Online Technical Writing:
Business Correspondence: Overview






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Common Components

The following is concerned with the mechanical and physical details of business letters. (All of the components discussed in the following are illustrated in Figure 1-1.)

Heading. The heading contains the writer's address and the date of the letter. The writer's name is not included and only a date is needed in headings on letterhead stationery.

Inside address. The inside address shows the name and address of the recipient of the letter. This information helps prevent confusion. Also, if the recipient has moved, the inside address helps to determine what to do with the letter. In the inside address, include the appropriate title of respect of the recipient; and copy the name of the company exactly as that company writes it. When you do have the names of individuals, remember to address them appropriately: Mrs., Ms., Mr., Dr., and so on. If you are not sure what is correct for an individual, try to find out how that individual signs letters or consult the forms-of-address section in a dictionary.

Salutation. The salutation directly addresses the recipient of the letter and is followed by a colon (except when a friendly, familiar, sociable tone is intended, in which case a comma is used). Notice that in the simplified letter format, the salutation line is eliminated altogether. If you don't know whether the recipient is a man or woman, the traditional practice has been to write "Dear Sir" or "Dear Sirs" but that's sexist! To avoid this problem, salutations such as "Dear Sir or Madame," "Dear Ladies and Gentlemen," "Dear Friends," or "Dear People" have been tried but without much general acceptance. Deleting the salutation line altogether or inserting "To Whom It May Concern" in its place, is not ordinarily a good solution either it's impersonal.

The best solution is to make a quick, anonymous phone call to the organization and ask for a name; Or, address the salutation to a department name, committee name, or a position name: "Dear Personnel Department," "Dear Recruitment Committee," "Dear Chairperson," "Dear Director of Financial Aid," for example.

Figure 1-1. Standard components of a business letter. In this example, the block letter format is used.

Subject or reference line. As shown in the order letter, the subject line replaces the salutation or is included with it. The subject line announces the main business of the letter.

Body of the letter. The actual message of course is contained in the body of the letter, the paragraphs between the salutation and the complimentary close. Strategies for writing the body of the letter are discussed in the section on business-correspondence style.

Complimentary close. The "Sincerely yours" element of the business letter is called the complimentary close. Other common ones are "Sincerely yours," "Cordially," "Respectfully," or "Respectfully yours." You can design your own, but be careful not to create florid or wordy ones. Notice that only the first letter is capitalized, and it is always followed by a comma.

Signature block. Usually, you type your name four lines below the complimentary close, and sign your name in between. If you are a woman and want to make your marital status clear, use Miss, Ms., or Mrs. in parentheses before the typed version of your first name. Whenever possible, include your title or the name of the position you hold just below your name. For example, "Technical writing student," "Sophomore data processing major," or "Tarrant County Community College Student" are perfectly acceptable.

End notations. Just below the signature block are often several abbreviations or phrases that have important functions.

  • Initials. The initials in all capital letters in Figure 1-1 are those of the writer of the letter, and the ones in lower case letters just after the colon are those of the typist.
  • Enclosures. To make sure that the recipient knows that items accompany the letter in the same envelope, use such indications as "Enclosure," "Encl.," "Enclosures (2)." For example, if you send a resume and writing sample with your application letter, you'd do this: "Encl.: Resume and Writing Sample." If the enclosure is lost, the recipient will know.
  • Copies. If you send copies of a letter to others, indicate this fact among the end notations also. If, for example, you were upset by a local merchant's handling of your repair problems and were sending a copy of your letter to the Better Business Bureau, you'd write this: "cc: Better Business Bureau." If you plan to send a copy to your lawyer, write something like this: "cc: Mr. Raymond Mason, Attorney."

Following pages. If your letter is longer than one page, the heading at the top of subsequent pages can be handled in one of the following ways:

Examples of following-page header format.

If you use letterhead stationery, remember not to use it for subsequent pages. However, you must use blank paper of the same quality, weight, and texture as the letterhead paper (usually, letterhead stationery comes with matching blank paper).

Business Letter Formats

If you are writing a business letter, select one of the common formats as shown in the example letters listed below. These include the block letter, the semi-block letter, the alternative block letter, and the simplified letter.

Which of these formats to use depends on the ones commonly used in your organization or the situation in which you are writing. Use the simplified letter if you lack the name of an individual or department to write to.

Style in Business Correspondence

Writing business letters and memos differs in certain important ways from writing reports. Keep the following advice in mind when you write and especially when you revise your business letters or memos.

State the main business, purpose, or subject matter right away. Let the reader know from the very first sentence what your letter is about. Remember that when business people open a letter, their first concern is to know what the letter is about, what its purpose is, and why they must spend their time reading it. Therefore, avoid round-about beginnings. If you are writing to apply for a job, begin with something like this: "I am writing to apply for the position you currently have open...." If you have bad news for someone, you need not spill all of it in the first sentence. Here is an example of how to avoid negative phrasing: "I am writing in response to your letter of July 24, 1997 in which you discuss problems you have had with an electronic spreadsheet purchased from our company." Figure 1-2 shows an additional example.

Figure 1-2. State the main purpose or business of the letter right away. The problem version just starts flailing away from the very outset. The revised version at least establishes the purpose of the letter (and then starts flailing).

If you are responding to a letter, identify that letter by its subject and date in the first paragraph or sentence. Busy recipients who write many letters themselves may not remember their letters to you. To avoid problems, identify the date and subject of the letter to which you respond:

     Dear Mr. Stout:  

     I am writing in reponse to your September 1, 19XX letter in which you 
     describe problems that you've had with one of our chainsaws. I regret 
     that you've suffered this inconvenience and expense and....


     Dear Ms. Cohen:  

     I have just received your August 4, 19XX letter in which you list 
     names and other sources from which I can get additional information 
     on the manufacture and use of plastic bottles in the soft-drink 
     industry....

Keep the paragraphs of most business letters short. The paragraphs of business letters tend to be short, some only a sentence long. Business letters are not read the same way as articles, reports, or books. Usually, they are read rapidly. Big, thick, dense paragraphs over ten lines, which require much concentration, may not be read carefully or read at all.

To enable the recipient to read your letters more rapidly and to comprehend and remember the important facts or ideas, create relatively short paragraphs of between three and eight lines long. In business letters, paragraphs that are made up of only a single sentence are common and perfectly acceptable. Throughout this section, you'll see examples of the shorter paragraphs commonly used by business letters.

"Compartmentalize" the contents of your letter. When you "compartmentalize" the contents of a business letter, you place each different segment of the discussion each different topic of the letter in its own paragraph. If you were writing a complaint letter concerning problems with the system unit of your personal computer, you might have these paragraphs:

  • A description of the problems you've had with it
  • The ineffective repair jobs you've had
  • The compensation you think you deserve and why

Study each paragraph of your letters for its purpose, content, or function. When you locate a paragraph that does more than one thing, consider splitting it into two paragraphs. If you discover two short separate paragraphs that do the same thing, consider joining them into one.

Provide topic indicators at the beginning of paragraphs. Analyze some of the letters you see in this section in terms of the contents or purpose of their individual paragraphs. In the first sentence of any body paragraph of a business letter, try to locate a word or phrase that indicates the topic of that paragraph. If a paragraph discusses your problems with a personal computer, work the word "problems" or the phrase "problems with my personal computer" into the first sentence. Doing this gives recipients a clear sense of the content and purpose of each paragraph. Here is an excerpt before and after topic indicators have been incorporated:

Problem:  I have worked as an electrician in the Decatur, Illinois, 
          area for about six years. Since 1980 I have been licensed by 
          the city of Decatur as an electrical contractor qualified to 
          undertake commercial and industrial work as well as 
          residential work.

Revision: As for my work experience, I have worked as an electrician 
          in the Decatur, Illinois, area for about six years. Since 
          1980 I have been licensed by the city of Decatur as an 
          electrical contractor qualified to undertake commercial and 
          industrial work as well as residential work.(Italics not in the 
          original.)

List or itemize whenever possible in a business letter. Listing spreads out the text of the letter, making it easier to pick up the important points rapidly. Lists can be handled in several ways, as explained in the section on lists. For examples of lists in business correspondence, see Figure 1-1, the inquiry letter, and order letter.

Place important information strategically in business letters. Information in the first and last lines of paragraphs tends to be read and remembered better. Information buried in the middle of long paragraphs is easily overlooked or forgotten. Therefore, place important information in high-visibility points. For example, in application letters which must convince potential employers that you are right for a job, locate information on appealing qualities at the beginning or end of paragraphs for greater emphasis. Place less positive or detrimental information in less highly visible points in your business letters. If you have some difficult things to say, a good (and honest) strategy is to de-emphasize by placing them in areas of less emphasis. If a job requires three years of experience and you only have one, bury this fact in the middle or the lower half of a body paragraph of the application letter. The resulting letter will be honest and complete; it just won't emphasize weak points unnecessarily. Here are some examples of these ideas:

Problem:  In July I will graduate from the University of Kansas with a 
          Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics. Over the 
          past four years in which I have pursued this degree, I have 
          worked as a lab assistant for Dr. Alison Laszlo and have 
          been active in two related organizations, the Student 
          Dietetic Association and the American Home Economics 
          Association. In my nutritional biochemistry and food science 
          labs, I have written many technical reports and scientific 
          papers. I have also been serving as a diet aide at St. 
          David's Hospital in Lawrence the past year and a half. (The 
          job calls for a technical writer; let's emphasize that first,
          then mention the rest!)

Revision: In my education at the University of Kansas, I have had 
          substantial experience writing technical reports and 
          scientific papers. Most of these reports and papers have 
          been in the field of nutrition and dietetics in which I will 
          be receiving my Bachelor of Science degree this July. During 
          my four years at the University I have also handled plenty 
          of paperwork as a lab assistant for Dr. Alison Laszlo, as a 
          member of two related organizations, the Student Dietetic 
          Association and the American Home Economics Association, and 
          as a diet aide as St. David's Hospital in Lawrence in the 
          past year and a half.  
Problem:  To date, I have done no independent building inspection on 
          my own. I have been working the past two years under the 
          supervision of Mr. Robert Packwood who has often given me 
          primary responsibility for walk-throughs and property 
          inspections. It was Mr. Packwood who encouraged me to apply 
          for this position. I have also done some refurbishing of 
          older houses on a contract basis and have some experience in 
          industrial construction as a welder and as a clerk in a 
          nuclear construction site. (Let's not lie about our lack of 
          experience, but let's not put it on a billboard either!)

Revision: As for my work experience, I have done numerous building 
          walk-throughs and property inspections under the supervision 
          of Mr. Robert Packwood over the past two years. Mr. 
          Packwood, who encouraged me to apply for this position, has 
          often given me primary responsibility for many inspection 
          jobs. I have also done some refurbishing of older houses on 
          a contract basis and have some experience in industrial 
          construction as a welder and as a clerk in a nuclear 
          construction site. 

Find positive ways to express bad news in your business letters. Often, business letters must convey bad news: a broken computer keyboard cannot be replaced, or an individual cannot be hired. Such bad news can be conveyed in a tactful way. Doing so reduces the chances that business relations with the recipient of the bad news will end. To convey bad news positively, avoid such words as "cannot," "forbid," "fail," "impossible," "refuse," "prohibit," "restrict," and "deny" as much as possible. The first versions of the example sentences below are phrased in a rather cold and unfriendly negative manner; the second versions are much more positive, cordial and tactful:

Problem:  Because of the amount of information you request in your 
          letter, simply cannot help you without seriously disrupting 
          my work schedule. 

Revision: In your letter you ask for a good amount of information 
          which I would like to help you locate. Because of my work 
          commitments, however, I am going to be able to answer only a 
          few of the questions.... 
Problem:  If you do not complete and return this advertisement 
          contract by July 1, 19XX, you will not receive your 
          advertising space in this year's Capitol Lines. If we have 
          not heard from you by this deadline, we will sell you your 
          advertisement space to some other client. 

Revision: Please complete the enclosed contract and return it to us by 
          July 1, 19XX. After this deadline, we will begin selling any 
          unrenewed advertisement space in this year's Capitol Lines, 
          so I hope we hear from you before then.
Problem:  While I am willing to discuss changes in specific aspects of 
          this article or ideas on additional areas to cover, I am not 
          prepared to change the basic theme of the article: the 
          usability of the Victor microcomputer system.
                 
Revision: I am certainly open to suggestions and comments about 
          specific aspects of this article, or any of your thoughts on 
          additional areas that you think I should cover. I do want, 
          however, to retain the basic theme of the article: the 
          usability of the Victor microcomputer system.

Focus on the recipient's needs, purposes, or interests instead of your own. Avoid a self-centered focusing on your own concerns rather than those of the recipient. Even if you must talk about yourself in a business letter a great deal, do so in a way that relates your concerns to those of the recipient. This recipient-oriented style is often called the "you-attitude," which does not mean using more you's but making the recipient the main focus of the letter.

Problem:  I am writing you about a change in our pricing policy that 
          will save our company time and money. In an operation like 
          ours, it costs us a great amount of labor time (and thus 
          expense) to scrape and rinse our used tableware when it 
          comes back from large parties. Also, we have incurred great 
          expense on replacement of linens that have been ruined by 
          stains that could have been soaked promptly after the party 
          and saved. 

Revision: I am writing to inform you of a new policy that we are 
          beginning, effective September 1, 19XX, that will enable us 
          to serve your large party needs more often and without 
          delay. In an operation like ours in which we supply for 
          parties of up to 500, turn-around time is critical; 
          unscraped and unrinsed tableware causes us delays in 
          clean-up time and, more importantly, less frequent and less 
          prompt service to you the customer. Also, linens ruined by 
          stains that could have been avoided by immediate soaking 
          after the party cause you to have to pay more in rental 
          fees. 
Problem:  For these reasons, our new policy, effective September 1, 
          19XX, will be to charge an additional 15% on unrinsed 
          tableware and 75% of the wholesale value of stained linens 
          that have not been soaked.
                 
Revision: Therefore, in order to enable us to supply your large party 
          needs promptly and whenever you require, we will begin 
          charging 15% on all unrinsed tableware and 75% of the 
          wholesale value of stained linens that have not been soaked. 
          This policy we hope will encourage our customers' kitchen 
          help to do the quick and simple rinsing and/or soaking at 
          the end of large parties that will ensure faster and more 
          frequent service. 

Avoid pompous, inflated, legal-sounding phrasing. Watch out for puffed-up, important-sounding language. This kind of language may seem business-like at first; it's actually ridiculous. Of course, such phrasing is apparently necessary in legal documents; but why use it in other writing situations? When you write a business letter, picture yourself as a plain-talking, common-sense, down-to-earth person (but avoid slang). Check out Figure 1-3 for a serious dose of bureaucratese.

Figure 1-3. Avoid pompous, officious-sounding writing. Not only is the tone of the problem version offensive, it is nearly twice as long as the revised version!

Give your business letter an "action ending" whenever appropriate. An "action-ending" makes clear what the writer of the letter expects the recipient to do and when. Ineffective conclusions to business letters often end with rather limp, noncommittal statements such as "Hope to hear from you soon" or "Let me know if I can be of any further assistance." Instead, or in addition, specify the action the recipient should take and the schedule for that action. If, for example, you are writing a query letter, ask the editor politely to let you know of his decision if at all possible in a month. If you are writing an application letter, subtlely try to set up a date and time for an interview. Here are some examples:

        As soon as you approve this plan, I'll begin contacting sales  
        representatives at once to arrange for purchase and delivery 
        of the microcomputers. May I expect to hear from you within 
        the week?


        I am free after 2:00 p.m. on most days. Can we set up an 
        appointment to discuss my background and this position further? 
        I'll look forward to hearing from you.


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