Business letters, to be good and effective, must contain certain essentials. In other words, business letters should conform to certain minimum standards of letter writing. One can look at these essentials from different angles—language, content, context, length, structure, layout, taste, tone, impact and purpose orientation.
Any letter is amenable to description in terms of these characteristics or features. To qualify, the letter should measure up as good when viewed from any of these considerations. It may or may not encompass all these features.
Nevertheless, a good letter writer should have a clear understanding of all the characteristics that make the letter effective. In order to be clear about what is a good letter, it is also very necessary to know what a bad letter is. While a good letter can be good on many counts, a bad letter may have one undesirable feature which can mar the beauty of the entire letter.
A bad letter stands out like a sore thumb for any of its deficiencies, which might be any of the following:
1. Lack of clarity
2. Poor uses of words and expressions
3. Incorrect spelling and grammatical errors
4. Too short or very lengthy
5. Too many ideas crowded into one letter
6. Not accurate or factually incorrect
7. Fails to convey the main purpose
8. Not to the reader’s wavelength
9. Too much jargon and technical words
10. Lacking in aesthetic sense
11. Language used not familiar to the reader
12. Lengthy paragraphs
13. Offensive in nature
14. Absence of personal touch
15. Lacking in courtesy
16. Creates ill-will
17. Written out of context
18. Absence of relevant information
19. Use of poor-quality paper and ink
20. Wrong address
21. Absence of address
Business is all about creating goodwill, favourable impressions, attracting attention, creating interest, wooing customers, reaching prospects and building relationships. All this calls for conscious efforts, concerted action and correspondence on a regular basis.
As this has to be done in a world that is full of competition, one bad letter can cause avoidable damage to the reputation of the business. Badly written letters cause embarrassment to the people behind the business and show the organization in poor light.
Before discussing the essentials of a good business letter, it would be desirable to keep in view what such a letter can achieve for business. A good business letter can reach out and directly address the target, be it a customer or a prospect or a patron or the regulator.
A good business letter can address the prospect and set the sales pitch. A good business letter can act as an effective salesperson. A good business letter can strengthen the bond and provide further details to an existing customer.
A good business letter can, thus, act as your relationship officer. A good business letter can dispel disinformation and create goodwill. It thereby acts as your ambassador. A good business letter can make announcements, share relevant information and keep you in touch with people who matter.
In this way, a good business letter can be your public relations officer (PRO). Well-written and imaginatively drafted letters can play the role of a salesman, a relationship officer, an ambassador and a PRO for business establishments. This is true especially for small businesses which cannot afford to employ people specifically for carrying out these functions.
Let us now briefly discuss the requisites or essentials of a good business letter.
A letter must have clarity. The underlying message should be expressed in clear terms. Care should be taken to avoid ambiguity. The purpose of communication should be made clear. Whether it is to inform, invite, reiterate, emphasize, remind, announce, seek participation or clarity and correct the earlier message, the purpose should clearly be stated.
If a letter writer is writing a letter on behalf of somebody else, it should be done after obtaining clear instructions. There are occasions when one may receive a letter informing the date and the venue of a meeting without an accompanying invitation or request to attend.
The reader or the receiver of the communication, in such an instance, will be in a dilemma. Is the invitation intended and implied but not specifically stated? Or is the letter just meant to be informative and no invitation is being extended? One way or the other, the message should be clear.
Just imagine the embarrassment that is caused when people not meant to be invited turn up at the venue and have to be turned back or when people who have to attend the meeting feel there is only intimation and no invitation and hence fail to turn up! When this happens due to lack of clarity in communication, any business suffers.
This is just one example. There are umpteen ways in which the lack of clarity affects the intended purpose of the letter. A letter writer should be conscious of this and exercise due care.
The letter should create the necessary impact. Behind every letter there is an objective and the letter should have a clear purpose. The purpose of writing a letter is not just to reach out to the customer. Every letter has an intended impact which must be felt.
To create the desired impact, it is often necessary to lay emphasis. Emphasis can be laid in many ways. It can be done by proper positioning—placing them in an important position. It can be done by repetition.
It can be done by underlining or using a larger type or font. Similarly, to create the right impact, the letter writer should address the letter to the right person. The right person is the specific person who is the target of the communication, and whose action or response the business considers to be of value.
Creating an impact also calls for establishing an appropriate wavelength. The letter writer should write keeping in view the skill, knowledge, and status and comprehension ability of the reader or the addressee.
Yet another requisite of an impact-creating letter is coherence. It is necessary to use words, phrases and clauses clearly, so as to form balanced sentences. Coherence seeks to establish a proper relationship and links sentences to make the intended message clear. Coherence brings consistency and orderliness to the encoded message.
A letter succeeds in creating the desired impact when it ensures purpose orientation, lays the right emphasis, establishes an appropriate wavelength and is coherent. Some of the common questions asked or statements made in relation to these attributes are:
1. What is one trying to convey? (Purpose orientation)
2. Which of these is really urgent9 (Emphasis)
3. Is it too elementary or is it an overhead transmission? (Wavelength)
4. What is the sequence? (Coherence)
It is necessary to give due attention to these areas and build up skills so that the letters become impact-creating.
3. Relevant Information:
The letter should provide the relevant details forming part of the message. Facts, figures, illustrations and other such information, which are accurate and reliable, as well as relevant to the context of the communication, should be incorporated in the letter.
The principle of communication that we are referring to here is also known as adequacy or completeness. A communication can be said to be complete only when it contains all the facts and details which the receiver needs to know in order to respond or act on the basis of that communication.
Not giving all the required details leads to protracted correspondence, loss of customers or lack of response. Worse still, although non-submission of full details maybe due to an oversight or inadequate attention to details, the receiver may infer that there is a deliberate attempt to withhold or conceal facts and figures.
Imagine a letter received from a departmental store announcing the opening of a new branch and seeking your patronage that does not give details of the new address or timings. Another requirement of a business letter is concreteness.
A communication is said to be concrete when it is specific, definite and to the point and not vague and generalized. Often the letters are so rambling in nature that one can imagine the reader screaming, ‘Please come to the point and be specific.’ A concrete letter does not ramble and is sharp and focused.
Any good communication—oral or written—should necessarily incorporate this essential feature. Brevity is a very important attribute for any business letter. For everyone connected with business, time is of essence.
The time that one can allot for reading business letters is certainly limited. The receiver does not have unlimited time to spare towards reading and re-reading the letter and drawing out the message in its entirety.
On the contrary, any business letter is competing with a huge mass of business-related and other communication targeted at the receiver, waiting to catch attention and time. Recognizing this, any business will have to value the receiver’s time. Brevity in letter writing, therefore, is a must. Long letters, whatever are their merits, are often kept aside for ‘later reading’. Brevity in communication is also referred to as conciseness.
Conciseness refers to the skill of conveying what one wants to convey in the fewest possible words, without sacrificing completeness or courtesy. Conciseness eliminates unnecessary words and phrases, repetitive sentences and keeps the letter focussed.
A good letter makes economical use of words. Brevity is a skill that a business communicator must develop. As people move up in an organizational hierarchy, their ability to condense messages into brief and focussed letters counts for a lot.
In typical bureaucratic and hierarchical work situations, one can see the ‘drafts’ of letters prepared by the junior staff moving upwards tier by tier ‘for final approval’ and much time and effort are wasted if brevity is not ensured.
Simplicity is the hallmark of any good communication. Simplicity refers to the ease of understanding. Simple writing is the opposite of complex and involved writing. The art of simple writing is mastered through conscious effort and practice.
A letter written in a simple, easy, informal style using easily understood words catches the attention, and makes an impact. Simplicity in writing does not, however, necessarily imply simple or plain thoughts.
The thoughts may be complex, and the subject quite complicated, but the manner of expression or presentation is kept simple. It takes tremendous insight and skill to express complex matters and complicated issues in a simple form.
The normal tendency on the part of the communicator is to resort to complex sentences, cliches, technical jargon and high-sounding words to communicate not-so-simple thoughts and developments, resulting in confusion and bewilderment.
One must make constant endeavours to write simple, yet meaningful and impact-creating, business letters. It involves not only the use of simple words, but also, more importantly, a clear insight into the structure of sentences and paragraphs. Brevity and simplicity are so essential for good communication that many writers refer to it with the acronym KISS—Keep It (the letter) Short and Simple.
Business letters, to be effective, should have proper timing. Letters should be written and dispatched on time. Some messages have a sense of urgency. They call for action, which is ‘immediate’ or ‘urgent’, or within a given time frame. Letters which carry such messages should reflect the associated urgency.
They should be so addressed and delivered that there is enough time to permit action within the given time frame. It is not uncommon to see letters seeking some action by a specified date reaching the receiver after that date. Some not-so-uncommon examples of this are:
1. A communication from a controlling office to a branch stating, ‘Please send us the statement without fail by 30 September 2001’ reaching on 2 October 2001
2 A letter from a committee secretariat asking the member to attend the meeting scheduled on the 10th of the month, reaching him that evening
3. A letter from a departmental store announcing ‘clearance sale for 3 days’ reaching after the sale
4. A letter from a personnel department asking an officer to appear for her promotional interview on 6 October 2001 at the regional office reaching on 5 October 2001
Apart from negating the purpose of communication, such letters reflect poorly both the organization and the sender of the message. If the action called for is so urgent, the minimum that anyone would expect from the sender is a clear demonstration of the urgency by ensuring speedy communication.
This necessitates not only timely writing but also timely dispatch. For example, there may be occasions when a letter dated 15 September 2001 or 20 September 2001 reaches the addressee on 2 October 2001 or 5 October 2001. Goal-oriented and effective communication presupposes that the person concerned acts and intervenes at every stage in the transmission of communication.
Timeliness in business writing also involves the choice of the right channel—mail, telegram or courier, as the case may be. Sending letters too much in advance is also to be avoided because unless there is a timely reminder, the message is likely to be forgotten.
Language is an extremely important facet of business communication. First and foremost, it is necessary to ensure that the language used is appropriate, i.e., the language with which the reader is at ease.
Apart from English and Hindi, various regional languages are in common use in businesses in different parts of the country. Public sector organizations such as banks follow the three-language formula.
Many printed letters are bilingual—both in Hindi and English. Business letters should use the language which the prospect, customer or addressee can read and understand. Choosing the appropriate language for a large multi-national or multi-regional organization is important not only for furthering business interests, but also for ensuring that the sensibilities of certain sections of people are not offended.
When organizations and businesses get global, the choice of appropriate language becomes highly relevant. Having chosen the right language, the next step is to ensure that the phrases, expressions, words, grammar and spellings are correct.
Grammatical errors and spelling mistakes have no place in a good business letter. They create a poor impression on the reader. Every business writer may or may not achieve grammatical perfection.
The use of commas at all relevant places in the sentence and avoidance of split infinitives, for example, may not always take place. In fact, certain grammatical imperfections such as the use of split infinitives are tolerated as long as the message is clear.
The important point emphasized here is that while the letter writer may or may not achieve grammatical perfection, glaring and obvious grammatical errors have no place in good writing.
A good letter writer should know his grammar well and seek appropriate reference when in doubt. A business letter with noticeable bad grammar, notwithstanding other merits, creates a poor impression on the reader.
A good letter should appeal to the reader’s sensibilities. It should go beyond the message it conveys and make a good impression. It should have elegance, which means taste, beauty and decency.
A good letter also ensures certain aesthetic appeal. No letter can be called elegant or aesthetically appealing if it does not give due attention to appearance. Mistakes and corrections, striking, overwriting, improper ink flow, unintended gaps and other such deficiencies rob an otherwise good letter of all its elegance.
A letter is appealing when it shows consideration. Consideration means though tfulness. It means keeping in mind the reader and putting oneself in the reader’s shoes while writing the letter. Consideration means visualizing the reactions of the reader and accommodating them in the approach to the communication.
A good letter writer invariably makes it a point to think from the other person’s point of view. Another essential for a good writer is empathy. Letter shows empathy when it reflects understanding and comprehension of the impact on the reader.
It tells the reader what is of interest to the reader. A good letter uses the ‘you’ more frequently than ‘I’. A good letter makes the reader feel important.
Style refers to the manner of writing. It constitutes the collective characteristics of the writing or impression or way of presenting things. Each person has an individual style. The writing style, to create an impact, again needs conscious effort, on an ongoing basis.
While encompassing various requisites of letter writing, the letter brings to bear the individual’s stamp on the letter. If you are regularly reading the letters emanating from a particular source, you get to identify the style. People tend to judge the style and categorize them—good style, bad style or free style.
Style can be associated with the person writing the letter and carries certain distinctiveness. Style is also understood as ‘Proper words in proper places’. One can also describe style in other ways—personal or impersonal, formal or informal, narrative or descriptive, rambling or focussed, considerate or harsh, simple or verbose. A simple, informal, considerate and focussed style of writing scores high in building a rapport with the reader.
Good writing style also implies the proper use of idioms and expressions. An idiom is described as the way ideas are used in a language. It is a form of expression peculiar to a language. Like any other language, English too has its idioms. Another aspect worth noting in the context of developing a good writing style is to avoid cliches.
Cliches are hackneyed literary phrases. They are often repeated adnauseum. Some commonly used cliches are: last but not least, better late than never and there is no room for complacency.
Good writing style carries sincerity. Sincere writing is straightforward and there is no attempt at manipulation. The writer comes through as honest, genuine and frank. Sincere writing also gets described as candid and transparent. Being sincere, therefore, means writing naturally. The words reflect feelings, concerns and expectations in a forthright manner.
Good writing style should also encompass politeness or courtesy. It should respect the reader as an individual. It should reflect the basic minimum courtesies that any transaction or relationship demands.
It should be appreciative and complimentary to the extent appropriate in the given context. Business letters, by and large, seek to strengthen the relationships that are good for the business when the occasion demands. The writer should not hesitate to apologize for omissions or errors.
Good writing style also refers to writing naturally, without undue efforts. Otherwise the writing becomes laboured and loses spontaneity. After a while, the tediousness starts showing. The ability to write spontaneously and effortlessly for all occasions has to be consciously developed.
10. Positive Approach:
A good business letter, in the ultimate analysis, is that which has a positive approach. It creates a friendly atmosphere. It avoids negative feelings. One must be in a proper frame of mind to write a really good letter.
Thoughts and words must synchronize. The basic objective should not be lost sight of. The letter should bestir and motivate the reader to act or respond as visualized. Good letters cannot be written under extreme emotional conditions such as sorrow, depression, anger, frustration or shock.
Such letters may not carry the overall balance in approach which is so essential for effective writing. Similarly a good letter cannot be written in a hurry. One must take adequate time to put thoughts into words, choosing the most appropriate ones for the context. The writer should write the letter taking adequate time, with due attention to all relevant considerations.
Apart from the various characteristics already listed, a good letter should have integrity, accuracy and promptness. There should be respect for values and ethical and moral standards. The writer should demonstrate a sense of legitimacy in his writing.
Messages should be accurate and there should not be any misrepresentation and out of context passages. Positive approach also means being prompt in responding. A writer is often a recipient of communication also. The writer should make it a point to respond without any undue delay.
Positive approach does not mean that one has to say ‘yes’ to everything any business has its commercial considerations. It has its rules, norms and compliances. One cannot say ‘yes’ if it is commercially imprudent and if the set norms are not met.
Good letter writing, therefore, is the art of learning to say ‘no’ by packaging ‘no’ in a pleasing manner. It is the art of packaging ‘no’ in an acceptable format. It is the art of winning over the customer even while losing that particular offer or transaction.
The business offer may or may not come up to the expectation, but, nevertheless, the communication should leave behind a favourable impression.
In any organization and in any business, there will be umpteen occasions to say no, to disagree, to convey displeasure, to punish, to pull up, to do plain speaking and to call a spade a spade. Quite often this will have to be done by way of a letter.
In all such instances, it is necessary that the damage, the feeling of hurt or ill will, if any, is kept to the minimum. While the nature of the message would have certain unpleasantness associated with it, the tone and style can make a difference and soften the blow.
It is under such circumstances that the skill of good writing comes into full play. A skilful writer learns to mitigate the hardship or adverse impact of the message through choice of words and manner of presentation. Although what is being said is not pleasant, how it is being said makes it less unpleasant.
Positive approach in letter writing does in many ways create goodwill for the writer and the organization. It creates regard for the writer and a friendly disposition towards the business. It generates heartiness and a kind feeling so essential for the success of any business organization in today’s market place.
Another very essential characteristic of good business writing is imagination. The writer has to bring a unique perspective and experience and, to the extent appropriate, relate them to the letter on hand. It is this imagination that brings excitement into the communication. Communication becomes active and creative. Imaginative writing takes the level of writing to a reader-friendly mode.
Organizations and businesses that succeed in the present intensively competitive environment are those that sparkle with innovations and creativity. Written communication emanating from business organizations should, therefore, duly reflect enthusiasm. A good letter radiates enthusiasm.
Any good communication should have variety. It is said that variety is the spice of life. Variety adds spice to writing. It makes communication lively and interesting. A good letter makes its impact the very first time. When the letter is repeated, however good and relevant it may be, the impact gets diluted. The reader’s interest wanes.
When the subject of the message is repetitive in nature, in terms of thoughts and ideas, there may not be much change. Nevertheless, in terms of choice of words, structure of sentences and intensity of the tone, the letter can and should be different.
Viewed against the backdrop of so many essentials for good letter writing, models or drafts or stereotyped formats of letters are of limited value. Barring areas such as documentation, legal drafting and routine procedural forms, it is not desirable to follow such stereotyped writing models. Any draft or model letter would also carry the writer’s style or approach.
Moreover, copying or adopting such formats blindly restricts the writer’s ability to develop a distinctive style of writing. In any case, each situation and every context is quite different and no standard format can be followed without appropriate refinements.
At best, such formats can only be taken as broadly suggestive or indicative. Instead of taking a model and attempting to make requisite modifications to suit one’s specific needs, it would be worthwhile to understand the principles and develop one’s writing skills.
In the foregoing paragraphs, we have looked at numerous essentials or requisites of good writing. The attempt has been to make it fairly exhaustive rather than to cover only the minimum requisites. One can refer to the minimum requisites as the ‘ABC’ of good letter writing, where A stands for accuracy, B for brevity and C for clarity. The minimum requisites are necessary, but by no means adequate.
Striving for Excellence:
A good letter writer should try to achieve a significantly high standard of letter writing and endeavour to achieve excellence. All the dozen or so essentials outlined above are relevant in building up the skills of effective letter writing.
When we talk of business letters, we refer to a great variety of letters. They range from the routine, repetitive letters to the more complex, goal-oriented ones.
They seek not only to inform, educate and appeal, but also to carry out complex and composite functions such as evaluation, justification, motivation, persuasion, penetration, dispelling of wrong impressions and even award of punishment.
They may be as short as half a page or as long as eight to ten pages. The bigger and more complex the letter, the greater the scope for skilful writing.
The essentials outlined above are not to be taken as a checklist against which every letter has to be evaluated. Some letters need to be just simple and straightforward and there may not be much scope for imagination or creativity.
The nature of the subject, the context of the communication and the relationship of the recipient determine how many qualities or essentials can one build into any letter. Being aware of as many essentials as are relevant in writing a wide range of business letters helps in developing effective letter-writing skills.
Understand the Context:
Business letters will have to be necessarily business like. The letter writer should understand the context and make the letter specific and precise. There is often not much scope to make the letter lengthy and verbose.
When we refer to letters from the accounts department or the purchase department, the message will have to be direct and specific. On the other hand, when it comes to the marketing department, it is possible to be descriptive and qualitative.
When we refer to the letters relating to the personnel department, the general requirement would be to keep such letters polite, and yet firm wherever necessary, and also show respect for authority.
A good business letter writer necessarily takes cognizance of the context. The general tone of letters should take note of the subject matter, context, and the person to whom it is addressed and be informative, persuasive, firm or authoritative, as the situation warrants.
Use Words Appropriate to the Subject:
Whether it is accounts, purchase, sales or personnel, there are words, phrases and abbreviations which are relevant and appropriate to each function or department. Words and abbreviations like ‘closed tender’, ‘free on board (f.o.b)’, ‘after office hours (a.o.h)’, ‘clearing cheque’, ‘effects not cleared’ and ‘tax deduction at .source (TDS)’ are often used in business correspondence.
The business letter writer should familiarize him or herself with such words and use them appropriately. Abbreviations are to be generally avoided and if at all used, the letter writer should ensure that they are understood as intended and that there are no misunderstandings.
Business letters, as we have noted, also vary in terms of intensity and approach. There are routine letters, reminders, persuasive letters, goodwill letters, informative letters, mild and strong appeals, circular letters and memos and representations, and the letter writer should develop the skill of using appropriate words relevant to the context.
Use Short Sentences and Paragraphs:
In business letters, any temptation to use high-sounding language and long-winding sentences should be resisted. The business letter writer should consciously use short sentences with about fifteen-twenty words at the most. Long sentences carrying thirty-forty words tax the reader and make comprehension unnecessarily difficult.
Another important requirement is to break the message into appropriate and adequate paragraphs. Short paragraphs, each covering an idea or a message, are generally appealing to any reader.
Provide Relevant Details:
Brevity of letters should not be at the cost of clarity and all relevant details should be furnished. The date, time and venue of the meeting, whether invitation or information, the number and the amount of cheque whose payment is to be stopped, the date, time and place of interview, due amount of money which the collection letter seeks, the exact amount of discount offered are all details which, though seemingly elementary, may escape attention.
(It is worth noting here that while the first sentence of this paragraph has eighteen words, the second sentence has as many as sixty words and the ease of comprehension or effort involved is much more in the latter.) Omitting such relevant details would lead to confusion, misunderstanding and repetitive correspondence. A good business letter writer gives attention to all such minute details.
Use Standard Drafts or Formats:
Most of the routine correspondence is repetitive in nature. Once the basic approach for writing a variety of letters is mastered, it would be beneficial to build a set of ready-to-use drafts and formats.
In banks, insurance companies and a host of other institutions and businesses, there are often printed formats in use. These include stop payment instructions, over draft facilities, account opening and making claims.
When a business letter writer uses them appropriately and consciously, the formats help in minimizing the time spent on writing the same type of letters. Care should be taken, however, to review such formats or drafts periodically and also improvise and update them to cope with emerging situations.
Specialized writing such as journalistic writing, advertisements of various types, press releases, developing a questionnaire or preparing an advertorial call for higher level of skills and application. Skills in these areas are acquired through constant study and efforts.
Business writing is dynamic in nature. There should be an ongoing effort at improvisation. The business letter writer should learn to do self-editing. Before finalizing important letters, one should make sure that the message is clear; the language is appropriate, surplus words if any are removed, unwarranted repetition is avoided and the letter is appealing. Yesterday’s words, phrases, formats and style may not appeal today. Good letter writers keep themselves updated and modern.