Letter writing is essential to many business tasks:
you may be required to sell a product by mail,
answer queries from potential customers, or simply
make or accept and offer in clear and binding terms.
A well constructed letter can help you win new
business and to improve and develop your
relationship with clients.
A skilfully written letter can smooth troubled waters
and heal wounded feelings.
It is important to learn how to deal with most kinds of
business correspondence – from letters answering
The language of business is the same as that of
Many people seem to think that a special vocabulary
is necessary in business, that readers expect it, or
are impressed by it.
None of this is true.
Remember that all good writing follows the same
Certainly a business letters is different from a letter
you write to a friend, or a thank-you note you send to
your hostess after a weekend party.
The difference, however, is not in how you write, but
in what you write about.
In business correspondence, as in all good writing,
Think before you write
Before you begin a letter, you must know what you
want to achieve.
Reread any previous correspondence between you
and the person you are writing to.
Make sure you have in front of you all items of
information – facts, figures, and so on – that you
may have to pass on in the letter.
Consider the main purpose of your letter.
Is it intended to pacify an angry customer, to quote a
price, or to say No to a request?
Whatever the reason, have it firmly in your mind
before you start to write.
Is there a secondary purpose to your letter? If you
quote a price, should you also make a bid for an
If you turn down a request, should you suggest and
alternative course of action?
An angry customer has to be won back as well as
pacified. Decide how you are going to handle such
matters before you write the first word.
Set aside a specific time for dealing with letters – a
time when you will not be interrupted. Good planning
Some people set aside the first hour in the morning,
when the telephone rings less frequently and visitors
are few. Your thoughts are also sharper then; they
Make notes as you plan.
This will help you to think more clearly, and will also
help to avoid unnatural words and phrases when
you come to write the letter.
Plan your letter
The main text of most business letters has three
parts, and the order of these parts is fixed.
1. Your reason for writing. If there is more than one,
2. The facts that you are presenting. Make a list and
put the facts in a logical order.
3. What you want the person receiving the letter to do
for you. Again make a list, and put the most
important item first.
In some letters, when you are chasing a debt for
example, there may be an extra part. What you
intend to do if you do not get satisfaction from your
Suppose for example, you are responsible for the
computer system of a big firm of chartered
You are having problems, and have just heard of a
company that specialises in your kind of system.
You think they may be able to help you, and are
writing to enquire. Your plan might look like this:
Why writing: New system recently installed – UNIX
operating system. Problems.
Facts: Business software doesn’t meet out
requirements. Also problems with communications
What you want them to do: Inspect system and see
Making the first draft
Having made a plan, you are ready to make your
Get straight to the point of your letter.
Say what you have to say – and no more.
Remember, the best letters give the most important
information in the shortest time and most accessible
Opening the letter. Identify the subject matter in the
It is often a good idea to include a heading so that
the person receiving the letter knows at a glance
what it refers to.
The body of the letter. The basic rule is to follow
the three parts of business letters – your reason for
writing, that facts you are presenting, what you want
the person to do for you.
Very often, you will have a number of facts to
present in each section.
Find a logical order for presenting these facts – you
may, for instance, order them by importance, or
Keep your paragraphs short. Aim to describe or
explain of idea only in each – single- sentence
paragraphs are fine.
Most longer paragraphs can simply be split at some
Keep your sentences short too. If a sentence starts
going over three lines, its is probably too long and
Watch your language. Aim for maximum clarity of
style in your letter. Check for ambiguity.
If you write something like The meeting will be held
at a time to be determined later in the year, stop and
think. If this is what you mean, rewrite it as The
meeting will be held later in the year but we have not
yet decided on the date.
Favour verbs over nouns, especially when the nouns
are abstract or piled into long phrases. In the
absence of precise instructions regarding the return
of goods could become Since you have not told us
exactly how we should return the goods...
Avoid clichés and jargon – sentences like this: We
need to achieve conceptual communication criteria
with a view to brining about a dynamic parameters
It is hard to see what exactly the writer does mean,
but presumably it is something like this: We need to
stay in touch so that we can work out what limits
we’re going to work within.
Don’t use abbreviations such as ibid. (ibidem),
inst.,(institute) and ult (ultimate). Spell things out
instead. On the other hand, it is usually permissible
nowadays to use contractions such as don’t, she’ll,
there’s and isn’t – though you should still avoid
these in the most formal letters.
Avoid long-winded turns of phrase. Write Please let
me know... – not I would appreciate your informing
Say We have decided to put off the decision until
Closing the letter. End the letter on a firm and
positive note. Avoid vague closing like:
Thanking you in anticipation.
Hoping to hear from you.
Assuring you of our best attention at all times.
Let your close say what you mean:
Please phone me to discuss terms and arrange a
Whatever the answer, I would be grateful for a
Please contact me if I can give you any further help.
Editing the draft
Now check your draft. It may go through several
stages before it is ready for typing.
In particular, look for places where you could simplify
or shorten the letter, and for places where you could
improve the style – be it the wording, sentence
structure, or paragraphing.
Always aim to ‘edit down’ rather than to ‘edit up’,
though of course you may find that your first draft
lacks something important and needs adding to.
At every stage, ask yourself, ‘Does that say exactly
what I want it to say? In the best possible way? In
the fewest and clearest words? Make sure to check
for mistakes of grammar, spelling and punctuation.
When you have got the letter just right, it is ready to
Then, before you sign the typed version, check the
letter carefully once more for typing and errors and
Always keep copies of business letters. How else
can you prove that you really did reply to that urgent
request for information, or that you offered to do the
deal for Kshs.700,000 and not Kshs.1M?
drafting must be matched by careful
presentation. A business letter must be neatly and
attractively presented; it should, of course, be typed
– though, if you wish, you can add a handwritten
postscript to someone you know well.
Stationery. One key to effective presentation is
attractive stationery. If your company does not have
good office stationery, make sure it gets some –
You cannot go wrong with A4-sized headed letter
paper, plus matching unheaded sheets for letter that
go over one page, and matching envelopes.
It is also useful to have A5 (half the size of A4)
A good printer will help you design your stationery,
or there may be a designer on your staff.
By law your company letterhead must give, as well
as your address, the following information:
The company’s trading name – stating also if it is a
The company’s registration number, and place of
The address of the company’s registered office – if
this is different from the address of your particular
The names of the directors (plus sometimes their
nationality) – unless the company was formed
before 23 November, 1916.
If your company has a logo – a picture or symbol
used as its emblem – you will probably want to
include that in your letterhead as well.
You should also include, of course, your telephone
number, and any fax numbers and the like.
You can be flexible about presenting this
You can put the important elements – the company
name, address, and telephone number – in the top
right-hand corner in the traditional way.
Or spread them in one or two long lines across the
width of the top of the page. Or arrange them in a
column in the centre at the top.
Get your designer or printer to show you a number
of specimens in different typefaces, and experiment
until you find a striking but appropriate format.
Layout. By convention, there are two styles for
laying out business letters – blocked and semi
The basic difference between the two is that in
blocked letters, every line of text begins flush with
the left-hand margin, and paragraphs are indicated
only by a blank line between them.
In semi blocked letters, the first line of each
paragraph is indented. Neither style is ‘better’ than
the other – but having chosen one, stick to it.
The constituent parts of a letter are:
Your address, plus information listed above that your
are legally obliged to give. If you have office
stationery all this will be provided
- The date. This is especially important in business
letters – as proof that you did indeed write on a
particular date, and so that people replying can
indicate which of your various letters they are
Remember to give the year as well as the day and
month. Various forms are possible: 5th June, 1990;
5th June 1990; 5 June 1990; June 5th, 1990.
Avoid the form 5/6/90, which would mean June 5 in
Britain, but May 6 in North America.
Reference numbers. These make filing easier and
allow letters to be traced later.
Generally, references consist of two sets of initials
with a final number.
- For example – Ref: MH/jp/22. The initials in capitals
are those of the writer of the letter – Maria Hartnell.
The ones in lower case are those of the typist –
The number indicates where the letter is filed – so
22 directs the searcher to shelf, box, or drawer 22.
If you are replying to a letter with a reference, give
that as well – label the other person’s reference
number Your ref: and yours Our ref...The name, title,
and address of the person you are writing to.
This means that anyone finding a copy of your letter
in the files at a later date knows whom you were
writing to and where.
A salutation. If possible, always address your letter
- Use the form Dear Sir (or Sirs) or Dear Madam only
if you really cannot find out a recipient’s name.
If you know the person reasonably well, and are on
first-name terms, use his or her first name (Dear
John) – but still type out the name and title formally
above the salutations.
A conclusion. In general, if you address the person
by name, you conclude the Yours Sincerely.
Using the form Dear Sir or Dear Madam, you
conclude Yours Faithfully.
If you have addressed the person by his or her first
name a number of forms are common – Kind
regards, Regards, Best Regards, Best Wishes, for
- Your signature, name, and title. Below your signature
type your name – signatures are generally pretty
illegible, and this helps the person receiving the letter to
address you correctly when replying.
- The typed name is not preceded by Mr, Mrs or any other
- However, a woman may put a title in brackets after her
name – (Mrs), (Ms), (Miss).
- Beneath your name you can specify your position, such
as Managing Director, Personnel Manager, or Assistant