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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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    Last Updated on October 18, 2018

    50+ Best Motivational Quotes To Prepare You For Any Challenges In Life

    50+ Best Motivational Quotes To Prepare You For Any Challenges In Life

    Life is filled with highs and lows —happiness and struggles that will test your resilience and integrity, push you to overcome challenges and leave you with lessons that will make you even stronger on your way up.

    It’s the way you feel and think about yourself, including your expectations and beliefs about what is possible to you, greatly determines everything that happens to you.

    It all starts with your thoughts. When you change your thoughts, you transform the quality of your life. (Right, Nancy’s story is a typical example!)

    Below is a list of the best motivational quotes to inspire you to start your day with a blast:

    Quotes for self-assurance

    1. Don’t downgrade your dream just to fit your reality, upgrade your conviction to match your destiny.

      2. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.

        3. You are confined only by the walls you build yourself.

          4. The man who has confidence in himself gains the confidence of others

            5. You attract what you are, not what you want. If you want great, then be great.

              6. It’s not who you are that holds you behind, it’s who you think your are not.

                Quotes about positivity

                7. Stop being afraid of what could go wrong and think of what could go right.

                  8. You should never regret anything in life. If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it is experience.

                    9. Falling down is an accident, staying down is a choice.

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                      10. If you have the power to make someone happy, do it. The world needs more of that.

                        11. Always believe that something wonderful is about to happen.

                          12. Don’t be afraid to give up the good and go for great.

                            13. Remember that life’s greatest lessons are usually learned from worst times and from the worst mistakes.

                              Quotes for work and success

                              14. Don’t talk, just act. Don’t say, just show. Don’t promise, just prove.

                                15. Never stop doing great just because someone doesn’t give you credit.

                                  16. Discipline is doing what needs to be done, even if you don’t want to.

                                    17. Work while they sleep. Learn while they party. Save while they spend. Live like they dream.

                                      18. The key to success is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire, not things we fear.

                                        19. Never apologize for having high standards, people who really want to be in your life will rise to meet them.

                                          20. If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.

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                                            21. Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it, time will pass anyway.

                                              22. Don’t fear failure. Fear being in the exact same place next year as you are today.

                                                23. A hill is just another opportunity to leave your competition behind.

                                                  24. Don’t quit. You’re already in pain. You’re already hurt. Get a reward from it.

                                                    25. Hustle until you no longer need to introduce yourself.

                                                      26. You didn’t come this far only to come this far.

                                                        27. Be selective in your battles for sometimes peace is better than being right.

                                                          28 If we keep doing what we are doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’re getting.

                                                            29. You will never know your limits until you push yourself to them.

                                                              30. Do what you have to do until you can do what you want to do.

                                                                31. The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there.

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                                                                  32. If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.

                                                                    33. If you can’t handle stress, you won’t manage success.

                                                                      34. Don’t be pushed by your problems, be led by your dreams.

                                                                        35. Don’t mistake silence for weakness. Smart people don’t plan big moves out loud.

                                                                          36. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

                                                                            37. Obsessed is the word the lazy use to describe dedicated.

                                                                              38. You become who you spend your time with.

                                                                                39. Be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods.

                                                                                  40. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

                                                                                    41. If you don’t build your dreams, someone else will hire you to build theirs.

                                                                                      42. Between stimulus and response is our greatest power –the freedom to choose.

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                                                                                        43. What comes easy won’t last, what lasts won’t come easy.

                                                                                          44. Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits.

                                                                                            45. Work until your idols become your rivals.

                                                                                              Quotes about money

                                                                                              46. Formal education will make you a living. Self-education will make you a fortune.

                                                                                                47. I create new enemies every day, it’s called business.

                                                                                                  48. When you have a Million Dollar vision, don’t surround yourself with 1 cent minds.

                                                                                                    49. You can’t get rich thinking poor.

                                                                                                      50. Doing what is comfortable is rarely profitable.

                                                                                                        51. If you can count your money, work harder.

                                                                                                          If you find yourself feeling lost and frustrated, it’s never too late to change things up. Check out this guide:

                                                                                                          How to Start Over and Reboot Your Life When It Seems Too Late

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