The Seven Cs of Business Letter Writing
Effective letter writing boils down to knowing why you are writing a letter, understanding your reader's needs and then clearly writing what you need to say. Every letter should be clear, human, helpful and as friendly as the topic allows. The best letters have a conversational tone and read as if you were talking to your reader.
In brief then, discover the Seven-Cs of letter writing. You should be
When you write a letter, you are trying to convince someone to act or react in a positive way. Your reader will respond quickly only if your meaning is crystal clear.
Put yourself in the reader’s shoes and write in a friendly and helpful tone. Don't represent your company as one that cannot make a mistake and must always be in the right. Try not to reply in the normal bland and defensive way of organizations—write a sincere and helpful letter.
Show you are interested in the reader’s circumstances. If he or she has mentioned something personal in the letter, refer to it in your reply. This builds a bridge between you and the reader. Read the original letter carefully and see if there is something you can put in your letter to show your interest.
Putting your reader first
For all writers the most important people are their readers. If you keep your readers in mind when you write, it will help you use the right tone, appropriate language and include the right amount of detail.
What do readers want from writing? They want relevant information, presented in a clear, easy-to-understand style. They don't want muddled thinking, background information they already know, business-speak and jargon or waffle. Above all, they want to get the gist of your message in one reading—they don’t want to dig for the meaning through long sentences and a boring style. So if you always keep your readers in mind, you will have to adapt your style and content to meet their needs.
Getting a clear picture of your readers before you start to write helps to focus your writing to get your message across. The better picture you have of your readers, the better you can direct your writing.
Ask questions to get a clear picture of your readers.
• Who are my readers?
• What do they already know about the subject?
• What do they need to know?
• Will they understand technical terms?
• What information do they want?
• What do I want them to do?
• What interests or motivates them?
• What prejudices do they have?
• What worries or reassures them?
• What will persuade them to my view?
• What other arguments do I need to present?
• How are they likely to react to what I say?
If you imagine yourself in your reader's position, you're more likely to write a good letter.
Keeping your business plan to the point
When you write a business letter, you must try not to waste your reader's time. The first step in any writing task is to set down your aim. Ask yourself, Why am I writing? and What do I want to achieve? The clearer you are in your own mind about what you want to achieve, the better your letter. These questions help you focus on the information that supports your central aim, and to cut information that's irrelevant. By doing this, you'll find you keep to the subject and perhaps write a document that is a third shorter than you would otherwise draft.
People read to find out information. You can write the clearest letter or report, but if it doesn't say anything worth knowing, it's a useless document. You have to learn to present the most relevant information for your readers' needs. Then having said what you need to say—stop.
The more specific information you give, the better. You need to be ruthless in cutting out the padding most of us put into letters. It just wastes readers' time and clouds your message.
To help you to keep to the point of your letter, you can draw up an outline to plan your letter. Follow these steps:
• Make a list of the topics you want to cover but don't worry about the order.
• Under each topic, list key words, examples, arguments and facts.
• Review each topic in your outline for relevance to your aim and audience.
• Cut out anything that's not relevant to your aim or audience.
• Sort the information into the best order for your readers.
You don’t have to stick rigidly to your business letter plan as it may change if you discover new information. It should help you shape your thinking but not be a straitjacket. Let your outline focus your thinking to make your writing coherent.
The advantage of spending a little time setting out a plan is that it not only helps the reader, it also helps you write. By breaking down a complex topic into subject areas, you'll find it easier to concentrate on the most relevant information.
Getting the right tone to your business letter
When you write a business letter, it’s important to use a tone that is friendly but efficient. Readers want to know there’s someone at the other end of the letter who is taking notice and showing interest in their concerns. Try to sound—and be—helpful and friendly.
To do this, write as you would speak and talk on paper. This doesn't mean you should use slang, bad grammar or poor English, but try to aim for a conversational style and let the reader hear your voice.
Imagine that your reader is sitting opposite you at your desk or is on the telephone. You’d be unlikely to say “please be advised” or “I wish to inform you”; instead you’d be more informal and say, “I’d like to explain” or “Let me explain” or use other everyday expressions.
Here are some ways to change your writing style to a conversational style.
Using contractions such as it's, doesn't, I'm, you're, we're, they're, isn't, here's, that's, we'll gives a personal and human feel to your writing.
If there are no contractions in your writing, put some in. You don't have to use contractions at every opportunity. Sometimes writing do not comes more naturally than don't. When you speak, you probably use a combination of these styles—try to reflect this in your writing.
Use Personal References
Use words such as I, we, you, your, my, and our in your writing. Don't be afraid to identify yourself—it makes writing much more readable. This is a useful trick to make writing look and sound more like face-to-face talk.
Using I, we and you also helps you to avoid using passive verbs. It makes your style more direct and clear.
So instead of writing:
Our address records have been amended ...
We’ve changed your address in our records ...
Instead of writing:
The company policy is ...
Our policy is ...
Using active verbs with personal references is a quick and dramatic way to make your writing readable and more direct.
Use Direct Questions
Direct questions are an essential part of the spoken language. Using them gives your writing much more impact and is a common technique in marketing and advertising material. Marketing people use this technique to put information across clearly and to give their writing impact.
In much business writing, we hide questions in our writing by using words such as whether to introduce them. Look for these in your writing and change them into direct questions.
Original: We would appreciate your advising us whether you want to continue this account or transfer it.
Redraft: Do you want to continue your account or transfer it?
Original: Please inform us whether payment against these receipts will be in order.
Redraft: Can we pay against these receipts?
Apart from making your style more conversational, direct questions liven up your writing—it’s as though you change the pitch in your voice. There’s nothing like a direct question to get some reaction from your reader and to give your writing impact.