Julia Maurus writes and receives letters every day at work. Here, she shares tips on how to give your letters the professional touch.
Letter-writing is an important skill in the business world. To put your best letter-writing foot forward, follow correspondence best practice.
First, always date your correspondence. It’s an important reference point for both sender and recipient. Every now and then I receive a letter that has the date at the end, with the sender’s signature block, rather than above the salutation. This is unconventional and therefore unhelpful to the reader.
The Australian Government’s Style Manual recommends the date format ‘1 December 2015’ because this structure ‘is unambiguous, requires no punctuation, and progresses logically from day to month to year.’
Double-check all references to dates in your letter: typos are common with dates, especially years, and such blunders detract from the professionalism of your document.
If you’re unsure to whom you should address your letter, make a phone call to check. Making this extra effort shows attention to detail that could set you apart from the competition. At the least, you will avoid offending the recipient by using the wrong name, title or position. If you cannot find out the name of the addressee, write ‘Dear Madam or Sir,’. If you are writing to somebody with a particular title (a member of parliament, for example), check which form of address you need to use.
Never presume or guess the gender of the addressee. Not wanting to make a mistake, I once Googled the name of an intended addressee and found that the person identified as transgender. Given that ‘Mr’ and ‘Ms’ were both inappropriate, I simply used the recipient’s first name and surname.
Close the letter with ‘Yours sincerely,’ if the person is addressed by name, ‘Yours faithfully,’ if not. The Penguin Working Words notes that the traditional salutation in a letter to the editor of a newspaper or journal is ‘Sir:’ or ‘Madam:’ and the conclusion is not ‘Yours sincerely,’ or ‘Yours faithfully,’ but ‘Yours, etc.’
Those copied into the communication can be listed as ‘CC’ recipients at the end of the letter, following the signature block.
If it is necessary to send your letter both electronically and by post, state the communication method at the top of your letter (‘Sent by email’ or ‘Sent by post’). Take it from the Queensland Titles Registry, which recently published this notice via the Queensland Law Society:
From the Titles Registry – correspondence duplication
The registry asks practitioners: please only send us a unique item of correspondence via a single channel – preferably via email, or if necessary by mail or as a last preference via fax – but definitely not via all three channels for the same item. If you feel it is absolutely necessary to send us the same item via two or more channels, please clearly identify on the item, that you have also sent it to us via whatever the other channel/s is/are.
Many businesses and agencies state how they prefer to receive correspondence. By following this recommendation, your letter will probably reach the recipient’s attention as efficiently as possible, avoiding administrative double-handling. Before sending a submission to a publisher, always check the submission guidelines. Otherwise, you may be wasting everyone’s time (including your own).
In your letter, express yourself concisely and in plain English. As The Penguin Working Words states, ‘People today are more likely to be irritated than impressed by stilted or pompous writing, and will appreciate messages that are brief, easy to understand and pleasantly expressed. […] A concise letter will always have more impact than a longwinded one.’
Plan the content and structure of your letter. In longer letters, don’t be afraid to use headings to organise the subject matter and assist the reader. Like any communication, the more reader-friendly the writing, the more likely the reader is to take in and engage with your message. Naturally, it is also important to give the letter a final proofread before sending it (by reading your draft aloud, you can check readability). Make sure the font, font size, letter spacing and text alignment are consistent throughout. When submitting a manuscript or job application, a sloppy cover letter can be enough to turn off your reader.
If you are emailing a letter, the body of the email can be kept very short. Something as simple as ‘Dear X, Please see attached’, followed by your signature block, is sufficient. Pasting the text of your letter into the body of an email will often lack the formal and professional appearance of the letter document itself, so my preference is to have the content in the attachment only.
When sending a formal letter as an email attachment, the professional standard is to sign the document electronically (that is, you need an image file of your signature) and save the file as a PDF. This way, the reading quality is best. Alternatively, you can print and sign the letter manually and attach a scan of the original.
Never send a formal letter as a Word document attachment. Word documents may contain fonts that the recipient’s computer does not recognise, or spell-check marks that will only distract the reader. Until the formatting is ‘set’ in a PDF, the document is not finalised. As a rule, only send attachments in Word format if you want the recipient to be able to edit them.
Before sending your email, make sure you have attached the file(s)! Sending emails without attachments is a professional blooper: guard against the risk by getting into the habit of opening and checking over each email attachment before hitting ‘send’, and formatting the word ‘attached’ in bold text in your correspondence as a reminder to yourself that you need to include attachments.
When sending more than one attachment in an email, attach them in the order you intend them to be read. If you have PDF Architect software, you may even want to combine your files into one convenient ‘binder’ attachment, which means the recipient only has to download, open and print a single document.
Letter-writing can form an extended conversation, a business transaction or a debate. Whatever the case, exercise your judgement as a writer to ensure the letter serves its purpose and addresses the reader’s needs. Hopefully, the reply will bring good news!
The original version of this article was published as ‘Style File’ in The Australian Writer issue 390 (December 2015 – February 2016).