How to Read & Interpret Business Writing

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Business writing is a broad term that refers to emails, memos, and reports that are meant to convey information clearly and concisely. Effectively reading business writing requires analyzing the type of writing it is and its audience and purpose.

Strictly Business

It's Monday morning. You sit down at your desk and have 50 unread emails you need to work through. Plus, there are minutes from a meeting you missed on Friday that you need to review. And the team you manage has just finished a 100-page report on your new product launch, on which you need to give them feedback.

In a lot of work environments today, we are deluged by business writing, the broad term given to any written communication that exists primarily in a work environment. Business writing can refer to a one-sentence email dashed off in reply to a question or to a large-scale formal report, or to anything in between.

So when you sit down at your desk on a Monday morning and try to wade through the written communication, a few critical reading skills can help you navigate a lot more effectively. So, you should ask yourself a few questions.

What is the Writer's Purpose?

All writing, but especially business writing, should have a purpose. Simply put, why does it exist? Is it a short email asking you to answer a straightforward question? Is it trying to convince you to buy something? Is it informing you of some important information you missed?

Good business writing will make the writer's purpose clear. But even if the writing is not great, there are some ways to tell what the purpose is. Consider the genre, or type of writing it is. If someone has sent you a resume, for example, they are probably trying to convince you to give them a job. A report from a contractor making a bid on a new project, likewise, is trying to convince you they are the best for the job.

More informal forms, like emails and memos, are less likely to try to convince you of something. They are more likely to give you general information, like the minutes of the meeting you missed, or to ask you a direct question that needs a response.

What is Your Purpose in Reading It?

The next question after the writer's purpose is your purpose in reading. If you get an unsolicited resume when you are not hiring, or a spam email trying to sell you new office furniture, they are likely to go in the trash can without your even taking a glance at them. So, among the writing that does warrant your attention, why does it?

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