Build Create Clarity & Coherence

Contents

  1. Paragraphs
  2. Email Messages

Link & Learn

Some paragraphs throughout the course will be marked as examples, activities, required reading, or optional tips

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To access the previous PDF version of the online textbook, click here. Note: The PDF version will not reflect any updates or changes.

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Building strong paragraphs creates a foundation for good writing.

Start building your message by combining sentences into paragraphs.

Because emails are simply sets of paragraphs—and the most common form of business writing—we’ll also discuss best practices for business email construction.


Start building your message by combining sentences into paragraphs.

Because emails are simply sets of paragraphs—and the most common form of business writing—we’ll also discuss best practices for business email construction.

Section OneParagraphs


Readers don’t like solid walls of text. Long paragraphs seem to demand too much time and effort. When you break messages into short paragraphs—highlighted by headings, guided by transitions, and framed by white space—you make your message more inviting.

In general, aim for paragraphs with three to five sentences. Occasionally, you might use a single-sentence paragraph for emphasis. Other times, you might need a longer paragraph to complete your thought.

Most paragraphs should be about
3 to 5
sentences long


Owl: Purdue Online Writing Lab

Begin with a Topic Sentence

The first sentence in each paragraph should introduce your topic and inform the reader of the paragraph’s purpose. These topic sentences provide a framework for your paragraph and allow you to deliver content on a unified theme. Write topic sentences clearly so that busy readers can get the gist of your argument by skimming the topic sentence of each paragraph.

Supply Supporting Details

Advance from the general to the specific―both within paragraphs and from paragraph to paragraph. Concrete, specific details give your claims (and you) credibility. As author Bryan Garner asserts: “People don’t care about—or even remember—abstractions the way they do specifics.”

Develop your arguments and examples by carefully selecting evidence-based details that lead your audience to draw the conclusions that you want them to make. Read the examples in the table below to see how to show, not tell.

Example

Telling V. Showing

No
Yes
She’s not a good employee. She missed the last four employee meetings, showed up late for two client meetings, and lost key sales data.
Our sales team is doing great. Our team made 35% more sales this quarter than during the third quarter last year.
There are not enough funds for pay raises. Our analysis shows that we need to increase productivity by 8% or reduce expenses by 3% to afford a pay raise of 5%.
The retail industry is not what it used to be [vague]. Traditional retailers struggle to compete with the wide margins and low overhead of online retailers. [specific]

Supporting details: Seventy-one percent of shoppers believe they will get a better deal online than in stores.
Required Reading

Show don’t Tell

Read Bryan Garner’s article “Writing Emails that People Won’t Ignore.”

Make Smooth Transitions

Transition words and phrases guide readers not only from paragraph to paragraph in a document, but also from point to point within paragraphs. When used well, transitions don’t call attention to themselves.

Transitions might give emphasis, add points, set up contrasts, establish sequences, signal conclusions, or orient readers. See the table below for some examples.

Keep a list of transition words nearby to help you form links in your writing.

Awkward transition: And thus we can deduce that online sales play an important role in the retail industry.

Smooth Transition: Clearly, online sales play an important role in the retail industry.

Example

Transition Examples

Establish a sequence At first, consumers are hesitant to buy online, but after just a few online shopping experiences, they seem to prefer online shopping.
Set up a contrast And yet, nothing can quite replace the experience of traditional shopping.
Provide an example For example, online shopping carts do not lead to online dressing rooms. Merchandise from online stores cannot be tried on—or even touched—before purchasing.
Add a point Processing returns also feels inconvenient and expensive for most shoppers.
Concede a point Even though returning online merchandise is easier than it has been in the past, packaging items for mailing and paying for shipping still feels burdensome.
Conclude On the whole, consumers are shifting to online shopping with increasing loyalty.

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Section TwoEmail Messages


Let’s look at the principles of good paragraph writing in action by applying them to email messages for business.

Most email messages are short and direct. Follow the 4A’s to grab readers’ attention, structure your content, and close your email message.

Tip

Never send an email before proofreading it.

Exclamation Point

Be friendly, but don’t gush. Give yourself a budget of ONE exclamation point per email.

Alumni Advice

“Many businesses consider social media their go-to communications platform, yet emails have stood the test of time. They remain a vital part of daily business communication. I work hard to write emails that are concise and persuasive.”

picture of James Owusu-Ansah

James Owusu-Ansah

Associate Director

Africa West Area Church Communications
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
BYU MPA Class of 2020

Email Application OneUse Paragraphs

The first example below is an uninviting wall of text. The second example uses paragraphs to divide the meaning into sections and make the email more visually appealing. Which would you rather read?

Email Application TwoUse Visual Signposts and Topic Sentences

Visual signposts catch the reader’s eye. Bold text, bullet lists, and indents all highlight your important points. Topic sentences help readers “get” your message even if they simply skim your email.

Email Application ThreeInclude Supporting Information

Support your ideas, but find the balance between giving enough and too much information. You don’t want to overburden your reader, but you need to be credible. Use hyperlinks or attachments to provide more specific details.

Email Application FourUse Transitions

Transitions help your audience follow the path through your email and understand the relationship between your paragraphs.

Note: transitions are bolded in green to help you notice them—no need to bold them in actual emails.

Business Communication Tech Tips

Texting and IM

Texting and messaging on Instagram, Slack, or other social media sites are accepted forms of business communication, though their use is different from email. In general, use text messages for quick questions or reminders. Information you may need to reference later is best conveyed via email. GetVOIP provides a helpful list of basic rules for business texting: The 10 Commandments of Business Texting. Because communication technologies are evolving rapidly, your best approach is to carefully observe how your work colleagues and manager use different communication channels and match your communication patterns to theirs.

Emojis

In your first professional emails, don’t use emojis. Acceptable use is still evolving, and you can’t be sure how your recipient will react to seeing them in your email. But if you find that your correspondent uses them freely, go ahead and respond in kind. As with exclamation points, use them sparingly. As their name implies, emojis communicate feelings. Their judicious use can help you do important "emotion work" on the job, but using too many could make you look immature or shallow.

Tip

Unclear exactly what a particular emoji means? Check out the definitions in the Emojipedia.

Setting Boundaries

Texting. Instant messaging. Social media posts. How quickly should you respond?

In professional settings, what’s considered “timely” differs by communication platform. For emails, responding within 24 hours is typically expected. Instant messaging and texting, however, often carry the expectation of instant response.

An article in Inc. Magazine describes how Larionne Mariah, an independent branding consultant, handled a demanding client who accused her of being unresponsive. Larionne set clear boundaries between her personal and professional lives. When the client balked, Larionne refunded her fees and ended the project.

Larionne’s story raises important questions about professional accessibility in the instant messaging age. The article in Inc. Magazine offers three guidelines:

  1. Know the (unwritten) rules. Figure out how quickly your colleagues and clients expect you to respond to different types of messaging.
  2. Set boundaries. Decide what level of accessibility you are willing to live with.
  3. Communicate expectations. Let others know how best to reach you (email, IM, text, phone) and when they can expect to hear back.

In sum, managing accessibility is a crucial task for today’s professionals.

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In Conclusion


Use these examples to start building clear, concise paragraphs today.

Create paragraphs deliberately by using strong topic sentences, meaning-clarifying transitions, and just the right amount of detail.

When you use paragraphs to write strong emails and reports, your messages are more likely to be read . . . and acted upon.

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Bold citations are referenced in the chapter text.

Articles

Garner, Bryan A. “Write E-mails That People Won’t Ignore.” Harvard Business Review, February 21, 2013. Accessed August 2021.

Gill, Barry. “E-mail: Not Dead, Evolving.” Harvard Business Review, June 2013. Accessed August 2021.

Grech, Matt. “The 10 Commandments of Business Texting [Infographic].” GetVoip.com Blog, October 3, 2016. Accessed August 2021.

Tan, Cheryl Lu-Lien. “Mind Your Email Manners.” The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2015. Accessed August 2021.

Barley, Stephen R., Debra E. Meyerson, and Stine Grodal. “E-Mail as a Source and Symbol of Stress.” .” Organization Science 22, no. 4 (August 2011): 887–906. Accessed August 2021.

Riordan, Monica A. “Emojis as Tools for Emotion Work: Communicating Affect in Text Messages.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 36, no. 5 (October 1, 2017): 549–67. Accessed August 2021.

Books

Canavor, Natalie. Business Writing in the Digital Age. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2012.

Garner, Bryan A. HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2012.

Websites

Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age. “Transition Words.” Accessed August 2021.