Summary: A business writing checklist ensures your documents are clear, brief, well-organized, accurate, and professional.
A writing checklist ensures you include the key elements in your document, and protects you from overlooking some critical step when writing to a tight deadline.
Specifically, a writing checklist will ensure the following:
- Promotes clarity – Reminds you to use simple language, define terms, and explain complex ideas simply. This help readers to easily grasp key messages.
- Encourage brevity – Encourages you to concise and get to the point quickly. Readers are often in a hurry. Write to be skimmed or scanned.
- Structure – Helps organized information logically and group related ideas together. This enhances flow and comprehension.
- Professional tone – By keeping the language formal and appropriate for business contexts, you build credibility with your readers.
- Accuracy – It helps reduce mistakes by prompting you to fact-check quotes and sources.
- Actionable Next Steps – Well-crafted writing should focus on the desired outcomes and provide clear next steps. This serves as a catalyst, prompting the reader to take action.
The following checklist identifies some of the items to consider when developing your own writing guidelines.
Avoid overusing abbreviations, as they can confuse readers or make writing seem overly informal.
- Spell out the full term before introducing an abbreviation. For example: “The Chief Financial Officer (CFO) will give a presentation.”
- Do not use periods between capital letters in abbreviations unless the abbreviation contains proper nouns. For example: FBI, not F.B.I., but U.S.A. because it contains proper nouns.
- Use abbreviations sparingly in formal documents or external communications. Spell out terms whenever possible in these contexts.
- Pluralize abbreviations by adding ‘s’ without an apostrophe. For example: CEOs, not CEO’s.
Spell out the names of states.
Example: Our company has offices in Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky.
Not: Our company has offices in IL, MO, and KY.
In a narrative, spell out all common nouns that you might be tempted to abbreviate.
Examples: accountant, not acct; association, not assoc.; building, not bldg.; company, not co.
Active voice makes your writing more energetic. It refers to when a subject of a sentence acts or does something rather than being acted upon.
Example: Sam Grey audited the books last month. Not: The books were audited by Sam Grey last month.
Exception: The passive voice is fine when the receiver of the action is more important than the doer of the action.
Example: Transportation to the other buildings on campus will be provided.
Fragments: A fragment is a group of words that does not have both a subject and a verb.
Example: Some of the IT staffers working on Y2K. The exception to this rule is when a sentence fragment is intended for style purposes.
Use bullets to separate items in a series. Don’t use punctuation with bulleted items unless each bulleted item is a sentence, and then place a period after each sentence.
- Use bullets to break up long lists or highlight key points.
- Be consistent with your bullet style. Generally, each bullet point should begin with a capital letter and end with a period if it’s a full sentence, or no punctuation if it’s a short phrase.
- Limit each bullet point to 1-2 short sentences or a brief phrase of 5-10 words. Avoid lengthy paragraphs under each bullet.
- Use parallel structure for all bullets in a list. Each point should grammatically align (e.g. all start with verbs, or all are noun phrases).
- Only use bullets for lists of 4-6 points. Any fewer looks skimpy, any more is overwhelming. Consider numbered lists for longer content.
- Be consistent with punctuation at the end of each bullet: periods if full sentences, no punctuation for fragments.
- Consider using other symbols in addition to bullet points to denote different types of lists. For example, checkmarks for tasks, arrows for processes.
In general you should only capitalize at the beginning of sentences and with proper nouns. Don’t capitalize to emphasize words or show their importance. Instead, use italics and bold lettering for emphasis. Job titles are not necessarily capitalized.
Examples: our president, John Rodriguez. Or: President John Rodriguez. Or: John Rodriguez, president.
A pause in reading is not always a good reason to use a comma. You should use less punctuation if you can reasonably do so; however, there are many times when a comma is required.
For example, you must use a comma when using conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) to connect two independent clauses. And you must use a comma to separate a series of adjectives. Also, use a comma with a date and a year.
Example: On July 4, 1776, Congress signed the Declaration of Independence. Without the specific date, don’t use a comma: July 1776 was one of the most eventful months in our history. Check your grammar handbook for the correct use of commas and other punctuation.
Company, keep names singular
Example: Ernst & Young ordered some computers for its new office.
Avoid wordiness. Keep reports, memos, and other business documents as brief and clear as possible.
For example: Use, not utilize; shortage, not paucity. Avoid clichés, slang, or buzzwords.
Confused words and phrases
Many words are easily mixed up, such as accept/except, advice/advise, affect/effect, its/it’s, lay/lie, passed/past, percent/percentage, personal/personnel, moral/morale, sit/set, real/really, try/try to, your/you’re, and their/they’re/theirs/there.
Learn to use these words correctly.
Don’t expect perfection at the start.
Focus on the content first and ensure that it’s accurate. Accuracy is the most critical area for effective business writing.
Paragraphs (Structure and Flow)
A paragraph has unity if all its parts work together to explain a single idea logically. It is coherent if each sentence links smoothly to the ones before and after it.
Transitional words can help, such as first, next, then, and finally.
Another way to achieve coherence is to use pronouns that are standing in for nouns or names that were used earlier in the paragraph.
Plan Your Writing
Before you start determine your purpose and your primary audience. Decide what information you need, and don’t need, to give your audience.
Aim to be objective and convincing so that your message appeals to both receptive and resistant audience members.
Use specific, concrete words.
Examples: Three, not several; boat or car, not vehicle.
Watch out for words such as recently, several, substantial, a few, and a lot.
Try to be more exact. Give your reader a mental picture of what you mean.
Proofread & Spell Check
The more you reread and spell check your writing, the more mistakes you will find, which you can then correct.
Research the Topic
Collect and analyze data. Use visual aids (charts, graphs, tables, photos, etc.) where appropriate.
Fail here and you lose all credibility with clients. Use a good grammar book and dictionary. Use them whenever you have doubts about punctuation and spelling. When in doubt, call on a trusted colleague to revise your work.
Many repetitive phrases can be distilled into one word. Example: history, not past history; plan, not plan ahead; sum or total, not sum total.
A run-on sentence contains two independent clauses that are incorrectly separated by only a comma.
Instead, they should be connected by a semicolon, or a period, or by both a comma and a conjunction. This does not relate to the length of a sentence, just the improper connection between the clauses.
Examples: (1) The network is down; call the network administrator. Or: The network is down, so call the network administrator. Not: The network is down, call the network administrator.
Alternate simple, compound, and complex sentences. Use both short and long sentences to keep your writing interesting.
Subjects and verbs
Use a singular verb or pronoun with a singular subject, and a plural verb or pronoun with a plural subject.
Examples: The four workers have copies of their assignments.
Parallel words or phrases in lists and series
If you have a list or a series, be sure each item in the series starts with the same kind of word—with a noun, a verb, or an -ing word.
Examples: The first example uses nouns, the second uses -ing words.
The training program will include:
- Oracle databases
- Novell suites
- Microsoft certification
- Retention of customers (not: Retaining customers)
- Workspace management (not: How to plan Workspaces)
The new IT Manager’s job description includes:
- Planning for new projects
- Attending meetings
- Conducting staff meetings
- Interviewing and hiring new personnel
- Working with marketing to keep the Web site focused
Plural nouns and pronouns.
Example: All managers must evaluate their subordinates annually. Not: Each manager must evaluate his or her subordinates annually.
Spell out numbers from zero through nine; however, if you must begin a sentence with a number greater than nine, then spell it out. Write figures for numbers 10 and over.
Examples: the first three pages, or 10 complaints, or we drove 11 miles, or She has 120 employees, or twenty people attended the meeting.
Make no assumptions about any group of people, and treat everyone equally. In general, this means:
- Don’t usefirst names (unless everyone’s name is used that way).
- Don’t refer to females as ladies or girls.
- Don’t use -man occupational titles (such as foreman, chairman) if you can avoid them.
- Don’t use derogatory words (such as gyp, derived from gypsy).
- Don’t use job titles that imply that only men or only women hold certain jobs. (Example:use personnel, not )
- Don’t use demeaning or stereotypical terms.
- Don’t use nonparallel constructions. Example: Joe, a security analyst, and his wife, a beautiful blonde. Use appropriate personal titles and salutations (such as professional titles). Marital status is usually not appropriate to mention in business writing.
Your message should have a confident attitude, so avoid phrases such as I hope, If you agree, If you’d like to, or I know you are busy, but….
Avoid being trite, condescending, or offensive.
- By paying your bill before May 15, you will maintain your excellent credit history with us.
- Not:Companies like ours can’t survive unless you pay your bill.
- I have forwarded your complaint to the shipping department. You should hear from them within the week.
- Not:You sent your complaint to the wrong department.
- Your raise was based on an objective evaluation of your performance last year.
- Not:I’m surprised you would question your recent raise given your overall performance last year.
In summary, a writing checklist provides a framework to create quality, professional material.
For business, it ensure content aligns with core principles and reflects brand values. Also, it should reflect your company’s ‘voice’.
Preparing a short writing checklist will ensure your writers, and new staff you onboard, deliver consistent, high-quality work.