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Reading Documents: Business Letters
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Reading Documents: Business Letters

Adapted from:

Business Letters
Although people often phone when, in the past, they would have written, however we still need the ability to read business letters effectively though.

Although you can conduct much of your business by telephone, some organizations will accept only written submissions. If you want to complain to the press council about a newspaper with biased news reporting, the council will want you to write your complaint. Even when you can communicate by phone, it is often more effective to write.

You may use your computer to word process a message that you fax or e-mail rather than send it by post, but, however you send it, your letter will be better received if you create informative content, organize it effectively, express it in standard English, and format it with an attractive appearance.

Creating the Content of a Business Letter
People don't write business letters unless they want something. To create the content of your business letter, you need to decide what you want. Most business letters fall into one of three categories:

  • complaints,
  • requests,
  • or offers.

You might write the Better Business Bureau to complain about a poor service, such as a botched job of refinishing your kitchen floor.

A request can be as simple as a brief letter to ask the bank to begin to deduct your student loan payment from a different account or as complex as a carefully crafted letter that asks an employer to hire you. Sometimes you may write a business letter that is a mix of these types. To create the content of an effective business letter, follow these steps:

Decide what you want your reader to do
Freewrite to come to a clear understanding of the action you want the reader of the letter to carry out for you.

Jot notes about your complaint, request or offer
Note the details that will lead your reader to take the action you recommend. For a complaint, provide a description detailed enough that your reader can only conclude that your concern is legitimate. Marshal the reasons for why the reader should grant your request. Describe your offer in enough detail that your readers feel they can make an informed decision.

Outline your points in a convincing, logical fashion
Look over the notes you've made, and use numerals to order your information to best express your message.

Analyze your audience
Review your message. Did you provide enough background? Will your reader understand you? Set a tone that conveys respect for your reader. Effective business correspondence has a you-emphasis: Use the second-person pronoun you to make your readers feel that you are concerned about what you can do for them. Contrast these two ways to convey the same information:

  • Emphasis on the Writer:
    I will send you our new catalogue soon so that we can receive an order before the Christmas rush.
  • Emphasis on the Reader:
    You will soon receive our new catalogue so you can order early and beat the Christmas rush.

In the second example, the writer has used you-emphasis to show that the reader is a valued customer. When you write with a you-emphasis, you signal that you are putting the needs of the reader first.

Let's follow a student as she composes the content of a business letter that is both a complaint and a request. The letter takes a direct approach, a straightforward approach often recommended for business letters. You can study the indirect approach (which tries to tactfully broach unpopular or unwelcome topics) in more advanced books about business correspondence. Most lay people will find the direct approach-candid and straightforward-works for their personal business and volunteer activities.

Christine Guthridge was concerned about the car drivers who sped down her residential street. She mused that they were going too fast to stop and could hurt-or kill-one of her children who might inadvertently step on the roadway. She jotted some notes about the problem and her proposed solution: The city should install a stop sign. Then she roughly outlined her argument. She had created her content; now she had to organize her message so that she could make a powerful impact on her audience.

Organizing a Business Letter
A brief essay is organized into an introduction, a body of support paragraphs, and a conclusion. A similar pattern of organization works for a business letter, too, although business text writers use the terms introductory paragraph, body paragraphs, and closing paragraph.

Follow these steps to create effective organization:

  • In the introductory paragraph, state briefly your main point. You can usually identify your main point by identifying your reader and then completing the sentence " I want to tell you that...". Your sentence completion becomes the first sentence of your introductory paragraph.
  • In the body paragraphs of the letter, provide the details that will inform your reader of the specifics of your complaint, the precise nature of or reasons for your request, or the details that should convince your reader to accept your offer. In letter writing, you often get more when you give more. A simple request for a college calendar requires only a brief letter. But when you show more than the usual amount of interest, sometimes the sender goes to the trouble to include a college newspaper or a brochure of local attractions. You end up much more informed about the community you are considering.
  • In the closing paragraph, restate what you want the reader to do. Make sure that the reader knows precisely what you want done, how to resolve your complaint, how to grant your request, how to accept your offer, and when.

In a business letter, aim to present yourself as a reasonable person making a very reasonable proposal. Be specific about what your reader must do to make you happy. 

Read through Christine Guthridge's letter (figure 1, below). Notice the way she follows the pattern of beginning the introductory paragraph by briefly stating her main point. Note the way she provides, in the body paragraphs, the supporting detail to make the reader see the danger to the children of this street without a stop sign. Consider how she briefly re-states in the closing paragraph what she wants the reader to do and suggests a reasonable deadline.

Figure 1: Sample Letter

22A Aqueduct Street

Welland, ON L3C 1B6

November 4, 2002

Mr. Don Cook

Environmental and Traffic Services Engineer

411 East Main Street

Welland, ON L3B 3X4

Dear Mr. Cook,

Putting a stop sign on Aqueduct Street will reduce the chances that a speeding car

will kill one of our children.

Aqueduct Street looked like the quiet, safe environment I wanted for my children. Many

of the neighbourhood children—including my own—enjoy playing along the street,

and they sometimes cross it. Because Aqueduct Street runs parallel to a much busier

major thoroughfare, car drivers use our street to avoid the heavier traffic and stop

lights on Niagara Street. Most of these people are driving too fast for a residential

neighbourhood with many families and many children.

My concerned neighbours and I feel that a four-way stop created at the corner of

Aqueduct and Church would reduce non-residential traffic and slow down all the

drivers using Aqueduct Street. The expense would be modest compared to the

incalculable cost of a child's injury or death by a speeding motorist out to save a few

minutes' commuting time.

By installing the stop signs, you can help make our street safer for children, as we

request in the enclosed petition, signed by all the adults on Aqueduct Street.

Please contact me before the next council meeting on November 15. The residents of

Aqueduct Street are worried that heavy non-residential traffic is endangering our

children. We urge the City Engineer to place a four-way stop sign at the corner of

Aqueduct and Church to help reduce the danger.


Christine Guthridge



Creating a Business Letter with an Effective Appearance
Christine has used the full-block style to format her letter. This style (all text begins at the left margin and the paragraphs are not indented) is easy to handwrite or key into word processing software.

All text is aligned with the left margin. The writer leaves the right margin ragged, unjustified. The text is single-spaced, but there's a blank line between each element of the letter. Are the paragraphs indented? No, the author uses blank lines to separate paragraphs.

Consider the parts or elements of a business letter. Notice that the first address indicated is the sender's. What do you read next? The dateline shows the date the letter was composed. Some style manuals suggest that the dateline immediately follow the sender's address with no blank line, but other guides suggest that writers make the date stand out by preceding and following it with a blank line. The date is so important that it is a good idea to clearly designate it as a distinctive element by separating it from the sender's address.

It is easy to use word processing software to create personal (or business) letterhead. Most writers choose a graphic from the selection provided by the software. Others scan a photo or line art and bring this graphics file into a letterhead file. The letterhead file will also indicate the distinctive font and size of print of the sender's name and address information. You can easily copy this file and paste it into a new word-processing file each time you begin to write another letter.

What element of a business letter appears next? This is the inside address, the name and address of the recipient of your letter. Look for a moment at the punctuation at the end of the lines of the sender's address and the inside address. What do you notice? There is no punctuation at the end of these lines. Full-block format does not use commas to separate the elements of the addresses. Is the punctuation omitted between the address elements within the lines of the addresses? No. Note the comma between the city and province. As usual, though, there is no comma between the province or state and the postal or zip code. Key two spaces before the postal code.

Look at the next element, the salutation. Notice that it does have punctuation at the end of the element. Some style manuals suggest omitting that comma (for an informal letter) or colon (formal letter). The introductory, body, and closing paragraphs follow after the complimentary close ("Sincerely" in Christine's letter), notice the blank line or two for the writer's signature. 

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