Copywriting Curiosities
  The writing tips your English teacher forgot to give you... August 2004  

Write in a Conversational Style

Helpful Tips

Use contractions. Keep paragraphs at a "readable" length. Same goes for sentences. If you have a long sentence, make sure you mix in shorter ones. A sentence should rarely have more than 20 words. If it does, consider splitting it into two sentences. Don't use colons or semicolons -- they add unnecessary weight to your writing. Be clear. Be concise.

Proofread, proofread, proofread! I can't stress this enough. If you want to avoid sounding unprofessional, make sure the spelling and grammar are flawless. Read your letter OUT LOUD. Never send important correspondence without another set of eyes reviewing your work.

What do you want the reader to do? Don't assume it's obvious. Make sure you clearly state a call to action. Do you want the reader to call you? To e-mail you? To place an order? Make sure you provide all the necessary information for fulfillment.

As for a signature? Use what you're comfortable with. Use what sounds like you. I typically use "Best," "Best wishes" or "Best regards." But if you like "Sincerely," go for it. Make sure you leave space for your handwritten signature. By the way, proofread again. Really, you can't do this enough.

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As you may know, I teach a writing class at Massachusetts School of Law in Andover, Mass. I don't teach legal writing, but rather "clear" writing. It's also a critical thinking course. Students learn to analyze and to write persuasive arguments on their own. Of course, these skills are important for future attorneys.

Recently, I met a lawyer who had attended a different law school. He commented that his writing classes prepared him well for the legal world, but not for the business world. He said that he didn't know how to write a simple business letter when he first graduated. Actually, it's amazing to me how many people (students and non-students alike) don't know how to do this basic task. Letter-writing is fast becoming a lost art thanks to e-mail and text messaging. But it doesn't have to. Follow my "format" tips below and read my style tips to the left. Bring this lost art form back to life!

  • Format Does Count
  •    "Format" and "formal" are not synonyms. I recommend following proper format guidelines (at least until you develop your own unique format) because this will show that you are a professional. A book I recommend (for all your writing needs) is "A Writer's Reference" by Diana Hacker.

  • Layout
  •    Print letters on high-quality stock in white, off-white, or some other neutral tone. Margins should be one inch all around (you can get away with wider or smaller margins, but I recommend making them uniform). Don't use funky fonts! Stick to 12-point, Times New Roman (the default font in Word). If your letter is more than one page, consider using paragraph headings (in bold letters) for easier reading.

  • Addresses
  •    Typically, your return address goes in the upper left-hand corner of the paper (if you have your own company stationary or letterhead, you needn't add your information again). I, however, put my address in the upper right-hand corner -- just a matter of taste (and so far, I haven't gotten burned). Skip two to three lines (no one will count -- it depends on how it looks when printed) and then write the full name and title (on the same line), company name, and address.

  • Salutation
  •    "Dear" and the name of the person usually work best. If you're on a first-name basis with the person, feel free to use the first name. If you're not (or if you're not sure), then use the person's last name. As for the punctuation that follows the name, I always use a comma, but books will tell you to use a colon. This is a matter of preference. I think a colon is too stuffy. And I've never had a problem with using a comma. After the salutation, skip a line and begin your letter.

  • Body Format
  •    Most business letters you see today are written in "full block" style, meaning all text is lined up against the left- hand margin. Do not indent paragraphs. Skip a line between paragraphs. Use ONE space after a period. I know, I know. That's not the way you learned in typing class. And the truth is there's much debate over this "rule." If you want your writing to show that you're on the cutting edge and that you keep up with style and format changes, go with one space (it's the way kids are taught in schools today).

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