How to Write a Formal Letter That Gets Results
In today’s world of casual communication, it can feel daunting to write a formal letter. Whether you’re writing to a political representative, potential employer, or business contact, it’s important to take the time to craft a letter that will be taken seriously. As a lawyer who writes formal letters every week, I’ve learned that there is an art to doing it well. Here are some tips for writing a formal letter that gets results:
1. Understand Your Purpose
Before you start writing, it’s important to understand why you’re writing and what you want to achieve. Do you want to change someone’s mind or convince them to take a specific action? Are you seeking forgiveness or complaining about bad service? Do you want to get hired? Knowing your purpose will help you focus on what’s important and cut out anything that doesn’t serve that purpose.
2. Identify Your Audience
Knowing your audience is essential for choosing the right language and targeting your ideas effectively. You should write differently to a lawyer than to a non-lawyer executive or an elderly “pro bono” client. If you’re writing a letter to the editor, remember that your real audience is the publication’s readers. Don’t use jargon that your reader won’t understand.
3. Keep it Short
In a world where we receive a constant flood of written communications, we only have limited time to read them. To increase the chances of your letter being read, keep it to one page. A long multi-page letter with long paragraphs and complex sentences can look overwhelming, and busy readers may set it aside and never come back to it. Use short paragraphs, sentences and words to help keep your letter concise.
4. Use Simple Language
It’s important to be understood by your reader, even if they are highly educated. Avoid using big words and long, complex sentences that may confuse them. People are busy, so try to make their job easier and use simple language. Formal writing does not require big words. Instead of “request,” use “ask.” Instead of “purchase,” use “buy.” And instead of “enclosed herewith please find,” try something like “I’ve enclosed” or “Here is. . . .”
5. Lead with the Most Important Point
As they say in journalism, don’t bury the 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 they read, so make sure you don’t hide the “ask” until the end.
6. Follow the Rules
There are rules for formatting a business letter that you must follow. Failure to do so can put you at peril. So, make sure you adhere to the formatting rules to get optimal results.
7. Proofread. Then Proofread Again.
No matter how great your grammar skills are or how many times you’ve written, it’s easy for errors and typos to creep in. When you think you’ve finished writing your letter, read it slowly and attentively, looking for any typos or mistakes. Don’t rely solely on spellcheck. You can also print a hard copy of your letter, read it out loud, and mark any mistakes or confusing lines. You can also have someone else proofread it to catch any mistakes you may have missed.
8. Let It Cool Before Sending
Especially if you’re writing to persuade or complain, strong emotions can often overpower sound reasoning and good judgment. It’s okay to let those emotions take over when writing the first draft. However, before you send or print it, let your letter sit for a while, preferably overnight. Then come back and read it again. Have you been fair, smart, truthful, and kind? Are there any changes that you would like to make that are more appropriate now? If so, make those changes before sending your letter.
Writing a formal letter can feel challenging, but it doesn’t have to be. By following these tips, you can craft a letter that is concise, clear, and effective. Remember to understand your purpose, identify your audience, keep it short, use simple language, lead with the most important point, follow the rules, proofread, and let it cool before sending it. By doing so, you’ll be more likely to achieve the results you desire.