How Not To Write A Letter

October 29, 2015 – 9:44 pm

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:
http://writinghelp-central.com

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  1. 30 Responses to “How Not To Write A Letter”

  2. Thank you very much Shaun. I’ve had challenges with writing official letters in the past. I’m certain this article will help me immensely in improving my writing. Once again, thank you so much.

    By Malel on Oct 30, 2015

  3. Shaun,

    I have a Masters in Business and I too have the review and revise frequently. I have printed out the topic and will use that as a reminder.

    Cheers

    Craig

    By Craig on Oct 30, 2015

  4. And Thank You

    By Craig on Oct 30, 2015

  5. Shaun

    I am so thankful for those tips. This has made my work so much easier. Appreciate it very much.

    By Georgie on Oct 30, 2015

  6. Great ingredients for a great letter, Mr. Writing Help Guy! The only thing I’d add is, watch the emotions, particularly if the letter relates to a relationship, dispute, etc. As you said, always re-read your draft carefully – just like before sending an email.

    By dawesio on Oct 30, 2015

  7. Shaun
    Thank you for the tips. Your points have reinforced my writing skills. I find myself writing more clearly and with ease.
    Thanks
    Josh

    By Joshua on Oct 30, 2015

  8. Thank you for these tips. Grateful.

    By festus on Oct 30, 2015

  9. Dear Sir,
    Thanks for “How Not to Write A Letter”. Really I learn How to write in the beginning and end part of the letter. My problem is sentence formation and putting correct grammar, is there any programme like Spell check in the word process for this?
    Regards
    Rajendran

    By Devadoss Rajendran on Oct 30, 2015

  10. Thank you. Reminds me of my English 100 class for essays. Topic Sentence, Body, and the finish (Closing/Summary/To action). In my personal letters, or long texts, I am surprised when I type the last sentence, it is actually my topic sentence. And then I move it to the top. I was a senior when I took that class, sorry it was so late in my life. I love learning and I love your emails. Thank you.

    By Gloria on Oct 30, 2015

  11. Dear Shaun,
    Thank you so much.This will impact positively in my letter writing henceforth.I’m in grateful.Thanks a million.

    By Francis on Oct 31, 2015

  12. Dear Shaun,
    Thank you so much.This will impact positively in my letter writing henceforth.I’m indeed grateful.Thanks a million.

    By Francis on Oct 31, 2015

  13. Thanks Shaun for this article,I always forget to use the spelling checker when ever writing letters. I learn a lot from your articles.

    Naima

    By Naima Jaffar on Oct 31, 2015

  14. Thanks for the tips. This is about image and it’s often ignored by a lot of people including people you consider to be professional. Thanks again and keep up the good work.
    Rgds,
    Tunde.

    By Tunde on Oct 31, 2015

  15. Thanks Shaun for this article and for your all efforts to help us.

    By Nasir Ahmed Elmustafa on Oct 31, 2015

  16. Thanks for the reminders about letter-writing. Some of the best letters I receive in my profession are written by children — whom one can forgive the grammatical errors and take to heart the sentiment. Your points are well-taken, though, for those who are over the age of 7.

    By Diane M on Oct 31, 2015

  17. Thanks Rajendran,
    Re: “grammar checking programs”: Just go to a search engine such as google or bing and enter the search phrase “grammar checkers” and you will see that there are numerous such programs, both for free and for sale. One I am aware of is grammarly.com.
    Good luck!

    By Shaun on Oct 31, 2015

  18. Hi Shaun,
    I usually write business in my office and i want to learn more about correct grammar very much, what i learned is that to write short and direct to the point, and what i want to say in my letter, as you said i always read my letter many times correct it and check with my dictionary before sending it out.
    I appreciate to follow your email.
    Best regards,
    Jimmy

    By Jimmy Tan on Oct 31, 2015

  19. Dear Shaun,
    Thank you for this. Your obervations are really helpful in making me aware of general writing pitfalls. More power to you!
    Warm regards,
    – Hlen Villena

    By Hlen Villena on Oct 31, 2015

  20. Thank you dear teacher, learning never ends

    By Edward on Nov 1, 2015

  21. Hello again Shaun,
    I would like first to congratulate for the election.
    Hope Mr. Justin will do what he promise to do.
    This how not t yo write s letter is very important to me
    As it will help me with my daily writing skills.
    Thanks again
    Regards,
    Mariam

    By Mariam Hussain on Nov 1, 2015

  22. Thank you Shaun,
    These skills will really be of great help as a Secretary.
    Kindly enlighten me on the components of a professional letter.

    By Ochiedike Nnenna on Nov 2, 2015

  23. Great article. Just what I need right now.
    Thanks a lot.

    By Rina on Nov 2, 2015

  24. very good advice! Thanks for having Shaun here.

    By vin on Nov 2, 2015

  25. Dear Shaun.
    These “7 common errors of letter writing” can be avoided through “7C’s”.

    By Nazir Ahmad on Nov 3, 2015

  26. Thanks Ochiedike,
    In response to your question; you can find links to many general letter writing resources at:
    http://writinghelp-central.com/letter-writing.html

    By Shaun on Nov 3, 2015

  27. Dear Shaun;
    Thank you for this very helpful advice. Trying to write a long sentence with my poor grammar and a limited vocabulary makes letter writing a difficult task for me. I will do my best to benefit from this article.
    Regards,

    By Alemayehu on Nov 10, 2015

  28. Dear Shaun,
    I have received your blog posts for nearly a decade now and have decided that responding to your gift of an absolutely amazing knowledge of the english language is long overdue. First I must say that I find your depth of proper writing content, use of tense, the meanings of verb conjugation, and your general command of how-to when it comes to communicating in the english language is more than amazing to me. In a world where sloppiness in speaking and writing has become commonplace, it amazes me how you continue to survive while striving to correct the nasty, evil ways of us “ingrates” and abusers of the Queens english, so to say. I love your posture and authoratarian stature as an example of how it is suppose to be if unadulterated by heathens. My commentary is not an attempt to critique or slyly criticize the caliber of what you do. No, it is in fact an attempt at just the opposite. It is astounding what you know. And this is what is becoming a feeble attempt at appreciating and thanking you for your many years of presentation and patient teaching of those of us who do care to do it right, but find it difficult to keep appraised of all the rules, techniques and codes of conduct to appear scholarly with regard to our utterings and ramblings in the form of language. In other words, you-the-man! And thanks for being that guy that continues to stand strong concerning a topic that has otherwise become blurred in modern times. Thanks for being that guy.

    By John Dettloff on Nov 28, 2015

  29. The word Guy , is gender neutral , I believe . However phonetically sounds very masculine . Is there an alternative word ?

    By V. K. Dani on Aug 6, 2016

  30. According to my Oxford dictionary, “guy” means “man, or fellow”. I suggest using “person” as a gender-neutral alternative.

    By Shaun on Aug 6, 2016

  31. Dear Shaun
    Your writing place helps a lot. Please continue.
    Thanks,
    – victor

    By victor on Jan 8, 2017

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