Do's and Don'ts of Letter Writing


In the business world, writing letters comes down to three things: style, tone, and format.  If these things are done correctly, your letter will be a success.  If they are done even slightly incorrectly, the end result could be more on the not so good side.  The following tips will be helpful for crafting letters that do what they are supposed to do.

STYLE: (sentence structure and vocabulary)

Do use a style that fits the occasion.  If you know your audience well, then don't write a stilted letter.  Likewise, if your purpose is to report bad news, adjust your style to reflect your news.  (audience and purpose)

Do use plain English.  You don't want to sound like a lawyer or a technical manual.  Say things in a way that will get through to your audience.  However, don't slip into informal speech, there is a thin line between using plain English and being too informal.

Do write in active voice and use short sentences when possible.

Do use everyday words and avoid legal jargon.

Do use lists to present complex materials.  Remember my many speeches about why I prefer bullets?  Your reader will thank you.

Do select the words you use very carefully.  The way you first write things may not be the most effective way to get the message across, nor may it meet your audience's needs.  So, revision is your friend, especially in messages of importance in business.

Do use a strong organizational strategy.   

Don't make grammar or usage errors.  Your credibility will be in the toilet if you make a mistake, even if the content of your message is correct.  

Don't use clichés or worn out phrases. 

Don't use obsolete and/or pompous language because it "seems" more professional.  You usually come off sounding like an Oxford prof out of touch with reality.  Avoid phrases like "in due course," "please be advised," and "we wish to inform you."  Saying things like this will waste the reader's time and make them think you are an out of date pompous idiot.



Do use a reader centered tone.  (this should be obvious by this point)

Do use a business like, conversational tone.  This goes along with style, be professional without being stuffy.

Don't be too familiar with your audience.  Remember to keep some distance, this is a business relationship.

Don't use humor unless you know exactly what you are doing.  In many cases, humor can backfire, especially if you don't know your readers well, you're communicating across cultures, or your letter may be read at a later date.  What is funny to you might be an issue of the highest seriousness with other people.

Don't preach .  If you have to tell your audience obvious info, put it in the middle of a paragraph and watch how you word the message.

Don't brag.  Nothing is as irritating as someone that never stops "tooting their own horn."  Its good to be confident, but don't carry it to an excess.



Back to Assignment #5


Adapted from: Bovee, Courtland L and John V. Thill, eds. Business Communication Today. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 2000.