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Eight Ways to Immediately Improve Your Business Letters
--Without Becoming A Better Writer

by Patricia Luebke

Patricia Luebke is a New York-based marketing consultant
with more than 20 years magazine publishing experience.
Pat conducts marketing seminars, directs market research,
produces promotional materials, and provides strategic
planning and media relations assistance. The information in
this article is based on her mini-seminar of the same name.
She may be reached at 212-996-1409.

Eight Easy Steps

1. Don't depend on spellcheck.

No matter how brilliant your letter, mistakes will creep in and detract from your message. Spellcheck is great, but it only goes so far. We've all read letters with phrases like, "When it comes to you advertising budget...". It should have been your advertising budget, and that's a typical mistake spellcheck won't catch. We received a letter once that said, "I want to congratulation you on your companies success." Two major mistakes, but that sentence sailed through spellcheck. If you've composed a letter, printed it out and it's ready to sign, take a few additional minutes to proofread your letter. Read it aloud if you want, but don't make the mistake of thinking spellchecking is proofreading; it's not.

2. Use bullet points, white space and indenting.

The point of a business letter is to get your recipient to read it. You can up your odds by creating a letter that's pleasing to the eye:
  • Whenever possible, make your points in lists which are bulleted.

  • Watch the length of your paragraphs to avoid huge blocks of type.

  • Give your words room to breathe with white space.

  • Although letters with flush left margins are popular, consider indenting the beginning of your paragraphs one tab space (as we've done here). Indenting your paragraphs opens up your letter and makes it a bit more reader-friendly.

3. Use bold-face type sparingly.

Salespeople sometimes feel so passionate about their sales points in a letter that they end up bolding half the darn letter. Bolding is a great tool for making a sub-head or a sentence jump off the page. Your reader's eyes will go right to the bolded words, but bolding loses its power when it is overused. If you find yourself in bold-overdrive, think about replacing the technique of bolded words with more powerful words of your own choosing. Maybe your sentence could be empowered by shortening or using a plainer style.

Some ad agencies have a policy to bold their company's name or the client's name every time it's mentioned. So much bolding gives the letter a speckled look. Save your bolding for the one most powerful, most important point in your letter.

4. Drop the boilerplate at the beginning of your letter.

We waste a lot of time in what we think are polite preliminaries at the beginning of our letters instead of just getting to the point. For example, countless media kit letters begin, "Thank you for your interest in [fill in the blank] magazine," and go on and on about how pleased the writer is for the interest expressed in their magazine. Media reps who have discussed marketing strategy with an agency contact over lunch waste valuable letter space by starting their follow-up letters by reminiscing at length about the shared meal: the ingredients of the pasta sauce or the consistency of the chocolate mousse.

Here's a good rule of thumb: When you have written your letter, go back to the beginning (your first sentence) and start crossing out sentences one at a time until you get to the sentence that -- if you crossed it out -- the letter would no longer make sense. That sentence is where you begin your letter.

5. Use simple language.

Use language you normally use. Write the way you talk. Would you hand someone a birthday present and say, "Enclosed herewith please find your birthday present"? Of course not, and yet people write phrases like that in letters all the time. There's some odd notion at work in business letters that compels writers to think they must use fancy language and high-sounding phrases. In fact, the only thing elaborate language does is cloud the meaning of your letter.

Let's say a print magazine has run the wrong ad by mistake. Which of these two sentences is clearer? Sentence A: "Apparently, a discrepancy has inadvertently occurred in the creative materials which were selected by our production department to appear in the August issue on behalf of your client which differ substantially from the creative materials which were indicated for utilization in the instructions you supplied via the insertion order we previously received." Sentence B: "We've made a mistake."

Here's a tip for when you don't know how to say something in a letter: Pretend it doesn't matter that it's a business letter. Ask yourself this: If it didn't matter how I sounded, how would I phrase this? The answer to that question is going to be the best bet for how you should phrase your sentence.

6. Drop the boilerplate at the end of the letter.

We've all been there. We're rounding the bend. We're close to the end. We're approaching the finish line. Ah! All we have to do is slap in that time-honored sentence: "If you have any questions, please don't hesitate..." blah, blah, blah. When you're the recipient of a letter, do these words mean anything to you? Chances are they don't, and the space in your letter can be better used with something different. Granted, it's tough to come up with a good ending, but try. Your letters should end on a high note -- on a strength -- and not just fade out with words that mean little.

7. Every letter should have a P.S.

A postscript at the end of a letter is a positive addition. Why? Because people read postscripts even when they don't read your letter. Since most letters are read hurriedly and not digested as carefully as we had hoped, a P.S. is an effective way to draw the reader back into the letter. In fact, a well-written P.S. may arouse enough interest so that the reader goes back and gives your letter another look.

If you're an account executive at an ad agency, for example, and have written a client a long status report letter, a P.S. like, "Just a reminder that in order to meet these mailing dates, we'll need your decision on the headlines by July 2" could save you a whole lot of time and trouble down the road.

8. Give your letter the 3-second test.

OK, you've followed the guidelines above and your letter is ready to go. Look at your letter for 3 seconds, and see what you think. Is it inviting to read? Is there sufficient white space? Are there interesting bullet points to draw the reader in? Does the one bolded sentence or phrase pop out? To where on the page is your eye drawn? In short, if this letter arrived on your desk, would you want to read it?



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