How to Write a Better Business Letter

business letter formatJane Curry and Diana Young -- two Ph.D.s from Chicago who, for the last 20 years, have taught businesspeople how to write -- understand that most folks don't love to write. That's why they've penned their book 'Be a Brilliant Business Writer: Write Well, Write Fast and Whip the Competition.'

"In fact, many of you are so pressed for time you often have to slam away at your keyboards into the night, working against impossible and competing deadlines. No wonder most of you appear to need a good cry, a dry martini and a long nap," they say in the introduction to their book that went on sale on Oct. 5.

In a recent interview with AOL Jobs, Young provided advice for job seekers and anyone else who wants to dazzle employers with their brilliant business writing.

Four tips for writing a better business letter or e-mail

1. Lead with the most important point.

"If it's an e-mail, say something like, 'Would you have time to meet with me before next Tuesday for the X project?' so the reader knows right away why you're writing," Young advised. "The reader should understand right away when they get that e-mail why they're reading it and what response they have to make."

"As for job seekers," she said, "remember not to concentrate on yourself too much."

"Often, what you see in resumes and cover letters is what the job seeker wants," according to Young. "They'll say, for example, 'professional accountant looking for a fulfilling position' rather than 'professional accountant with 15 years of experience to help X company' and then explain how their experience might help the company."

2. Use visual formatting.

"The people you're writing for aren't in school anymore," Young noted. "People are not being paid to crawl through enormous paragraphs. You need to make a map on the page so people can scan at a glance. What they should see in that scan is what's most important. If you haven't given the reader the key points of your message in 4.5 seconds, you've pretty much lost them."

3. Let your speech guide you when you write.

"So many people want to sound professional, but they end up sounding institutional and hostile," Young said with a chuckle. "Jane and I say you can sound professional and still sound like a human being -- and you should. That's one of the biggest tools in your toolkit."

"I'm not saying to write exactly the way you talk," she added. "What I'm saying is that if you wouldn't say it out loud, don't write it down. For example, I would never say to you, 'Cost efficiencies have been realized.' I would say, 'We have cut costs.' Which one does business better? It's the second way."

4. Take the time to edit yourself.

"You always have to proofread for errors," Young said. "You always have to spell-check. Always. If something is really important to you, like getting a job, read it backwards or fold your paper in half. You know what you wrote, so your brain just supplies the missing word. Break things up so your brain won't automatically fill in the missing word. A simple mistake can undermine your credibility."

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Be aware that spell check typically does not check for grammatical errors. I also tell my charges to print out their work to proofread it; it is far too easy to miss errors when you edit it on the screen. Also, if you can do so without disturbing others, read it aloud. (Do this under your breath. Most people catch more errors this way. I had only one student who could not grasp these concepts; he had a pleasing speaking voice, and he spoke very well, but is written work was horrible.)

November 07 2010 at 3:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Susan Stephens

VERY helpful article! I have learned to make my main point first, then flesh things out. But the rest still needs work. First, I am so determined to make my case, I come across like a lawyer or an authoritarian teacher. I need to relax and use a more conversant style. Also, asking for the opinion of the reader lets them know that I'm open to considering their point of view.
Here's my point of view. What do YOU think? Or "am I missing anything?"
I really need to stop and ask myself "Would I want to receive a letter like this?"

It also helps to know your audience. Are they right or left brained? Do details help them, or frustrate them? Do they prefer facts, or ideas?

I confess, I have a terrible time dealing with "emotional thinkers." (Or is that a misnomer?) You know, people who react according to their feelings, rather than logic. I'd like advice on how to write and speak with them!

November 07 2010 at 1:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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