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Letter Writing—Practice Makes Perfect

by Alice Feathers, M.A. TESOL, Professional Editor and Writer

Some communications can be made informally—a phone call or an email is sufficient. But for formal situations, only a letter will do. Letter writing provides both you and the reader with a record of ideas, concerns, personal reactions, and suggestions—a letter helps to avoid confusion.

The discipline of carefully organizing and expressing your ideas courteously on paper is an exercise that helps others to understand your position in a positive and inoffensive manner. This article will give you some easy guidelines for letter writing and help you to write a perfect letter.

Tips for Perfect Letter Writing

  • Use your own words on heavyweight, bright-white copy paper if using a computer, or use attractive stationery if you are handwriting the letter.
  • Make it legible. Typed letters are usually better than handwritten letters.
  • Keep your letter short, simple, and concise. Use short sentences and avoid long paragraphs.
  • Make sure your letter is easily readable and clear in purpose. The reader shouldn't have to guess why you are writing the letter.
  • When letter writing, consider giving specific examples from personal experiences to support your position.
  • Make sure your letter is timely. Sending a letter too long after the fact is inappropriate and the reader may have forgotten the situation you are writing about. When you do write, give the reader ample time to respond.
  • Date your letter (month, day, and year) in one of two formats.
      Example:   June 30, 2008
    30 June 2008
  • Address your reader with the appropriate form of address.
  • Include your full name, address, phone number and, if appropriate, your e-mail address and/or fax number.

What Should You Say In Your Letter?

Asking yourself a few basic questions can be an excellent way to approach letter writing. Jot down answers for your questions. You can incorporate these answers into the body of your letter. Remember to keep the letter short, simple, and to the point. Here are some questions you could ask yourself:

  • Who are you? (An obvious question, but you may need to identify yourself right away if the reader does not know you or does not know you well.)
  • Why are you writing this letter? What do you want? Keep your wording positive—for example, say what you want, rather than what you do not want.
  • What are your concerns? Be specific. After you identify yourself, focus on the primary reason for your letter in the first few sentences.
  • What are your questions? Ask them clearly. Be polite, but don't make your letter saccharine in tone. You don't want any misinterpretation of your purpose—someone might think an overly sweet letter expresses sarcasm.
  • How would you like the reader to respond to your question or situation? Suggest the response you would like: a letter, a meeting, a phone call, an email, etc. State exactly when you would like to receive the reader's response.

Additional Tips For Successful Letter Writing

Good impression

You want the reader to grant your request and/or understand your concerns and point of view. Keep the tone of your letter pleasant and businesslike. When you communicate your thoughts, ideas, and concerns, you define your needs. Ultimately, the tone you take in your letter will help determine if you get the results you desire. State the facts without expressing anger, frustration, or blame. If you are feeling emotional when you write your letter, leave it and read it again in the morning. Reading it the next day will help ensure that your letter is courteous and cool-headed.

The reader's point of view

Put yourself in the reader's place and try to be empathetic to his/her feelings. Read your letter with your reader's reaction in mind and ask yourself a few questions.

Examples:   "Will the reader react positively to my letter?" "Is the tone of my letter courteous and businesslike, or have I used offensive or demeaning language?"

If you were offensive in any way, rewrite the letter! After you mail it, it becomes a permanent record of your thoughts and ideas.

Make changes

Leave your letter for a few hours so that you can return to it with a fresh outlook. You will make changes—guaranteed! In the process of letter writing, always take advantage of the spell check and grammar check on your computer, or ask someone you trust to edit your letter before you send it.

Other opinions

Have someone else read the letter and make suggestions. Give them permission to criticize your letter constructively. You can give them a list of questions for a check list.

Examples:   "Is my reason for writing clear?" "Have I included all the essential facts?" "Does my letter ramble?" "Can my letter be improved in any way?" "How is my punctuation?" "How is my spelling and my grammar?"

Consider every suggestion, but make the final decisions yourself—you are the one who is signing the letter.

Copy

Always keep a copy of each letter you send. If you are writing it on your computer, it will be easy to save the file.

End on a positive note

Always end your letter politely with an expression of thanks or another positive thought.

Example:   "Thank you for taking the time to consider my ideas."

Close

Type your closing, followed by four returns. Sign your name in the space between with a black pen. If you are sending copies of your letter to one or more persons other than the reader, you should list their names below your typed signature. Even though we don't send "carbon copies" anymore, "cc" has become standard for any copy sent—hard copy or email attachment.

Example:  

Sincerely,

Your signature

Jane Doe

cc: Eric Smith, Paula Jones

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