Just yesterday I was asked to review a letter that had been written on behalf of an organization with which I am involved. Sadly, if I was grading it, I would have to give it a mark of 6 out of 10, at best. This particular letter was addressed to a major company; and in my professional opinion it was poorly drafted. Needless to say I had to revise it extensively. The disturbing thing is that the draft letter was actually prepared by a university graduate!
This is not an isolated case! Through my various websites and my Quick Edit Service I receive numerous letters (and other docs) that many well educated people have drafted but want me to review, revise and finalize for them. Over time, I have noticed that there are a number of common errors that many people make when drafting letters in particular. (This article is a revised and updated version of one I first posted on the same subject seven years ago).
Below are what I have observed to be “The 7 Common Errors of Letter Writing”:
1. Too Long
Most people have a tendency to draft their letters too long. Letters involving business (personal or corporate) should be concise, factual and focused and should not normally exceed one typical single-spaced page of 350 to 450 words. If you can’t get your point across in 4 to 5 short paragraphs you probably haven’t done enough preparatory work prior to drafting the letter. If necessary, phone or e-mail the recipient to clarify any fuzzy points and use the letter to summarize the overall situation.
2. Weak Opening
Many letters I receive launch straight into the details of the subject without setting things up to provide a clear context. The introductory paragraph of your letter should be one or two short sentences that state the specific reason for the letter and specify what the primary focus will be.
3. Lack of Focus
Many letters I receive for editing are all over the place, in terms of subject. In other words, it is often not at all obvious to me what the main point or the desired outcome of the letter is. Prior to drafting the letter you should decide on a number of specific points that you want to focus on and what the bottom line of your letter needs to be. Ask yourself what exactly you want the letter to achieve in terms of an action or a response from the addressee.
4. Too Confusing
People often jump straight into their letter without first organizing their thoughts in some sort of logical order. Even if you have a clear idea of the points you want to cover, it is important that when you present them, one point should flow naturally and logically into the next. It is always worth the few minutes it takes to jot down the logical sequence of your letter in sequential point form before starting to write the letter. This practice will invariably result in an improved final product.
5. Poorly Formatted
If your letter isn’t properly formatted, in terms of layout, it will look unprofessional which will diminish its credibility and thus its impact. Once you have your words finalized, make sure you clean up the format of the letter in terms of margins, paragraph breaks, address blocks, signature blocks, etc., before sending it. A very common error that I see these days is when people add their own extra space after a period at the end of a sentence. This is NOT necessary since word processing programs automatically insert some extra space at the end of each sentence. This practice is a carryover from the days of the typewriter (Anyone remember those?) and is no longer necessary.
6. Weak Closing
Frequently I see closing paragraphs that don’t clearly sum up what went before and what is supposed to happen next. Similar to the opening paragraph, the closing paragraph should also be short, comprised of one or two sentences. One sentence should briefly summarize the overall conclusion that can be drawn from the points presented in the letter; a second sentence should clearly state what you will do next and/or what you expect from the addressee as a result of them receiving the letter. Depending on the situation, the final sentence can also provide contact info such as phone number and/or e-mail address.
7. Too Many Errors
You would be amazed at the number of spelling and/or obvious grammatical errors I see in the letters submitted to me. That’s fine if you are asking a professional to edit your letter. However I have the impression that many people send their letters out riddled with these types of errors. Sending your letter in such a condition is a serious credibility destroyer and will definitely hurt your reputation as a professional in the eyes of any knowledgeable recipient. Make sure you use the spell checker feature of your word processing program and if you aren’t sure of your grammar get a professional to edit your letter before it goes out.
As I said above, I see these kinds of errors on a regular basis. If you are a business person or a professional, it just takes one sloppy and/or unprofessional letter to cause serious damage to your personal credibility or that of your business.
I strongly recommend that after you have drafted your letter, you read it out loud to yourself. I find that if something doesn’t sound right when I read it aloud, it’s usually something that needs to be corrected or revised. If you still aren’t sure, seek professional editing help if you need it.
Of course, the foregoing are general observations. Depending on which specific type of letter you are writing, there is plenty more letter-specific info, advice and tools available in terms of letter writing style guides and templates. For dozens of letter writing help articles and practical examples go to:
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