In the 21st century?
Isn’t business writing all about emails, reports and memos?
Well, business people actually write and read business letters all the time.
You can send a business letter via email (as an attachment or in an email) or as a hard copy (printed on paper).
Business letters are more formal than business emails. They communicate something more official in a business situation.
It is important to write business letters correctly, because the impression you create depends on how you write them.
We will help you write a great business letter in English with fewer mistakes.
Here is a list of eight steps to follow when writing a business letter, along with many valuable tips.
8 Essential Steps to Writing a Business Letter in English
1. Decide what type of letter you need to write
Business letters have a sender and a recipient (person who receives the letter). The sender can be a person or a group (like a company) and the recipient can be another person or group.
Depending on the sender’s reason for writing, there are several types of letters. Have a look at the main types of business letters:
- Letter of complaint: A business letter written by someone (a person or a company) who is dissatisfied with the products or services offered by a company. When writing a letter of complaint, it is important to try to keep a polite tone, even if you are very upset or have a lot of complaints to make.
- Letter of inquiry: This type of letter is written by someone who has questions about the activity of another company. If you are planning to write a letter of inquiry, make sure you try to find out as much information as you can before writing. Then make a checklist with everything else you need to find out about, so that you don’t forget some important points.
- Cover letters: These are written by people who are applying for jobs. They are usually sent together with a resume. A good cover letter can get you a job, but people writing cover letters often make mistakes or try too hard to impress the reader.
- Adjustment letters: These letters are sent as replies to letters of complaint. They can be tricky to write because your reader is usually a dissatisfied customer who is hoping to get the most out of a bad business situation.
- Order letters: This type of business letter is sent to place an order with a company. Order letters need to include correct information, so you need to double-check all figures before sending them. Your language needs to be accurate so that there is no room for mistakes. It is better to use simple and clear language. Long sentences can be ambiguous (uncertain) and difficult to follow.
- Other letters: There may be all sorts of other business situations in which people may be writing letters. For example, a person might write a letter…
- to convince others to buy their products or services.
- to recommend employees for jobs.
- to announce their resignation.
Whatever type of business letter you are writing, read on to find out more tips and specific phrases you can use to sound more professional!
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2. Write a short outline
After you have decided what type of letter you are going to write, it is important to stop and think. Write an outline before you start typing. If you don’t do this, you could be wasting a lot of time. At the end, you can easily make minor changes, but big changes are more difficult to make. If you have a good plan, you won’t need to make a lot of time-consuming changes.
So first of all, start gathering all the information you can on the situation you are writing about. If you are writing a letter of complaint, you should know exactly what the problem was and what you hope to achieve as a result of your letter. If you are writing an order letter, remember to gather all the information about the product you need.
Next, write down the main ideas you want to include. You can write down full sentences, or just key words if you are in a hurry. For example, if you are writing a cover letter, your main ideas could look like this:
- What job you are applying for.
- Why you think you would be good for the job/why the company should hire you.
- Why the job would be good for you.
- When you are available for an interview.
If you know the main ideas, you know how many paragraphs you are going to write. Remember to have only one main idea in a paragraph. This will help the reader follow your points more easily, and your letter will be structured and logical. Your reader will also be happy (and you want to keep your reader happy) if your ideas are nicely connected. Remember to use connectors to make transitions within and between paragraphs.
You can see connectors and transition words in action on FluentU.
3. Use the right layout and salutation
Business letters have quite strict rules when it comes to layout (format and order). You need to include the sender’s and the recipient’s addresses and follow some simple rules:
- Start with the sender’s address. You can write it in the top right or left corner. Don’t include your name or title because these will appear at the end of your letter.
- Leave an empty line and write the date just below the sender’s address. If you are writing to a company in the United States, remember to use the American date format: month, date, year.
- Leave another empty line and write the recipient’s title, name, position and address. Pay attention to titles. We use Mr. for men, Miss for unmarried women, Ms. for women we are not sure are married and Mrs. for married women. It is always safest to just use Ms. for women. Here is an example:
14 Bridge Street
Baviera, California 92908
March 11, 2016
Ms. Jane Smith
Customer Care Manager
Chapman and Litt
711-2980 Nulla Street
Mankato, Mississippi 96522
- Start the letter with the right salutation, depending on whether you know the recipient and how well you know them. In American English, we use a colon after salutations in formal business letters. In British English, we use a comma. Here are some examples:
Dear Ms. Smith: (If you know the recipient’s name.)
Dear Jane: (If you know the recipient quite well and call each other by your first names.)
Dear Sir or Madam: (If you don’t know the recipient’s name.)
To Whom It May Concern: (If you don’t have a specific person to whom you are writing. It is a bit more general than “Dear Sir or Madam.” It is best to try to find a contact person when writing a business letter.)
- Close the letter appropriately, depending on the salutation you used at the beginning:
(Dear Ms. Smith:) Yours sincerely / Sincerely / Sincerely yours,
(Dear Jane:) Best / Best regards / Kind regards,
(Dear Sir or Madam: / To Whom It May Concern:) Yours faithfully / Faithfully / Faithfully yours,
- Sign your name if you are sending a hard copy and then write your name (your title is optional) and your position:
[Ms.] Rebecca Smith
Director of Acquisitions
4. Use appropriate vocabulary for the type of letter you are writing
Depending on the type of business letter you are writing, you can choose to use some of the sentences and phrases suggested below.
- Letters of complaint:
I am writing to complain about…
I am writing to draw your attention to…
I recently purchased … from your company.
Not only…(did the product arrive late), but…(it was faulty as well)
As you can imagine, I was quite disappointed/upset when…
I suggest that I get a full refund.
I feel entitled to a refund.
I would be grateful if you could give me a refund.
I would appreciate it if you could replace the product.
I look forward to receiving a prompt reply.
- Letters of inquiry:
I am writing to inquire about…
Would you be kind enough to provide me with some information about…
I would be appreciative if you could help me find out…
Could you tell me whether…
I would also be interested in…
- Cover letters:
I am writing to apply for the position of…
I am writing in response to your advertisement…
I would like to apply for the position of…
I am particularly interested in this job because…
As you can see from my resume,…
As you will notice in my resume,…
I am currently employed by…
I am keen to pursue a career in…, because…
My main strengths are…
I would be available for an interview starting…
Should you require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me.
- Adjustment letters:
Please accept our apologies for…
We sincerely apologize for…
The mistake was apparently due to…
We are currently working on…
To prevent this from happening again,…
We understand how upset you must have been when…, but unfortunately…
- Order letters:
We would like to place an order for…
We look forward to receiving your offer for…
Could you please confirm the prices for…
We are looking forward to your confirmation.
5. Check your spelling
When writing a business letter, perfect spelling is essential. If possible, use spell check to make sure your spelling is correct.
If you are writing a business letter as part of an exam, try to avoid spelling mistakes. You can simply replace words that you are not confident about with other words. For example, if you are not sure how to spell occur, you can use happen instead.
Another useful thing to do, especially if you are writing a cover letter or if you are trying to impress your reader, is to consider whether they use American or British spelling. There are a lot of words that are spelled differently, so it may be useful to have a look at this site which gives you the main differences.
6. Check your grammar
Grammar mistakes are a bit trickier. Of course, the safest route is to learn the rules and practice them as much as possible. You can use grammar books or online exercises or both, depending on what you find more convenient.
Another thing you can do is to know your grammar weak spots. For instance, do you tend to forget adding s for the third-person singular when using the present simple? Or do you overuse the? Then it is time to double-check for these mistakes.
Finally, here is a list of common grammar mistakes people make in English. Make sure you understand why they are mistakes, so that you don’t make them yourself!
- Your vs. you’re
Mistake: Your a valued customer and we’d like to apologize for the inconvenience we’ve caused you.
Correct: You’re a valued customer and we’d like to apologize for the inconvenience we’ve caused you.
Correct: Your interest is important to us.
Explanation: Your is used to express possession. You’re = You are.
- Its vs. it’s
Mistake: Its important that we get a reply as soon as possible.
Correct: It’s important that we get a reply as soon as possible.
Correct: We did not receive the email and its attachment.
Explanation: Its is used to express possession. It’s = It is.
- Possessive nouns
Mistake: The employee’s lack of motivation stems from their low salaries.
Correct: The employees’ lack of motivation stems from their low salaries.
Explanation: With singular nouns, we add ‘s to express possession. With plural nouns ending in s, we just add ‘.
- Present simple vs. present continuous
Mistake: I am working with kids and I love my job.
Correct: I work with kids and I love my job.
Correct: I am working with these kids while their teacher is on maternity leave.
Explanation: We use the present simple to refer to permanent, general actions, such as one’s job. We use the present continuous with temporary actions.
- Present perfect vs. past
Mistake: I have read your cover letter when you sent it.
Correct: I read your cover letter when you sent it.
Correct: I have read your cover letter and would like to follow up with you.
Explanation: We use the present perfect for actions that happened in the past and still have an impact on the present. We use the past for actions that happened in the past, when the speaker knows when they happened.
- Than vs. then
Mistake: Our profits are lower then last year.
Correct: Our profits are lower than last year.
Correct: We analyzed your request and then we contacted you.
Explanation: We use than to form comparisons and then to refer to when something happened.
Do not worry if this seems challenging. English grammar is complex, and even native English speakers have difficulty with grammar sometimes. To ensure that your business writing is free from grammar mistakes, you may want to use Grammarly. This is a grammar-checking tool that will highlight mistakes and suggest corrections for you.
It is not 100% perfect, and it may still miss errors that a human being would see.
If you are going to be sending out very important business letters, then it is worthwhile to invest in professional proofreading services. After all, you want your writing to be perfect when you are sending a business letter to your entire company, to a potential employer or to your most valuable clients.
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7. Check your punctuation
It is so difficult to focus on different types of mistakes all at once—spelling, grammar and punctuation. So try to make time to proofread your letter a separate time for punctuation mistakes.
Here are some of the most frequent punctuation mistakes to watch out for:
- Forgetting commas
Mistake: We tried emailing them but there was no reply.
Correct: We tried emailing them, but there was no reply.
Explanation: If you are not sure whether to use a comma or not, try splitting the sentence into smaller bits: We tried emailing them. There was no reply. It works, right? If you are still not sure, try saying the sentence out loud. If you are pausing a little, you should probably use a comma.
- Using exclamation marks or emoticons
Mistake: I was extremely upset when I received a faulty product! 🙁
Correct: I was extremely upset when I received a faulty product.
Explanation: Exclamation marks and emoticons make your writing rather informal, so you should avoid them when writing business letters.
- Using too many or not enough spaces
Mistake: I haven’t applied for a job before , but I’ll give it a try now . I’m not sure if I’m qualified, though.
Correct: I haven’t applied for a job before, but I’ll give it a try now. I’m not sure if I’m qualified, though.
Explanation: When typing, we only use one space after commas or periods and no space before them.
8. Format your letter
Leave formatting for the end; it is less time consuming. Most business letters use a block format, and are left-justified and single-spaced. You should use double spacing between paragraphs to make it clear where a paragraph ends and where another one begins. The most common font is Times New Roman 12, but Arial also works just fine.
That’s it! Business letters are less complicated once you follow these easy steps.
Remember that, whether you know your reader or not, writing business letters in a “friendly” way means writing them in a “professional” way.
For those of you who are very dedicated to improving your English writing skills, we recommend that you go take a look at the courses and books by Inklyo. These have been designed to teach English students how to improve their writing, and they might be just what you need to keep moving forward!
Whenever you are in doubt, have another look at the eight steps above, and keep on writing!
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