Celebration until after our busy season. We apologize that the celebration will have to wait until the new year.

Every year it is a struggle for management and supervisors to find the time and energy to organize the Annual Staff Festival Celebration. Due to extra sales activities and the bumper sale scheduled for November, we are truly pressed for time.

The festival will be organized sometime in late January. Those interested in volunteering for the same may please contact Ms Sahai.

I am sure that the super sales in the bumper festival season will add to the merriment in the festival celebration.

Thank you,


Exhibit 10.6 Example of an Inspiring Speech

Completing 25 years is a watershed event in a person's life. It signals the arrival of a strong, Example of an Inspiring Speech confident young person, who is ready to take on bigger challenges. Energy, enthusiasm, confidence, idealism, daring, openness, and curiosity find utterance and fruition. Nothing seems impossible. This is the time you move on to higher aspirations, and learn to accept failures with equanimity.

We need all of this and more for Infosys to achieve bigger and more ambitious targets. This journey of 25 years has been a symphonic marathon. It has been symphonic because every Infoscion, a maestro in his or her own right, subordinated individual interests to work as part of a fine team and produced spectacular results year after year. It is a marathon since we have a long way to go before we hit the tape.

There have been many happy events during these 25 years. Prominent among them are: enrolling the first customer; the rationale for the same; the arrival of the first employee; the signing of the first million-dollar contract; opening of the first sales office abroad; —installation of our first computer—a DG MV/8000; inauguration of the Electronics City campus, the Global Education Center, and the Infosys Leadership Institute; CMM Level 5 certification; listing in India and on NASDAQ; our first acquisition (in Australia); founding of the Infosys Foundation, Progeon, Infosys Consulting, and Infosys China; and reaching the magical figure of one billion dollars in sales. There have been a few sad moments as well—the departure of valued colleagues; the deaths of a few young Infoscions; and the loss of a few major contracts despite our best efforts.

A great corporation must live for hundreds of years. Hence, we are still very young, but these initial years have taught us several lessons. These lessons are valuable not just for our future journey but for other corporations in the country and perhaps, the world.


—N. R. Narayana Murthy, Chairman and Chief Mentor, Infosys

(Source: Taken from http://www.infosys.com/investor/Reports.asp, accessed on June 21, 2011.)


Document layout becomes increasingly important as a document nears its final form. Layout gives emphasis and clarity to the document. One can emphasize content by arranging the physical appearance and arrangement of the document page. Effective layout reduces the density of technical material by simplifying the material, highlighting the key points, and giving an attractive look and consistency to the whole document. Good page layout helps readers find the message easily and understand its importance in the larger scheme of things. Layout includes the following:

  • Subject headings and sub-headings
  • Chunking
  • White space
  • Typography

Headings and Sub-headings

Headings are broad categorizations that signify the structure of the document. Experts recommend the use of frequent headings to indicate themes and sub-themes. Headings relieve the monotony of reading continuous text and give direction to the flow of thought. They act as signposts that signal the beginning and conclusion of a particular thought or idea. Headings are popular in reports and proposals; they are now increasingly being used in letters, memos, and e-mails as well.

Sub-headings help the reader to shift emphasis from one point to the other within a broader heading. They help the reader navigate through the document. They also help the reader to skim through the most important parts and sub-parts of a document.

Heading should be specific. There are two types of headings:

  • Descriptive headings
  • Functional headings or talking headings

Descriptive headings use terms that express words in absolutes. Some examples of descriptive headings are: “methodology,” “survey results,” and “findings.” Exhibit 10.7 gives examples of descriptive headings.

Functional headings, on the other hand, are conversational in style. They appear to talk to the reader. Some examples are “What customers feel” and “Motivation: Good or Bad?”

Headings must be useful to the reader. At times, simple heads like “Findings” are too generic. It is more useful to specify the content that will follow the heading. Examples of more detailed headings are “Findings: Sales” and “Ways to Improve the Dealer Network,” which is more informative than simply writing “Recommendations.”

Headings have levels: topic headings, second-level headings, and third-level headings. Heading levels are illustrated in Exhibit 10.8.


Exhibit 10.7 Example of Descriptive Headings


Groupware is promoted as a tool for facilitating teamwork and capturing and managing an organization's “knowledge base.”…


Comprehensive reviews of the theories of media richness, social influence, and critical mass can be found in the paper by Fulk and Boyd…


Media richness theory proposes two principal categories of influences on an individual's use of computer-mediated communication


Source: Haolou, Camell, and Shah, “Use of a Groupware Product: A Test of Three Theoretical Perspectives,” Journal of Computer Information Systems (2006) 35.

Exhibit 10.8 Examples of Different Levels of Headings

First-level heading

Second-level heading
Everybody knows Ramesh.

Second-level heading
Ramesh is a boy.

Third-level heading:
Ramesh is a very good boy.

First-level heading

1.0 Second-level heading
Everybody knows Ramesh.

1.1 Second-level heading
Ramesh is a boy.

1.1.1 Third-level heading:
Ramesh is a very good boy.


Chunking divides the subject matter into meaningful paragraphs and bullet points. Executives, especially, like to read things that are broken up into smaller sections so that they can quickly understand the crux of the issue.

White Space

White space is good for business writing. Executives do not really like to read reams of never-ending paragraphs. The quantity of white space required can be judged by using the print preview option of the word processor. Space management is required at the margins (margins should be set at 1–1.5 inches), between lines (single, 1.5, or double spacing), and between paragraphs.


Typography refers to concerns relating to font type, font size, and typeface.

Font Type

There are two font types: serif fonts and sans serif fonts:

  • Serif fonts: These are fonts that have small “feet” or structural embellishments at the ends of the strokes. Times New Roman is a serif font. These afford easy reading, especially when the document has to be read as a hard copy. Serifs allow our eyes to move quickly from word to word and sentence to sentence and thus help create a linking effect.
  • Sans serif fonts: These are fonts that do not have serifs. Arial is an example of a sans serif font. These fonts facilitate reading via an electronic medium such as via e-mail and on PowerPoint. They make the lettering stand out clearly.

Font Size

The standard font size for text is 12. Headings and sub-headings can have relative font sizes such as 16 and 14. PowerPoint slides must follow a simple rule, which is to adjust the font size to the size of the audience as well as the size of the conference hall/meeting room.


Typeface incorporates ways to emphasize text. Text can be emphasized in a number of ways. The following example should illustrate this further:

“Here I have italicized the word for understanding. In this sentence I have underlined the text for emphasis. I can also demarcate a word by a ‘single’ inverted comma. Sometimes I highlight the text by making it bold. I can also change the colour for emphasis. Too much emphasis can really confuse the reader and should be ‘avoided’”.


A useful tool to measure the readability of a sample of English writing is the Gunning fog index. It indicates the number of years of formal education required by a person to easily understand the text on the first reading. The test was developed by Robert Gunning, an American businessman, in 19528. A text suitable for a wide audience generally requires a fog index of up to 12.

An algorithm is used to calculate the Gunning fog index:

  • Take a full passage without deleting any sentences.
  • Find the average sentence length.
  • Count the words with three or more syllables (complex words), not including proper nouns, familiar jargon or compound words, or common suffixes such as -es, -ed, or -ing as a syllable.
  • Add the average number of words per sentence and the multi-syllabic words.
  • Multiply the result by 0.4 (known as the fog factor).

While the Gunning fog index is a good indication of reading difficulty, it still has limitations. Not all multi-syllabic words are difficult. For example, the word asparagus is generally not considered to be a difficult word, even though it has four syllables.

Consider the following paragraph:

“In order to facilitate an efficient report and fuel thought processes prior to the June 25 orientation, I want you to provide a brief overview of discussions recently carried out at the director and manager levels within the process. To accomplish this goal, please prepare to provide a readout of your findings and recommendations to the officer of the Southwest Group at the completion of your study period. As discussed, the undertaking of this project implies no currently known incidences of impropriety in the Southwest Group, nor is it specifically designed for any. Rather, it is to assure ourselves of sufficient caution, control, and impartiality when dealing with an area laden with such potential vulnerability. I am confident that we will be better served as a company as a result of this effort.”

The following facts can be concluded from this paragraph:

  • Total number of words: 133
  • Number of sentences: 5
  • Average number of words per sentence: 27
  • Multi-syllabic words: 26 (excluding proper nouns, compound words created by shorter words, or multi-syllabic words created by -es or -ed endings)
  • Average number of words per sentence (27) + multi-syllabic words (26) = 53
  • 53 multiplied by 0.4 (fog factor) = 21.2 (fog index) (very high)

Exhibit 10.9 gives examples of various newspapers and magazines and tells us about their readability level based on the Gunning fog index.


Information has to be shared globally for products and services sold worldwide. There are a multitude of communication challenges to deal with. To ensure that communication glitches are minimized between cultures, the following checklist can be helpful:

  • Define acronyms clearly: Some acronyms and abbreviations are culture specific. In fact, even individual businesses can have particular jargon, which must be defined when communicating externally. For instance, “POS” can mean “point of sale” or “proof of summons” depending on the context.
  • Avoid humour: Some words and puns are region specific. The English language has words that might mean different things to different people. For example, “in the red” suggests difficulty in India and the United States, but has a positive connotation in China.


Exhibit 10.9 Gunning Fog Index and Reading Level


  • Be careful with numbers, measurements, dates, and times: Date format is different in different countries. In the United States, the month/day/year format is used (for instance, 08/04/09 in the United States refers to August 4, 2009); in India the date/month/year format is used, which means that 08/04/09 could be interpreted as April 8, 2009. In order to reduce misunderstandings, one should always quote the complete date in one's writing (August 04, 1999), and indicate clearly the measurements, currency, and units used in the document.9

Writing must follow ethical guidelines. This is essential when preparing labeling for products and services as well as in documentation.

Ethical practices include the following:

  • Give complete and accurate information about products and services to customers. This will help the customer make informed decisions about the purchase. This avoids harmful litigation later and builds trust with the brand in the long run.
  • Give accurate financial information in simple language to investors. Companies hide behind complex language and numbers that make financial documents virtually unreadable.
  • Avoid gender-specific, ageist, and racist language.

Information Bytes 10.2

Various countries have different ways to write times of the day. In the United States, people write it as 6:20 pm, while in France people write the same time as 18:20. In Germany people write it as 18.20, in Canada people write it as 18h 20, and in India people write it as 6.20 pm.

  • Writing is considered more difficult than speaking. In writing, one has to plan, compose, and edit the document thoroughly before it is ready for presentation. To express one's thoughts clearly without the support of audio–visual cues is clearly a challenge for many people.
  • Workplace writing includes letters, memos, e-mails, reports, proposals, manuals, job descriptions, performance evaluations, brochures, fliers, and financial analyses, among others. “Writer's block” and “mind block” are two roadblocks to writing on the job.
  • Punctuation marks follow some rules that vary with language, location, and time, and are constantly evolving. A comma is a punctuation mark used to separate various parts of a sentence. Colons are used when you want to emphasize what comes after. A semicolon is used to indicate a close relationship between two sentences. Inverted commas highlight key points and denote words said by others. An en dash is used to depict ranges and join two words having the same weightage. An em dash is used as a parenthetical punctuation in a sentence.
  • One should use concrete words, active verbs, and avoid discriminatory language in business writing.
  • Documents can be sender-centric or receiver-centric, of a direct pattern or an indirect pattern. A good layout provides clarity to the document.
  • Gunning fog index is a measure of readability developed by Robert Gunning.
  • Business writing must always follow ethical guidelines.
  1. In what three ways is business writing different from academic writing?
  2. What is the impact of technology on business writing? Do you think that writing trends have undergone a change?
  3. What are the pitfalls in business writing?
  4. Indicate the types of errors in the following phrases/sentences:
    • Speaking in public is more difficult than to write in private.
    • The business environment is not conducive to advance planning.
    • Deepak's office was painted, had paneling done on it and dusted last week only.
    • The meeting was called by the Boss on Friday.
    • The fact still remains that this product is not picking up in the market.
    • All cultures blend together in this company.
    • Challenges of the intellect excite me to a considerable extent and it is my wish that I join a well reputed postdoctoral course to enable my ambition to be fulfilled.
    • The male supervisor aged 56 years must be offered the VRS by our organization.
  1. What are the characteristics of the Gunning fog index? Select a paragraph from a class assignment that you have submitted to your instructor and calculate the Gunning fog index. Do you feel that you have written concisely and accurately? How can you improve the readability of your documents?
  2. Review the following sentences and correct for active and passive verbs, positive and negative sentences, word redundancies, and conciseness:
    • Decisions in regard to the launch of the new business newsletter rests with the top management.
    • Our poor knowledge about the condition in the rural areas of Bihar precluded a determination of committee action effectiveness in fund allocation to those aspects requiring need of assistance.
    • A review was done of the records of the library.
    • The report was read by me.
    • The information herewith present in this report is to the best of my knowledge true and accurate reflection of the actual situation.
    • Don't write in the negative.
  3. Revise the following wordy sentence, and comment on the sentence length and the number of multi-syllabic words used.

    “I would like you to take into consideration the following points, which I know will assist you in better applying new AIICTE rules and regulation currently burdened by the need to execute all data manually and on paper rather than through standardized electronic transmissions.”

  4. Improving readability: Find out the Gunning fog index for the following paragraphs (See Exhibit 10.10). Make the paragraphs clearer by improving their readability.


    Exhibit 10.10

    Paragraph 1


    Ramifications of yesterday's revised implementation schedules are significant because doing as requested by management could lead to missed deadlines as well as the potential for production malfunctions. I respectfully request that management reconsider these suggestions taking into consideration the short term longevity of our employees, many of whom are newly hired. Instead I am of the opinion that any inconveniences our company might experience due to revising the schedule will be offset by the inestimable values that we will derive. I am cognizant that changes are challenging to make, but management might consider doing so at this point in time to benefit employee morale.

    Paragraph 2

    The partnership your company has created with Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the Naandi Foundation to supply iron-fortified Tiger biscuits to supplement the Mid-Day Meal program in schools, has been recognized as a unique program globally by GAIN.


    (Source: Britannia Investor's Zone. Available at www.britannia.co.in/investerzone_bonus_financial_ar.htm, accessed August 1, 2011.)

  5. Sudipto Ray, an HR manager, is deeply anxious. The financial crisis has severely impacted business and Amigo Airlines (a private carrier) is in serious danger of becoming extinct. Unless some cost-cutting initiatives are taken, nothing can be done to revamp the airline and retain its former glory. The recent meeting has made matters worse. Senior officials are in favour of laying off thousands of workers who work as ground staff. A few of them might be retained at lowered wages, but this seems a distant possibility too. Worse, the union is creating tremendous problems. Sudipto anticipates huge opposition to the management's plan of systematic layoffs and sit-at-home options.

    The onus is on Sudipto to break the news to around 123 workers who are to be laid off in the New Delhi region. These are the workers at ground level, working as foremen, canteen bearers, laundry workers, in staff management services, and so on. There are also 11 managers who have to be told to stay at home without pay for at least a year. Bad news is tough enough, but to give it to people one has worked with is tougher still.

    How should Sudipto break the news? Write an e-mail to break the news to the concerned people.

  6. The business school you head is yet to receive approval from the governing body. The application brochure has to be sent soon. You are confident that you will get the approval. The question is should you print “approval awaited” on the brochure or “approval granted”?
  1. Refer to the Web site http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/587/01/. There is a section on understanding the audience and the topic of a written assignment. Do you think the topic of writing is interwoven with the audience? In what ways?
  2. “‘Style’ in business writing refers to the shape, voice, and force of sentences.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not? Refer to the Web site at: http://www.techcommunicators.com/pdfs/sharp-01-good-biz-style.pdf
  3. The Web site http://www.act.org/workkeys/assess/bus_writ/errors.html refers to five types of common business writing errors. Can you think of more errors that we can add to the list? Also give examples as illustrated in the Web site.
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  • MIT Writing and Communication Center, available at http://www.web.mit.edu/writing/temp2/layout.htm, accessed August 9, 2011.
  • Narayani Ganesh, “A Great Communicator,” The Times of India (Oct 16, 2007).
  • Purdue Online Writing Lab, available at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/grammar/g_overvw.html, accessed August 9, 2011.
  • S. Gerson and S. Gerson, Workplace Communication: Process and Product (New York: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007).
  • Simon Caulkin, “Oh please, speak English” The Observer (Sunday, August 24, 2003), available at http://observer.guardian.co.uk/business/story/0,6903,1028336,00.html, accessed on August 9, 2011.
  • William Zinsser, On Writing Well 30th Anniversary Edition (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006).