When drafting a document, circulate it to your team by posting it to a website where simultaneous changes can be made by multiple authors, each of whom can see what the other is amending in real time. This prevents changes being made in ignorance that the original text has already been altered.

For further information on real-time on-line document editing, see:


Otherwise, request inputs in the usual time-consuming ‘linear’ way and edit the changes into the master copy as and when you receive them, and then re-circulate, remembering to amend the (zero) draft number and the date when doing so.

Encourage them to use the ‘track-change’ facility when doing so, otherwise you will end up with lots of well-meaning and no doubt relevant comments which you have to first interpret and then re-write into the document yourself. They should not be obliged to respond, but at least they will feel part of the process. When drafting:

  • Put the word ‘draft’ diagonally across the paper as a watermark. Only take it out when the document is finished.
  • The draft and version number should be somewhere in the ‘header’. The ‘zero draft’ is  the first one to get circulation beyond the inception team.
  • The ‘footer’ should always include the date (do not use the automatic date insert as this changes every time the document is opened), ‘pages x of y’, and the authors’ reference



Within a few months of what you think will have been your last ever essay, some smiley person not much older than you and decked out in power clothing will collar you in a corridor and charmingly invite you to, “give us your insights into … why you think we should cease trading with Mongolia.”  … “oh,” and with a cheerful wave over their departing shoulder, “take as long as you need … but it would be good to see an early draft next Friday …”

In that one, sudden, gut-swooping moment, your business career passes before your eyes as you realise not only have you not written that last essay after all, but that, just as with all the others that went before, you have absolutely no idea what to do or where to start.

Fret not. Business writing is not essay writing. It is much easier. Especially in the internet age. While it requires the same level of investment in research and time, it is more a collection of statements and opinions put in a logical order and linked together with some simple English than the long-worded bullshit expected by your tutor.

It is not until you reach upper management levels that you truly understand the holy grail of good business writing: The shorter the better. Senior managers just don’t have the time to read, let alone absorb, the details of the multiple documents that spew through their electronic in-tray. Having spent the first twenty-something odd years learning that longer is better – presumably on the flimsy and erroneous basis that some bored school master equates length to effort – it comes as quite a shock to learn that business writing is rather different.

A report is divided into eight sections:

1.     Executive Summary: Bullet points on the key points and actions the reader needs to know.

2.     Introduction: This section gives information on the reason for the report.

3.     Procedure: Here, the exact steps taken and research methods used are outlined. It is sometimes useful to outline here what ground the report is not designed to cover.

4.     Assumptions: This section lays out all background information relevant to the reason for the report being commissioned in the first place. This is also the section where anything that doesn’t easily fit elsewhere goes – such as ‘constraints’, ‘risks’, or ‘vulnerabilities’, for example.

5.     Findings: The findings point out discoveries made during the course of the research.

6.     Conclusions: The conclusions provide logical conclusions based on the findings. This may include an analysis of ‘strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and risks/threats’ – the so-called ‘SWOT’, and outline a number of options that could be considered.

7.     Recommendations: These state actions that the writer of the report feels need to be taken based on the findings and conclusions.

8.     Annexes: The more the merrier.

  • Write it for the reader. As with all communications, imagine you find yourself unexpectedly alone with the chairman in one of the following three scenario’s:
  1. Bumper Sticker (as per those messages stuck on rear fenders of American gas-guzzlers): Give the essential message in ten words or less.
  2. Elevator: Outline the problem and your intended solution in 15 seconds or less
  3. Corridor: Outline the problem, the options, the preferred solution, the recommendation and the justification in 30 seconds.
  • Four pages might be a bit short, while ten pages might be a bit long. As with essays at school or university, list your references as ‘endnotes’ and attach annexes that might make it easier for the reader to more fully understand the detail.
  • Expand on individual points in the text using ‘footnotes’ rather than including too much detail  in the main body of the text.
  • Reports should be concise and factual. Opinions are offered only in the ‘conclusions’ section. However, these opinions should be based on facts presented in the ‘findings’.
  • Use simple tenses (usually the present) to express facts.
  • Use the imperative form (Discuss the possibility …, Consider giving priority to …, etc.) in the ‘recommendations’ section.



  • try to use short sentences (max 20 words) and avoid multiple subclauses – (http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/ has drivel defence software to make sure sentences don’t drivel on too long
  • Avoid the passive voice – it sounds pompous and can be hard to translate e.g. “it is reported that James is a crap coordinator” – simply write, “James is a crap coordinator – unless you are casting aspersions on the information. This is easier said than done, especially if you work for the UN where every caveat possible has to be included.
  • Be consistent with terminology such as: “You must”, “You should”, or “You could” as each phrase implies different level of compliance.
  • After you have written something, read it back to yourself. Imagine that you have never read it before – does it make sense?
  • If you delete a sentence will it affect the content of the document? If the sentence is not necessary then delete it.



Apart from e-mail (see next paragraph) there is one other common form of business writing: The ‘memorandum’ or ‘Memo’. This might take the form of a ‘Note For The Record’ (a quick summary of a telephone conversation or informal meeting that might be needed sometime in the future – usually to ‘cover your arse’ for someone else’s incompetence) or a ‘Non-Paper’ (where you want an issue you consider to be very important to be raised, but without attribution i.e without your name or even a date on it), but the format is still much like a ‘Memo’.

(person or group sending the memo)

(person or group to whom the memo is addressed, and from whom action is expected)

(person or group who need to be aware of the subject, but from whom no action is needed at this time)

(with month as a word, not a number)

(the subject of the memo, this should be in bold)

  • A memo is generally not as formal as a written letter. However, it is certainly not as informal as a personal letter.
  • The tone of a memo is generally friendly as it is a communication between colleagues.
  • Keep the memo concise and to the point.
  • If necessary, introduce the reason for the memo with a short paragraph.
  • Use bullet points to explain the most important steps in a process.
  • Use a short “thank you” to finish.



E-mail is much less formal than a written letter. E-mails are usually short and concise. If you are writing to someone you don’t know, a simple “Hello” is adequate. Using a salutation such as “Dear Mr Smith,” is too formal. When writing to someone you know well, feel free to write as if you are speaking to the person. Use abbreviated verb forms (He’s, We’re, He’d, etc.)

Include your job title, business and mobile telephone number and skype address in the signature of the e-mail. This will give the recipient the chance to contact you off-line if necessary. It is not necessary to include your e-mail address as the recipient can just reply to your e-mail.

When replying eliminate all the information that is not necessary. Only leave the sections of text that are related to your reply. This will save your reader time when reading your essential message.

Think carefully before using the ‘reply to all’ button. And always check spelling and that attachments have been properly attached before sending.

Of course, sending a letter or Memo will probably be as an attachment to an e-mail. In such cases, the subject should be repeated in the ‘subject’ bar of the e-mail and the text box left blank.

For more on e-mail, see the section on ‘time management’.

This is is a section from Clusterwise 2. Reproduction is encouraged. It would be nice if the author, James Shepherd-Barron, and clustercoordination.org were acknowledged when doing so.

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