Business letters – whether written to apply for a job, or per the title of this post, to ask a question – have certain basic requirements. There are at least three basic items to put on your checklist, each with its own sub-components. Each is noticeable, and each has its own significance. In order of importance:
- Content. Content is King, as the saying goes. Bill Gates said it. Google said it. Sumner Redstone said it before either. It’s not a catchphrase. It’s vitally important that fancy fonts, images, and artistic layout does not trump content.
- Spell checking and proofing. I would like to “rest my case” right now, but suffice to say that mere spell checking is not enough. Take time to read and re-read what you wrote.
- Formatting. This includes layout and organization, fonts, images or charts (if/when necessary), letterhead, the sequence or order of the letter’s content, and more.
My video accompanying this post appears here, on my YouTube channel. If you prefer the full article, please read on.
Written Content for a Basic Business Letter
I continue to emphasize in any course I teach at Seneca College that has a ‘document production’ or writing component that “content is king”. This is lost on some students, who either (a) are stronger in and prefer design or layout elements, or (b) don’t feel confident about their writing skills. For business letters, both (a) and (b) are important, but let’s start with content.
A basic four-point communication process begins with you, the source, and your message. Looking at the message, two things. First, if you are not clear about your message, your reader will be even less clear. Second, stay on point. If you have more than one topic in your letter, be clear about which topic(s) you’re talking about at any given moment. In this post, as I’m talking about asking a question – a very routine and typical business letter – be clear about the question you are asking. Get the details right. The details are not ‘little things’; they’re important.
If I were the recipient of your letter, here are several ‘deal-breaker’ items I’d expect to see:
- That my information, as the addressee/recipient, is correct. This could make the difference between my reading your letter, or not. Title, spelling, position… all important.
- That if you have included a subject line – which I recommend in most cases – it is relevant and follows basic guidelines. My set of guidelines includes that it should be between 6-8 words in length, and yet, as specific as possible. Bolding the subject line is a good idea as well. According to The Gregg Reference Manual, the ‘bible’ many of us use in terms of structure and formatting for business communications, the subject line should appear below the opening salutation.
- If the first sentence or two of your business letter doesn’t summarize or otherwise speak to the main body/contents of your letter, you are not being helpful. At worse, I won’t read your letter. Subject line and first sentence(s) normally complement one another.
- Once the above is place, there is the main body of your letter. This will probably be one or two paragraphs. Short paragraphs. You should ask your question, and if space permits or if it’s warranted, tell me why you are asking your question. Also, if warranted, give some specific background or other references for your question.
- You will want to wind up on three notes, usually contained in your last paragraph. The first is how you prefer me to get in touch with you. If you don’t mention this, I will write a letter of response (providing I have your address information). The second (or third in some cases), a thank you. And the last, a call to action. The latter is more a marketing term or technique, but I feel it applies here. What do you want me, the reader, to do?
- End with a business-like complimentary closing, allow a few lines for your actual signature, and then type your name and/or position or company.
Spell Checking and Proofing
This has been covered, to an extent, in the above. However, I cannot emphasize strongly enough how far proofing, including spell checking, goes towards getting your letter read.
Imagine how you would feel if I wrote a letter to you that misspelled your name? If you were a PhD and I left off your title of “Dr.”? If I spelled the name of your company wrong, didn’t get your address right, or failed to provide you with a way to get in touch with me? Further, what if my main point was ‘buried’ in some rambling sentence that you couldn’t understand?
See what I mean?
Need some help with this? Ask a friend or colleague to read your letter (if possible). Try rotating the page to landscape to see if you catch anything else. If you are using Microsoft Word, change the proofing options – see my screen capture of Word 2016, below – to give you more of a fighting chance. In addition, try waiting a few minutes or longer, then re-read and proof your letter.
Formatting Your Business Letter
Here I’ll include organization/layout, and other formatting.
You can already see that business letters must include certain key elements, in a very top-to-bottom linear way. Here’s a fuller list, in bullet-point form:
- Return address. This is your address and contact information. It should – or can – go right at the top of the letter.
- Date. Spell it out completely.
- Addressee/Recipient. Use standard formatting for this. (If you’re living in Canada, follow these excellent Canada Post guidelines). Get this right to get someone to keep reading.
- Opening Salutation. If you know a person’s title – are sure you know it – include it. Common titles include Ms., Mr., Dr., and Mrs. A typical opening salutation, including standard mixed punctuation, would look like this: “Dear Mr. Neilly:”
- Subject Line. Already discussed.
- Body of Letter. Many basic business letters have four to five paragraphs. The first is a mini-summary, the next two to three form the main body of the letter, and the last contains a thank you, how you can be contacted, and a call to action.
- Complimentary Closing. Most typically, it will be the word “Sincerely,” (include the comma for mixed punctuation), followed by enough blank lines to allow a signature, followed by your name and/or position/company if applicable.
- Additional. If you are enclosing anything – which should already have been referred to in the body of your letter – following a blank line below the last line of your letter, type the word “Enclosure”. Note that using “Encl.” is an accepted abbreviation.
Hard to know where to include a mention of fonts, so I’ll do it here.
Decorative or interesting fonts, like Bauhaus, or Comic Sans MS, really add visual appeal to many documents. That said, avoid them in a business letter. There are some exceptions: e.g., you work for or are perhaps writing to someone involved in graphic arts, illustration, and certain other industries. I am not one to hearken back to using Times New Roman, and certainly, the whole topic of typography deserves more than a mere mention. I’ll recommend Georgia for now, but you need to make the final determination on the font you use.
The above represents a snapshot of the usual elements of a typical business letter that asks a question. I didn’t include some of the extra elements you may need: e.g., a continuation page header, if your letter is two or more pages, a delivery notation (By Fax, for instance), and more. But this should be enough to get you started.
Need more help? Please contact me to discuss your needs.