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How formal should your business writing be?

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Do you write business letters or other business correspondence?
If so, think about how these questions apply to your situation:

1. When is it appropriate to use first-person pronouns like I, we, me, us, my and our?

2. When is it appropriate to use contractions like it's, isn't, we'll and let's?

If we were e-mailing a personal note to a friend, most of us would use both first-person pronouns and contractions. If we were writing a report to be sent to a senior executive, we might use neither. So the question arises: How do we decide when to use them and when not to?

First-person pronouns and contractions can affect the tone of our writing in various ways (both good and bad) as shown in the following table:

natural sounding
inviting, warm
stiff, wooden, pompous
distant, cold, official

One common practice in business writing is to always avoid first- person pronouns and contractions because it's believed that they're too informal or too disrespectful. For example, many business writers will always write "the department" instead of "I", or "it is" instead of "it's".

While there are, in some situations, good legal reasons for writing "the department" instead of "I", do you do it too often?

Similarly, is it always necessary to avoid contractions in your writing?

My own feeling is that always avoiding first-person pronouns and contractions can result in unnecessarily formal writing that may sound unnatural or wooden. People don't usually speak this way.
They speak using both first-person pronouns and contractions, so I offer the advice that in many (but not all) situations it's appropriate to write it the way you'd say it.

Business writing is often highly stylised and rather pompous. For example: "Pursuant to our recent communication the department writes to inform you that...". This can leave your readers feeling alienated or annoyed. This is particularly true if you're writing for the general public.

A useful strategy is to try reading your document out loud. If you find yourself saying things that are different from what you've written (e.g. you say "let's" but you wrote "let us"), that's a clue that your writing may be a bit too formal.

Of course, there can be good reasons to avoid first-person pronouns and contractions. For example:

* You're deliberately trying to be highly formal such as when you reprimand someone.
* You're writing to someone more senior and wish to show clear respect and deference.
* Your manager just insists on it. :-)

On balance, though, in most writing, I think that first-person pronouns and contractions are quite acceptable. If you write in a natural-sounding fashion, you'll be more easily understood, more personal and will seem less contrived.

You'll find many more helpful tips like these in Tim North's much applauded range of e-books. More information is available on his web site, and all books come with a money-back guarantee.

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