3 Secrets to Writing Flawless English Letters for Business Purposes
Some things never change.
Take, for example, the importance of writing business letters.
You might think that emails are the only messages we write to bosses, colleagues and clients these days.
However, even in our high-tech world, business letters still have clout (power or influence).
That’s because business letters achieve three outcomes that emails and text messages just can’t deliver.
The Importance of Business Letters
1. Business letters establish a voice of authority.
As Miguel Francisco Ruiz Garrido states in his book, “English Communication for International Business I,” executives prefer to relay information using written documentation as opposed to other communication forms.
These executives use business letters to relay important information about issues such as organizational changes or policy shifts.
2. Business letters put something tangible (something readers can touch) in the reader’s hands.
Emails often end up missing, deleted or placed in the wrong digital folder. It’s easy to miss or forget about an email. It’s easy to delete an email or even overlook it. An important email could appear in your junk mail instead of your inbox.
You wouldn’t want to imagine your most important client saying, “oops, I must have deleted that email.” That could mean the difference between a great sale and lost hours of hard work.
Envelopes with the addresses of both the letter’s receiver and the sender don’t disappear and aren’t overlooked.
3. Business letters show you care.
Just the fact that you took the time to write and send a business letter instead of typing a short note and pressing click shows the reader that you care.
But, the power of business letters goes beyond the effort.
According to Brian Garner in his article, “The Well-Crafted Letter Still Gets the Job Done,” you can use the tone of the letter to change the feelings of the person you are writing to.
So, dear reader, let’s find out how you craft that all-important business letter.
The Different English in Personal Letters and Business Letters
So, why do I continue to put the word “business” before the word “letter?”
Well, it’s because business letters are not the same as personal letters.
You see, the two types of letters have the following differences:
Business letters have a specific format whereas personal letters don’t have to follow any format at all.
Try to remember the last business letter you saw written in English. Or take a look at one now. You can find plenty of examples on the Internet. What do you see?
Let me take a guess. You’re looking at a typed letter with 1-inch margins. It’s single spaced. There’s double spacing between paragraphs and introductory lines at the beginning of the letter (like the date and subject). There’s no indentation to mark the beginning of a paragraph. In other words, the letter is left justified.
No, I’m not a mind reader. That’s just the correct format of a business letter.
A personal letter is totally different. It can be typed, but handwritten letters have a personal touch that some people appreciate. And personal letters are free of the format limitations of business letters.
Don’t ever, ever discuss personal issues in a business letter unless the issues impact the business in some way. Even in cover letters, you never talk about your personal issues. Target the content on the objective. In the case of a cover letter, you will need to talk about how your experience can help the company succeed.
Business letters have a specific objective. You write one to get a job, complain, respond to a complaint, inquire about something or respond to an inquiry. It’s always related to business. That’s it.
You don’t have this limitation with personal letters, however. You have the freedom to write about whatever you want in whatever order you want. A personal letter can even talk a bit about business if it’s a part of what you want to say.
I’ve seen handwritten personal letters that are three pages long. That’s way too long for business letters.
One page is all you get for a business letter. Learn how to be brief.
Language and Punctuation
Who uses colons (:) these days? Business letter writers do.
Who tends to use specific vocabulary associated with the letter’s objective? Business letter writers.
Who struggles to use the right words because the word choice can determine the letter’s tone? Business letter writers do.
Personal letter writers can misuse punctuation or not follow capitalization rules and, unless they’re writing to an English teacher, it’s all okay.
How to Write an Effective Business English Letter in 3 Simple Steps
Writing an effective business letter in English involves knowing the following elements of business letters:
1. Right format
2. Right writing style
3. Key English phrases
1. Know the Right Format
Business letter readers expect to see a standard format as their eyes move down the letter. Some business letter writers may choose to use the block format. Others may choose to use the indented format. Either way, you’ll find the same information. Here’s the information you need to include:
If you’re using a letterhead, this may already exist. If not, write this:
Your Street Address
Your City, State, Zip Code
You don’t have to place your name here since your signature will appear at the end.
The date you finished writing this letter is the date that you’re going write on the letter itself. You might think that this is the easiest part of the letter to write. After all, you know the date. But don’t read the next section of this article, yet. There’s a little detail you need to be aware of first.
When writing to a company in the United States, place the month before the day. For example:
June 10, 2015.
Europeans, however, place the day before the month. When writing to a company in Europe, write it like this:
10 June, 2015.
Write the date using the appropriate format.
The phrase “inside address” is just a fancy way of saying “the recipient’s address.” So, you know the address.
But wait, who are you writing to? I mean, what’s that person’s exact name and title? You really want to write the letter to a specific person, so you need their first name and their surname (last name), and you need to have both of them spelled perfectly. But, how can you find the name if you’re missing that piece of information?
Simply do a bit of detective work. Look at the company’s website.
Can you find the name of the person you’re writing to? No? Then call the company. A contact person there can often provide the name you’re looking for.
If you’re writing a business letter to a certain department or office, rather than one individual person, then you should go through the process above and send the letter to one specific person within that department or office.
Remember that name you used in the inside address? You’re going to use it again here.
But before you start writing, there’s something you need to know. (As usual.) Your salutation is always going to begin with the word “dear.” What follows “dear” depends on your relationship with the person you’re writing to.
Do you personally know the person? Okay, then if this person’s name is Jake Brown, “Dear Jake:” will do. If you don’t know Jake, then write “Dear Mr. Brown:”. If Jake has some type of title like “Dr.” then use that instead of “Mr.”
And what about women? The question here is, do you write “Dear Miss…” or “Dear Mrs…”? These days, it’s quite common to use “Ms.” unless you know the marital status of the letter’s recipient.
Images of your attachments sometimes appear at the end of an email. Well, these images are recreating the format of a business letter.
Simply typing the word “Enclosures” after the closing may suffice. It’s perfectly alright to list what you have included as well. Make sure you don’t forget to attach anything that’s on the list!
You know those words like “sincerely” and “yours truly?” They’re the words that appear in your closing. After that, you’ll leave space for your handwritten signature.
Then you’ll type your name.
It’ll look like this.
Your typed signature
You’ll sign by hand in the space between “Sincerely,” and your typed signature.
Finally. It’s time to learn how to express what you want to say in a business letter. And guess what. It’s really not that hard to do.
The body of your business letter is only going to contain a few paragraphs.
Use your first paragraph to tell the reader why you’re writing. In other words, you will want to state the main point of the letter.
Follow that paragraph with a paragraph or two justifying your main points with the help of background and supporting information.
Write one final paragraph stating, once again, the purpose of the letter. You may also request some type of action in this paragraph
This section is only needed if you didn’t type the letter. If someone typed it for you, their initials will appear at the bottom of the letter.
2. Know the Right Writing Style
You may think that the subject of your letter is the most important issue in the world. I’m sure it’s important for you, but remember that the person you’re writing to has a lot of people writing to them, all with the same idea—“My letter is the most important of all.”
That person has to find time to read these letters during their busy day.
Do you want the letter’s recipient to read your letter? Then keep it short.
Honestly, which letter would you read if you were very, very busy? A three-page letter or a quick, one-page letter?
Be professional and courteous
Following this rule will almost automatically help you keep your letter brief and to the point.
Do not get emotional. Do not start writing about unrelated subjects. Know your audience and focus on what you have to say to him/her to achieve you goal.
You may have worked hard to learn jargon. Jargon is the specialized, technical vocabulary used within your industry or company.
However, you should not use this vocabulary in your business letters. Everyone may not know the same, specific terms that you know.
The objective of your letter isn’t to show off your vocabulary. Your reader may totally miss the point as he or she tries to define the words. Even worse, your reader may decide not to read the letter at all if it looks too complicated.
Use short sentences. Use short words. Keep it simple. For example, instead of writing, “in all cases,” just write, “always.” Don’t utilize the word “utilize” when you can write “use” instead.
Say what you want to say, and move on.
Be grammatically correct
You do want to let your reader know what excellent grammar skills you have. It’s easy to do.
One of the most important rules to follow is subject-verb agreement.
Here’s a tip that even native English speakers can benefit from. Which verb form should you use after “nobody,” “someone,” “everybody,” “neither,” “everyone,” “each” and “either”? Should you use the singular or plural verb form? For example, would you write “nobody knows” (singular) or “nobody know” (plural)?
The answer: Singular verb form. So, you would write, “nobody knows…”
Also avoid common errors like confusing “affect” and “effect.” Personally, I know many native English speakers who question which one to use from time to time. But after reading this, you won’t ever make this mistake.
“Affect” is a verb. It means “to influence.”
The outcome of the merger will affect stock prices.
“Effect” is a noun. It means “result.”
The news of the merger had a terrible effect on my portfolio.
Learn about other common English mistakes like this to help make your writing more perfect.
Business letters don’t have to be stiff and boring. Use active verbs to energize your writing. What do I mean? See for yourself.
Which sentence do your prefer?
A. Joe added some interesting comments.
B. Some interesting comments were added by Joe.
I don’t know about you, but I definitely prefer sentence A. Your readers will, too. It sounds like Joe is really doing some work there. Joe is the main subject of this sentence, and we are describing him as actively doing the work. In sentence B, Joe comes last, and it sounds like he is doing this work less actively.
3. Know the Key English Phrases
Now, dear reader. There’s one last piece of information you’ll need in order to write amazing business letters in English.
What is it? The phrases in English that will help you write your letter.
You see, when business people read letters, they look at them expecting to see certain phrases. These phrases gives them a clue about what’s coming next, and this clue helps them quickly understand the letter’s content.
So, in order to write a clear letter, you’ll want to make sure you cover these points with relevant phrases.
These are the different elements of your business letter’s content that I’m going to give you phrases to write:
- The Reason for Writing
- Enclosing Documents
- Final Remarks
- Reference to Future Contact
Now, let’s look at the best phrases to use for each of these sections.
The salutation you use depends on whether or not you know your reader’s name. Remember, this isn’t a personal letter. That means that you’ll want to set a formal tone.
It’s common practice to use one of these salutations:
- Dear Sir or Madam (if the name of the recipient is unknown)
- Dear Mr. Smith (if the name is known, but you are not familiar with the recipient)
- Dear Jim (if you know the recipient)
Place a comma after the name, and leave a space between the salutation and the first line of your letter. For example:
Dear Mr. Smith,
I am writing to…
The Reason for Writing
What’s the best way to make it very clear what you want? Tell people directly. Tell them exactly what you want in the first line of the letter. You’re going to open your letter with the reason you’re writing.
Here are some examples:
I am writing to…
- …inquire about…
- …apologize for…
- …comment on…
- …apply for…
In business, people tend to write emails to:
- clarify something
- confirm something
- inform someone about something
- follow up on something
- let someone know about something
- reply to something
- request something
- tell someone about something
- thank someone for something
- update someone
One of the above will most likely be your reason for writing. Use a phrase like this and then quickly give a summary of the specific reason for writing.
Dear Mr. Smith,
I am writing to request a copy of the research department’s monthly report from January 2016.
Some business letters also include documents that support the information in your letter or that the person you’re writing to has requested.
Since not all letters contain such documents, the reader may overlook them or not give them the attention they deserve when they’re included
Avoid this by telling them what to expect.
- I am enclosing…
- Please find enclosed…
- Enclosed you will find…
Enclosed you will find my resume and cover letter.
Readers also look for signals that they’re nearing the end of the letter.
Here are some examples of phrases that signal the end of the letter.
- Thank you for your help.
- Please contact us again if…
…we can help in any way.
…there are any problems.
…you have any questions.
Reference to Future Contact
You also need to tell readers what you expect to happen next.
Examples of phrases you can use include:
- I look forward to…
…hearing from you soon.
…meeting you next Tuesday.
…seeing you next Thursday.
Now it’s time to truly end the letter.
The most common business letter closings are:
- Yours faithfully, (If you don’t know the name of the person you’re writing to)
- Yours sincerely, (If you know the name of the person you’re writing to)
- Best wishes,
- Best regards, (If the person is a close business contact or friend)
Now it’s your turn to do some writing.
Do you have a business letter you need to write in English? Then go ahead.
You’re ready to write an amazing business letter in English today!