This chapter focuses on the inquiry letter or inquiry e-mail; let's call it the inquiry communication. The inquiry communication is useful when you need information, advice, names, or directions. Be careful, however, not to ask for too much information or for information that you could easily obtain in some other way—for example, by a quick trip to the library or by an Internet search.

Be sure to check out the examples.

For related matters, see the chapter on general business-letter format and style.

Inquiry Communications: Types and Contexts

There are two types of inquiry communications: solicited and unsolicited.

You write a solicited inquiry communication when a business or agency advertises its products or services. For example, if a software manufacturer advertises some new package it has developed and you can't inspect it locally, write a solicited letter or e-mail to that manufacturer asking specific questions. If you cannot find any information on a technical subject, an inquiry letter or e-mail to a company involved in that subject may put you on the right track. In fact, that company may supply much more help than you had expected (provided of course that you write a good inquiry communication). If you need to find the names and addresses of businesses related to your report project, see the chapter on finding information in libraries and online.

Your inquiry communication is unsolicited if the recipient has done nothing to prompt your inquiry. For example, if you read an article by an expert, you may have further questions or want more information. You seek help from these people in a slightly different form of inquiry letter or e-mail. As the steps and guidelines for both types of inquiry communications show, you must construct the unsolicited type more carefully, because recipients of unsolicited inquiry letters or e-mail are not ordinarily prepared to handle such inquiries.

Inquiry Letters or E-mail: Contents and Organization

  1. Early in the letter or e-mail, identify the purpose—to obtain help or information (if it's a solicited communication, information about an advertised product, service, or program).
  2. In an unsolicited letter or e-mail, identify who you are, what you are working on, why you need the requested information, and how you found out about the individual. In an unsolicited letter or e-mail, also identify the source that prompted your inquiry, for example, a journal article.
  3. In the communication, list questions or information needed in a clear, specific, and easy-to-read format. If you have a number of questions, consider making a questionnaire and including a stamped, self-addressed envelope. If it's e-mail, just put the questions in the body of the e-mail or attach a separate questionnaire document.
  4. In an unsolicited letter or e-mail, try to find some way to compensate the recipient for the trouble, for example, by offering to pay copying and mailing costs, to accept a collect call, to acknowledge the recipient in your report, or to send him or her a copy of your report. In a solicited letter or e-mail, suggest that the recipient send brochures or catalogs.
  5. In closing an unsolicited letter or e-mail, express gratitude for any help that the recipient can provide you, acknowledge the inconvenience of your request, but do not thank the recipient "in advance." In an unsolicited letter or e-mail, tactfully suggest to the recipient will benefit by helping you (for example, through future purchases from the recipient's company).