Writing business letters is not always easy. Business leaders often have little time to improve their writing skills, even though writing well requires a lot of time and practice.
However, you and your business are judged by the way they present themselves; when you cannot be there in person, the writing must provide the first impression for you. Therefore, it is very important to develop excellent business writing skills (or hire someone who already writes well) to help run your organization smoothly, get the clients you want, and improve your marketing and business development results.
Although there are no shortcuts to writing - no programme or robot can write in your place - you can use pointers and guides to help you write convincing, informative and interesting business letters and documents. There are several factors to a good business letter: clarity, simplicity and style of language, accuracy and relevance, timeliness, courtesy and sincerity, tone, and spelling, grammar and consistency.
We will look at each of these in more detail below.
Possibly one of the most important criteria for a business; clarity means lack of ambiguity. It means that your letter should, as much as possible, be free from the possibility of multiple interpretations.
In other words: write what you mean and mean what you write.
Clarity matters in business letters because they often count as official documents, on which contracts (and possible lawsuits) can be based. Leaving space for interpretation can get in the way of you getting paid or receiving the proper services, or simply cause misunderstandings that may hurt your business relationships.
Before you start writing, ask yourself: "what is the message that I want my reader to retain after reading this letter?" Try to express this in one sentence, and use this sentence as a guide to the rest of your writing.
The purpose of your letter should always be clear from its first sentence. Is this a proposal? Is this a request for payment? Is this a report expected by your client? Stating the purpose of the document in the first sentence means that your reader will know exactly what to expect. Make sure that the contents of the document fits the purpose stated at the beginning.
To help with clarity, you can plan your document with an outline before you begin writing. Does the outline fit the stated purpose? Does every section of the document provide information that's relevant to the purpose?
We'll see more how to maintain relevance and consistency further down.
Simplicity and Style of Language
You can achieve clarity not only through thoroughly planning your document, but also through the simplicity and style of language you use. Too much business writing is filled with barely comprehensible jargon nowadays- using a simple, straightforward style will not only make your reader happy, but will also make you stand out from the crowd of wordy, pretentious letters.
There is one simple rule for simplicity: always use the simplest word possible. Instead of "utilize", write "use". Instead of "optimal", write "ideal". Instead of "feasible", use "possible". If you wouldn't use it with an 8th grader, don't use it in a business letter.
Of course, you should use technical words that are absolutely necessary to explain concepts and items that are technical in nature. But use them as sparingly as possible, and keep the use of jargon to a minimum.
Style also has a big influence on how clear and readable your writing is. Stylistic choices, such as using modern instead of outdated language, and using active sentences instead of passive sentences, will have a big impact on the reader's impression of you and your business.
Expressions such as "as per your request", "this is to advise you" and "attached herewith" are considered outdated, and don't have a place in business writing anymore. A good rule of thumb to decide if you should use an expression is "would I say this out loud in a conversation?" If not, don't use it. Find something more direct and modern, like "as you requested", "I am writing to let you know" or "I have attached".
Leave the overly formal language to lawyers.
Accuracy and Relevance
Do you like to have your time wasted by inaccurate figures or irrelevant information?
No? Well, neither do other people.
That's why you should provide accurate and relevant information in all of your business letters and documents.
Whether you're presenting an argument, reporting facts, or simply introducing yourself, you need to have accurate figures and information that is relevant to your reader. Take a few minutes to think about the person receiving the letter. What are they expecting to read? What kind of information do they need to make a decision? If you're sending the letter "cold" (unsolicited), what kind of facts and figures will serve as a hook to keep them reading?
This point is all about not adding fluff to your letters just because you feel it's not long enough or wordy enough. Keep it simple (see previous point). Keep it direct. Keep it clear. Give only the necessary information; nothing more, nothing less.
If you can back up your facts with reputable sources, that’s even better. If the document requires research or quotes facts and numbers, make sure to provide your reader with the source of your information, so they can check it themselves.
Obviously, you should never, ever lie in a business document. Be prepared to back up every claim you make in a business letter with evidence.
The element of timeliness is related to relevance, but deserves a section of its own, because the timing of information is just as important as its quality.
Timeliness means ensuring that the document gets to your recipient when they need it. Make sure to follow up on in-person meetings within a week by email, and with official mail correspondence within two weeks, should the situation require it.
Often, the biggest obstacle to timeliness is the writing process. Many business owners and managers don't feel confident in their writing skills and put off writing to the last minute, which means that the document might look rough or unpolished. Fight this by getting to work early, starting with an outline, and planning your writing several days ahead.
If you have employees with good writing skills, you can also enlist their help in the planning, composition, revision or editing stage of the business letter.
Courtesy and Sincerity
Although you don't need to be overly formal (see "Simplicity and Style" section), you should always be polite in your business letters. Unless you have a well-established relationship with the recipient, don't use familiar greetings or expressions, and treat the writing as if you were speaking to the person in a business setting. Think of your letter as a written handshake!
For example, a familiar opening, like "Hey there! Thinking we should meet on Friday" can be rewritten more formally this way: "Hi (name), are you available Friday for a quick meeting/phone call/online conference?"
There's no need to be too formal, but don't assume familiarity unless it's been established in the past.
It also pays to be sincere in your writing, and using clear and simple language helps. But most of all, you should believe in what you have to sell (or say). When you are sincere about your message, it shows through your communications and writing, and people are more likely to listen to what you have to say.
Sincerity is difficult to boil down to specific words in writing, but the basic principles of simple, clear and straightforward writing helps. People who lie or who are trying to deceive tend to use long, complicated words to deflect attention from their deception, so using lots of jargon and overly flowery, formal language can sometimes appear dishonest.
Tone is all about the specific words you choose to express something. When you're having a face-to-face to conversation, tone is easily conveyed through your voice; something that might sound offensive on paper is not interpreted that way because of the way you said it. But on paper, it's a lot more difficult to convey tone, except through choosing the appropriate words.
In business, you want to keep a professional tone; this relates a lot to word choice, style, and courtesy.
For example, you want to tell your reader that you're unable to meet their request for, let's say, a refund.
One way you can say this is: "Sorry, but we can't do anything about this."
If you're on the phone or face-to-face, this could be an appropriate response. But in writing, it seems familiar and dismissive. Without becoming overly formal, you could use the following expression: "Unfortunately, we're unable to assist you in this case."
See the difference? In writing, the second one comes across as much more polite and appropriate.
One trick is to read your business letter draft out loud. Are there any passages that seem overly familiar, or could be misinterpreted? Rewrite those to make sure that they are more polite, appropriate, and unambiguous.
Spelling, Grammar and Consistency
Once you've written a draft with which you are satisfied, you can go over the final details: spelling, grammar and consistency.
Although your word processing program has a fair spelling and grammar checker, it's always good to have a second look yourself, or to ask someone else to do it. Print out your draft and go over it slowly. Mark awkward passages, note spelling errors and typos, and make edits as you see fit. Reading your letter out loud is a great way to help with this task: it forces you to slow down and look carefully at each word.
Once you've made the corrections on the digital document, you can finalize your letter by ensuring that all the visual elements of the document are consistent. This means consistent margins, consistent font, consistent spacing, etc. It pays to invest a little time in learning how to manage the formatting of a document in your favorite word processor.
All done? Your business letter is now ready to send!