7 Characteristics of Effective Business Letters

By George Slaughter

Business letters inform, persuade, or do both at the same time. Effective business letters share certain characteristics, regardless of the purpose.

When writing your business letter, consider these characteristics:

1. It omits needless words.

Keep the body of your letter at five or fewer sentences. Or, keep the letter at 250 words or less. (This can be either the entire letter, with address, salutation, body of letter, and signature, or it can be just the text; it’s up to you.) Reading the letter aloud helps to identify needless words.

2. It omits useless humor.

There’s a time and place for appropriate humor. A business letter is not such a place. Once while I was living elsewhere I applied for a position on a mayoral campaign. I began my cover letter with, “I am a homesick Houstonian hoping to return home…” I thought my joke would make my cover letter stand out from the competition. Bad idea. The campaign manager rightly rejected my application. (A good thing, too, because that candidate lost the election.)

3. It focuses on “you” (the reader) and not you (the writer).

The ill-advised letter I wrote the mayoral campaign began with “I,” inappropriately focusing the letter on me, the writer. By contrast, if I focused the letter on the reader, that letter might have begun by talking about the candidate…his vision for the city…how my credentials could help his campaign…and asked for an interview. Another effective way to focus on the reader is to drop names as appropriate to break the ice. For example, if a mutual acquaintance suggested that you write this person, you might begin your letter with, “Our mutual friend, Mr. John Doe, suggested I write you about…”

4. It is addressed to a real person.

Committees do not read letters, consider viewpoints, make decisions, or take action on requests. The people on those committees do these things. Even if you are instructed to address the letter to a committee, there is someone on that committee who has responsibility for gathering the paperwork and distributing everything to the committee. Send the letter to this person.

5. It has the appropriate tone.

If you’re writing a letter of complaint, state your case without turning your letter into a vitriolic rant. If you’re writing a letter of recommendation or praise, state your case without going over the top. Reading your letter aloud helps you check for the appropriate tone.

6. If and when necessary, it asks for the order.

Often when writing a letter you’re requesting that your reader perform a certain action–review a resume, schedule a job interview, complete and return paperwork, resolve a complaint, and so on. Clearly state what you want your reader to do. Clearly state how and why the reader must now take this action.

7. It provides your contact information.

In a “Peanuts” comic strip, Charlie Brown is writing a letter to the editor in which he complains that people don’t take responsibility for their actions. He then signs the letter, “Name Withheld.” Such a signature makes for a good comic, but it doesn’t make for a good business letter. Take responsibility for what you write by signing your name to it.

By following these tips, you improve the effectiveness of your business letter.

About the Author

George Slaughter is a writer, editor, and content strategist. His web site is georgeslaughter.com.