Business Writing Tip #179—Memo, Letter or Email?

Email is so common these days it seems to have taken the place of traditional letters, or memos. I’ve been thinking about this for a while and wondering whether memos and letters still have a place in business writing. And I’ve concluded they do.

So, when might we consider a memo, or a letter, rather than an email? Here are some email layoutideas. Of course you can always distribute a memo or letter via email (attach the main document rather than including it in the body of the email).

When the message will have a long life

By this I mean that a memo is ideal if your message is going to be read, and referred to, over a period of time. For example, if it’s to announce a new policy, to introduce an important report or to provide some technical details. Think about how many times you expect people to refer to the item. If you think they’ll read it again and again, use a memo.

When the format is important

Some documents include tables, graphs, bulleted or numbered lists, graphs, headings … These are added to make the document clear and easy to read, but sometimes these elements can be distorted in an email. If the layout and format is important, avoid sending the information in the body of an email.

If people are likely to print your document

Sometimes it’s important for people to have a printed copy of your document. It might be something they need to refer to regularly (think about a proofreading checklist). Again send the document as an attachment.

For formal communication

By producing a document on letterhead, with company details and the names and contact details of the recipient and author, you indicate that the contents are important. Your document is more likely to be taken seriously.

When you are communicating with clients

An email is fine with vendors and peers, but if you are writing to someone you serve (customer, patient, etc.) a letter remains the traditional format.

I’d love to hear from you if you have any suggestions on when a letter or memo is better than an email.

Happy writing.





Business Writing Tip #176—Style Notes for Business Letter Writing

abcToday I thought I’d write a few tips about business letter writing style. This list is adapted from Business English HQ.

Remember the ABCs. Audience, brevity, clarity. Next time you write a letter, think about the following:

  • Use clear language. Avoid using long, complicated sentences. Use short, simple sentences that are easy for your reader. Business English HQ suggests twenty-five words or less.
  • Write from your company’s perspective. Remember that whatever is read, outside of your organisation, represents the organisation. Show your strengths and the strengths of the company you work for.
  • State your purpose in the first sentence. Get to the point quickly. People have so much information to process these days. Make your first sentence one which lets your reader know why you are writing.
  • Keep your readers’ needs and interests in mind when you’re writing. Do they need facts, or interpretation? How much do they already know?
  • Use lists—lists help you present information in short blocks and provide white space. These make your letter easier to read. Use parallel structures. By this I mean that all the verbs are in the same form. E.g. write, state, keep, use, etc.
  • End your letter with a call to action. What do you want them to do? If you want a meeting, try “When can we meet to fine tune the details of the proposal?” Or if you need approval for something, “Please approve this proposal by close of business on Wednesday 24 June.”

Happy writing.


Business Writing Tip #111—Collection Letters

Reminder letters are tough, aren’t they? We have to be sensitive, but firm. There may be a legitimate reason why the customer couldn’t pay on time and we have to take this into account. We also, usually, want to maintain a positive relationship with the client—it’s likely that their failure to pay is a one-off situation and you may want to do business with them in the future. They may simply have had a busy time and overlooked your payment …

Cristina from Italy asked me on LinkedIn if I could provide some tips on writing reminder letters for late payments, so I’ve been doing some research and come up with some guidelines and phrases you may find useful if you have to write such letters.

The other thing to keep in mind is that sometimes you need to write a series of collection letters. The first will be gentle, but the tone will become progressively stronger, culminating with the threat of legal action. I hope you never have to go this far, but you may have to.

What needs to be in a collection letter?

Here is a list of things to include that you can use as a template when you’re writing your own letters.

  1. Start by providing all your details so that your client can see, at a glance, who the letter is from. Ideally you will use your company letterhead for this.
  2. Include a subject line with a short description of what the letter is about.
  3. First paragraph—state that the letter is to remind them to pay. Specify the amount, and the due date. If it’s not the first letter in the series, mention the previous reminders you have sent.
  4. Second paragraph—you may include your understanding of the reason for the delayed payment, but it’s not essential.
  5. Include a sentence that they should ignore this letter if they have already paid the account, that is, if your letters crossed in the mail.
  6. Final paragraph—mention what specific action you want them to take and the last possible date for that action. Also give them the opportunity to contact you to discuss payment options.
  7. Sign off with your signature, name and designation.

Things to remember when writing a collection letterpast due

  • Use your company letterhead.
  • Use a polite tone, but be firm.
  • Remain aware that there may be a legitimate reason why they haven’t been able to pay, and consider any problems they might be facing. In most cases the long-term relationship is valuable and important.
  • Emphasise that it is in the client’s best interest to pay the amount, or to make an arrangement to pay the balance over time. If they don’t pay it will affect their credit rating.
  • Always include a subject line and mention the number of reminders (i.e. First reminder, second reminder, third reminder, final reminder.)
  • In most cases you would treat the third reminder as the final reminder.
  • The intensity of your warning, and your firmness, increase with each reminder letter.
  • Include the date the payment was expected, and the final date that they can pay.
  • Include details of any penalties you propose—including a reference to your original agreement.
  • Give the person the opportunity to pay you in instalments.
  • Always include a sentence asking them to ignore the letter if they have already taken action.
  • When a customer responds to your collection letter, even if they haven’t paid in full, stop the series.

Sample Sentences

Which sentences you use, and how you write the letters, depends on your relationship with your customers, and possibly also the size of the debt. These sentences are just suggestions.

Gentle Reminder

This letter is to remind you that invoice number nn is overdue for payment. The payment should have been made by [date].

Just a reminder that you have an outstanding invoice with a past due balance of [amount]. We would be happy to discuss any questions you have about this account.

This is just a friendly reminder that your account with us appears as past due. Our records show that you have a total outstanding balance of [amount]. We would appreciate it if you could let us know the status of this payment. Please call us if you have any questions about the balance due on your account.

Our records indicate that we have not received your payment of [amount], which was due on [date].

I am writing to inform you that we have not received your payment of [amount], which was due on [date].

Since you are our regular client, we are offering you nn additional days to make the payment. Please make the full payment of [amount] by [date].

We understand that payments are sometimes overlooked and we would like to remind you that we have not received your payment of [amount] which was due on [date].

Thank you very much for your attention to this matter and your continued business.

Getting firmer now …

I would like to draw your attention to our terms and conditions, which provide for an interest charge of n% per month on late payments.

As we have a long term association with you, we have not levied any interest charges on the outstanding amount at this stage. However, as the account is now [time period] past due, the terms of our agreement allow for us to charge interest at the rate of n% per month on the outstanding payment. If we receive your payment in full by [date] we will waive these charges. However, if the account is not settled, we will be forced to review this decision.

We cannot understand why you still have not cleared your balance of [amount] which is now [amount of time] overdue.

Although you have been a reliable customer for nn years, we are afraid you are jeopardising your credit standing. By sending us your payment immediately, you can ensure your reputation and secure the convenience of being able to make future purchases on credit.

Based on your credit history, we provided you with credit terms on your purchase of [product or service]. The terms of the agreement provide for a payment within the specified period, by [date]. A payment of [amount] will protect your credit rating, and allow us to update your account.

I am writing regarding your payment. We have not received payment on your account for [n months]. I am sure you understand that it is not possible for us to continue to carry this debt. Please contact me as soon as possible so that we may remedy this situation. Perhaps we could discuss an alternative payment plan.

They still haven’t paid. It’s time to be tougher …

Despite a number of phone calls to your office and your assurance that the invoice would be paid immediately, we still have not received your payment of [amount], which was due on [date].

If we do not receive your payment by [date] we will reluctantly be forced to seek the intervention of our debt recovery agency, [name of debt recover firm here].

In line with our credit policies, we will now impose of a fee of n% for late payment.

To avoid additional charges, and legal action, please forward your payment as soon as possible.

As n months have passed since the due date, we are forced to take action to repossess the [product]. If we do not receive your payment, or hear from you, within the next n business days, we will contact you to arrange an appointment for repossession of the [product].

If we do not hear from you before close of business on [date], we will be forced to take legal action.

After repeated reminders unfortunately we still have not received your payment and you have not contacted us to make alternative payment arrangements. Our representatives will arrive at [address] on [date] at [time] to reclaim the [product]. If this time is not possible, please contact me to arrange an alternative time and date.

If we do not hear from you, and if we are unable to reclaim the [product] on that date, we will immediately take legal action.

I would be grateful if you would contact me when you receive this letter so that we do not need to take the matter further.

Our collection department has informed me of their intention to take legal action as you have failed to answer any of our requests for payment of the [amount] which is now [time period] overdue.

Before taking this action i would like to make a personal appeal to your sound judgement. I feel certain that we can find some way to settle this matter out of court if you phone or meet me. Therefore, please contact me by [date] so that we can avoid taking legal action.

Business Writing Tip #98—Organising Your Paragraphs

Way back in Tip #45 I talked about paragraphs and how they help make your text more readable. They organise the text for the reader.

I wrote that paragraphs are a collection of related sentences dealing with a single topic, and in that post I talked about topic sentences.

Today I want to talk about how you can organise your ideas within a paragraph. It is important to organise the details that support your topic sentence. Four common ways of organising details are:

  1. Comparison/contrast—the writer provides details which show similarities and/or highlight differences
  2. Examples—the writer uses an example or illustration in support of the main point
  3. Emphasis—the writer organises the details in order of their importance, or from the most general to the most specific
  4. Chronological—the writer orders the events in the order in which they occurred

Some useful words and phrases for each category

Compare/ContrastComparison: in the same way, similarly, likewise, also, by comparison, in a like manner, as, with, as though, both, like, just as
Contrast: but, in contrast, despite, however, instead, nevertheless, on the contrary, in spite of, still, yet, unlike, even so, rather than, otherwise
ExamplesTo illustrate this point, let’s take the example of, for instance, for example, such as, in particular, particularly, especially
EmphasisMoreover, furthermore, in addition, not only...but, above all, indeed, naturally, clearly, obviously, needless to say
ChronologicalWhen, as soon as, the moment, on hearing ..., from the beginning of the year, throughout the life of the project, to start with, up to that time, first of all, first, in the first place, after this/that, afterwards, then, next, secondly, thirdly, finally, next, last but not least

Next time I’ll post a checklist to help you make sure you have planned and organised your writing appropriately.



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.

Business Writing Tip #45—Paragraphs

Paragraphs help make your text readable by organizing your text.

But what exactly is a paragraph?

It’s a collection of related sentences dealing with a single topic.

The rule of thumb is one idea per paragraph. You might start with a statement and then provide some supporting evidence. To make sure your sentences belong, when you’re looking at the sentences in your paragraphs ask the question: Do these sentences relate to the overall topic of the paragraph?

Watch out for the flow of the paragraph. Use transition words to join the sentences together and to make it clear to your reader just how each sentence relates to the next. This is particularly important in long paragraphs.

Perhaps the most important sentence in each paragraph is your topic sentence. This is the sentence that tells your reader what you are dealing with in the paragraph. Not all paragraphs have topic sentences, and sometimes they may be in the middle, or at the end, of a paragraph. But if you want to make things easy for your reader, then I suggest you put the topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph.

To illustrate how useful this can be let me tell you a little story. Some years ago I attended a speed reading course. If you don’t know about these courses, they teach a variety of techniques to help you quickly find your way through articles, books, magazines, reports and the like. On this course the trainer told me, “When you are reading a well-written book, if you just read the first sentence of every paragraph, you will read the most important information.”

Now, of course this doesn’t mean that the rest of the information isn’t important. But it’s a good shortcut when you’re in a hurry.

So when you’re writing, think about how much material your readers are reading, and make life easy for them. Organise your ideas and write good paragraphs.

Your readers will thank you.

This is the same text as this blog posting. Which is easier to read?

This is the same text as this blog posting. Which is easier to read?

Business Writing Tip #33—Linking Your Thoughts

Mark Tredinnick wrote, ‘Link everything to everything else…Every sentence and every paragraph should link to the one before it and point to the one that comes next. Your reader must know, as they read each clause and sentence and paragraph, why they are reading it and why they are reading it here and why they are reading it now; and they must hear in it  your main point reprised, advanced and clarified.’ (The Little Red Writing Book, p.222) 

Whether you’re writing a short email or business letter, drafting a longer report or preparing a presentation, it’s important to provide structure and flow. Here are some words and phrases that you might find useful.

Introducing a Topic

  • To begin with …
  • To start with …
  • As an introduction …
  • First and foremost …

When you want to add information

  • Besides
  • Moreover
  • Furthermore
  • What is more
  •  … too.
  • In addition to
  • Not to mention
  • Not only … but also …

When you provide contrasting information

  • But
  • Yet
  • Though
  • Still
  • Nevertheless
  • Nonetheless
  • Actually
  • Conversely
  • Although
  • Though
  • Whereas
  • Unlike …
  • Instead of …
  • Despite …
  • In spite of …
  • For all …
  • On the contrary
  • On the other hand
  • By contrast
  • In fact
  • The fact is (that) …

Organizing a series of elements (ideas, arguments, activities, actions, etc.)

  • First(ly), Second(ly), Third(ly)

(Note: I personally prefer first, second, third—but you will often see the …ly variant.)

  • The writer starts with
  • Then goes on to say
  • To end with
  • At the beginning
  • Then
  • At the end

Expressing activities or actions that are happening at the same time as something else

  • Meanwhile
  • In the meantime
  • While
  • During
  • Simultaneously

And at the end, when you are drawing conclusions and finishing up

  • In conclusion
  • Finally
  • To finish
  • To sum up
  • As a conclusion
  • By way of conclusion
  • To conclude
  • To sum up
  • To finish
  • At last
  • Last but not least
  • In short
  • In the end
  • To put it in a nutshell
  • In a word

Business Writing Tip #21 – Signing off

How you sign off depends on whether you are writing a letter or an email, and whether you know the person’s name or not.

When you don’t know the name of the person (Dear Sir/Madam) UK English: Yours faithfully                            US English: Sincerely, Yours truly or Best regards
When you know their name (Dear Ms Jones) Yours sincerely

Other closings that are generally accepted in modern business correspondence, closings that I think are most appropriate for emails, include:

  • Best regards
  • Best wishes
  • Kind regards
  • Many thanks
  • Respectfully yours
  • Warm regards

With business correspondence, even if you know the person well, it is best to use a professional sign off like “regards” rather than sending hugs and kisses to the recipient. There are, of course, many less formal sign offs. I suggest you check your organisation’s guidelines before using these:

Informal sign-offs are best kept for friends

  • Be good
  • Be well
  • Cheerio
  • Cheers
  • I’m out
  • More to come
  • Smiles
  • Ta ta for now
  • Take care
  • Take it easy
  • Until next time

While you may think that your correspondence is private, the truth is that many business
emails end up in the public domain. Always remember that you are representing your organisation.