What you’ll learn to do: Identify the three parts of the writing process
Writing a message that is consistently well received can become a habit, but it can be hard for new writers to achieve. The three part writing process ensures the best outcome each time.
Good writers plan their messages, often using an outline or notes made before writing the message. Lack of a plan before writing may seem to save a writer time, but it can confuse the writer once she begins, and it slows the receiver. The communication will not be at its best that way. This module discusses how to improve speed and clarity in communication. With a solid outline, the actual writing focuses on phrasing and word choice. This module discusses how to word the message with a you-view. Finally, the message is reviewed and revised. This module provides the final clean-up tools to help you proofread during the revising step.
- Discuss the importance of the planning stage in the writing process
- Write a business message based on an outline using the appropriate components of a business message
- Revise a business message for tone, message, and correctness
Planning Business Messages
While this whole module is about writing, most of the thinking about what you are going to write happens before you compose a single sentence. Planning and outlining is where your analysis and organization get done, so that when you’re ready to write, all you have to worry about is sentence structure, word choice, and tone—which is more than enough!
Remember those school days when teachers required outlines before you could start writing your paper? They may have referred to it as part of a “pre-writing” phase. It turns out those outlines are life skills, not just busy work. As adult business communicators, you should still commit to outlining. An outline serves as a road map for what you’re going to write, and it aids in breaking weak writing habits. Outlines set a writer up for success. Unlike in school, they do not need to be formally typed and numbered; they can exist on a notepad or scrap to the side of the keyboard. That said, using your word processor’s outlining function is a great way to keep your outline tidy, and cutting and pasting makes it easy to rearrange your order.
First, determine how the receiver of this communication likely feels about the communication: positive, neutral or negative. Focus on what the receiver feels based on the receiver’s situation. Do not factor in “How I’d like to hear this news.” The receiver has not researched this message, might not have heard parts of the topic before, or has the background you have. The receiver may have a different work responsibility and may need background to fully appreciate the communication. Factor all of that into the audience analysis. This is you-view planning. You-view thinks about what the receiver wants and needs to understand. Do not factor in your own feelings.
Planning is the key first step in the writing process because it enables the writer to begin thinking about how the final product will be created and evaluated. It is the first step in establishing your accountability and reliability as a writer. Remember that when you are writing for a corporation or organization, your writing lives on as legal documentation and reference. Writers are no less responsible for accountability for their work than are lawyers and medical personnel. Solid planning leads to reliable final documents.
Skipping the pre-writing stage is like taking a vacation without first choosing a destination: If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you get there? Fortunately, pre-writing can take many forms, and there are strategies that suit every type of writer.
The strategies and processes used in the pre-writing stage not only help the writer formulate a topic and solidify ideas, they also serve as a kind of rehearsal for the rest of the writing process. As the writer uses the vocabulary associated with a particular topic, he or she becomes well-versed in the subject and is able to express ideas with more confidence, organization, and clarity. All of this brings to mind the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer, of course: “Practice. Practice. Practice.”
Just as a musician must practice their instrument in order to achieve their goal, the practice undertaken during the pre-writing stage guides the writer toward a specific goal. That goal is to develop a well-defined topic that will eventually be couched in the language of a succinct thesis or hypothesis.
Planning starts with audience reaction, which maps to an organizational structure for the document.
Earlier in this module, three audience types were introduced: positive, neutral, and negative. These audiences may receive positive, negative, or persuasive messages:
- Positive messages are routine or good news. The receiver is likely to react positively or neutrally.
- Negative messages are bad news. The receiver is likely to react negatively.
- The overlapping category is persuasive messages. The audience is expected to need encouragement to act as the sender desires. In some cases, the receiver is more like a positive audience. In other cases, the receiver is more like a negative audience.
All messages contain three or four blocks:
- News: Whether good news or bad news, the message states its point clearly. There receiver should clearly understand the news unambiguously.
- Reasons: The reasons section supports or explains the news. This is the needed detail to aid the receiver’s understanding or action.
- Goodwill and Action: This is the closing paragraph where the sender provides a brief, sincere remark designed to continue the working relationship. The closing paragraph is not finished without some detail or reminder related to the purpose of the communication, or call to action.
- Buffer. This is usually only found in negative and some persuasive messages. A buffer starts a message where the reader is likely be to the negative side of the continuum by warming the reader to the topic, but not laying out the entire outcome of the message.
Depending on your audience reaction, you will place these blocks in a different order:
Positive Message Outline
The basic organizational outline for a positive message uses the blocks introduced above in that same order: news, reasons, and goodwill and action. Remember, this is the outline for writing the entire message (the second step in the writing process). The blocks are the labels of the outline section where the writer collects notes and thoughts on that part or paragraph. With these notes, the writer can write the entire message without stopping to look for detail.
In this example of a positive message, assume the sender is confirming the receipt of a duplicate shipment and has agreed to provide credit.
|Organization Block||Purpose||Notes for the Message|
|News||With a positively inclined receiver, the main idea is in the first paragraph, first sentence. The reader wants to know some and is receptive, so the writer should just say it:||credit due 3/31|
|Reasons||This is the body of the message that contains the detail supporting the news||
Credit processed against acct 234-2345
|Goodwill and Action||Acknowledge and effort or relationship with the receiver. Confirm any commitments.||She sent clear detail. Should see on April statement.|
Negative Message Outline
The generic organizational outline for a negative message uses the three blocks news, reasons, and goodwill and action. It uses these organizational blocks in a different order and also adds the buffer block. Remember this is the outline for writing the entire message (step 2 in the writing process). With these notes, the writer can write the entire message without stopping to look for detail.
In this example of a negative message, assume the sender is delivering the bad news about a delay in the promised ship date of a book. The receiver needs this to prepare for a two week training conference but didn’t order it early enough.
|Organization Section||Purpose||Notes to write message from….|
|Buffer||Starts the message by being on topic, but not clearly laying out the news. It is important to start neutrally so as to avoid getting the reader’s expectations set to high.||Been a customer for many years.|
This is the body of the message that contains the detail supporting the news.
Reasons must have you-view. Avoid mentioning policy or rules as this just encourages the reader to escalate to a higher level of management.
Very popular title.
good quality takes time.
The bad news is stated directly, yet gently. Offer any offsetting news, if possible.
Avoid apologizing. It can bring on legal guilt in extreme situations. In many cases, the sender’s company did nothing wrong. If truly necessary and in alignment with company policy, then apologize.
|book delayed by 7 days. focus on her receipt added free shipping.|
|Goodwill and Action||Avoid sounding trite but express interest in continuing the good relationship. Confirm the delivery date.||
past good experiences. delivery april 5
Notice there is missing punctuation and capitalization. These are only notes, so those issues will be cleaned up in the following steps.
Persuasive Message Outline
The simplest understanding and approach to persuasive messages is to determine how likely the receiver is to comply with the sender’s wishes. If the audience is positive, then follow that outline. For negative audiences you need to use a different approach.
It is helpful to overlay these structures with the marketing concept of Awareness, Interest, Desire, and Action (AIDA).
This strategy starts with the opening of a positive or negative message. The opening should include an attention grabbing opening, such as a fact, question, or something to catch the receiver’s interest. Next, direct your writing to discuss more details to interest the receiver in this situation. The desire is about how the receiver’s help or action matters. Finally, the closing includes the specific action requested of the receiver.
Jasmine really felt bad about the mistake in the email she sent recognizing top performers for the previous month. She worked on it last thing Friday before heading out on vacation. In her rush, she had simply composed the message directly into an email with no pre-writing. As soon as she hit “send,” she realized she’d confused the employee names and customers names for the top performers. Now her manager was calling her in to talk about the mistake. Worse yet, she was asked to bring in her notes on the email. Was Jasmine right to think her boss was asking for too much to ask her for her notes?
- No. It sounds like her boss is trying to be helpful.
- Yes. Simple messages do not need all the extra work of planning. This was just a simple mistake.
- No. This is going to turn in to a big negative reprimand so paperwork is needed.
No. It sounds like her boss is trying to be helpful.
Writing Business Messages
It’s also helpful to remember at this stage that you’re not actually starting from a blank page, even with your first draft. You’ve got the raw materials of your pre-writing, outlining, and source gathering at hand to build from.
From Planning to Writing
At this stage of the process, the purpose and organization of your message is already decided. Now you need to craft the words and phrasing for each part of the message.
Whichever outline you’ve started with, it can seamlessly morph into a first draft simply by choosing an area to attack. Start fleshing it out with full sentences, complete thoughts, and relevant sources.
The format for the communication matters. Letter formats and layout are discussed at the end of this module.
Before examining types of messages, there are skills to have in hand.
The subject line is surprisingly important in business communications. It is found in both email and memo formats. Subject lines are a mini introduction to the message. However, they do not replace the need for subject to be addressed in the first paragraph of the communication.
|Subject Line||Regarding next Tuesday’s meeting||Items to bring for Next Tuesday’s meeting|
|First line of the message||Will you bring the pens and pencils?||Will you bring pens and pencils to next Tuesday’s meeting?|
Subject lines are succinct introductions to a direct, negative, or persuasive message
|Direct Message||Conference Dates||Please confirm conference dates|
|Negative Message||Problem!||Confirmation needed Order 3145|
|Persuasive Message||Need a Speaker||Speaking Opportunity for You|
Check to see if your subject lines pass a simple list of questions:
- Is the main idea apparent from the subject line?
- Is it more a phrase than full sentence?
- Can the receiver judge the urgency with respect to whether they must read the message now or can leave it for later?
- Will the receiver be able to find this message again easily based on your subject line?
Buffers are a specific component of negative messages. They allow the writer to start the message without fully disclosing the bad news that is coming. Buffers must be more than an unrelated hello such as “How about those Broncos?” They must lead in to the topic while avoiding negative overtones. At the same time, a buffer shouldn’t promote an untruth or raise the recipient’s hopes only to dash them. For example, in writing to a job applicant, the subject line, “You are our best candidate” only to follow in the body with “but unfortunately, we needed to hire from within the company, so you didn’t get the job” is needlessly cruel. On the other hand, “You are one of many impressive candidates,” is both honest and appropriately complimentary while serving as a buffer.
|Buffer Topic||Sample||Reason for the “No”|
|Item of Agreement||Planning a 250 person wedding is quite an undertaking.||The larger ballroom is booked on that date.|
|Compliment||The American Cancer Society provides excellent support to the community of Centennial, MO.||The organization cannot fund the charity golf tournament this year.|
|Reasons||With the increase in interest rates, there is a decline of 5% in new client calls.||There are account reassignments planned.|
Negative Words and Tone
Business relationships are like all relationships. There are ups and downs. At times employees, customers, and others must hear news that is not to their choosing. Two important skills save the relationship while delivering the bad news. In all situations, the sender works to avoid negative words and tones. These words and tone can overshadow even the best message, like gray clouds on a warm summer day.
With negative messages there comes a time where the bad news must be stated. A skilled writer who plans the message well has this part of the message contained to a single area of the communication. Yet, when saying “no,” the meaning must be clear. Sometimes the most diplomatic form of clarity is achieved with a skilled “implied no.” Consider how the following are clear, yet avoid a negative word or tone.
|April 23 is not available.||Rooms are available April 20–22 or April 24–29.|
|Snakes are not allowed on the plane.||Please see our pet policy that allows cats, dogs, and peacocks. (Add “only” if needed—only cats, dogs, and peacocks.)|
In defining positive messages, both good news and expected news fit the category. However, some expected news may not please the receiver. The you-view in writing helps the sender keep an overall good relationship to the receiver. Consider the following:
|Do not park in Lot C. It is being resurfaced.||While Lot C is resurfaced, Lots A and B should be used.||The direct object “you” is assumed with the instruction of “do not.” Coupling a “you” with a “no” in the same sentence is likely to annoy or feel accusatory to the receiver, thus damaging the relationship. State what is possible rather than what is not.|
|I can’t wait to help you.||I look forward to helping you.||Here is something the sender wants to do, but the example clouds the positive desire with the negative “can’t.” If you as the sender are eager, then be eager rather than confusing the issue with a negative.|
|The claim is forthcoming, however, another form is needed.||Another form is needed before the claim is processed.||“However” is frequently considered a negative word since it contradicts what comes before. The word “but” works in a similar fashion.|
Writing a Positive Message
Consider the following example outline constructed in the planning process:
|News||Need quote on security components|
|Detail||4 PCs, 2 printers, 1 wireless router. Need itemized cost, warranty/mtc, installations date|
|Goodwill and Action||2 year contract in place. Hope for April 15.|
With this outline in place, the message is formatted as a business letter or email as the situation warrants.
|Comments on Section||As Written|
First Paragraph: Start the message with the news. This is a positive message. Focus on the receiver and realize all she wants to know is “what do I need to do”.
The message opens with a you-view. The “Please” is saying “you need to” but in a positive manner.
The main idea is easy to find. It is not hidden by unnecessary phrasing or preamble that does not advance the purpose of the message.
|Please provide a quote for updated security systems.|
Second Paragraph: Using paragraphs respects the reader by providing white spacing thus making the message easier to read.
Paragraphs provide logical breaks to aid in understanding and retention.
Bullets do not exist except as part of a paragraph. There is the introduction to the paragraph and then the lists.
Lists are easier on the eyes through use of white space. They aid in retention. It will be easy for the receiver to mark off items as completed. List items are constructed in a parallel fashion.
With your familiarity of our system, please maintain compatibility and quote for the following items.
In the response, please address the following questions:
|Final paragraph: Encourages the relationship with a specific note of goodwill. Provides a crisp reminder of the action needed.||Thank you for being so easy to work with over the past two years. If possible, please provide this quote by April 15. If it will be later, please call to let us know.|
Writing a Negative Message
Assume that the outline for this negative message constructed in the Planning process is the following. Notice that there is a typo where “april” is not capitalized. For the outline, that is just fine. These are organizational notes that only the writer sees:
|Buffer||Long relationship of mid-april conventions. Past relationship|
|Reasons||New personnel. Competitive month and rates|
|News||Conference date must move earlier or back one week|
|Goodwill and Action:||Discount. Must hear by March 5|
With this outline in place, the message is formatted as a business letter or email, as the situation warrants.
|Comments on Section||As Written|
Buffer: First paragraph — Start the message with a note that relates to the message, one that both agree on.
Do not be so cheerful as to mislead the audience, nor set a dark tone that may cause additional trepidation in someone is about to be disappointed.
By not immediately confirming availability, the reader can begin to prepare for the upcoming news.
|Your organization has been a longtime partner of Aspen Lodge, and we have been honored to be your location of choice for your annual April conference. Thank you for your recent letter regarding next month’s availability.|
|Reason: Second paragraph. It is so tempting to write reasons for a no from the perspective of the sender. “We are all full.” “Company policy says.” Reasons in a negative message offer the reader a way to see it from the writer’s standpoint. If the message is well written, by the the time the “no” comes, the receiver will be in complete agreement.||With such a warm winter, your choice of Aspen Lodge remains one desired by many organizations eager to come west. The Lodge is always popular with local organizations due to the low off-season rates, which means facilities book quickly and early.|
Reason continued: Either second or third paragraph.
Here is the hardest part of the message. The reader is likely anticipating being turned down by now. It is up to the sender to make the “no” clear, but not harsh. This may be done directly or with an Implied no.
This writing assumes the group always comes on and had requested the second weekend.
One key issue to watch out for when delivering negative messages in this way is that you might work to avoid negative words so intently that you make the message hard to understand. In this case, talking about the weekends that areavailable leaves the message pretty clear.
|With the second weekend already reserved, would you prefer the first or third weekend?|
|Final paragraph: Encourages the relationship with a specific note of goodwill. Provide a crisp reminder of the action needed.||Please call by Friday March 31st, to confirm which of the two remaining weekends best suit your needs. Aspen Lodge is booking quickly, and we hope to have good friends like ABC company here again this year. Because you have been such a loyal partner, we are offering a 5% discount for whichever weekend you do end up choosing.|
Writing a Persuasive Message
With persuasive messages, the audience analysis in the planning stage will point you in the right direction. This example outline assumes that the receiver needs a push to accept the solution being presented. In this example, a marketing team has planned to do some focus groups in Manhattan among a difficult-to-find consumer segment (let’s say, left-handed teenage girls who like both crocheting and motocross racing). The facility that’s finding and scheduling the participants is having a hard time finding enough of these girls in Manhattan, so they want to loop in a partner facility just across the river in New Jersey. It’s going to cost the marketing team more money, which they’ve anticipated but still won’t like, and it will involve extra travel. Here’s one way to present that news.
|Buffer / Attention||More diverse research participants in Manhattan and Newark|
|Reasons / Interest||A more diverse set of participants in two locations|
|News||We can’t find enough qualified people in Manhattan, so we’re adding our Newark location|
|Goodwill and Action:||Travel between locations on a deluxe chartered coach bus at no extra cost|
With this outline in place, the message is formatted as a business letter or email, as the situation warrants.
|Comments on Section||As Written|
Buffer: First paragraph— Start the message with a note that relates to the message, one that both agree on.
Do not be so cheerful as to mislead the audience, nor set a dark tone that may cause additional anger in someone is about to be disappointed.
By starting with the good news, the writer can offset any disappointment or annoyance at the bad news.
|Thank you for entrusting us with this interesting and challenging recruit. We’re calling on all of our experience to make sure we find you the best participants to meet your research needs and finding girls who not only meet the specifications but also represent a range of ethnicities and income levels.|
|Reasons: Second paragraph— It is so tempting to write reasons for a no from the perspective of the sender. “We are all full.” “Company policy says.” What reasons in a negative message do are to offer the reader a way to see it from the writer’s standpoint. If well written by the the time the “no” comes the receiver will be in complete agreement.||As you’ve known from the start of the project, finding participants that meet your specifications was going to be difficult, and we are about halfway recruited. We have placed ads in the newspapers and online, and we have asked motocross courses to recommend members who might qualify.|
Reasons continued: Either second or third paragraph—
Here is the hardest part of the message. The reader is likely anticipating some sort of bad news by now. It is up to the sender to make the difficulty clear but not harsh. Even with the Goodwill action, there’s likely to be some annoyance on the part of the receiver.
|However, we seem to have stalled in finding people to come to our Manhattan facility. As we see it, we have two choices. We can relax the specifications, which might water down your data, or we can reach out to a partner company in Newark. Between the two facilities, we believe we can fully recruit your research study. As we discussed at the proposal stage, this will incur extra cost, and we recognize that you had not built travel to Newark into your schedule. Therefore, we have taken the liberty of reserving a deluxe coach bus and driver at our expense to move your team from their base in Manhattan to the facility in Newark on the days you will be there.|
|Final paragraph: Encourages the relationship with a specific note of goodwill. Provide a crisp reminder of the action needed.||Please let us know whether this solution is acceptable or whether you would like to loosen your participant specifications. Please also tell us whether we can help with anything else, including changing hotel accommodations using our corporate discount. We are very much looking forward to hosting you and your team for this groundbreaking research. If I hear from you by Wednesday morning, I can lock in whichever option you choose and move forward with the work.|
Alex had his notepad handy with his plan to write the vendor about the deliveries that seemed to coming later and later each week. This was becoming a real problem, so he needed to get this email out before the next delivery. As Alex uses his plan, what should he focus on in the writing phase of this message?
- Alex will focus on having negative in the Buffer, News, and Action areas of the message so that the vendor will correct the problem ASAP
- Alex will focus on writing skills such as you-view, being concise, and so forth
- Alex will focus on making sure he has the details on the last three weeks of tardy shipments.
Alex will focus on writing skills such as you-view, being concise, and so forth
Revising Business Messages
Once you’ve written your message beginning to end, you may be feeling pretty proud of yourself and ready to move on to your next task. Well, not quite. It’s time to clarify, refine, and reorganize to make sure your message is exactly what you want it to be.
The Art of Re-Seeing
Revising is the rearrangement and fine tuning of a fully developed—if not totally completed—draft so that the thesis or hypothesis is aligned with the writer’s purpose, the audience’s needs and characteristics, the development of the argument, and the persuasive conclusion.
A Critical Step
Revising, for many writers and teachers of writing, is the most critical step in any writing process. It is also the step that often frustrates many writers because it can be hard to maintain objectivity and focus when looking so closely at your own work.
Many writers find it beneficial at this stage to have someone else read the document they have been working on, since it is too close to the writer’s thoughts and emotions. Remember that when you ask someone for a critique of your work, you are not asking for praise for your brilliance but rather asking to have your work made even better and more effective for its purpose. Also keep in mind that just because someone makes a suggestion doesn’t mean you have to accept it. Unless that person is your boss, of course.
The need to revise acknowledges the likely scenario that no one’s writing is perfect as presented in the latest draft. Willingness to revise means that the writer recognizes the dynamic nature of communication and that revisions are required in order to clearly articulate ideas and meet the expectations of the audience. Effective written expression is the result of careful revisions.
Mason is proud of all the work he put in creating the email announcing the spring employee softball team. He has to admit that completing the planning step forced him to look up all the league rules and fees first sure saved time as he wrote. That made writing a breeze. The whole thing really has not been as complicated as he initially expected. Can Mason send the message now?
A Two-Step Revision Process
In the revising process the writer does two things:
- Ensures the final messages accomplishes the goal identified in the planning step. This is content evaluation.
- Ensures the grammar and proofreading step has corrected any errors. This makes sure the wording is easy to read for the receiver and that the writer’s reputation is well-served by a professional document.
As the final readings of the message, short or long, completes, make sure there are whole sentences.
On the other side of fragments are sentences that go on and on and on. Beware the run-on sentence.