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Marketing / Business writing

Styles in modern business writing

First impressions count and we usually judge a piece of business writing on its visual appearance before we’ve even read a word.

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Many visual aspects are taken care of in a well-written document, as good writing makes use of attractive white space from subheadings and short paragraphs. Using modern business writing styles also makes your writing look clean and attractive.

Styles change over time and the modern business writing trend is for styles to be more minimal regarding the use of capitals, bulleted lists, spaces between sentences and punctuation generally.

Sentence case for headings

In the past, we used initial capitals for all important words in titles and headings. We still use this style for book titles (e.g. Pride and Prejudice), but for headings and subheadings in business writing, the modern style is sentence case (i.e. an initial capital at the beginning and for proper nouns).

This style has the advantage that you don’t have to worry about what is an ‘important’ word.

Bulleted lists

The old-fashioned way of writing bulleted lists was to use semi-colons after each point. The second-to-last point had a semi-colon plus ‘and’ and the final point had a full stop.

"As with any aspect of style, an overriding rule is consistency."

Some legal documents still use this style, but most modern business writers use one or more of the following options.

Full-sentence lists

With full-sentence lists, you can use normal sentence punctuation.

Want more articles like this? Check out the business writing section.

Lists with sentence fragments relating to a stem statement

Many lists have a stem statement that each bullet point relates to. With such lists, use lower case for the first letter in each bullet point and a full stop after the final bullet point. For example:

Before you travel overseas:

  • make sure your passport is current
  • find out if you need any vaccinations
  • check the expiry dates of your credit cards.

I wonder whether this style will die out as Microsoft insists on defaulting to an initial capital. If you use this style, make sure each bullet point is grammatically consistent with the stem statement.

Lists with single words or short phrases

With lists that are made up of single words or short phrases, many writers now choose the Microsoft default and use initial capitals. They also drop the final full stop. For example:

Remember to pack your:

  • Passport
  • Vaccination certificates
  • Visa photographs

Spaces between sentences

The modern business writing style is one space between sentences, not two. The use of two spaces dates back to typewriter days.

I know from teaching grammar and style that some people are very attached to their double spaces, believing they add white space to a document. I disagree as I think they create distracting ‘rivers of white’. If you’re a double-spacer and want to change your style, I suggest you do a search and replace – it’s a hard habit to break.

Consistency rules the day

As with any aspect of style, an overriding rule is consistency.

What styles or trends have you observed in modern business writing? Are there any trends you feel strongly about?

Mary Morel

, The M Factor, works with individuals and organisations to improve their writing (grammar, reports, board papers etc.)

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