I’ve written about complaint letters and how to respond to them, and those posts are useful for business writing, but they cover only a very specific type of business situation. In addition to writing or handling complaints, organizations will write formal letters (or, more frequently, emails) to make or respond to requests, provide an introduction to a proposal, to make a sales pitch, confirm business arrangements, provide updates on the organization’s status, and other activities that keep the business moving along smoothly. What follows are some guidelines for technical writers asked to write a letter on behalf of their organization or organizational executive.
Letters are more formal than emails, in general, and are meant to provide an official declaration of intent (“I want it in writing!”) with a specific responsible individual’s name signed at the bottom. The basic business letter is usually no more than 3-5 paragraphs and appears as follows:
Date and Address
If you’re writing a formal letter, the date of your correspondence is customary, as is a full spelling of the date, e.g. “29 May 2017 or May 29, 2017.”
Usually there is at least one hard return between the date and the address. I was trained to add three hard returns (blank lines) between the date and address, but that assumes that your letter is short enough to fit on a single page. If the letter’s longer than usual, I’ve shrunk the space to one line to keep everything on a single piece of paper (8.5X11″ or A4).
Next up is the addressee receiving the letter. This should include a proper form of address (Mr., Ms., General (Gen.), Colonel (Col.), etc. If you’re writing business-to-business (B2B), or even as an individual to a business, it’s usually good practice to address your letter to a specific individual. Call the business, if you need to, in order to reach the correct person. I’m not fond of “To Whom It May Concern.”
Below the person’s name, of course, should be the organization’s name, then the address.
This can vary. Some organizations include the warm-and-fuzzy “Dear Mr./Ms. X.” You could also just use the individual’s salutation–“Mr./Ms. X:” It’s hard to beat Emily Post for getting your etiquette correct, so refer to the “address” article I linked to above.
This sentence should state the topic and purpose of the letter. If it’s a friendly letter, as in a sales situation, you might make this a warmer/fuzzier greeting such as, “It was good to see you at the XYZ Conference [on X date]; I hope all is well with you.” Another exception to the getting-down-to-business sentence first would be if you are responding on behalf of someone else, such as: “Thank you for contacting Darlene Cavalier. She has asked me to respond on her behalf.”
Otherwise, your first sentence is doing a couple important things:
- Explaining the purpose of your letter.
- Setting the tone.
Your purpose will vary based on how you want your reader to respond:
- Learn / know the information
- Feel / respond emotionally
- Comply / follow directions
- Decide / take action
- Agree / advocate / accept the proposal
The variations are nearly endless, depending on your audience, specific business situation, and your intended/preferred outcome. The goal with American business writing, as with journalism, is to get the main point out in front of the reader as soon as possible. Other organizations and cultures might have differing approaches–including additional time spent on diplomatic greetings, inquiries into the reader’s health, etc.–but if you’re dealing with an American business or organization, the direct approach is generally acceptable and expected. “Time is money” being a very American view of things, the average business reader doesn’t want to waste a lot of time digging through a lot of words to learn the writer’s purpose. (Note: We’re not quite as far gone as the fictional Klingons in Star Trek, who skip all preliminaries and salutations and go right into “What do you want?”)
“This letter has been written in response to your correspondence dated May 23, requesting an extension of the deadline for submitting your proposal. We regret to inform you that we are unable to grant an extension on this procurement.”
“Thank you for contacting Darlene Cavalier about Science Cheerleader. She asked me to respond on her behalf. We appreciate your enthusiasm for cheerleading and science, and we’re happy to provide you with information about our organization.”
“This letter is to explain recent billing activity by XYZ Company and to reassure the Very Large Government Agency of America of the timeliness of our billing/payments.”
Now that you’ve laid out your purpose, you can provide a more detailed explanation for the why, what, who, how, where, and when of the situation. Those may sound out of order (people are used to seeing who-what-where-when-why-how), but I believe the order I included them make sense. If you’re sharing a decision of some sort, you want to start out with the “why,” especially if it doesn’t match up with what your correspondent requested. Or maybe it does and a why isn’t necessary (“We’d be happy to refund your deposit–we’re sorry to hear about X situation that kept you from buying X at this time and hope you consider doing business with us in the future”). If you were meeting a request, you might provide the individual with instructions for whom to address, how to do so, where to address their follow-up request, and by what date/time.
This could take anywhere from one to three paragraphs (longer, if your legal department gets hold of it). Again, try to keep business correspondence to a single page. If you’re laying out a particular type of agreement or arrangement, you might be better off creating a different type of document, such as a work agreement, contract, non-disclosure agreement, etc.
Your closing should echo the tone set by your opening. This could include maintaining a positive, upbeat, we-look-forward-to-hearing-from-you tone to a conciliatory, we-hope-you-will-consider-doing-business-with-us-in-the-future attitude. Or you might be in the middle of a dispute and hope to end on an “up” note by saying that “We (or I) hope we can resolve this situation to everyone’s satisfaction soon.” Your closing is, in effect, politely stating the direction you hope your correspondent will take upon reading the letter.
Your signature block should mirror the information you include in the address of the recipient. However, if you’re writing/printing on stationery that already includes your business’s address/contact information, you can simply include your name and title.
Also, if you’re writing your letter with print in mind, allow at least two (preferably three) hard returns below the closing sentence to provide you or the signer room to write their signature.
Identification Initials, Enclosures, Copies, and Postscripts
Often you can find a lot of other information on a formal letter beyond the signature block.
Sometimes, businesses will include the initials of the individual signing the letter and the one preparing it, with the signer’s initials in upper case and the preparer’s initials in lower case. For example, a letter signed by Darlene Cavalier but originally prepared by Bart Leahy would include the following identification information:
If you’ve enclosed another item with the letter–anything from a coupon to a contract to a full proposal, that should be noted
If you are copying someone on the letter (it used to be “carbon copy,” for those of us old enough to know/use such things, and “cc:” stuck with us), that would appear next, again with a blank line between the two. Sometimes letters are blind copies (bc:), meaning that a copy of the correspondence was sent to someone else within the organization but the addressee is not made aware of it and it is not printed on the letterhead/sent version of the letter. A bc: copy will show this information and a “copy” stamp in the signature block in lieu of an actual handwritten signature.
Postscripts, while not common in most business correspondence (I see them a lot in sales pitches, though). They’re included below the signature block, with one space between them. You might even throw in a post-postscript (P.P.S.), but this is not common and appears (in my humble opinion) unprofessional.