|Write in a Conversational Style
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
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.
Plug Alert: Check out my new website at
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.
||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.
||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.
||"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
||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).