Writing business letters is not always easy. Business leaders often have little time to improve their literacy skills, even though writing well requires a lot of time and practice.
However, both you and your company will be judged by the way you present yourselves; when you cannot be there to introduce yourself in person, your wording will provide a first impression of you. Therefore, if you are unable to hire a professional author, it is imperative to know how to write a business letter.
Fortunately, we are here to help. Although there are no shortcuts to writing – no programme or robot can write in your place – you can follow the eight steps below and pen convincing, informative and interesting business letters and documents. This is what you need to know.
1. Be Clear Throughout
Possibly one of the most important criteria of a business letter, clarity means lack of ambiguity. Your message should, therefore, be as free as possible 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 can often act as official documents, on which contracts (and possible lawsuits) can be based. Leaving space for interpretation could get in the way of you getting paid or receiving proper services, or potentially 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 that sentence as a compass for the rest of your writing.
To help with clarity, you can even plan your document with an outline before you begin writing. Does the framework fit the stated purpose? Does every section of the text provide information that's relevant to the mission?
2. Keep Things Simple
You can achieve clarity not only through thoroughly planning your document but also through the level of simplicity and the style of language that you use. Many business letters are filled with incomprehensible jargon nowadays; using a simple, straightforward style will not only make your reader happier but will also make you stand out from the crowd of wordy, pretentious letters.
There is one general rule for simplicity: always try to use the easiest word possible. Instead of "utilise", write "use". Instead of "optimal", use "ideal". It is a general wisdom of communications that if you wouldn't use a particular word with a 13-year-old, then you shouldn't use it in a business letter.
Of course, there are exceptions to this; you should still use technical words that are necessary for explaining concepts or items that are technical in nature. Try to use them as sparingly as possible, though, and keep the use of jargon to a minimum.
3. Adopt a Relevant Style
The style also has a significant 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 generally have a place in business writing anymore. A good rule of thumb when considering such expressions is to ask yourself: "would I say this out loud in a conversation?" If not, then don't use it. Find something more direct and modern, such as "as you requested", "I am writing to let you know" or "I have attached".
4. Ensure Accuracy
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), then 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 for the sake of it. Keep it simple, keep it direct, and keep it clear.
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 that they can check it themselves.
Obviously, you should never, ever lie in a business document, either. Be prepared to back up every claim you make in a business letter with evidence.
5. Be Timely
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.
6. Be Sincere and Courteous
Although, as established, you don't need to be overly formal, 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. It's often a good idea to think of your letter as a written handshake.
For example, a familiar opening, like "Hey there! Thinking we should meet on Friday!" should be rewritten more formally as: "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 straightforward language helps. Most of all, though, you should believe in what you have to say. When you are sincere about your message, it shows through your communications and writing, and people are more likely to listen to you.
Sincerity is difficult to convey 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.
7. Maintain a Consistent Tone
Tone is all about the specific words you choose to express something. When you're having a face-to-face conversation, the 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, if you're going to tell your recipient that you're unable to meet their request for a refund, then you might say: "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 particular case."
See the difference? On paper, the second example 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? If so, rewrite them to make sure that they are more polite, appropriate, and unambiguous.
8. Ensure 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 chosen word-processing programme will likely have a 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 then finalise your letter by ensuring that all the visual elements of the document are consistent. This means equally-spaced margins, regular font and consistent paragraph spacing. Indeed, it can pay to invest a little time in learning how to format documents in your word processor.
As mentioned, a business letter can often represent the first impression of you and your business. Therefore, it's worth taking the time to do it properly, as otherwise, you could be losing out on potential leads or customers. As long as you follow the guidance in this article, you should be able to construct a professional and engaging effort that captures the attention of your recipient.
What other business letter writing tips would you recommend? Let us know in the comment section below!