The language we use shapes the way that other people see us, so it is important to think carefully about the way that we present ourselves, both in speech and in writing, particularly when we are working on business correspondence.

Writing Professional Emails

Recognizing the importance of careful editing, particularly for professional writing, is the first step to making sure we are creating the right impression. Getting the basics right is the next. We need to understand how to set out business letters and formal emails, and we need to be able to use language correctly. Spelling mistakes and poor grammar can make us look uneducated or sloppy, even if they are just the result of mistyping in a hurry.

In order to ensure that our business writing style works, we also need to be aware of the less obvious ways in which our language can shape the way that we are perceived. For example, if we write using a particular national or regional dialect of English, such as Australian English or East Anglian English, it can shape the reader’s perceptions of our background. It can also annoy some recipients if they are confronted by unfamiliar word uses or spellings because your version of English is different than theirs, so it can be a good idea to switch to US, UK or other spellings when writing a business letter to someone in that country.

The way we write can send out even subtler signals about who we are. Our writing styles are not as unique as fingerprints, but they can be recognized by forensic linguists, and they can produce strong impressions on the reader. Whether we use more active or passive sentences, stick to formal language or start inserting slang and contractions, and whether we follow the rules of writing etiquette carefully and politely, can all shape the impression we make on the reader.


Improving Your Emails

Taking the time to think about what we want to say and how we should say it in order to get the desired response is the best way to write better business letters and emails, but there are a few other tricks to improving our professional writing. One option that can give us a significant advantage is to get a second opinion, whether this is a colleague checking for clarity and spelling mistakes, or a professional team of editors ensuring that our emails are perfectly formed. Tools such as online dictionaries, thesauruses and style guides can also be useful if we want to check that we are using the right words or phrasing ourselves correctly. They can help us to hone our own professional style, perhaps by emulating those advocated by publications we admire, such as the Economist or Guardian. We might even want to develop our own personal style guide including common terms and acronyms that we use to keep our professional communications consistent. Another useful trick when dealing with large amounts of correspondence is to use an email management system such as Path to create, manage and test our communications, rather than relying on the limited editing and organizational tools provided by basic email clients.

Informal Emails

Producing the right effect on readers is most important for the formal emails that we write in our professional lives, but it can also be interesting to think about how our more personal messages, such as emails to friends, tweets and status updates, might appear to other people. We need to be particularly careful when it comes to public messages, or to posts on social networks where we are in contact with clients or employers. We don’t want to give the wrong impression. Even in private emails to friends and family, it can help to take a moment to read what we have written and think about how it will look to the recipient.

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One issue that can arise with informal posts and emails is that it can be impossible for the person on the other end to decipher the tone of voice that we thought was absolutely clear. Sarcasm is particularly difficult to recognize in other people’s writing, so much so that some people have even called for the invention of a sarcasm symbol, like the SarcMark, that could be used to indicate tone in the same way as an exclamation mark can indicate excitement. Another common feature in informal online writing is the use of emoticons and emoji. These can help us to overcome our difficulties with conveying our tone or emotions in words alone, although they are not appropriate for more serious or professional emails. Intriguingly, they can also reflect our personalities in subtle ways, just as our accents, word choices and writing styles can convey hidden messages about who we are. For example, linguists at Stanford have suggested that those of us who include details like noses in our smiley faces tend to be more traditionally minded and less likely to use slang and abbreviations.

Whenever we share our thoughts in writing, we reveal more about ourselves than just the words on the page. We need to write carefully in order to ensure that the people reading our messages at the other end understand our meaning and see us as we would like to be seen. We can’t rely on tricks like emoticons to do this in our professional writing, so we need to use our carefully crafted phrases instead.

Citations and useful sources of further information:

1. “Evaluating the Impact of our Written Words,” English Trackers English Editing Blog, accessed July 9, 2014.
2. “English Dialect Study- an overview,” Oxford English Dictionary, accessed July 9, 2014.
3. “25 Tips for Perfecting Your E-mail Etiquette,” Inc, accessed July 9, 2014.
4. “Forensic Linguistics: Recognizing Individual Written and Spoken Word Usages and Characteristics,” Angela Lack, NCSTL, accessed July 9, 2014.
5. “The Economist Style Guide,” The Economist, accessed July 9, 2014.
6. “The Guardian and Observer style guide,” The Guardian, accessed July 9, 2014.
7. “Path,” Path, accessed July 9, 2014.
8. “SarcMark Info, Stupid Idea? Think About It!” SarcMark, accessed July 9. 2014.
9. “How Using Emoji Makes Us Less Emotional, And what linguists say it means if your smiley face has a nose,” New Republic, accessed July 9, 2014.