Effective Bad-News Messages in Business Writing

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A businessman contemplates sending bad news to a colleague

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In business writing, a bad-news message is a letter, memo, or email that conveys negative or unpleasant information—information that is likely to disappoint, upset, or even anger a reader. It is also called an indirect message or a negative message.

Bad-news messages include rejections (in response to job applications, promotion requests, and the like), negative evaluations, and announcements of policy changes that don't benefit the reader.

A bad-news message conventionally begins with a neutral or positive buffer statement before introducing the negative or unpleasant information. This approach is called the indirect plan.

Examples and Observations

  • "It is much, much worse to receive bad news through the written word than by somebody simply telling you, and I’m sure you understand why. When somebody simply tells you bad news, you hear it once, and that’s the end of it. But when bad news is written down, whether in a letter or a newspaper or on your arm in felt tip pen, each time you read it, you feel as if you are receiving the bad news again and again." (Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can't Avoid. HarperCollins, 2007)

Sample: Rejection of a Grant Application

On behalf of the members of the Research & Scholarship Committee, thank you for submitting an application for this year's Research & Scholarship grants competition.

I’m sorry to report that your grant proposal was among those that were not approved for funding in the spring. With the reduction in grant funds caused by budget cuts and the record number of applications, I’m afraid that many worthwhile proposals could not be supported.

Although you did not receive a grant this year, I trust that you will continue to pursue both internal and external funding opportunities.

Introductory Paragraph

  • "The introductory paragraph in the bad-news message should accomplish the following objectives: (1) provide a buffer to cushion the bad news that will follow, (2) let the receiver know what the message is about without stating the obvious, and (3) serve as a transition into the discussion of reasons without revealing the bad news or leading the receiver to expect good news. If these objectives can be accomplished in one sentence, that sentence can be the first paragraph." (Carol M. Lehman and Debbie D Dufrene, Business Communication, 15th ed. Thomson, 2008)

Body Paragraph(s)

  • "Deliver the bad news in the body of the message. State it clearly and concisely, and explain the reasons briefly and unemotionally. Avoid apologies; they weaken your explanation or position. Try to embed the bad news in a supporting, not the topical, sentence of a paragraph. Furthermore, try to embed it in a subordinate clause of a sentence. The purpose is not to conceal the bad news, but to soften its impact." (Stuart Carl Smith and Philip K. Piele, School Leadership: Handbook for Excellence in Student Learning. Corwin Press, 2006)


  • "The closing of a message containing negative news should be courteous and helpful. The purpose of the closing is to maintain or rebuild goodwill. ... The closing should have a sincere tone. Avoid overused closings such as If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to call. ... Offer the receiver another option. ... Presenting another option shifts the emphasis from the negative news to a positive solution." (Thomas L. Means, Business Communications, 2nd ed. South-Western Educational, 2009)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Effective Bad-News Messages in Business Writing." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/bad-news-message-business-writing-1689018. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Effective Bad-News Messages in Business Writing. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/bad-news-message-business-writing-1689018 Nordquist, Richard. "Effective Bad-News Messages in Business Writing." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/bad-news-message-business-writing-1689018 (accessed June 3, 2023).