How (and why) to write a business letter

How (and why) to write a business letter

Hi, Mr. Sato here. I’m going to help you
write a business letter. There are few skills you can learn
in an English class that have a more obvious, practical use than
the writing of a business letter. No matter
what your career as an adult, I promise you, you will have to
write business letters. Business letters aren’t just written by
people who wear suits and work in an office. You might have to
write a cover letter when applying for a job,
or write to a manufacturer to ask that they honor their warranty for
the electric scooter you bought, or you might have to apply for a grant
for your work as a fine artist. Even in these times of
electronic communications, business letters are still hanging in there. For this assignment, I’m going to have you
write one. And I have my own preferences, so I’ll let you know
if I’m teaching you something that might be
different from a textbook. So here’s what one looks like. There’s more than one style, but I’m
going to teach you the block style, because in the U.S., it has
become more common than the modified block style,
which looks like this. This is the style I learned as a teenager back in
the Paleolithic Era. See how some of the lines begin
in the middle of the page? It has a nicely balanced look. You’ll still see that sometimes, but that
isn’t done so much anymore. Now, with the block style, people just make
everything flush-left, like this. It’s easier. Don’t indent anything. Notice also that all of it is single-spaced
with a skipped line between paragraphs. So up top here, you have your street
address, a skipped line, and the date. This is called the heading. It might seem logical to put
your name up here, but don’t. In standard business letter format,
you don’t put your name here. That goes at the end of the letter only. If you want to include your phone number or email address, that can
go in your heading too. Next, you put the name and street address
of the person you’re writing to. That’s called the inside address. Reference books I’ve seen say to skip one
line below the inside address, but I like two or even three skipped lines between the inside address and what comes next. I think it sets off all this geographical
information up here from the actual content of the letter, the part that matters most. That’s
where people actually start reading. All right, so, below the inside address is
the salutation. “Dear so-and-so.” If you don’t know the name of
the person you’re writing to, like if you’re writing to the
customer service department for a big company or something, you write
“Dear Sir or Madam.” People sometimes use “To Whom It May Concern,” but this is
kind of outdated and should be avoided. You could also use the title of the person, like “Dear Customer Service Manager.” It would be great, though, if you could
look around online a bit, or make a call, and find the actual name of the person who will be reading your letter. Then you can address it to the actual person, always using the respectful honorific,
like Mr. or Ms., Dr. or Sen. But that isn’t always possible, so then you have to go with “Dear Sir or Madam.” And follow that with a colon; that’s these
two dots here. Don’t use a comma here like you see in personal letters. Now, skip one line and begin your letter. The organization of a letter is like most
things you’ll write. It has an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. In the
introduction, don’t start by telling the whole tragic story of
your broken electric scooter before telling the reader what it is you
want. In the introduction, say in just a few words why you are writing. “My
electric scooter broke last week, and since it is still under warranty, I would
like to receive a new electric scooter.” Or, “I would like to be considered for
the position of video game tester.” It’s kind of like a thesis in an essay. Get to the point clearly and immediately.
People are busy and will start skimming if you get wordy. One-sentence paragraphs
may not be appropriate in an academic essay, but they are
perfectly fine in a business letter. Skip another line now, to create a second
paragraph, and give the important details. Here, too, you want to be concise.
That means to say what you mean in as few words as possible.
Leave out inessential details. For example, you don’t need to say
that your scooter stopped working after you’d already gotten to your
destination, so you had to carry it uphill all the way back to your house
and another kid saw you and it was really embarrassing! They don’t care about that. Just say that the warranty says your machine is covered, give the date of purchase, and include a copy of the receipt if you still have it; never the original. Or if it’s a cover letter for a job, here’s
where you say what your main qualifications are, and mention that
your resume is attached. This is the body of the letter. Try to keep this down to
one or two paragraphs. And very few business letters
should be more than one page. Busy people don’t have time
to read a long letter. In the last paragraph, tell the recipient
of your letter exactly what you would like him or her to do now. This is where
you push your reader into doing the thing you want. Imagine the reader just asked,
What exactly do you want from me?” Here’s where you need to be very specific. Not, “Please do something about
my electric scooter.” No. What exactly do you want this person
to do right now? Try, “Please send me instructions
on how I can get a replacement scooter immediately. Email is the best way
to get in touch with me.” Get it? Clear and specific. Not, “I really want to be considered for this
job.” You’ve already said that. Instead, try, “I will call you later this week to
make sure you got this letter. I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.” See? Now, your reader knows you are
going to politely remind him or her about your request if he or she decides
to ignore you. You aren’t going away until you get what you want. And the language I’m using is so generic that you could copy my words exactly and it would
be fine. I don’t think anyone would consider it plagiarism. I certainly wouldn’t. Then end with something polite, like that
“I look forward to hearing from you” or “Thank you for considering
me for this position.” Never be rude or threatening
in a business letter unless you want it thrown in the trash can. Now, at the bottom of the letter, there’s
the complimentary closing. “Sincerely” is good.
“Respectfully” is good. There are lots of old-fashioned sounding closes, like “Very sincerely yours,” but unless you’re applying for a job in a
19th century theme park, I’d stick with Sincerely or Respectfully. Do not use
personal sounding closings, like “Love” or “Yours truly;” the reader of your
business letter is not your friend. He or she is someone you are doing business with, so sound businesslike unless
you want to sound all creepy and stalker-ish. Then skip three lines, type your name, and
your title, if you have one that relates to the matter at hand.
That’s called the signature. Now you’re done, unless you’re sending a copy of your letter to a third party, like the Better Business Bureau.
Then, you’d skip a couple of lines and type CC: Better Business Bureau. That’ll get their attention. By the way, CC: means “carbon copy.” You can go ask your grandma what that is. Speaking of typing, use a really
conservative, businesslike font like Times New Roman or Helvetica
if you want to be taken seriously. Never use script-fonts or decorative fonts, which would be like a lawyer wearing
Mickey Mouse ears while trying to argue a case in court. Now, when you print the letter,
sign it in ink right here, below the complimentary close
and above the signature. OK, so that’s it for the
format and organization. It’s time for you to write your letter. First, type your heading and the date,
then the inside address. Please use this for the inside address. I’ll wait. Done? OK, so you’ll be writing a complaint
letter for rude service you received at a clothing store. Here’s the scenario: You received rude service at a store
called The Fashion Plate that is located at Smithgate Mall on September 2nd. When you asked if their poplin straight-collar shirt came in any other colors, like red or yellow, Muffy, the salesperson,
made a face and said, “no, those colors are ugly.” When you said you liked those colors, she
told you to shop somewhere else if you didn’t like the clothes at
The Fashion Plate. Muffy is the older sister of a friend of
yours, and when you met her once, she was an obnoxious twerp then too.
Anyway, when you asked to speak to the manager, she said
he had the day off. You called the mall to find out the name of the store
manager, Mr. Antonio Fernandez. So, your assignment is to write
a complaint letter to Mr. Fernandez that is likely to get results. Remember: in the first paragraph,
say why you are writing. In the second paragraph, give only
the important details. Be concise. In the last paragraph, tell Mr. Fernandez
exactly what you want him to do about it, and end with some
sort of polite comment. Keep in mind that a brief, polite and clear
letter gets better results than a long, angry, rambling letter. If your teacher so chooses, you
could then write a letter to yourself, from Mr. Fernandez, telling you
what he will do about your complaint. I’ve had students do that. It’s kind of fun. Writing a business letter can be a very empowering act. In life, as you no doubt know, there will
be people who will treat you badly or try to take advantage of you
because they’re big and you’re small. A powerless person might throw a brick
through the window of the store– and get put in jail. An empowered person has a voice and
can make him or herself heard. An empowered person figures out who has the authority to do something about it, writes a letter, or maybe a series of letters going up the chain of command, and gets positive positive results instead.
And that’s what I want for you. Happy letter-writing.

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About the Author: Oren Garnes


  1. We homeschool and did a unit on writing business letters. Your video helped my 5th graders write a very good letter with no additional instruction from me. Thanks!

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