Effective Business Writing: Balancing Informality with Formality

Some of the so-called rules of writing you learned from rigid English teachers and professors might not apply well to business writing. At the same time, some companies are complaining that new employees fail to communicate professionally, in essence, formally. Business writing, especially when online, is becoming less formal than academic writing, so you need to be prepared to adapt your writing style. Be friendly and clear without being too curt to balance informality with formality in writing.

Dos Using first person, second person, and conjunctions (for example, and, but, and so) at the beginning of sentences may be somewhat informal, but it’s more important to come across as a person, not a corporate robot, and to communicate in a way that’s approachable to your audience. Speaking of audience, if you know who the audience is, you may address them using you and your. We feel that writing is more personal when we’re addressed as you. Plenty of professional writers, even academic writers, use first and second person and conjunctions to begin sentences, so don’t hesitate to emulate them in this regard.

Use simple language, especially when making requests. People are busy, and you want them to understand and act on your message quickly. According to Fiona Talbot in How to Write Effective Business English, customers don’t like sentences that are too complicated and overuse jargon, so limit both (37–38). Grandiose words and convoluted syntax can make you sound condescending to an “inferior” reader (Talbot 40). As one of my management professors reminded classes, “Keep it simple, stupid.”

Don’ts Being too formal can be detrimental to workplace writing, but so can being too informal. E-mails can be tricky to write effectively. They shouldn’t look like text messages. One-word responses to questions are another no-no because readers can see them as impolite, so make them one-sentence responses, instead (Talbot 40). I use emoticons sparingly because of their informality and save them for people I know well or who use them in their messages to me. E-mails tend to be informal, but make sure there’s some formality in business e-mails.


Effective business communication requires a middle ground between formality and informality. Be informal enough to be clear and personable but formal enough to be professional. Err on the side of being too formal when in doubt.

Work Cited: Talbot, Fiona. How to Write Effective Business English: The Essential Toolkit for Composing Powerful Letters, E-mails, and More, for Today’s Business Leaders. London, United Kingdom: Kogan Page, 2009. Print. Photo: Tulane Public Relations, Flickr Creative Commons

Darla Word

About Darla Word

I'm a writing tutor and editor from Michigan. My favorite subject to write about is writing because making better writers is my calling. I also enjoy reading, singing, swimming, and cardmaking.

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