Write effective business letters

By James Stroman, Kevin Wilson, and Jennifer Wauson

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Appearance

Despite constantly improving forms of communication such as e-mail, the business letter still exerts enormous influence and deserves your close attention. Business letters are more formal and personal than e-mail. They are also more private.

Very few customers ever see the home office or a branch office; this is often true even of small businesses. What customers do see is company correspondence. An untidy or ungrammatical letter gives the instant impression that the company's product or service is equally flawed. On the other hand, upon receiving a handsomely spaced, well-constructed, and well-organized letter, a customer unconsciously assumes it has come from an up-to-date, well-organized, and successful business.

A good business letter is good advertising

Letter writing occupies at least one-third of all office work, and good writing is the most effective advertisement of your capability. Any skills you can acquire or improve in this area do double duty: They help you work more quickly and effectively while advancing your career.

Besides the skills you need for your own writing, you need to learn techniques of letter writing to handle your boss's correspondence. Most successful businesspeople have already mastered the mechanics of language, but many in authoritative positions lack such skills. They rely on their administrative assistants to see that their letters are satisfactory.

Any letter that comes from your keyboard — whether composed by you or your employer — must have a businesslike appearance that does not distract from the message it has to convey. The letter must be neat and symmetrical, and with no typographical, grammatical, or spelling errors. Its language should clearly and simply go to the heart of the matter discussed. Its language and appearance should also be within the conventions of the commercial world. That is the reason each company selects its own style for presentation to its public.

Correspondence and the corporate image

The way in which a company is known to its customers, its good name, its reputation, and the quality of its products or services all comprise the corporate image. Image is very important, and many companies spend fortunes to have the image instantly recognized by the consumer, so no matter what style the company uses, use it consistently. This helps make the company's correspondence characteristically its own. That consistency also translates into dependability in the customer's mind.

Company style

If you are new to the company, it's not likely you'll be invited to decide on which style of letter to use. A certain style may have already been selected long ago after various experiments. In accordance with that style, you'll be instructed to indent paragraphs or to block them and to put a double-space between paragraphs that are single-spaced. Your boss will no doubt also tell you his or her way of closing a letter, perhaps with the company's name and his or her signature with title below. You should conform to your employer's preference without question.

At the same time, you'll be told of open punctuation (no marks at the end of each line outside the text of the letter) or closed punctuation (marks after the date line, after each line of the addressee's name and address, after the complimentary close, and after the signature). Closed punctuation is usually used with blocked paragraphs.

Parts of a business letter

The various parts of a business letter include:

Date line    Appears two to six lines below the last line of the printed letterhead. The date should be written out in this form: January 1, 2006.

Reference line    Appears on a new line below the date. The reference line contains a numerical file number, invoice number, policy number, or other reference information.

Special mailing notations    Special notations such as "confidential" should appear two lines below the date.

Inside address    Includes addressee's title and full name, business title, business name, and full address.

Attention line    If the letter is not addressed to any specific person, skip one space after the inside address and add, "Attention: —— ." You can make the letter go to the attention of a department.

Salutation    One line after the attention line or the inside address: Dear —— , Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Sir or Madam, Dear company name.

Subject line    Gives an overview of what the letter is about. Can be used in place of a salutation.

Message    The body of your letter with paragraph breaks, optional indentions for paragraphs, bullet lists, and number lists.

Complimentary close    Appears two lines below the last line of the message. Either left justified or five spaces to the right of center.

Signature block    Justified with the complimentary close with options of typed name and title, signature, or just signature.

Identification initials    The initials of the typist appear left-justified two spaces below the signature block.

Enclosure notation    Located with the identification initials or in place of them with the notation enc, encl, enclosures (3), or 3 encs.

Copy notation    Left-justified two lines below identification initials with the notation cc: person's full name or initials.

Postscript    Two spaces below the last text on the page. Includes P.S. and then a short sentence.

Beginning the letter

The date line

Some offices show the standard date line near the body of the letter, ending at the right margin two spaces above the name of the addressee, which is written flush with the left margin. If the centered date line is chosen, it is placed two spaces below the letterhead as though it's part of the letterhead and centered exactly.

This is an effective and well-balanced look if the company name and address in the letterhead fall in the center. If the letterhead is spread out across the whole top of the page ending at the right margin, then the standard date line seems more graceful and more balanced. When paper without a letterhead is used, the date line must be standard and must be a part of the three-line heading. This consists of the address of the writer and the date of the letter:

1501 Guadalupe St
Austin, Texas 87756
May 27, 2005

Never place the name of the writer in the typewritten heading of the letter, for that belongs only at the end of the letter.

In typing the date line, never abbreviate the name of the month or use figures for it. Also, use numerals only for the day of the month; never add nd, d, rd, st, or th. These sounds are heard but are never written.

Wrong Right
May 27th, 2005 May 27, 2005
June 22d, 2005 June 22, 2005

The inside address

The name and address of the addressee should be exactly as typed on the envelope. If a street address is long enough to require two lines, place the less important of the two above:

Student Union Building
School of Fine Art
Alva, Oklahoma 98997

If an individual in a company is addressed, show the individual's name (and title) with the company's name below that, single-spaced. If there is a long address that must be carried over to a second line, indent the second line three spaces:

Mr. Martin Rienstra, President
Woodgrove Bank and
    Mortgage Association
1200 Market Street
San Francisco, California 22351

Abbreviations     Never abbreviate part of the company name unless the company's registered name uses an abbreviation (Co., Inc., or &), and such abbreviation is shown on the company's official letterhead.

Names of cities are never abbreviated; names of states are also never abbreviated. There is one exception: Use the official U.S. Postal Service postal state abbreviations on the envelope address.

Figures     Figures are used for all house numbers except "one" (which is spelled out). If there is a numerical street number, separate the house number and street number by a dash:

3780–87 Street

Note that there's no th after "87."

"Care of"    Never use an abbreviation such as a percentage mark for "care of"; always spell the words out. Never use "care of " before a hotel name if the addressee is a guest there, and never use it before a company name if the addressee is employed there. However, if the addressee is temporarily receiving mail at the office of the company, "care of " may be used before the company name:

Mr. Michael Emanuel
Care of Contoso Pharmaceuticals
60 Wall Street
New York, New York 98052

Titles

An individual's name is always preceded by a title — for example, Mr., Ms., Mrs., Miss, Dr., or Col. It's permissible to place honorary initials after the name of an addressee; in that case, always omit the beginning title.

Wrong Right
Dr. David J. Liu, Ph.D. David J. Liu, Ph.D.

Reverend and Honorable are titles of respect and are preceded by the word "The." Mr. is omitted.

Wrong Right
Rev. Andrew Dixon The Rev. Andrew Dixon
Reverend Tim Litton The Reverend Tim Litton

Women and men

In addressing a woman, it's useful to refer to previous correspondence from the individual to see whether she included a courtesy title when she typed or signed her name. If you have no previous correspondence, use these general guidelines:

  • Miss is used for an unmarried woman.
  • Mrs., with her husband's full name (if known), is used for a married woman or a widow; if a divorcée retains her married name, use Mrs. plus her own name, not her husband's.
  • Ms. is used in any of the above cases if the woman prefers it; it's also used if you do not know the woman's marital status or if you're addressing a divorcée who has resumed her maiden name.

Address a professional woman by her title, followed by her given and last name:

Dr. Patricia Doyle

Previous custom was to use Mr. as the title when the gender of the addressee was in doubt. Current custom, to avoid giving offense, is more likely to use the addressee's full name without a title in both the address and the salutation:

Dear Kern Sutton

However, if the letter has some importance, it's worth making a quick call to the other party to get the proper title. Simply say to whomever answers the telephone: "I'm addressing a letter to Kim Akers. Is that Mr. Akers or Ms.?" This can save you and your employer much embarrassment later on.

Business titles

Business titles are never abbreviated.

Wrong Right
Mr. Justin Thorp, Sr. Ed. Mr. Justin Thorp, Senior Editor
Ms. Marie Dubois, Asst. Mgr. Ms. Marie Dubois, Assistant Manager

When you are writing to a person holding more than one office within a company, use the highest title unless you are replying to a specific letter signed by him or her under another title as applying to the subject covered. When you are writing to a department of a company, rather than to a person within the company, place the company name on the first line and the department on the second line:

A. Datum Corporation
Electronics Department
120 Irving Mall
Irving, Texas 10022

Attention line

An attention line refers the letter to the person or department in charge of the situation covered. The word Attention is followed by the name of the individual or department. Do not abbreviate the word Attention or follow it with a colon.

The attention line is placed two spaces below the last line of the name and address of the addressee, either flush with the left margin of the letter or in the center of the page when paragraphs are blocked. When paragraphs are indented, the attention line is placed in the center of the page.

The attention line is never used in a letter to an individual but only in a letter having a plural addressee, in which case the letter is written to the entire company and not to the person named on the attention line. The salutation must always agree (singular or plural) with the name of the addressee, not with the name on the attention line. For example:

Wide World Importers
1500 Main Street
Greenville, Texas 00216
Attention Mr. David Jaffe

Gentlemen:

Salutation

The salutation is typed two spaces below the addressee's address or the attention line, flush with the left margin. The first word of the salutation begins with a capital, as does the name of the addressee. In business letters, the salutation is followed by a colon. In personal letters, the salutation is followed by a comma:

Dear Professor Keyser:

My Dear Mrs. Tiano:

Dear Jane,

Sometimes you'll be required to write a letter addressed to no particular person or firm (such as a letter of recommendation); then you will use capitals for the salutation:

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:

Subject line

The subject line of a letter is an informal way of categorizing or titling a letter. Many letters in business must begin with a subject line after the salutation, a valuable aid in the distribution of mail that also facilitates filing. The subject line can be centered, but when the paragraphs are blocked, it is flush with the left margin.

Do not show "Re" or "Subject" before the subject line. Underline the subject line, but if it occupies more than one line, underline only the bottom line, letting the line extend the length of the longest line in the subject.

Be sure to word the subject line so that it is helpful. If the letter is about an order of silk, a subject line reading simply "Silk" would contribute nothing. If, however, the subject line should read,

Silk Returned, Our Shipping Order 8939

the clerk opening the letter could promptly route it to the person within the organization best able to reply.

The body of the letter

With the body of the letter, first consider its appearance. You must judge how long the letter will be and how much space it will occupy in order to place it on the page as within a picture frame — never too high, never too low, always with proper side margins. If you create the letter with word processing software, you can add spaces to the top of the letter or change the page margins after you have written the letter.

The body of the letter should be brief and straightforward. The letter should have the same ease as a personal conversation. Although you must write whatever your boss dictates, many times while typing you can ease the language a bit to improve its impression on the reader; it's possible to do this with just a word or two more or less that won't call attention to any change. It's your responsibility to see that the letter going forth is creditable in every way to your employer's interests.

The length of the letter should be in accordance with its importance. If too short, the letter may have a curt tone and may seem to slight the recipient. If the letter is too long, the recipient's attention may wander after the first page, and he or she may not read the letter in its entirety.

Closing the letter

Complimentary close

When the salutation has been Dear Sir or My Dear Sir, the complimentary closing can be Yours truly or Very truly yours; no personal connection exists between the writer and the recipient.

Sincerely or Sincerely yours is appropriate when there is an established personal as well as a business relationship, but it is used only in letters to individuals, never to a company. Respectfully yours appears only on letters addressed to a person of acknowledged authority or in letters of great formality.

Avoid the use of such complimentary closes as Yours for lower prices or I remain and other hanging phrases. Cordially yours is not suitable in a business letter. It is often used but used incorrectly as it is too familiar for business. Avoid it.

The signature

If in the body of the letter the writer has referred to "we," "us," or "ours," the company, and not an individual in the company, is writing the letter. Consequently the signature would then consist of the typed name of the company under the complimentary close, the space for the writer's signature, and the typed name of the writer with his or her title. The whole signature is typed in block form beginning under the first letter of the complimentary close. In some blocked paragraph letters the complimentary close begins at the left margin; then the signature also begins at the left margin.

Very truly yours,
Tailspin Toys


Diane Tibbott, President

Never put a line for the writer's signature. This is a superfluous and old-fashioned practice.

When the writer has referred within the letter to "I," "me," "my," or "mine," this means that he or she, not the company, is writing the letter. Therefore the writer's name is typed with his or her title, omitting the company name entirely.

Very truly yours,


Karen Archer, President

A woman should include a courtesy title in her typed signature so as to allow the recipient of the letter to reply appropriately. Parentheses may be used:

(Miss) Debra Jean Hawley

Ms. Amaya Hernández-Echevarría

Mrs. Nancy Anderson

The courtesy title is blocked with the complimentary close, not extended to the left of it. For a married woman, the signature may consist of either the woman's first name and her surname or her husband's name preceded by Mrs. (no parentheses).

Sincerely yours,


Carol Philips

A widow may sign as though her husband were living. A divorced woman no longer uses the given name or initial of her former husband. She may use whatever courtesy title she wishes, whether or not she keeps her married surname.

Other elements

Reference initials

It's no longer considered necessary to type reference initials (the initials of the letter writer and the typist). However, if the company requires identification of this kind for the files, show these on the file copy only, not the original. The writer's initials are typed in capitals, the typist's in lowercase. To separate the two, use a colon or a slash. Many companies require only the typist's initials, since the writer is obvious from the signature of the letter.

When using a word processor, write the initials or name of the person dictating the letter on the office file copy.

Enclosures

Mention of enclosures should be placed two lines below the reference initials. It may seem to serve no purpose to add 2 encs if the body of the letter mentions the enclosure of two papers. However, the mailing department may find this notation helpful to sort outgoing mail. In addition, as the recipient of such mail, this helps you keep the contents of letters together as you prepare to distribute them without having to read every line.

Postscript

Sometimes the letter writer will take advantage of the postscript — following the initials, P.S., two spaces below the signature or reference initials — to dramatize some bit of information. Never use the postscript to add something that was forgotten during the writing of the letter. Instead, rewrite the letter.

A last look

Before you consider the letter finished, decide if it looks like a picture on the page; that is, have you centered the whole thing? Ask yourself: If you received this letter, would you be favorably impressed? Now check your grammar, spelling, and punctuation again.

A business letter should be folded neatly and precisely. The side edges must match, the typing inside the folds must seem to be protected, and only the fewest folds for the perfect fit into the envelope must be used. Upon taking the letter from the envelope, the recipient should be able to begin reading the letter immediately and should find it attractive. Remember that this is the reader's first impression of your organization.

About the authors     This article was adapted from Administrative Assistant's and Secretary's Handbook, Second Edition, by James Stroman, Kevin Wilson, and Jennifer Wauson. It is used by permission of the publisher, the American Management Association (AMA).

 
 
Applies to:
Word 2003