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How to Write a Formal Letter

How to Write a Formal Letter


    Most everyday writing is casual. Tweets, Facebook updates, holiday cards, friendly emails — these have their own simple etiquette, and we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them before we lick that stamp or hit send.

    Sometimes, though, the occasion calls for something more formal. Whether it’s a letter to your political representative about an important issue, a cover letter to a potential boss, or a business proposal letter, these require a bit more care if you’re going to be taken seriously. As a lawyer, I write many formal letters each week, and there is an art to doing it well. Here are a few points to keep in mind when you’re writing your own formal letter, whether it will go through the mail or via cyberspace.

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    1. Understand your purpose.

    Why are you writing? What do you want the reader to do after reading your letter? Do you want to change her mind or convince him to take a specific action? Are you seeking forgiveness? Do you mean to complain about bad service or a faulty product? Are you trying to get hired? What’s the “ask”?

    Once you know this, you can — and should — cut everything out that doesn’t serve that purpose.

    2. Identify your audience.

    Knowing your audience helps you choose your language and target your ideas more precisely. I write differently in a letter to another lawyer than I do when the addressee is a non-lawyer executive or even an elderly “pro bono” client. In a letter to the editor, your real audience is the publication’s readers—who are they? (Keep in mind that most newspapers are written at an 8th or 9th grade reading level.) Don’t use jargon that your reader won’t understand.

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    3. Keep it short.

    Most of us endure a constant flood of written communications, and we have a limited amount of time to spend reading it. You therefore have a better chance of being read if you keep your letter to one page. A multi-page letter with long paragraphs and complex sentences looks overwhelming. The busy reader will be tempted to set it aside for when she has more time—and she might never get around to picking it up again. Use short paragraphs, short sentences, short words.

    4. Use simple language.

    It’s the writer’s job to be understood. Even if your audience is highly educated, you should avoid big words and long, complex sentences. People aren’t stupid; they’re busy. Make our job easier, and we’re more likely to give your letter the attention it deserves. Formal writing does not require the use of big words. Don’t try to sound sophisticated; try to be clear. Use “ask” instead of “request.” Say “buy” instead of “purchase.” Instead of “enclosed herewith please find,” just say, “I’ve enclosed” or “Here is. . . .”

    5. Lead with the most important point.

    As journalists say, don’t bury your lead. Find a way to open with the idea or information that you most want your reader to focus or act on. The first paragraph might be the only one he reads, so don’t hide the “ask” in the last paragraph.

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    6. Follow the rules.

    There are rules for formatting a business letter. You ignore them at your peril.

    7. Proofread. Then proofread again.

    No matter how grammatically gifted you are, errors and typos can creep in. When you think you’ve finished writing, read your piece slowly and attentively, watching for those typos. Don’t trust spellcheck. If possible, print a hard copy of your letter and read it—out loud—with a pen in hand, marking those typos, awkward sentences, confusing lines. If it’s really important, have somebody else read it and let you know if you’ve missed something.

    8. Let it cool before sending.

    Especially if you are writing to persuade or complain, you probably are motivated by some pretty strong feelings. Absolutely write your first draft in the white-hot heat of passion. Express your feelings. Get it all on paper. But then . . . before you print and sign, or hit send, walk away for awhile. Go do something else. Let that heat of passion cool. Then come back and re-read what you’ve written. Is it fair? Is it smart? Is it true? Is it kind? Would you regret having it read on television, in front of your boss and your grandmother? Make the changes that seem appropriate after your emotions have settled.

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    Then, and only then, hit send.

    What have I missed? What is your stickiest communication challenge? Your questions and suggestions are invited.

    (Photo credit: Signature via Shutterstock)

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    Laura McClellan

    Passionate about encouraging women in their roles as wives, mothers, friends, and workers.

    Top 10 Productivity Tips to Achieve More and Create Peace of Mind The Ability to Multitask Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be 15 Minutes to Workplace Sanity How to Write a Formal Letter

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    Last Updated on February 11, 2021

    Easily Misunderstood by Others? 6 Barriers You Should Overcome to Make Communication Less Frustrating

    Easily Misunderstood by Others? 6 Barriers You Should Overcome to Make Communication Less Frustrating

    How often have you said something simple, only to have the person who you said this to misunderstand it or twist the meaning completely around? Nodding your head in affirmative? Then this means that you are being unclear in your communication.

    Communication should be simple, right? It’s all about two people or more talking and explaining something to the other. The problem lies in the talking itself, somehow we end up being unclear, and our words, attitude or even the way of talking becomes a barrier in communication, most of the times unknowingly. We give you six common barriers to communication, and how to get past them; for you to actually say what you mean, and or the other person to understand it as well…

    The 6 Walls You Need to Break Down to Make Communication Effective

    Think about it this way, a simple phrase like “what do you mean” can be said in many different ways and each different way would end up “communicating” something else entirely. Scream it at the other person, and the perception would be anger. Whisper this is someone’s ear and others may take it as if you were plotting something. Say it in another language, and no one gets what you mean at all, if they don’t speak it… This is what we mean when we say that talking or saying something that’s clear in your head, many not mean that you have successfully communicated it across to your intended audience – thus what you say and how, where and why you said it – at times become barriers to communication.[1]

    Perceptual Barrier

    The moment you say something in a confrontational, sarcastic, angry or emotional tone, you have set up perceptual barriers to communication. The other person or people to whom you are trying to communicate your point get the message that you are disinterested in what you are saying and sort of turn a deaf ear. In effect, you are yelling your point across to person who might as well be deaf![2]

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    The problem: When you have a tone that’s not particularly positive, a body language that denotes your own disinterest in the situation and let your own stereotypes and misgivings enter the conversation via the way you talk and gesture, the other person perceives what you saying an entirely different manner than say if you said the same while smiling and catching their gaze.

    The solution: Start the conversation on a positive note, and don’t let what you think color your tone, gestures of body language. Maintain eye contact with your audience, and smile openly and wholeheartedly…

    Attitudinal Barrier

    Some people, if you would excuse the language, are simply badass and in general are unable to form relationships or even a common point of communication with others, due to their habit of thinking to highly or too lowly of them. They basically have an attitude problem – since they hold themselves in high esteem, they are unable to form genuine lines of communication with anyone. The same is true if they think too little of themselves as well.[3]

    The problem: If anyone at work, or even in your family, tends to roam around with a superior air – anything they say is likely to be taken by you and the others with a pinch, or even a bag of salt. Simply because whenever they talk, the first thing to come out of it is their condescending attitude. And in case there’s someone with an inferiority complex, their incessant self-pity forms barriers to communication.

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    The solution: Use simple words and an encouraging smile to communicate effectively – and stick to constructive criticism, and not criticism because you are a perfectionist. If you see someone doing a good job, let them know, and disregard the thought that you could have done it better. It’s their job so measure them by industry standards and not your own.

    Language Barrier

    This is perhaps the commonest and the most inadvertent of barriers to communication. Using big words, too much of technical jargon or even using just the wrong language at the incorrect or inopportune time can lead to a loss or misinterpretation of communication. It may have sounded right in your head and to your ears as well, but if sounded gobbledygook to the others, the purpose is lost.

    The problem: Say you are trying to explain a process to the newbies and end up using every technical word and industry jargon that you knew – your communication has failed if the newbie understood zilch. You have to, without sounding patronizing, explain things to someone in the simplest language they understand instead of the most complex that you do.

    The solution: Simplify things for the other person to understand you, and understand it well. Think about it this way: if you are trying to explain something scientific to a child, you tone it down to their thinking capacity, without “dumbing” anything down in the process.[4]

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    Emotional Barrier

    Sometimes, we hesitate in opening our mouths, for fear of putting our foot in it! Other times, our emotional state is so fragile that we keep it and our lips zipped tightly together lest we explode. This is the time that our emotions become barriers to communication.[5]

    The problem: Say you had a fight at home and are on a slow boil, muttering, in your head, about the injustice of it all. At this time, you have to give someone a dressing down over their work performance. You are likely to transfer at least part of your angst to the conversation then, and talk about unfairness in general, leaving the other person stymied about what you actually meant!

    The solution: Remove your emotions and feelings to a personal space, and talk to the other person as you normally would. Treat any phobias or fears that you have and nip them in the bud so that they don’t become a problem. And remember, no one is perfect.

    Cultural Barrier

    Sometimes, being in an ever-shrinking world means that inadvertently, rules can make cultures clash and cultural clashes can turn into barriers to communication. The idea is to make your point across without hurting anyone’s cultural or religious sentiments.

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    The problem: There are so many ways culture clashes can happen during communication and with cultural clashes; it’s not always about ethnicity. A non-smoker may have problems with smokers taking breaks; an older boss may have issues with younger staff using the Internet too much.

    The solution: Communicate only what is necessary to get the point across – and eave your personal sentiments or feelings out of it. Try to be accommodative of the other’s viewpoint, and in case you still need to work it out, do it one to one, to avoid making a spectacle of the other person’s beliefs.[6]

    Gender Barrier

    Finally, it’s about Men from Mars and Women from Venus. Sometimes, men don’t understand women and women don’t get men – and this gender gap throws barriers in communication. Women tend to take conflict to their graves, literally, while men can move on instantly. Women rely on intuition, men on logic – so inherently, gender becomes a big block in successful communication.[7]

    The problem: A male boss may inadvertently rub his female subordinates the wrong way with anti-feminism innuendoes, or even have problems with women taking too many family leaves. Similarly, women sometimes let their emotions get the better of them, something a male audience can’t relate to.

    The solution: Talk to people like people – don’t think or classify them into genders and then talk accordingly. Don’t make comments or innuendos that are gender biased – you don’t have to come across as an MCP or as a bra-burning feminist either. Keep gender out of it.

    And remember, the key to successful communication is simply being open, making eye contact and smiling intermittently. The battle is usually half won when you say what you mean in simple, straightforward words and keep your emotions out of it.

    Reference

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