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Is Your Writing Too Abrupt?

You work against deadlines. Often you have to write quickly, even when the message is complex and somewhat delicate. It’s not surprising that you occasionally come across as abrupt when you thought you were being efficient. This problem is especially true in email.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been getting web design help from an excellent graphic designer, Barb Rowan. When we go back and forth in email, not yet coming to agreement (perhaps with me resisting a new idea), I can feel my stress level rising, and I want to be sure my tension doesn’t come across in my writing. In situations like that, it’s time to slow down and breathe.

Speed is not efficient when the result is an abrupt, unkind message. It can take hours or days to resolve misunderstandings and repair morale when something has come across as tactless and abrupt.

Here are 10 simple ways I recommend to warm up your message and reduce the risk of hurt feelings.

1. Use a greeting.
Rather than going straight to your point, start with “Hi,” “Hello,” “Good morning,” “Greetings,” or another opener. A greeting acknowledges that you are communicating with another human being—not a machine. In a quick exchange of messages you can, of course, skip the greeting. But when you write again the following day, include one.

2. Use the person’s name.
Virtually everyone appreciates being addressed by name. Although it may seem sufficient to start a message “See inline,” when you begin with the person’s name, you acknowledge him or her. It is a simple gesture that can have a profound positive effect. For up to four readers or so, use everyone’s name. For a larger group, use a group name, for example, “Thanks for your fine work, Customer Service Team.”

3. Use your own first name.
In email, many people use automatic signatures with their full name. Others use no name at all—they just end the message. But signing (typing) your first name warms up the message, creating a connection between you and the reader.

Mortar boardThese tips come from my award-winning book, Business Writing With Heart. It’s a great gift for a new college grad or for someone reentering the workforce. Get it from Amazon, or order it from your favorite bookseller.


4. Use complete sentences to avoid sounding cold or sarcastic.
“Thanks” or “Thanks a lot,” can sound sarcastic, especially in sensitive messages. Instead, write “Thanks for handling this. I really appreciate it.” Rather than “See me” or “We need to talk,” write “Let’s talk soon. I’d like to hear your thoughts on these images.”

5. Include words and phrases that communicate warmth and connection.
A message without positive language can seem cold and abrupt. Use these words and phrases for a warmer tone:

  • thank you for    
  • pleased to    
  • welcome    
  • l looking forward    
  • pleasure    
  • value    
  • I’m honored    
  • glad    
  • happy to    
  • grateful    
  • glad to    
  • thoughtful    
  • delighted    
  • terrific

6. Avoid cool, canned language.
Some phrases, such as “I look forward to meeting you,” may be canned, but they aren’t cold. Others are canned and cold: “Thank you in advance for your cooperation in this matter.” To warm up your message, write as though the reader is your friend or valued colleague: “I would really appreciate your help with this research” or “Thanks so much for considering my request.”

7. Be clear when you are agreeing with the person or echoing their views.
In a quick exchange of messages, you may be tempted to write a simple sentence repeating what your reader has already written. But this action may lead your reader to think That’s exactly what I said! To avoid such a response, write “I agree with you that Constanza is the best person for the job” rather than “Constanza is the best person for the job.” That way, you head off this response: “Didn’t he read what I wrote? I was the one who recommended her!”

8. Avoid the word immediately or now when you are writing with a request or assigning a task.
Your reader may have several other immediate jobs, and your request may seem pushy and unreasonable, even if you are the boss. If something must be done immediately, stop by in person, phone, or email to ask whether the individual has time available. Assume that the other person is as busy as you—even busier.

9. Read your message aloud—exactly as it is on the page or screen.
Reading aloud helps you recognize how your writing may sound to others. You may have merely stated a fact when you wrote “Handling the Walters account is your responsibility.” Reading it aloud, though, you may notice a hint of criticism that you did not intend. When you can, wait at least a few minutes between writing your note and reading it aloud. That way, your impression will be fresher—similar to your reader’s fresh view.

10. Have someone read your message before you send it.
This step can be especially helpful when your communication will go to a group and when the reaction to it may not be positive. Your test reader can think about the people in the group and how to help them react positively to your message.

Often abruptness is accidental. But sometimes it comes across because of the writer’s underlying feeling of resentment, irritation, or entitlement. At all times, do your best to focus on the big picture, the higher goal, and the long term when you write. While it might feel good to put down, unsettle, or get the best of a colleague in writing, resist that temptation.

When you are hurt or angry, write a retaliatory message in your mind, have a big laugh (or cry) about it, and then do the right thing: behave generously and professionally. The cost of repairing the damage of a rude or abrupt message—in time, money, morale, and frustration—is just too great.

Do you have tips to reduce abruptness? Please share them.

Would you like to take your business writing to the next level? Try out our online course Business Writing Tune-Up.


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

9 comments on “Is Your Writing Too Abrupt?”

  • Love the new look! Very nice…you can relax now.

    I appreciate reading your constructive writing tips and tricks every time they land in my email box. Thank you.

  • Hi Lynn-
    I really relate to suggestion #10 — let someone else read your work. I spent many years as an elementary teacher before changing fields. I was always lucky to have great partners that could help me gauge the tone of my writing — especially if it was a parent that was getting on my nerves (and yes, that does happen!)I continue to rely on others at times to read emails to make things clear and to have the right tone.

  • Thanks for elaborating on #10, Pat, and for admitting your humanity.

    Your point made me think about the other side of the communication. Sometimes it can help to have others read a seemingly hostile email we RECEIVE. They may be able to help us see that the message is less harsh than we imagine.


  • This, by far, is my favorite post of yours. I am a huge believer of compassionate and warm communication in any form. Thank you for a much needed post.

  • I love this: “When you are hurt or angry, write a retaliatory message in your mind”! Do you do this often? I think it’s even more satisfying to actually write it! And then, of course, do the right thing.

    I think #2 is also valid in verbal communication, it’s actually really effective, you can see appreciation in the eyes of your party in converse, especially if it’s the first time you meet each other.

    I like #3 because I already felt that way about my automatic signature: it’s cold. However, I never dared adding just my name, it seemed odd. Now that you say so, I’ll start doing it right away!

  • Hi Deborah,

    I’m glad you like these points. I agree with you about the satisfaction of writing the retaliatory message. I don’t do it because it takes too much time to get the hostile tone just right! I’d rather rant in my mind for a few moments and then move on, if possible.

    I’ve been using my first name above my signature block forever. I believe the gesture evolved from signing my first name in letters and notes, wanting to warm up the message.

    Thanks so much for commenting.


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