How to Write a Business Letter

by Alice Feathers, M.A. TESOL, Professional Editor and Writer

What's your point? State it clearly and concisely

A good business letter does not ramble on; it supplies all pertinent information in a clear and concise manner. Using 1" margins and a serif font such as Times New Roman (12 point) or Georgia (11 point), your sentences should be no longer than 2 ½ lines, preferably shorter. Conventional business correspondence contains the date, inside address, salutation, etc., in addition to the body of the letter. The complete letter should still fit easily on one side of an 8 ½" x 11" sheet of paper. Pretend that you are on a limited budget and every word you use has a price tag. Consequently, you must be frugal with the number of written words in every sentence.

State your purpose in the opening sentence

Many professionals process large amounts of written material daily and learn how to skim their mail quickly and effectively. There are really not enough hours in the day for a busy person to read each letter slowly, word for word. For these reasons, it is necessary to state your purpose in the opening sentence of the letter. It is also best to use active voice instead of passive voice. Passive voice requires longer verb forms, building longer sentences that are tiresome to read.

Use a formal tone

Although it is important to write a letter that sounds natural and is not long-winded, remember that the tone of a business letter should be more formal than normal, conversational English. If you are trying to impress someone with your education and credentials, avoid using slang and idiomatic expressions. Run-on sentences may have a negative effect on the reader as well. If you crowd too many ideas into one sentence, the reader may become lost in the tangle of words. After skimming the first few sentences, a reader may slow down and read a well-written letter more closely, but may quickly toss one into the "circular file" if it is difficult to read or unprofessional. You do not want to write a letter that provokes confusion, annoyance, or amusement.

Correct spelling and grammatical errors

Even though someone may be skimming your letter, do not assume that he or she won't notice any spelling or grammatical mistakes. The most popular word-processing programs have writing tools such as spell checks, dictionaries, and grammar tips. Make sure these features are activated in your program and learn how to use them. Remember, however, that a spell check will not help if you spell the word correctly but use it incorrectly. For example, the words "affect" and "effect" are often mistakenly interchanged. Consult a dictionary if you are unsure of your word usage.

Reread your letter

Many people write an important letter, print it out and mail it without further consideration. If possible, let your finished letter sit on the computer for an hour or two, then go back and reread it. Do not skim your letter. Read it closely and you may be surprised at the number of simple mistakes you will find. If you do find mistakes, correct them and read it again. Can you read it through without finding more mistakes or rewriting any sentences? Have you stated your ideas as clearly and concisely as possible? If not, then your letter is not ready to mail. It takes patience to write a good business letter. With time and experience, however, your letters will begin to flow more quickly and easily.

Get a second opinion

If you have a competent friend who is willing to help you, it is a good idea to get a second opinion on both your letter content and structure. Your helper may read the letter silently or you can read the letter out loud and ask for his or her reaction and comments. Even if you are alone, reading the letter out loud may still prove useful as your brain will process the information differently than it would if you read the letter silently.