Business Document Format: Everything You Need to Know
Keep your purpose in the front of your mind, and don't go off topic.3 min read
For an effective business document format, follow these steps:
- Identify Purpose and Audience
- Understand Reader's Needs
- Organize Ideas
- Emphasize Readers' Benefits
- Be Concise
- Validate Claims
- Proofread Document
Identify Purpose and Audience
Keep your purpose in the front of your mind, and don't go off topic. It may help to write down your objective somewhere you can see it and refer to it while writing. If you find that your objective has changed during the writing process, be sure to go back and edit your document so the idea remains cohesive.
Be sure to account for both your primary audience, readers who will directly receive your document, and secondary, or "hidden," audiences, those who may receive your communication indirectly. This may include approvers, those who hear about your message, or anyone affected by your document.
Business documents vary from legal contracts to interoffice memos to letters sent to recipients outside of the company, such as government officials, job applicants, or business partners. It's important to identify why you are writing your document and who will be reading it.
Understand Readers' Needs
Anticipate and include the information your readers will need or want. Although you will not always be able to answer every question your reader will have, you should provide answers to the most important ones. Be aware that your audience may have a negative bias about your topic, so list the opposing concerns and your reasons against them; however, if you think your readers will not respond to counterarguments, don't include them.
Ways to organize and display your ideas include:
- Style guidelines: Each type of business document has standard company guidelines that need to be followed.
- Outline: If your document is long, create an outline to help structure your thoughts and ensure that all of the necessary information is included. Outlines are also helpful if the document needs to be restructured during the writing process.
- White space: Use the empty space between sections to emphasize important ideas and break up information into smaller, convenient pieces.
- Headers and subheaders: These provide readers a "map" of your document, allowing them to see where specific sections begin and end.
The typical document structure is:
- Introductory paragraph: Present your purpose in the first paragraph and let readers know of any action that needs to be taken.
- Body paragraphs/sections: The following paragraphs should have only one key point each that is introduced by a topic sentence. Be sure to group similar information together. Use bullets or listing words, such as "first," "second," etc., to organize a list of items in a paragraph.
- Conclusion: The last paragraph/section should restate your purpose, along with the actions you want the readers to take.
Emphasize Readers' Benefits
Identify how the audience will benefit by reading your document and tell them about those benefits early on. This is particularly important if you are writing a persuasive document or advertising for a product, service, or policy.
People will grow tired of reading a document that rambles. Keep words and sentences short, and delete unnecessary information; however, be careful to avoid omitting pertinent information, such as contact details, statistics, or dates.
Only include complete and accurate information. When possible, provide statistics, studies, or examples to substantiate your claims. You can also add charts or graphs but only when they provide useful information. Avoid filler.
Spell checkers and grammar checkers aren't always reliable, so proofread your document. If possible, ask a coworker to read it before submitting.
Common errors include:
- Incomplete sentences: Make sure that each sentence has a subject and a verb. Do not use commas where periods should be.
- Subject-verb agreement: Regardless of intervening phrases, verbs must agree in number with the subject.
- Passive/Active voice: Sentences should be in the active voice. Passive: "The clothes were washed by Jane." Active: "Jane washed the clothes."
- Illegible graphics: If you include tables or graphs, be sure that they are clear and easy to read. Remember that too many graphics can distract from your message, so only use them as needed.
- Typographical errors: Examples of typos include missing words, punctuation mistakes, misspelled homonyms, such as "they're" instead of "their."
If you need help with business document format, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Stripe, and Twilio.