A business letter is an important tool that should convey professionalism, courtesy and a clearly defined message. Just as a superb letter can yield tremendous results, a poorly written letter can have a negative impact on the business and reflect poorly on the writer of the piece. So just what constitutes a good business letter?
Here are the necessary elements for a business letter that will wow clients and create stellar (and professional) results.
Grammar, Format, and Font
Grammar, format, and font all play key roles in the professional look and feel of a business letter. Typically, business letters are left-aligned, single spaced, with two spaces between each paragraph. The date and closing, on the other hand, are typically aligned either right-aligned or center-aligned. It is also important to note that there are a number of companies out there who may prefer another format, in which case you could modify the formatting here to achieve the company’s desired results. Additionally, when designing the layout of the letter, make sure to keep logos and letterhead margins in mind so that you don’t have text across your header or footer images.
Punctuation – after the salutation and closing of the letter, the industry standard is to use a colon, not a comma, after the salutation. The comma is used after the closing. Examples:
Mr. and Mrs. Smyth:
Font – it is best to choose something easy on the eyes, and professional enough for a business setting. Times New Roman, Times, Arial, and Helvetica are all commonly accepted, business fonts that allow for professionalism and readability. Of course, much like formatting, there can be some variation from one company to the next, so double-check with your organization regarding their font preferences.
Grammar – it is not too surprising that grammar also lays an important part in the crafting of a business letter. A poorly worded piece of communication, loaded with typos, is not likely to inspire confidence in your reader. The solution is to spell-check with the computer, to catch glaring misspellings, and then give the letter a once over with your eyes. Why bother if you have spell checked via computer? The answer to this question is in the form of a real life experience I had a few years back.
A colleague came to me with a paper that needed proofreading. He was confident that there were no misspelled words based solely on the fact that a computer-based spell check was performed. Here were a few of the mistakes that stood out in my mind:
“…the hole company…”
“…their is a great deal of change coming…”
“…watt we need is greater communication…”
As you can probably tell, these words were spelled correctly, hence spell check didn’t catch them, yet they were completely out of place based on their context. That’s why you should always double check your letter, just to be on the safe side.
Typically the date printed on a letter is the date that the letter was written, normally this is a one day process; if your letter was composed over the course of a few days, use the date it was completed, not the date it was started. It is also important to pay attention to formatting, based on the country for which the letter is being provided. If it is a letter for a U.S. based company, the date would look something like this: October 31, 1978. In England, however, the date would look more like this: 31st October, 1978. There are a number of places on the Internet to search when looking for date formatting and I encourage you to familiarize yourself with a few of the most common ones. Off the wall knowledge is always a good thing to have, and you never know when it may come in handy! In any case, make sure that the date line shows up a few lines (about 1-2 inches) below the top of the page. The date is typically left-justified.
Address of the Sender or Sending Institution
This is actually an optional portion of the letter, but it is often included in business communications. Why? Because it provides ease of use for those people who need to quickly reference the address from which the letter originated. If you choose to include the sender’s address, place the address one line below the date, and include only the street address, city, state, and zip code.If you use this option, don’t write the sender’s name or title in this field, as it will be included in the closing.
If possible, try to direct this towards a specific individual rather than using generic “to whom it may concern” approach. Also, it is a good idea to include personal titles in this section, such as Mr., Ms., Dr.., Rev., or Mrs. When addressing women, try to use the personal title that she prefers, using Ms. as a safe default option. When writing the address, use standard postal formatting:
Mr. and Mrs. Smyth
123 Main Street
Anytown, IL 12345
When using an international address, include the name of the country in all-capital letters on the last line (i.e. ICELAND).
The recipient’s address begins one line below the date or, if you choose to use it, one inch below the sender’s address. The recipient’s address is left-justified.
For the salutation, make sure to use the name used in the recipient’s address, including any personal title used. If the person to whom you are writing is on a first name basis with the letter writer, then you can use only the first name for a salutation. If you are at all uncertain about the recipient’s gender, you can use the full name without a personal title. The salutation should look something like this:
Miss Mary Jones:
Each paragraph should be single spaced and left-justified within the letter’s body. Leave a blank line between each paragraph. This is a good place to be concise; in other words, not too wordy. People have relatively short attention spans, and you want to get your point across before you lose them. The first paragraph of your letter should state your main point or ideas in straightforward language. The second paragraph should support the first paragraph, emphasizing the importance of the main points or ideas. In the next few paragraphs, provide supporting details and further reasons why the letter reader should care about what you have written.
Your closing should be one line below the last paragraph. Only capitalize the first word, and leave 3-5 lines between the closing and the typed signature of the letter writer. Example:
If you any documents to include with your letter, such as a brochure or resume, indicate this by typing the word “Enclosures” one line below the closing. You can also list documents you are including in the envelope. Example: