Business letters

Business letters (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)

March 11, 2012

Dear Reader:

This is sort of a letter to you on the why and how of writing a business letter. What's a business letter? Well, business folks use it to communicate with one another, and the format applies as much to an email as an actual letter on stationery. A disappointed consumer uses a business letter to complain about a product, and a college senior writes one in an attempt to land a job. A business letter, you see, covers all sorts of "business," including the business of you.

"It's a first impression,'' said Gina Snyder, a career counselor and business etiquette trainer at Saint Mary's College of California in Moraga."It's like showing up. That's what they're seeing when they see this piece of paper."

A business letter includes little chat. Note how our example begins with the theme of what is to follow, not a lot of sugary hellos or comments on the weather. Notice, too, that the salutation — the "Dear Reader" part — ends with a colon (:) and not a comma (,) as in personal letters. Don't ask me why there's a difference. There is, and nitpicking would-be bosses will notice.

Now that we've gotten the theme out of the way, let's spell out what happens next in a business letter. For ease of reading, we're going to list these points in the style of a memo:

Quick, clear sentences are vital. Tell them what you want or what they want. Do it simply and fast. Do not obfuscate, which means don't use a $3 word when a 5-cent word will do. Big words do not make you look smart; they make you look insecure. And the wrong word in the wrong place can spell disaster. Avoid jargon, acronyms and corporate speak.

Keep it professional, not personal. No name-calling, no insults and absolutely no four-letter words allowed. All cheapen your image and tarnish whatever pitch you are trying to make.

Back up what you're saying, especially if you're writing with a complaint. Give dates, names, facts. Don't go on about it; make the point and move on.

Spell correctly. Don't just rely on computer spelling programs. Read the letter through a couple of times. Print out a copy of what you've written; sometimes errors are easier to spot on paper than on a computer screen.

Does your letter flow? Jean McGowan, my old Manhattanville College professor, had a neat trick for writing research papers: Summarize each paragraph with a short sentence. When done, the sentences should flow one to the other, telling the story and backing up your argument. It works for business letters too.

Don't send. Let the letter wait a day or two; reread when you're in a cooler, more dispassionate frame of mind. You may have more things to say or, more important, find things to delete.

End your letter with a quick summation of your point and encourage some sort of response. Then close simply and neatly like so:

Yours sincerely,

Bill Daley

Tribune Newspapers


High-quality white or cream paper is best for a business letter. Gina Snyder, career counselor and business etiquette expert, said letterheads are increasingly being used on these letters because people can design their own on the computer. Typography should be conservative, professional and rendered in relatively modest colors; blue or black ink is always safe. Avoid black borders around the page; it's a symbol of mourning. Snyder said to use this letterhead stationery for everything you're sending: cover letter, resumes, invoices.

Who's sending the letter