How to Write a Business Letter: Write for Your Reader, Not for Yourself

Too many business letters are written for the writer instead of the reader. You know what you want to say, so you assume the reader will too. But if the reader knew what was in your mind, why would you need to write? It's up to you to express your message so that the reader understands it.

Watch out for jargon

One of the main barriers to business communication is the inappropriate use of jargon. Is the reader a member of your company, your organization, your industry or profession? If so, a certain amount of jargon may be appropriate. After all, jargon comes into being simply because it is often the best means of communication among members of a particular group. The problem arises, however, when we forget that reader is outside that group, and may not understand our special language.

Jargon is a special type of "insider" language designed to communicate easily with other members of a particular group. So there's no reason why outsiders should know your jargon. It's important to realize that they will not necessarily tell you they don't understand because, ironically, they think they should know! So because of inappropriate language, the message is lost and communication breaks down. This is definitely not how you should write a business letter.

Use a pleasant tone

Many of the letters we send to one another in business are just not nice! We use words and phrases we would never use in conversation, and many of them create a tone we never intended.

Tone is something we relate to sound, such as the human voice. We know when someone is annoyed at us by the tone of voice they use in speaking to us. We know if they are being polite, or if they are being sarcastic. In writing, tone is just as important, but here we don't have the advantage of hearing the words spoken so they have to speak clearly on the printed page.

You must have heard the old expression, "You catch more bears with honey than you do with vinegar." But did you ever stop to think you may be dripping vinegar in your business writing, without ever realizing it?

Examples of what I call vinegar words are: blame fault careless failure inferior negligence penalty complaint.

Honey words include: please thank you appreciate understand agree excellent service value.

Think, for example, about the difference in tone between these two sentences

John did not attend the meeting.
John failed to attend the meeting.

The first one is simply a statement of fact, while the second one implies judgement. He should have been at the meeting, but he wasn't. Often we don't mean to inject that shade of meaning when we use the word fail, but we do.

Here is an illustration of how you can say the same thing, but with a vastly different result, by using honey words instead of vinegar.

The problem of vinegar-laden correspondence has become more noticeable now with the growth of e-mail, and the situation is even worse here because we have a tendency to press that send button without carefully considering what we have written. Many a cyber-fight has started because someone unthinkingly poured vinegar into their words, when they could just as easily have smoothed the way with honey.

When you're learning how to write a business letter, make sure you haven't inadvertently yelled at someone in writing. Be nice!

How to Write a Business Letter: Let's Talk About Salutations

The salutation: that's the Dear... line you use at the start when you write a business letter.

There are several variations you can choose, depending on the position of the person you're writing to, whether or not you know the person's name, how well you know the person, etc. Here are a few guidelines:

• The simplest and most usual form is Dear Mr. Wilson, Dear Ms Wells, Dear Mrs. Spencer, Dear Miss Rodriguez, Dear Dr. O'Day. When you write a business letter to a woman, use the Ms form unless she has already referred to herself as Miss or Mrs., in which case follow her lead.

Dear Don, Dear Martha. When you know the person well, it's quite acceptable today to use his or her first name in the salutation.

• When writing to a business entity such as a company, rather than an individual, the correct (and politically correct!) form is Dear Sirs/Mesdames.

Finally, a word of caution about Attention:... lines. Usually you put this in when you are writing an official letter to an organization, and the person's name is simply for practical purposes. You should not put the individual's name in the salutation when you use an Attention... line, like this:

ABC Company
123 Main Street
Any Town, Any State 00234

Attention: John Jacobs

Dear Mr. Jacobs:

This is an incorrect hybrid of two styles. Here are two correct alternatives:

ABC Company
123 Main Street
Any Town, Any State 00234

Attention: John Jacobs

Dear Sirs/Mesdames:


Mr. John Jacobs
BC Company
123 Main Street
Any Town, Any State 00234

Dear Mr. Jacobs:

Using the appropriate salutation when you write a business letter will get your message off on the right foot.

How to Write A Business Letter: Finding the Right Balance

How to Write a Business Letter: Finding the Right Balance

We live in times of constant change, and knowing how to write a business letter yesterday doesn't mean you'll know how to write a business letter today! The styles of years gone by have now gone out the window, grammar rules have been modified and the changes accepted through usage, and yesterday's formality has given way to a more casual, human approach.

The problem with this is that many folks in the workplace today have had no formal training in grammar and basic writing, since these were mostly abandoned by education systems some years ago, so they don't even know which "rules" they are breaking. So now there's a general tendency to kind of make it up as we go along, and that's no way to treat a language.

What we need to do is to find the right balance between the formality of yesterday and the often sloppy "instant messaging" language so prevalent today.

The fact is, a business letter is still a formal document, often constituting the only official written record of business contracts and other occurrences. As such, it should be clearly understood not only in the moment, but also if it is read six months or five years from now. To accomplish this, we need to adhere to certain principles, even actual rules. I'll be discussing these over a number of posts, so if you want to learn how to write a business letter stay tuned!

In the meantime, have a look at this: The Anatomy of a Business Letter.

How to Write a Business Letter: the content

This is the second of three short articles on how to write a business letter. This one deals with the content of the letter.

A business letter should begin with a subject line, which tells the recipient what the letter is about. An example might be Change in time of departmental meeting.

Open the letter by stating its purpose. Combined with the subject line, this makes your reader's mind ready to receive your message. So you might start with The time of our regular meeting has been changed for this month only. You would then go on to provide details. Tell the reader all he or she needs to know, but don't ramble or include superfluous information. A major fault in business letters is that they are often much longer than necessary, which is why people often don't read them carefully.

The overall impression of your letter is important. People almost always respond better and more quickly to a pleasant tone than a sarcastic or threatening one, so don't try so hard to be businesslike that you end up being downright unpleasant!

Get to the point as quickly as possible, preferably in the first paragraph. People are busy, so they don't want to read three paragraphs of background before they find out the main message of your letter. If you are delivering bad news, you might soften it a little with an introductory sentence, but you should still state your main point as early a possible.

If you are asking the recipient to do something, ask for that action in the closing sentence, providing a reason for the action if appropriate. For example, Please let me know by Wednesday of next week whether or not you will attend the meeting, so that I can order enough donuts. That should do it!

When you write a business letter, remember the three 'C's: clear, concise, correct.

How to Write a Business Letter

When people ask me how to write a business letter, I tell them to consider three aspects:

1. The format

2. The content

3. The correctness of their writing.

This article looks at the format.

There are eight parts you must include when you write a business letter:

The return address: This is your address, or the address of the person writing the letter. If you are writing on behalf of a company, this information will be part of the letterhead at the top of the printed sheet. If you are writing on your own behalf, your address should be typed at the top of the page, either in the middle or in the right hand corner. In either case, each part of the address (street, city, province or state, postal or zip code, country) should have its own line.

The date: The date on which you write a business letter is an important part of the history of the topic, so always put it on your letter. It usually goes at the left margin, several lines below the last line of the return address.

The inside address: This is the name and address of the person to whom you are writing. It begins two lines below the date, and includes first and last name, company name, street address, city, province or state, postal or zip code. If the person is in a different country from you, include the country in the last line. Although you will see examples where there is no title (such as Mr., Mrs., Ms or Dr.), it is still considered polite to include this.

The salutation: Two lines below the last line of the inside address, begin your letter with the salutation, or Dear... line. Unless you know the recipient very well, write Dear Mr. Ross or Dear Ms Roberts. In North America, punctuation after the salutation is generally a colon, while U.K. writers tend prefer the comma. Both are correct.

The Body: This is the content, or the message of the letter. I will go into this in detail in another article, but for now just remember it should be clear, concise and correct.

The complimentary close: This comes two lines below the last line of the letter, and might be yours sincerely, sincerely, yours truly, yours faithfully or even regards. Much depends on where you live, your company's usual style, how well your know the person or just your own preference.

The signature: Leave four to six blank lines after the complimentary close for the handwritten signature.

The name and title of the writer: Beneath the handwritten signature is the typed name of the writer. Sometimes the person's title is included in a separate line, but this is optional.

When you write a business letter, using the proper format will add to its readability, and also your credibility.