Writing business letters is a forgotten art. The Internet has made us lazy writers. With a few keystrokes, we can kick off a short e-mail without thinking much about content, much less formatting. Have you ever reviewed your own e-mails and discovered misspellings, incomplete sentences, formatting mistakes, and grammatical errors? Usually, we think nothing about how our lazy writing negatively affects our e-mails; other people e-mail us the same type of junk all the time. But, still, writing lousy e-mails should not give us the excuse to be lazy writers all the time, online or offline.
Writing business letters may be one of the best skills a business person can possess, especially during these times when few people possess it. The following tips will help you to construct better business letters. You can also adapt these principles to write better business e-mails, in terms of both format, style, and tone.
Components & Formatting
All business letters are comprised of the following elements, in this order:
- Recipient’s name and address
- Opening paragraph
- Closing paragraph
- Your name and address
The style of formatting will dictate how these elements are situated on the page. The three most common formatting styles are:
BLOCK: Each part of the letter is left-justified, and the text is single-spaced, except for double-spaced paragraph breaks.
MODIFIED BLOCK: The opening, body and closing paragraphs are left-justified and single-spaced, but the date, closing, and salutation are center-aligned.
SEMI-BLOCK: Exactly like modified block, except each paragraph is indented, not left-justified.
Regardless of which style you choose, you’ll also need to consider the font; your choice is important, as fancy fonts are sometimes unreadable. The most commonly used and widely accepted font is Times New Roman, size 12. It’s readable, professional, and universally used for business letters. It’s not outside the realm of possibility, however, to take liberties here; you can really use any readable font (Arial, Verdana, Helvetica), but always consider what your recipient would like to see.
Since the principal point of your business letter is to grab and keep the reader’s attention, you’ll need to focus on the opening, the first (and sometimes only) opportunity you have to grab the recipient’s attention. The opening also sets the tone for the entire letter, so it must be as strong and characteristic as possible.
DO get straight to the point. Your recipient doesn’t need a bunch of unnecessary info., especially not right upfront. If it doesn’t pertain to or bores them, they’ll just stop reading.
DON’T start with cliché phrases like “I am writing because…” or “With regards to…”. This simply appears that you don’t know where to start. The real message won’t start until after those phrases, so why not eliminate the unnecessary and uncreative words?
DO use strong, active verbs. This keeps the focus on the reader and makes the letter far more interesting. For instance, instead of writing “this offer is being extended to you for a brief period of time,” try “we’re briefly extending this offer to you.” See how much easier that is?
DON’T get longwinded. Keep the opening short and to the point, use the best words possible, and never make the reader work for the point of the letter.
This is the meat of the letter, where you’ll fully explain the ideas introduced in the opening. It’s easy to lose momentum here, but this part must be every bit as strong as the opening.
DO write like talk. This doesn’t mean using informal slang or profanity, but why lapse into business-speak when it’s trite and boring? Chances are, you aren’t a 19th-century British gentleman, so don’t write like one! Use a conversation, yet respectful, tone and try to phrase things similarly to how you’d actually say them.
DON’T lose the point. Save the digressions for a face-to-face chat. You’ve got a short time to hold the reader’s interest here and off-point sentences will simply give your reader time to yawn and put the letter down. List the points you need to make prior to writing and stick to them.
DO keep related information together. Don’t move on to another point until you’ve finished the last, and resist the urge to scatter topics haphazardly. Anything less and you’ll appear to be rambling with no sense of focus.
DON’T get pedantic. Sure, it’s nice to show off our vocabularies, but that big word has little point if a smaller word would be more effective and readable. Put the thesaurus away and use familiar language.
This paragraph is the last string of sentences your reader will see, so it needs to be as strong as the rest of the letter.
DO keep it short. The closing paragraph can be the briefest part of the letter as you’re simply restating, in simple language, what you’ve already written. Restate your point and sign off.
DON’T fizzle out. It’s tempting to let the closing paragraph sort of die quickly or be an exact replica of other sentences simply because you’ve already worked so hard on the rest. Resist that urge — keep the ending strong, and hold your conversational tone.
DO be clear about your intentions. If you’re looking for an email response or a business meeting, make that clear. The point of your letter will be lost if the reader has little idea what you want from them or how to proceed from here.
DON’T get trite. Avoid typical cliché endings like “Thank you in advance…” or “Please do not hesitate to call…”; this ends the business letter on a weak note. Be as direct and creative as possible without falling prey to typical business language.