4 Essential Tips for Writing an Effective Letter

by Travis Heermann on June 8, 2010

Does anyone write letters anymore? We have e-mail, text messaging, social media web sites, and the soul of communicational brevity, Twitter. With all these other forms of communication, do we still need to know how to write a good letter? Whether you’re seeking employment, trying to sell widgets, or contacting business associates, now, more than ever, a good letter can raise you above the crowd. The quickest way to disqualify yourself from consideration from a world of business opportunities is to not know how to write an effective letter.

  1. In business or marketing communications, the cardinal commandment is this: Know Thy Audience. Don’t even start writing without a firm vision of whom you’re writing to. As a general rule, it’s nearly always more effective to be more formal, at least until a clear personal relationship is established. “Dear Mr. Jones:” versus “Hey Jim,” or even “What’s up J-Dawg?” Courtesy toward an employment superior or a potential sales prospect still goes a long way. Tailor the voice of your communication to your audience, and remember that your letter represents you. What kind of impression would you like to convey?
  2. Margins, line spacing, position of the date, address blocks, salutation lines, all have long-established parameters for what is acceptable. Reference books abound, describing the intricacies of letters. Nowadays, software generally takes care of those things with templates, but some formats are more formal or traditional than others. A standard business letter most often uses block format, where all paragraphs, salutations, date, and address blocks are left-justified with a double space between each element and no indentation.
  3. For print letters, use a serif font (fonts with the little curly-cues, called serifs on the letters), such as Times New Roman, Garamond, or Courier. As a general rule, do not use sans serif fonts (fonts without serifs) like Arial, Trebuchet, or Calibri for print letters. Sans serif fonts are generally viewed as too informal and are more tiring to read. For easy reading, your audience will also thank you if you use 12 pt.
  4. When in doubt, check the reference books. If you don’t have one handy, the Purdue Online Writing Lab (Purdue OWL, http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/) is a fantastic web resource for all kinds of writing questions, including letter writing formats.

Does all this seem pretty basic? That’s because it is. But managers, professionals, and business people everywhere can tell you stories about how so many people don’t know these bare basics. Do you?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Joseph Dobrian June 10, 2010 at 12:27 pm

And check the spelling, VERY carefully. Consult a dictionary if you’re in the least doubt. A spelling error in a business letter (especially in someone’s name) is a ticket to the cylindrical file.

Mistina Picciano June 11, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Always a good move. Spelling seems to be a dying, underrated skill nowadays. So many of us are accustomed to seeing that squiggly red line appear when something isn’t kosher, and it lulls us into a sense of complacency. No squiggles means perfect, right? Nope. Not even close.

I’m probably just being bitter. My glory days from the Moody Courier spelling bee are so far behind me…

Travis Heermann June 12, 2010 at 11:14 am

I have been reading the latest issue of Cryptic magazine, a full-color, high-gloss, high-production-cost horror magazine, and all three of the articles I’ve read so far look like they were written by high-school students, and copyedited by same. Absolutely egregious spelling errors in every article. Needless to say, I won’t be buying that magazine again.

Randy Duermyer June 16, 2010 at 9:48 am

Agree. I just received a Guest blog post from a reputable blog I follow. The writing was absolutely horrible and obviously no one bothered to proofread the post before it was published. I can certainly tolerate an occasional typo, but this was so bad I nearly gagged. The useful information that was being conveyed was killed by the messenger. So much so that some sentences made no sense at all.

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