How to Write an Effective Letter
Business letters account for about 90% of all written communications. A well-written letter can
advance your career, clarify a business plan, make a sale, satisfy your clients or customers,
motivate your staff, enhance your social life, improve a personal relationship, or further your
personal well-being. Your success in business depends on your ability to write effective letters.
An effective letter:
grabs the reader's attention
provides information, makes a recommendation, or asks for action
supports your position or explains benefits to reader
mentions next steps and deadlines
Here’s how you can impress your readers and make your letter stand out from the crowd...
Plan Your Letter
Whether you have to compose a thank-you note or a collection letter, always plan what you want
to say to the reader before you begin to write your actual letter. A plan, or outline, will help you
organize your thoughts and all the points you need to cover.
Know your purpose. Think about why you are writing the letter and what you hope to
achieve by writing it. Decide what your main point will be.
List all the relevant facts. Your letter will have maximum impact if you support your
point with logically presented facts. Do any necessary research to gather information to
back up your point.
Know your audience. Analyzing your readers helps you decide what tone to take, what
facts to include, and how you address the readers. Consider what the readers know, need
to know, want to know, and what you want them to do. Show the readers what's in it for
them or the organization.
Generate ideas. Brainstorm by writing down all the ideas you can come up with
pertaining to your topic. Ask yourself a series of questions such as: Who? What? When?
Where? Why? How? Then, answer those questions. You can also create your own
Organize your ideas. Once you have your ideas, organize them into an outline. Here are
7 of the most common techniques you can use:
Organize your ideas in the order in which they did happen, should happen, or will
happen. The ideas must be in the proper order.
o Cause and Effect
Organize your ideas by showing what happened (cause) and what happened as a
result (effect), or by showing what happened (effect) and why it happened (cause).
Organize your ideas according to spatial principles: top to bottom, bottom to top,
side to side, etc. This strategy is useful when describing an item or a place.
Organize your ideas according to the parts or functions of an idea, item, or event.
o Order of Importance
Organize your ideas from most important to least important, or vice versa. Decide
what ideas will be most important to your readers and which ideas support you
main point. Use least-to-most important when you are building an argument. Use
most-to-least important when readers might not read the entire letter.
o Comparison and Contrast
Organize your ideas by showing the similarities and/or differences between the
items. Make sure you are using comparable characteristics.
Organize your ideas by identifying the problem and then offering a solution or
Write the Draft
Once you have a plan, start writing quickly without editing until you have a complete draft.
Remember, do not edit as you draft—it will slow you down.
Follow your plan. To get started, take the first item on your outline and write that idea
down in a clear and concise sentence. This sentence will tell the reader what the
paragraph is about. Develop the idea by describing it and building on it sentence by
sentence. Take the next idea and develop it into the next paragraph. Keep each paragraph
to one idea.
Language. Use language which matches the reader's knowledge and understanding.
Choose short, simple words to ensure that the average reader interprets your message
correctly. Use technical phrases when writing to a specific group or profession. Always
avoid slang, local expressions, and clichés. Use jargon only when you know the word is
appropriate for the intended reader or readers.
Tone. Tone is the way a message sounds. Your letter's tone should reflect your
personality and your relationship to the reader. Try to write naturally in a respectful,
friendly way using more you words than me words. Your writing will sound more
personal. Avoid humor—the comments may be misinterpreted.
Sentence Length. As a guideline, keep your average sentence length to about 15 to 20
words and your maximum to about 30 words. Vary your sentence length. Use longer
sentences to provide background information your readers will need in order to
understand your point. Use shorter sentences to make the point.
Paragraph Length. Generally, opening and closing paragraphs should be brief—less
than six lines long. Keep paragraphs in the body of your letter under ten lines. Short
paragraphs makes a letter more appealing and easier to read.
Revise the Draft
When you have a completed draft, put it aside for a while—overnight is best. When you come
back to your draft, you'll be able to look at it with fresher, more objective eyes. Now you're ready
to revise your copy.
Check for Organization. Make sure your first paragraph mentions the purpose of your
letter, the middle paragraphs present the material, and the last paragraph provides a
closing instead of just stopping.
Check for Completeness. Make sure you have provided all the information your readers
will need, all the explanations they will need to understand your writing, and any
additional points you should make.
Check for Clarity. Clarify vague language by choosing more precise or specific wording.
Eliminate Wordiness. If you can communicate the same idea in fewer words than you
have used, do so. Eliminate every word you can without losing clarity or changing the
meaning. Replace long words, with shorter ones; break long sentences into shorter ones;
shorten long paragraphs or break them into two or three paragraphs.
Eliminate Clichés. Omit old-fashioned words or phrases, or use their modern
Eliminate Redundancy. Avoid repeating yourself by saying the same thing in two
different ways. (e.g., Possible risks. True facts. Final conclusion. Brief summary. The
room is blue in color. The meeting is at 10 a.m. in the morning.)
Add Transitions. Use transitional words or phrases to move you from one idea to the
next so your reader can see clearly how your ideas are connected. (e.g., but, yet, then, as,
next, still, therefore, consequently, during, rather, instead, in short, for example, etc.)
Edit the Letter
Once you have produced the polished version of your letter, check it carefully for errors in
spelling, grammar, capitalization, and punctuation.
Spelling. Make sure you have spelled the names of people and places correctly. Check
words with silent letters, words that sound alike but are spelled differently, words that
don't sound the way they are spelled, and words that are misspelled because they are
mispronounced. Even if you use your computer's spell check, make sure you proofread.
The spell checker won't catch a spelling mistake if the error results in a real word.
Tip: To catch typos, try reading your copy backward, from the last word to the first. That
way, you'll focus on how words look.
Grammar. Make sure all sentences are complete. A complete sentence has a subject and
a verb and also expresses a complete thought. Be sure that singular subjects have singular
verbs, while plural subjects have plural verbs. Check for run-on sentences. Clearly
separate your ideas by using proper punctuation. Check all verbs to be sure they are in the
proper tense. If you are talking about something that happened in the present tense, all the
verbs describing that event should be in the present tense—be consistent.
Capitalization. Be sure to capitalize the first word of every sentence. Check to see if the
first word of every quotation is capitalized. Capitalize the names of proper nouns:
specific people, places, buildings, languages, nationalities, seasons, historical periods,
organizations, religious terms, and initials.
Punctuation. Be sure to end each sentence with a period, question mark, or exclamation
point. Check for apostrophes in contractions and where needed to show ownership. Make
sure you have begun and ended a speaker's direct words with quotation marks. Check to
ensure you have used commas correctly, especially in a series of three or more items.
Types of Letters
There are 3 types of routine business letters you may have to write:
information, bad news, and persuasion.
1. Information Letter
used when requesting or sending facts
used when conveying good news
reason for writing or good news is in first paragraph
provides details in next paragraph
ends with a call for action
2. Bad News Letter
uses the indirect approach
opens with a neutral idea
provides facts and supporting evidence
reason for writing (bad news) is presented next
ends with a neutral close
3. Persuasion Letter
used to sell a product, service or idea to the reader
opens with an attention-getter
introduces the product, service or idea
offers benefits to the reader
ends with a call for reaction
Often wonder about how many parts make up a letter and where each part goes? If so, here is a
list of the parts that can be included in a letter. Some are used in all letters; others appear only in
this is the writer’s full address including telephone number, fax number, e-mail
if you are using preprinted letterhead, a heading is not required
for informal letters, a heading is optional
the date when the letter is written should appear several lines below the letterhead.
(e.g., June 17, 200_)
3. Inside Address
it is placed 4 lines below the date
includes the recipient’s name; title, if any; organization, if any; street address; city,
province/state, and postal/zip code. If you are sending the letter outside the
country, the addressee’s country should be included
4. Subject Line
indicates the main subject of letter
usually introduced by ―Re:‖, which is short for the word regarding
optional in business or official letters
this is a greeting that begins a letter
it is usually followed by a title and the reader’s last name
use a colon after the salutation
(e.g., Dear Mr. Smith:)
use a comma after the salutation for personal friends
(e.g., Dear Susan,)
if you do not know the name of the person, use a greeting that identifies the
category of the person you are writing to
(e.g., ―Dear Customer‖, ―Dear Office Manager‖)
if you do not have a name or position, omit the salutation line and use the subject
the terms ―Dear Sir or Madam‖ or ―To Whom It May Concern‖ are considered
old-fashioned and should not be used
this is the complete text of the letter
usually single spaced with double spacing between paragraphs
opening paragraph is relatively short and introduces the letter
middle paragraph(s) supports the opening and/or provides additional information
final paragraph is short and serves as a summation, request, suggestion, or look to
farewell word or phrase which indicates the end of the body
appears two lines below the last line of the body
only the first word is capitalized
Formal: Yours truly, Very truly yours, Respectfully yours,
Informal: Sincerely, Sincerely yours, Cordially, Cordially yours,
Personal: Best wishes, Regards, Kindest regards, As always,
8. Signature Line
in business or formal correspondence, the writer’s full name appears directly
below the signed name
the writer’s title appears directly below the printed name
9. Reference Initials
placed two lines below the signature line, the reference initials identify who
dictated or wrote the letter and who typed it (e.g., CP/eb)
this practice is fading as many people type their own letters
sometimes with or in place of the identifying initials, there is a file number to
indicate how the document has been saved on computer (e.g., C:
10. Enclosure Notation
appears two lines below the reference initials when something else accompanies
the letter (e.g., Enclosure; Encl.; 2 Encls.; Encls. (2); Attachment; Att.; 2 Att.)
11. Copy Notation
indicates to whom copies of the letter are being sent
(e.g., cc: Susan Brown, Director of Sales)
it is placed below the enclosure line
a brief paragraph of additional content introduced by ―P.S.‖
postscripts are never used in business correspondence because they appear as an
afterthought, indicating a lack of organization
often used in marketing materials for emphasis or as a teaser to catch the reader’s
appears two lines below the last notation
November 19, 2008
Thank you for your order of last Tuesday; we appreciate new clients, as they are the lifeblood of our business.
Enclosed is the latest company brochure, which describes our capabilities and terms of sale. I think you will find the
section on peripherals particularly interesting.
The regional sales representative, Michael Edwards, will call you next week to set up an appointment. At that time,
he can explain our products more fully and answer any questions you might have.
We look forward to serving you again.
District Sales Manager
cc: Michael Edwards
Adapting to your Audience
In any communication situation, audiences are most likely to notice, pay attention to, and
respond to messages that promise to address their concerns.
Being Sensitive to Your Audience’s Needs
In any business message, you can use all the right words and still not be sensitive to your
audience members and their needs. To demonstrate true audience sensitivity, adopt the ―you‖
attitude, maintain good standards of etiquette, emphasize the positive, and use bias free language.
Using the ―You‖ Attitude
You are becoming familiar with the audience-centered approach, trying to see a subject through
your audience’s eyes. Now you want to project this approach in your messages by adopting a
“you” attitude – that is, by speaking and writing in terms of your audience’s wishes, interest,
hopes, and preferences.
On a simple level, you can adopt the ―you‖ attitude by replacing terms that refer to yourself and
your company with terms that refer to your audience. In other words, use you and your instead
of I, me, mine, we, us, and ours:
Instead of This Write This
To help us process this order, we must ask for So your order can be filled promptly, please
another copy of the requisition. send another copy of the requisition.
We are pleased to announce our new flight Now your can take a Delta flight from Atlanta
schedule from Atlanta to New York, which is to New York every hour on the hour
every hour on the hour
Even so, using you and your requires finesse. If you over do it, you’re likely to create some
rather awkward sentences and you run the risk of sounding overly enthusiastic and artificial.
Also keep in mind that the ―you‖ attitude is not intended to be manipulative or insincere. Nor is
the ―you‖ attitude simply a matter of using one pronoun rather than another; it’s a matter of
genuine empathy. You can use you 25 times in a single page and still ignore your audience’s
true concerns. In other words, it’s the thought and sincerity that count, not the pronoun you. If
you’re talking to a retailer, try to think like a retailer; if you’re dealing with a production
supervisor, put yourself in that position; if you’re writing to a dissatisfied customer, imagine how
you would feel at his or her end of the transaction.
Be aware that on some occasions, it’s better to avoid using you, particularly if doing so will
sound overly authoritative or accusing. For instance, instead of saying, ―You failed to deliver the
customer’s order on time,‖ you could minimize ill will by saying, ―The customer didn’t receive
the order on time,‖ or ―Let’s figure out a system that will ensure on-time deliveries.‖
Maintaining Standards of Etiquette
Good etiquette not only indicates respect for your audience but also helps foster a more
successful environment for communication by minimizing negative emotional reaction:
Instead of This Write This
Once again, you’ve managed to bring down the Let’s review the last website update so that we
website through your incompetent can identify potential problems before the next
You’ve been sitting on our order for two Our production schedules depend on timely
weeks, and we need it now! delivery of parts and supplies, but we have not
yet received the order you promised to deliver
two weeks ago. Please respond today with a
firm delivery commitment.
Of course, some situations require more diplomacy than others. If you know your audience well,
a less formal approach might be more appropriate. However, when you are communicating with
people who outrank you or with people outside your organization, an added measure of courtesy
is usually needed.
Written communication and most forms of electronic media generally require more tact than oral
communication. When you are speaking, your words are softened by your tone of voice and
facial expression. Plus, you can adjust your approach accordingly to the feedback you get. If
you inadvertently offend someone in writing or in a podcast, for example, you usually don’t get
the immediate feedback you would need to resolve the situation. In fact, you may never know
you offended your audience.
Emphasizing the Positive
Sensitive communicators understand the difference between delivering negative news and being
negative. For example, when Alaska Airlines instituted surcharges for heavy luggage in an
attempt to reduce injuries to baggage handlers, the company presented the change to passengers
in a positive light with the message ―Pack Light & Save.‖ Never try to hide the negative news
but look for positive points that will foster a good relationship with your audience.
Instead of This Write This
It is impossible to repair your laptop today. Your computer can be ready by Tuesday.
Would you like a loaner until then?
We wasted $300,000 advertising in that Our $300,000 advertising investment did not
magazine. pay off; let’s analyze the experience and apply
the insights to future campaigns.
If you’re trying to persuade audience members to perform a particular action, point out how
doing so will benefit them:
Instead of This Write This
We will notify all three credit reporting Paying your overdue bill within 10 days will
agencies if you do not pay our overdue bill prevent a negative entry on your credit record.
within 10 days.
I am tired of seeing so many errors in the Proofreading your blog postings will help you
customer service blog. avoid embarrassing mistakes that generate
more customer service complaints.
How to Write a Bad News Business Letter
Sometimes in business you simply cannot avoid writing a letter that has bad news. However, you
can try to write the letter in such a way as to maintain a good relationship with the recipient, as
well as breaking the bad news in the easiest way. You don’t want to burn any bridges in business,
so it really is to your advantage to write an effective bad news letter.
When writing the letter, your objectives should focus on:
1. Minimizing damage to the relationship: Bad news should not define the relationship.
2. Showing that the decision is fair and reasonable: Imagine yourself in the reader’s
shoes, and try to offer the best explanation possible.
3. Stating the bad news clearly and firmly:
Begin the letter in a positive way
For instance, you may begin by thanking the reader for the request that prompted this letter or by
noting an area of accomplishment or agreement regarding the issue that the letter references. If
you cannot think of something positive with which to begin the letter, try to begin with
something that is neutral (for instance, a statement about the subject and purpose of the
letter). Do not begin the letter with the bad news.
In the body of the letter, state the bad news in as inoffensive a way as possible
Keeping in mind the guidelines for maintaining an effective tone when communicating negative
information, give explanations for the news, and emphasize what can be done about the situation,
if anything. Try to focus on positive actions.
Close your letter in a friendly way that assumes continued association with the
If appropriate, state what will happen next, or what must be done next. You want to conclude
the letter on a positive note. You don't want to leave the reader with a sour taste in his/her mouth.
Opening should have a buffer to minimize any damage to the relationship. Use a positive
or neutral opening to maintain goodwill.
Body should include reasons to help the reader see it from your point of view. You want
to show that you are being both fair and reasonable. Be clear and firm about the bad news,
but also be brief, positive, and low key about it.
Closing should contain an appropriate gesture of goodwill, and perhaps a potential
solution for the reader’s problem.
Bad News Business Letter Example
Dear Ms. Hodges,
Thank you for ordering our professional Chinese wok set. You will find that wok-cooked foods are both delicious
and quick to fix.
We have sent you an added bonus: 2 extra inches of cooking area, thanks to our supplier’s generosity. This 16-inch
wok is more efficient than the advertised 14-inch wok. Now you can create Chinese meals with a professional flair
with this package that includes cooking racks, chopsticks, a rice paddle, and a steel turner, in addition to a wok
base and lid. To complete your collection, the skewers and cookbook will arrive by April 22.
Remember that Figby’s offers specialized items for all your cooking needs. Please stop by on May 10 for a free
demonstration on preparing Japanese sushi. You may also want to take advantage of our special prices on Japanese
cookware, which will only be available that week.
This bad news letter covers the fact that the wok Ms. Hodges ordered is not available by
upgrading it to a better, bigger wok. As well, it is so positive in tone that the reader might not
realize that the entire set she ordered hasn’t arrived on time, as two pieces of it will arrive later.
This bad news letter did not focus at all on the negative, but delivered its message in a positive
way. Harry Figby also extended an opportunity for a future relationship by informing Ms.
Hodges of upcoming sales and events.