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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 February 21, 2019

    The Secret to Effective Conflict Resolution: The IBR Approach

    The Secret to Effective Conflict Resolution: The IBR Approach

    In business, in social relationships, in family… In whatever context conflict is always inevitable, especially when you are in the leader role. This role equals “make decisions for the best of majority” and the remaining are not amused. Conflicts arise.

    Conflicts arise when we want to push for a better quality work but some members want to take a break from work.

    Conflicts arise when we as citizens want more recreational facilities but the Government has to balance the needs to maintain tourism growth.

    Conflicts are literally everywhere.

    Avoiding Conflicts a No-No and Resolving Conflicts a Win-Win

    Avoiding conflicts seem to be a viable option for us. The cruel fact is, it isn’t. Conflicts won’t walk away by themselves. They will, instead, escalate and haunt you back even more when we finally realize that’s no way we can let it be.

    Moreover, avoiding conflicts will eventually intensify the misunderstanding among the involved parties. And the misunderstanding severely hinders open communication which later on the parties tend to keep things secret. This is obviously detrimental to teamwork.

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    Some may view conflicts as the last step before arguments. And they thus leave it aside as if they never happen. This is not true.

    Conflicts are the intersect point between different individuals with different opinions. And this does not necessarily lead to argument.

    Instead, proper handling of conflicts can actually result in a win-win situation – both parties are pleased and allies are gained. A better understanding between each other and future conflicts are less likely to happen.

    The IBR Approach to Resolve Conflicts

    Here, we introduce to you an effective approach to resolve conflicts – the Interest-Based Relational (IBR) approach. The IBR approach was developed by Roger Fisher and William Ury in their 1981 book Getting to Yes. It stresses the importance of the separation between people and their emotions from the problem. Another focus of the approach is to build mutual understanding and respect as they strengthen bonds among parties and can ultimately help resolve conflicts in a harmonious way. The approach suggests a 6-step procedure for conflict resolution:

    Step 1: Prioritize Good Relationships

    How? Before addressing the problem or even starting the discussion, make it clear the conflict can result in a mutual trouble and through subsequent respectful negotiation the conflict can be resolved peacefully. And that brings the best outcome to the whole team by working together.

    Why? It is easy to overlook own cause of the conflict and point the finger to the members with different opinions. With such a mindset, it is likely to blame rather than to listen to the others and fail to acknowledge the problem completely. Such a discussion manner will undermine the good relationships among the members and aggravate the problem.

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    Example: Before discussion, stress that the problem is never one’s complete fault. Everyone is responsible for it. Then, it is important to point out our own involvement in the problem and state clearly we are here to listen to everyone’s opinions rather than accusing others.

    Step 2: People Are NOT the Cause of Problem

    How? State clearly the problem is never one-sided. Collaborative effort is needed. More importantly, note the problem should not be taken personally. We are not making accusations on persons but addressing the problem itself.

    Why? Once things taken personally, everything will go out of control. People will become irrational and neglect others’ opinions. We are then unable to address the problem properly because we cannot grasp a fuller and clearer picture of the problem due to presumption.

    Example: In spite of the confronting opinions, we have to emphasize that the problem is not a result of the persons but probably the different perspectives to view it. So, if we try to look at the problem from the other’s perspective, we may understand why there are varied opinions.

    Step 3: Listen From ALL Stances

    How? Do NOT blame others. It is of utmost importance. Ask for everyone’s opinions. It is important to let everyone feel that they contribute to the discussion. Tell them their involvement is essential to solve the problem and their effort is very much appreciated.

    Why? None wants to be ignored. If one feels neglected, it is very likely for he/she to be aggressive. It is definitely not what we hope to see in a discussion. Acknowledging and being acknowledged are equally important. So, make sure everyone has equal opportunity to express their views. Also, realizing their opinions are not neglected, they will be more receptive to other opinions.

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    Example: A little trick can played here: Invite others to talk first. It is an easy way to let others feel involved and ,more importantly, know their voices are heard. Also, we can show that we are actively listening to them by giving direct eye-contact and nodding. One important to note is that never interrupt anyone. Always let them finish first beforeanother one begins.

    Step 4: Listen Comes First, Talk Follows

    How? Ensure everyone has listened to one another points of view. It can be done by taking turn to speak and leaving the discussion part at last. State once again the problem is nothing personal and no accusation should be made.

    Why? By turn-taking, everyone can finish talking and voices of all sides can be heard indiscriminantly. This can promote willingness to listen to opposing opinions.

    Example: We can prepare pieces of paper with different numbers written on them. Then, ask different members to pick one and talk according to the sequence of the number. After everyone’s finished, advise everyone to use “I” more than “You” in the discussion period to avoid others thinking that it is an accusation.

    Step 5: Understand the Facts, Then Address the Problem

    How? List out ALL the facts first. Ask everyone to tell what they know about the problems.

    Why? Sometimes your facts are unknown to the others while they may know something we don’t. Missing out on these facts could possibly lead to inaccurate capture of the problem. Also, different known facts can lead to different perception of the matter. It also helps everyone better understand the problem and can eventually help reach a solution.

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    Example: While everyone is expressing their own views, ask them to write down everything they know that is true to the problem. As soon as everyone has finished, all facts can be noted and everyone’s understanding of the problem is raised.

    Step 6: Solve the Problem Together

    How? Knowing what everyone’s thinking, it is now time to resolve the conflict. Up to this point, everyone should have understood the problem better. So, it is everyone’s time to suggest some solutions. It is important not to have one giving all the solutions.

    Why? Having everyone suggesting their solutions is important as they will not feel excluded and their opinions are considered. Besides, it may also generate more solutions that can better resolve the conflicts. Everyone will more likely be satisfied with the result.

    Example: After discussion, ask all members to suggest any possible solutions and stress that all solutions are welcomed. State clearly that we are looking for the best outcomes for everyone’s sake rather than battling to win over one another. Then, evaluate all the solutions and pick the one that is in favor of everyone.

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