Business Writing Tip #96—Business Letters

business envelopesYou’ve probably heard of the information explosion. I saw some figures the other day that said a Google search on the words ‘coffee cup’ resulted in 16 million hits in 2011. The same search yielded 130 million hits in 2013.

For your readers, this means that they don’t have much time to read what you’ve written and highlights that you need to be clear and concise. Your readers are willing to put in time to read what you’ve written so long as it is relevant and to the point.

How formal should a business letter be?

Business writing used to be very formal. Now formal language is usually restricted to legal documents, and even in these the guidelines are changing and people are moving towards plain English. At the other end of the spectrum email messages are often very informal.

A business letter will usually be somewhere between formal and informal—sorry, that statement probably doesn’t really help you!

If it’s too formal, you might alienate your readers. It won’t feel as though you have written to them.

If it’s too casual, you may be seen as unprofessional or, even worse, insincere.

I suggest you strive for neutral.

What about ‘We’ and ‘I’?

One question I’m often asked is whether we should use ‘we’ or ‘I’ in business letters.

When you’re talking about yourself, use ‘I’.

  • I am writing to let you know that a team of five will be attending the session.

When you’re writing about the company, use ‘we’.

  • We are unable to go ahead with the project this year, but hope to be able to schedule it for 2015.

Be careful here. When you use ‘we’ and you’re writing on company letterhead, you are making a commitment on behalf of the company.

Other things to consider

  • Make sure you know who you are writing to.
  • Know why you are writing—if you are answering a query, make sure you answer it.
  • Use active voice whenever possible.
  • Be specific.
  • Write clearly and make sure your message is understandable—get someone else to check it before you send it if you can.
  • Make sure any attachments you’ve said are included are sent with the letter.
  • Proof read it before sending.

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