Everybody has the ability to write a good letter.

--Andrew Carroll, editor of Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters


Revive the Lost Art

Letter writing has almost become a lost art. I was reluctant to even start a web link on letters. People, though, need to know the structure and etiquette of business letters. Business letters are still important, even though e-mail appears to be superseding the traditional business letter. At the turn of the Century people wrote all kinds of social and business letters. Commerce moved on these letters. Today we pick up a telephone, send a fax, or e-mail a response to accomplish our business transactions.

Business Letters Require Plans

Jeffrey Seglin, author of The AMA Handbook of Business Letters, believes all professionals need to learn how to write business letters. In my classes many of you are already professionals in your line of work. Others are striving for magical diploma that will label them more professional. Any kind of communication requires planning, whether a report, memo, or a business letter. Seglin believes three major elements exist in the planning of a business letter:

  1. Research the facts.
  2. Analyze subject and reader.
  3. Know your objectives and accomplish them.
In reading his book I discovered he liked outlining or free writing of response to be sent. What goes in each paragraph? Suppose I had to tell a friend his presence couldn't be supported at a seminar he was freely attending. The outlining might start this way:

Paragraph 1: Remind individual of his important presence
Paragraph 2: Point out reasons for overbooking
Paragraph 3: Explain options and presence possible at later time
Close with goodwill.

As you can see, a business letter takes planning. Then, you are ready to compose the initial sentences. We are reminded of the business letter consultant to insurance companies, Ellis Gladwin, who suggested one idea to a sentence. Seglin called that experience one thought at a time. Don't forget every business letter needs an objective. For the previous letter we could say: Thank individual for his participation and suggest later participation.

In every business communication course I teach, I remind the students to write clearly and simply. Seglin phrases that objective as "write what you mean." It has to be remembered a business letter requires a short space with a great deal said to convey the message. Get to the point, and stay with the point.

In any business letter you have to worry about the tone or what sound is coming across to the reader. Tone conveys the personality of the letter writer. Did you show genuine concern when you wrote the letter? Have you brought your personality across? People like to read positive rather than negative thoughts. One other element of tone involves the "you" attitude. Have you placed yourself in the reader's shoes? Have you walked a mile in that person's moccasins? In the "you" attitude as Seglin reiterates, you are directing your message toward the reader. Where is the focus of attention in the last business letter you wrote?

Now, let's write the letter we earlier planned. Look carefully at the format and the style of the communication.

Current Date

Dr. Harold Lee
Professor, Sociology Department
College of the Sequoias
Sedonia, California   91475

Dear Harold:
You recently attended four of our sessions on "Inspiration in Teaching." We welcomed your attendance and know you gained a great deal from the interaction with other faculty.

At the moment, my commitments are reaching an impossible state with the faculty enrolled for credit. As you could see in my office the other day, the "publish or perish" syndrome is driving me up the wall. I appreciate your eagerness and your willingness to attack recent computer applications. However, time commitments are forcing me to curtail conversations with interested faculty about proposed projects.

Please don't consider it a slight that you may be removed from the e-mail list next and asked to avoid attending future meetings. The meeting we scheduled for next week may be attended as long as you realize we may have to curtail future sessions with enrolled faculty. You have been a willing participant, and I appreciate the faculty from your school showing such interest in computer applications. You may be considered for a slot of enrolled faculty in the Spring Semester. Keep up the good work, and I look forward to working with you in the future on your many ideas.


Professor Marco Horowitz "Mark"

Business Notes Concern Finesse

In our household we end up writing many business notes as a matter of courtesy. People have to be thanked for gifts. Kindnesses in employment situations have to be recognized. People retiring or resigning from their positions need to be recognized. How do you begin such a note, whether handwritten or keyboarded? How would you write such a note on e-mail?

Fortunately, good references exist to help this effort, including Business Notes: Writing Personal Notes That Build Professional Relationships by Florence Isaacs, past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and contributor to many major publications. Ms. Isaacs makes her point well in describing why we should write personal notes:

". . . the personal touch is so rare that it stands out."

Florence Isaacs gives us hints about the importance of business notes. Here are the chief reasons why business notes should not be taken for granted:

I do not completely agree with Isaacs about e-mail being so impersonal and losing the warmth of human contact. An e-mail can be worded effectively to establish and keep contact. E-mail should be valued for its power of persuasion. Isaacs does give us hope when she suggest "if you can talk, you can compose a good note." My wife is particularly skillful at saying just the right line when she has to write a business note. People remember well-written business notes, regardless of their form.

To me business notes require your picturing how the other person would react to your words. Florence Isaacs believes a business "must say something." She recommends you consider these questions (my phrasing) when writing a successful note:

Isn't that a good list? Isaacs believes we need to communicate when writing a conversational business note: "If it's easy to read, it will get read."

Florence Isaacs classifies follow-up notes as part of business notes. Her classification includes:

Suppose you are the person in charge of obtaining a speaker. How do you later thank that person for taking time and sharing thoughts? People like to be acknowledged for their efforts. Let's suppose a message could be constructed this way:

So few people thank that, usually, the individual is touched to receive a personal acknowledgment. To add some additional thoughts, I now like to write e-mail to colleagues I have met at a meeting or a seminar. It helps them remember my name, and I can comment on some conversation we had during the session. Often, you receive an e-mail acknowledgment that the individual liked what you said. It is good business and good networking.

Business Letters Provide a Niche

Business letters remain a way to say thank-you or request some product or service. Business letters are received as collection notices and sales gimmicks. The Internet may replace the traditional sales letter, but we still receive a great deal of what may be referred to as "junk mail." That so-called "junk mail" took someone a long time to compose. Students are not always aware of how a business letter is constructed. Therefore, let's start with the parts of a business letter.

A business letter usually consists of about six parts:

Return Addresses Require Thought

The return address may be simple or extensive. If you write an extensive return address, you include the street, city, state, and zip, and the date (usually written out). A return address might appear in the following manner:

2745 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 91330-7295
Current Date (e.g. September 24, 19-)

The date may be placed left justified (full or block style) on the paper or starting at the center of the paper (modified block). If you have a letterhead, the date would usually become the only part of the return address included. You never place your name as part of the return address. The name is reserved for the keyboarded signature line.

Inside Addresses Allow Information

Return with me to the inside address. The inside address tells to whom the letter is going. The inside address could be as extensive as five lines or more. Let's look at a typical inside address:

Mr. James Ausburg
Senior Systems Analyst
Caman Computer Corporation
4414 East Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 91330-8245

Did you notice the inside address had certain features? You need to include the courtesy title, such as Mr., Dr., Mrs., or Ms. You need to include the full name and that person's job title. The job title may be placed on the same line or the next line. It depends on how parallel you want your lines to look. Include the full company name and street address. Make sure you include the city, state, and zip code in the last line of the inside address.

Greet Your Addressees Carefully

Salutations or "Dear" greetings represent their own peculiarities in writing a business letter. You are expected to know that a salutation usually includes a courtesy title. The greeting includes only the last name of the person, unless you know the individual well. Then, you might promote this kind of greeting:

Dear Bob:
Dear Sally:

Normally, a salutation will represent a more formal business greeting of someone. Some examples follow:

Dear Mr. Harrison:
Dear Ms. Jones:
Dear Mrs. Platovsky:
Dear Dr. Barnes:

Notice that you never say, for example: "Dear Mr. Edward Barnes." The last name is usually enough. You would not say: "Dear Platovsky." That is a kind of insult, because you have not used the courtesy title. Remember that people want to be recognized for their achievements as human beings and important individuals.

The other beginning parts of the letter depend on your wishes and your company's needs: attention lines, subject lines, and other items. Attention lines are usually placed before the salutation. Subject lines are usually placed below the salutation. These traditional placements work for almost any situation. If you were looking at an insurance letter, for example, you would probably see a subject line about your policy number or something on the order of Re: Policy No. 485924.

Last Parts Deserve Emphasis

When you have finished the of the letter, you are ready to write the complimentary close and the keyboarded signature line. I usually like Sincerely or Sincerely yours as a closing. Very truly yours, Your very truly, and Yours truly appear much stiffer in closing the letter. I would rarely, if ever, use Respectfully yours; that closing is just too condescending. You don't need to grovel in the close. Observe all capitalization and punctuation rules in your closing:

Sincerely yours
Your very truly,

Note that the second word of the complimentary close is not capitalized. The reason for the mark of punctuation, comma, after Sincerely meant that a colon was used after the salutation. You have to be consistent with your marks of punctuation. Let's mention again the importance of mixed and open punctuation. An example of mixed punctuation follows:

Dear Ms. Nyquist:

Did you spot the colon after Nyquist and the comma after Sincerely? That is called mixed punctuation. An example of open punctuation now follows:

Dear Mr. Ventura
Sincerely yours

Did you spot no punctuation after Ventura and none after Sincerely yours? That is called open punctuation. Keyboarded signature lines allow you to sign above your name. As most business communication books recommend, you should come down at least four typewritten lines to your keyboarded signature. You may have other sections of the business letter that follow after the signature.

Certain Letter Sections Depend on Circumstances

These sections of the letters, depending on the circumstances, include: reference initials, enclosure notations, copy notations, and postscripts. The reference initials may appear in the following manner double spaced after the signature line:


You note immediately the dictator's initials come first in the business letter. Then, the secretary's or transcriber's initials follow in smaller letters. Although many managers do not have their own secretaries these days, this traditional way of placing reference initials still holds. The enclosure notation, on the other side, may take several different forms:

Enclosure: resume


You see the following on a business letter that is a thank-you for an informational interview: "Very truly yours." What do we call that part of the business letter? How could that part of the business letter be improved? Why?

Enclosure Notations and Postscripts Deserve Emphasis

As you can see, enclosure notations have as many varieties as there are people composing letters. You may name the enclosures; you may not. You may abbreviate enclosure, or you may not. Copies create a different situation in their notation. You often see the following: cc. That means someone enclosed a carbon copy or copy of something or the letter itself. Today we use the more up-to-date designation: c to indicate photocopy. Carbon paper disappeared many years ago. I doubt if you could find carbon paper, except inside some forms around the company.

Postscripts mean exactly what they refer. You have forgotten to say something in the body of the business letter. You add a postscript or an afterthought. You usually write: P.S. and then begin your message or your sentence. Let's take an example:

P.S. Don't forget we have a tennis date next week at the Westside Courts.

You have to remember that a postscript should be used sparingly. If the sentence belongs in the body of the business letter, then, by all means, place that sentence back in the body. Postscripts are only used for something that may be "in addition" to everything said so far. It is a helpful tool to use even in e-mail.

Second and Succeeding Pages Need Attention

When you face the dilemma of what to use for a second page heading of a business letter, consider this point. You place the To, Page, and Date on a memo's second and succeeding pages. Why don't you do the same for a business letter? Therefore, adopt this setup:

Mr. Fred Nyquist
Page 2
Current Date

If you don't follow the practice previously mentioned, you have no way of attaching the second page to the first page of the letter. This special notation can become extremely important when you are writing an application letter. The prospective employer expects to connect the two pages. With only white space at the top, what letter are we talking about? Should I even read the second page just because of the staple? You are losing your reader, because you did not pay attention to details, such as format.

Oftentimes, I have also seen the heading of a second page business letter shown in the following format:

Mr. Fred Nyquist			2				Current Date
That previous heading is also perfectly acceptable. Just remember to label everything, even the second and succeeding pages of a business letter.
Last updated Monday, September 19, 2005

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