Writing Effective Business Letters

What is in this guide?

  1. Principles to keep in mind while writing a business letter.
  2. An Example of a letter of application
  3. An Example of a cover letter
  4. Website for More Sample Business Letters

  1. Principles to keep in mind while writing a business letter

This practical guide will help you write many different types of business letters, from applying for a job to requesting or delivering information. While the examples are the application letter and cover letter, this guide highlights principles that apply to effective business writing in general.

Business writing is different

Writing for a business audience is different from wiring to a friend, social contacts or in academic disciplines. Business writing strives to be short, clear and simple, rather than creative; it stresses specificity and accuracy.

When you write a business letter, you must assume that your reader has limited time in which to read it and is likely to skim. Your reader will have an interest in what you say, only insofar as it affects their working world. They want to know the "bottom line": the point you are making about a situation or problem; and how they should respond.

Business writing varies from the conversational style often found in email messages to the more formal, legalistic style found in contracts. A style between these two extremes is best for the majority of your business memos, emails and letters. Writing that is too formal can alienate readers and very casual writing may come across as insincere or unprofessional. In business writing, as in all writing, you must know your audience.

In most cases, the business letter will be the first impression that you make on someone. Though business writing has become less formal, you should still take great care that your letter's aim and content are clear and that you have proofread it carefully to check spelling and grammar.

Pronouns and active versus passive voice

Personal pronouns (like I, we, and you) are important in letters and memos. In such documents, it is perfectly appropriate to refer to yourself as I and to the reader as you. Be careful, however, when you use the pronoun we in a business letter that is written on company stationery, since it commits your organisation to what you have written. When stating your opinion, use 'I' ; when presenting organisation policy, use 'we'.

The best business writers use a style that is so clear that their messages cannot be misunderstood. One way to achieve a clear style is to minimize your use of the "passive voice". Although the passive voice is sometimes necessary, often it not only makes your writing dull ,but also can be ambiguous or overly impersonal. Here's an example of the same point stated in passive voice and in the active voice:

PASSIVE: The net benefits of subsidiary divestiture were grossly overestimated.
[Who did the overestimating?]

ACTIVE: The National Finance Team grossly overestimated the net benefits of subsidiary divestiture.

The second version is clearer and therefore better.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. What if you are the head of the National Finance Team? You may want to get your message across without calling excessive attention to the fact that the error was your team's fault. The passive voice allows you to gloss over an unflattering point-but you should use it sparingly.

Focus and Clarity

Business letter writing should be clear and concise. Take care, however, that your document does not turn out as an endless series of short, choppy sentences. Keep in mind also that "concise" does not have to mean "blunt" - you still need to think about your tone and the audience for whom you are writing. Consider the following examples:

  1. After carefully reviewing this proposal, we have decided to prioritize other projects this quarter.
  2. Nobody liked your project idea, so we are not going to give you any funding.

The first version is a weaker statement, emphasizing facts not directly relevant to its point. The second version provides the information in a simple and direct manner. But you don't need to be an expert on style to know that the first version is diplomatic and respectful (even though it's less concise) as compared with the second version, which is unnecessarily harsh and likely to upset the receiver.

Business letters: where to begin

Reread the description of your task (for example, the advertisement of a job opening, or instructions for a proposal submission). Think about your purpose and what requirements are mentioned or implied in the description of the task. List these requirements. This list can help to govern your writing and help you stay focused, so try to make it thorough. Next, identify qualifications, attributes, objectives, or answers that match the requirements you have just listed. Strive to be exact and specific, avoiding vagueness, ambiguity, and platitudes. If there are industry- or field-specific words that are relevant to the task at hand, use them in a manner that will show your competence and experience. Avoid any language that your audience may not understand. Your finished piece of writing should indicate how you meet the requirements you've listed and answer any questions raised in the description.

Application letters and cover letters

Many people believe that application letters and cover letters are essentially the same. For purposes of this guide, though, these kinds of letters are different. The letter of application is like a sales letter in which you market your skills, abilities, and knowledge. A cover letter, on the other hand, is primarily a document of transmission. It identifies an item being sent, the person to whom it is being sent, and the reason for its being sent, and provides a permanent record of the transmission for both the writer and the reader.

  1. Application letters

When writing an application letter, remember that you probably have competition. Your reader is a professional who screens and hires job applicants-someone who may look through dozens or even hundreds of other applications on the day she receives yours. The immediate objective of your application letter and accompanying C.V. is to attract this person's attention. Your ultimate goal is to obtain a personal interview.

As you write your application letter, be sure you complete three tasks:

  1. catch the reader's attention favourably,
  2. convince the reader that you are a qualified candidate for the job, and
  3. request an interview.

Application letter checklist:

  • Identify the job by title and let the recipient know how you heard about it.
  • Summarize your qualifications for the job, specifically your work experience, activities that show your leadership skills, and your educational background.
  • Refer the reader to your enclosed C.V.
  • Ask for an interview, stating where you can be reached and when you will be available. If your prospective employer is located in another city and you plan to visit the area, mention the dates for your trip.
  • If you are applying for a specific job, include any information pertinent to the position that is not included in your C.V.

To save your reader time and to call attention to your strengths as a candidate, state your objective directly at the beginning of the letter.

Example: I am seeking a position as a manager in your Data Centre. In such a position, I can use my master's degree in information systems and my experience as a programmer/analyst to address business challenges in data processing.

If you have been referred to a company by one of its employees, a career counsellor, a professor, or someone else, mention that before stating your job objective.

Example: During the recent ARRGH convention in Cape Town, one of your sales representatives, Dusty Brown, informed me of a possible opening for a manager in your Data Centre. My extensive background in programming and my master's degree in information systems make me highly qualified for the position.

In subsequent paragraphs, expand on the qualifications you mentioned in your opening. Add any appropriate details, highlighting experience listed on your C.V. that is especially pertinent to the job you are seeking. Close with a request for an interview. Proofread your letter carefully.

A sample letter of application is presented below. The letter (Sample #1) is by a recent college graduate responding to a local newspaper article about the company's plan to build a new computer centre. The writer is not applying for a specific job opening but describes the position he seeks.

Sample #1

123 Smith Street

11 January 2009

Taylor, Inc.
694 Rockstar Lane

Attention: Human Resources Director:

Dear Sir/Madam

I just read an article in the News and Observer about Taylor's new computer centre just north of Durban. I would like to apply for a position as an entry-level programmer at the centre.

I understand that Taylor produces both in-house and customer documentation. My technical writing skills, as described in the enclosed C.V., are well suited to your company. I am a recent graduate of KZN Institute of Technology in Pinetown with an Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science. In addition to having taken a broad range of courses, I served as a computer consultant at the college's computer centre where I helped train users to work with new systems.

I will be happy to meet with you at your convenience and discuss how my education and experience match your needs. You can reach me at my home address, at (031) 233-1552, or at krock@devry.alumni.edu.

Yours faithfully

Raymond Krock

  1. Cover lettersAs mentioned previously, application letters and cover letters are not the same. A 'cover letter' identifies an item being sent, the person to whom it is being sent, and the reason for its being sent. A cover letter provides a permanent record of the transmission for both the writer and the reader.In a cover letter, keep your remarks brief. Your opening should explain what you are sending and why. In an optional second paragraph, you might include a summary of the information you are sending. A letter accompanying a project proposal, for example, might point out sections in the proposal that might be of particular interest to the reader. The letter could then go on to present a key point or two explaining why the writer's firm is the best one for the job. The closing paragraph should contain acknowledgements, offer additional assistance, or express the hope that the material will fulfil its purpose.The following is an example of a cover letter. The letter (Sample #2) is quite detailed because it touches on the manner in which the information was gathered, and will serve as a record of your efifciency.

    Sample #2Your Company Letterhead and Contact Information11 January 2009Ecology Systems (Pty) Ltd
    8458 Obstructed View Lane
    2194 RANDBURG
    Attention: Mr Brian Eno, Chief EngineerDear Mr. Eno:REPORT: ESTIMATED POWER CONSUMPTIONEnclosed is the report estimating our power consumption for the year as requested by Ms Nomsa Mtimkulu, Vice President, on 4 September 2008.The report is the result of several meetings with Jamie Anson, Manager of Plant Operations, and her staff and an extensive survey of all our employees. The survey was delayed by the transfer of key staff in Building A. We believe, however, that the report will provide the information you need to furnish us with a cost estimate for the installation of your Mark II Energy Saving System.We would like to thank Mr Fred Khumalo of ESI for his assistance in preparing the survey. If you need more information, please let me know.SincerelyNora Cassidy
    New Projects Office
    Enclosure: Report
  2. More Simple Business Letters

If you follow the "Principles to keep in mind" (above), you will be able to produce a simple, clear letter for most purposes.

To see a range of sample business letters, go to www.4hb.com/letters/index.html.…. but remember, keep your language and layout simple and clear; and always include your contact details, to help the busy reader to respond promptly to you!