Writing business letters may be quite different than writing you may have done in the humanities, social sciences, or other academic disciplines. As we’ve discussed, technical writing strives to be clear and concise rather than evocative or creative; it stresses specificity, accuracy, and audience awareness.
When you write a business letter, you can assume that your audience has limited time in which to read it and is likely to skim the document in search of its main points. They want to know why you’re writing and what they need to do in response. The sections below provide guidelines for effectively formatting and structuring the standard block-style business letter.
Common Components of Business Letters
Heading: The heading contains the writer’s address and the date of the letter. The writer’s name is not included; only a date is needed in headings on letterhead stationery.
Inside address: The inside address shows the name and address of the recipient of the letter. This information can help prevent confusion at the recipient’s offices. Also, if the recipient has moved, the inside address helps to determine what to do with the letter. In the inside address, include the appropriate title of respect of the recipient and copy the name of the company exactly as that company writes it. When you do have the names of individuals, remember to address them appropriately: Mrs., Ms., Mr., Dr., and so on. If you are not sure what is correct for an individual, try to find out how that individual signs letters or consult the forms-of-address section in a dictionary.
Salutation: The salutation directly addresses the recipient of the letter and is followed by a colon (except when a friendly, familiar, sociable tone is intended, in which case a comma is used). Notice that in the simplified letter format, the salutation line is eliminated altogether. If you don’t know whether the recipient is a man or a woman, the traditional practice has been to write “Dear Sir” or “Dear Sirs”–but that’s sexist! To avoid this problem, salutations such as “Dear Sir or Madame,” “Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,” “Dear Friends,” or “Dear People” have been tried–but without much general acceptance. Deleting the salutation line altogether or inserting “To Whom It May Concern” in its place, is not ordinarily a good solution either–it’s impersonal.
The best solution is to make a quick, anonymous phone call to the organization and ask for a name; or address the salutation to a department name, committee name, or a position name: “Dear Personnel Department,” “Dear Recruitment Committee,” “Dear Chairperson,” or “Dear Director of Financial Aid,” for example.
Subject or reference line: As shown in the order letter, the subject line replaces the salutation or is included with it. The subject line announces the main business of the letter.
Body of the letter: The actual message, of course, is contained in the body of the letter–the paragraphs between the salutation and the complimentary close. Strategies for writing the body of the letter are discussed in the section on business-correspondence style.
Complimentary close: The “Sincerely yours” element of the business letter is called the complimentary close. Other common ones are “Sincerely yours,” “Cordially,” “Respectfully,” or “Respectfully yours.” You can design your own but be careful not to create florid or wordy ones. Notice that only the first letter is capitalized, and it is always followed by a comma.
Signature block: Usually, you type your name four lines below the complimentary close and sign your name in between. If you are a woman and want to make your marital status clear, use Miss, Ms., or Mrs. in parentheses before the typed version of your first name. Whenever possible, include your title or the name of the position you hold just below your name. For example, “Technical writing student,” “Sophomore data processing major,” or “Tarrant County Community College Student” are perfectly acceptable.
End notations: Just below the signature block are often several abbreviations or phrases that have important functions.
- Initials: The initials in all capital letters in the preceding figures are those of the writer or the letter, and the ones in lower case letters just after the colon are those of the typist.
- Enclosures: To make sure that the recipient knows that items accompany the letter in the same envelope, use such indications as “Enclosure,” “Encl.,” “Enclosures (2).” For example, if you send a resume and writing sample with your application letter, you’d do this: “Encl.: Resume and Writing Sample.” If the enclosure is lost, the recipient will know.
- Copies: If you send copies of a letter to others, indicate this fact among the end notations also. If, for example, you were upset by a local merchant’s handling of your repair problems and were sending a copy of your letter to the Better Business Bureau, you’d write something like this: “cc: Mr. Raymond Mason, Attorney.”
Note the example of a properly formatted block style business letter in Figure 4.3a:
The following is another example of a properly formatted business letter: Block Style Letter Sample
For more information, watch the following video, “Writing the Basic Business Letter,” from Upwrite Press:
Formatting Tips for Business Letters
- Use white space to draw attention to headings. White space helps show what elements on your page are the most important. It’s also easier on readers’ eyes.
- Add white space between paragraphs. Adding white space between paragraphs and around blocks of text and images makes documents easier to read and navigate; it also helps people understand what they’re reading.
- Widen the margins. Generally speaking, widening the margins can help readability—sometimes putting less information on the page is less daunting to the reader.
- Use bullet points when appropriate. Bullet points aren’t appropriate for all information, but they are generally helpful to readers by helping to identify important points in the document.
In Figure 4.3b, note the use of the visual elements described above:
General Tips for Writing and Revising Business Correspondence
Keep the following points in mind when you write and revise your business letters or memos.
State the main business, purpose, or subject matter right away. Let the reader know from the very first sentence what your letter is about. Remember that when business people open a letter, their first concern is to know what the letter is about, what its purpose is, and why they must spend their time reading it. Therefore, avoid round-about beginnings. If you are writing to apply for a job, begin with something like this: “I am writing to apply for the position you currently have open….” If you have bad news for someone, you should need not spill all of it in the first sentence. Here is an example of how to avoid negative phrasing: “I am writing in response to your letter of July 24 in which you discuss problems you have had with an electronic spreadsheet purchased from our company.”
If you are responding to a letter, identify that letter by its subject and date in the first paragraph or sentence. Busy recipients who write many letters themselves may not remember their letters to you. To avoid problems, identify the date and subject of the letter to which you respond: “I am writing in response to your September 1, 2019 letter in which you describe problems you’ve had with one of our products.”
Keep the paragraphs of most business letters short. The paragraphs of business letters tend to be short, some only a sentence long. Business letters are not read the same way as articles, reports, or books. Usually, they are read rapidly. Big, thick, dense paragraphs over ten lines, which require much concentration, may not be read carefully—or read at all.
To enable the recipient to read your letters more rapidly and to comprehend and remember the important facts or ideas, create relatively short paragraphs of between three and eight lines long. In business letters, paragraphs that are made up of only a single sentence are common and perfectly acceptable. Throughout this book, you will see examples of single sentence paragraphs commonly used in business letters.
Compartmentalize the contents of your letter. When you compartmentalize (also called “chunking”) the contents of a business letter, you place each different segment of the discussion—each different topic of the letter—in its own paragraph. If you were writing a complaint letter concerning problems with the system unit of your personal computer, you might have the following paragraphs:
- A description of the problems you’ve had with it
- The ineffective repair jobs you’ve had
- The compensation you think you deserve and why
Study each paragraph of your letters for its purpose, content, or function. When you locate a paragraph that does more than one thing, consider splitting it into two paragraphs. If you discover two short separate paragraphs that do the same thing, consider joining them into one.
Provide topic indicators at the beginning of paragraphs. Analyze some of the letters you see in this chapter in terms of the contents or purpose of their individual paragraphs. In the first sentence of anybody paragraph of a business letter, try to locate a word or phrase that indicates the topic of that paragraph. If a paragraph discusses your problems with a personal computer, work the word “problems” or the phrase “problems with my personal computer” into the first sentence. Doing this gives recipients a clear sense of the content and purpose of each paragraph. Here is an excerpt before and after topic indicators have been incorporated:
Problem: I have worked as an electrician in the Decatur, Illinois, area for about six years. Since 2005 I have been licensed by the city of Decatur as an electrical contractor qualified to undertake commercial and industrial work as well as residential work.
Revision: As for my work experience, I have worked as an electrician in the Decatur, Illinois, area for about six years. Since 2005 I have been licensed by the city of Decatur as an electrical contractor qualified to undertake commercial and industrial work as well as residential work.
List or itemize whenever possible in a business letter. Listing spreads out the text of the letter, making it easier to pick up the important points rapidly. Lists can be handled in several ways, as explained in the textbook section on lists.
Place important information strategically in business letters. Information in the first and last lines of paragraphs tends to be read and remembered more readily. These are high-visibility points. Information buried in the middle of long paragraphs is easily overlooked or forgotten. For example, in application letters which must convince potential employers that you are right for a job, place information on your appealing qualities at the beginning or end of paragraphs for greater emphasis. Place less positive information in less highly visible points. If you have some difficult things to say, a good (and honest) strategy is to de-emphasize by placing them in areas of less emphasis (for more information, see the textbook section on emphasis & subordination. If a job requires three years of experience and you only have one, for example, you could bury this fact in the middle or the lower half of a body paragraph of the cover letter (the following sections of this chapter will discuss job application/cover letters in more detail).
Focus on the recipient’s needs, purposes, or interests instead of your own. Avoid a self-centered focus on your own concerns rather than those of the recipient. Even if you must talk about yourself in a business letter a great deal, do so in a way that relates your concerns to those of the recipient. This recipient-oriented style is often called the “you-attitude,” which does not mean using more you’s but making the recipient the main focus of the letter.
Avoid pompous, inflated, legal-sounding phrasing. Watch out for puffed-up, important-sounding language. This kind of language may seem business-like at first; it’s actually ridiculous. Of course, such phrasing is apparently necessary in legal documents; but why use it in other writing situations? When you write a business letter, picture yourself as a plain-talking, common-sense, down-to-earth person (but avoid slang). Generally speaking, you should to strive for confidence while avoiding arrogance (see section on tone).
*A note on style: Technical writing can vary from a less formal, more conversational style to a more formal, or even legalistic, style found in documents such as contracts and business plans. Writing that is too formal can alienate readers, while overly casual writing can come across as insincere or unprofessional. When writing business letters, as with all writing, you should know your audience and adopt a style somewhere between formal and conversational will work well for the majority of your memos, emails, and business letters. For more information on style, see Chapter 8: Style.
Give your business letter an “action ending” whenever appropriate. An “action-ending” makes clear what the writer of the letter expects the recipient to do and when. Ineffective conclusions to business letters often end with noncommittal statements, such as “Hope to hear from you soon” or “Let me know if I can be of any further assistance.” Instead, specify the action the recipient should take and the schedule for that action.
As soon as you approve this plan, I’ll begin contacting sales representatives at once to arrange for purchase and delivery of the notebook computers. May I expect to hear from you within the week?
- “Writing the Basic Business Letter,” a website resource from Purdue OWL
- “Types of Business Letters,” a video from Gregg Learning
CHAPTER ATTRIBUTION INFORMATION
"2.1 Business Correspondence." Open Technical Writing. [License: CC BY 4.0] "The Key Forms of Business Writing." Uploaded by UpWritePress, 6 Mar. 2009, Youtube.com.