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Business Letters

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Many persons who make an excellent impression when they speak, fail utterly when it becomes necessary to put their ideas into writing. "Write as you talk" is the advice of some authorities. This is good advice if not taken too literally; there are important differences between speech and writing, and these should be recognized.

When you speak, your tone of voice, gestures, and facial expression all contribute to the impression made upon the person addressed. Slight mistakes in expression may pass unnoticed; and if your voice is pleasant, it softens any bluntness of your words. Your listener's face shows whether or not he is interested, so that if he looks blank or puzzled, you have a chance to put your message into other words that he will understand. A letter, on the other hand, must stand on its own merits. You must be more careful to make it correct, to see that it does not offend, to make it clear, and to make it compel attention.

How to Get the Best Results

A good letter, however, does have many of the qualities of good talk. Remember that your letter is you talking to an-other person; you must keep him in mind while you are writing. Whether you are merely giving information, or are trying to make a sale, adjust a claim, or collect a bill, write a letter that will appeal to your reader in the first line, hold his attention to the very end, and make him react favorably.

Remember that the person to whom you are writing probably receives many other letters every day. Unless he is sufficiently interested he will not read them all; therefore your first problem is to write a letter that will be read.

Business analysts tell us that a letter costs about forty cents, if you evaluate the time spent in dictation and typing and add the cost of stationery and postage. Every letter that fails to produce results, wastes forty cents.

What Is Your Dictation Mood?

If you expect good results from your letters, you must be able to put yourself into a calm, friendly, and enthusiastic state of mind before you begin your dictation. To do this you must have mental and emotional control.

What was the tone of your letter on the day that started wrong? You didn't hear your alarm, and when you finally awoke you had only twenty minutes in which to dress, eat your breakfast, and catch the 7:49. You omitted your shower, shaved hurriedly, and cut yourself in several places. Your collar button rolled under the bed and wedged itself into a corner; you pulled a button off your shirt and couldn't find another clean one; you burned your tongue with the coffee; you couldn't find your gloves; and just as you dashed into the station the 7:49 pulled out. At last you reached your office, fifteen minutes late. Were you able to think clearly, grasp each problem fully, make cool decisions, and organize your dictation so that the result was a friendly, persuasive good-will builder? The chances are that you looked for excuses to tell your correspondents what you thought of them—if you are the forceful type—or—if you are timid—you were so filled with fear lest your tardiness might bring your dismissal or a reprimand that you couldn't concentrate on your work, and consequently your letters were poorly organized and ineffectual.

You can't escape coloring your letters with your mental or emotional attitude at the time you are dictating, so take time to become calm, to arouse within yourself a real interest in the people to whom you are going to write. Cast out all negative, unpleasant thoughts and mentally go forward to greet your correspondents with a smile and a warm handclasp. When you are in the right frame of mind, but not until then, you are ready to start your day's work.

Keep Your Dictation Period Undisturbed

When you are dictating you are in conference with your correspondents. You need an alert mind; you must exercise your imagination and memory; you must concentrate fully upon what you are saying and the way in which you are saying it. If you are interrupted by visitors, telephone calls, or messengers, sustained concentration will be impossible. You will find that one hour free from disturbance will enable you to do several times the amount of work you can accomplish with interruptions.

Plan Your Letter

A good letter has some of the vital, spontaneous quality of good talk. This does not mean, however, that it has been quickly and carelessly dashed off or dictated without careful preparation and planning.

Before beginning your letter you should:

1. Know all the facts about the transaction.

2. Have clearly in mind what you wish the letter to accomplish.

3. Visualize clearly the type of person to whom you are writing.

4. Select the appeal that you think will be most effective.

5. Organize in an orderly and effective way the ideas that you wish to convey.

First, do you always take time to review all the correspondence on file? Do you procure all the facts and figures you will need in order to give the required information? Do you check with other departments when necessary, in order to be sure that all correspondence is co-ordinated? All these things take time, but they prevent costly mistakes. A letter that shows lack of understanding can lose a sale or can destroy the good will that has been built up over a period of years. Too often correspondents read only the top letter of a file, show their unfamiliarity with the transactions that have gone before, and find it necessary to make apologies later.

Second, do you always have clearly in mind what you want the letter to accomplish? Letters written merely as a matter of routine and without definite purpose are usually a waste of time. Every letter should have a purpose and should be planned with that purpose in mind.

Third, do you visualize the person to whom you are writing? Perhaps you think this is impossible and are quite satisfied to make your business letters entirely impersonal. But consider the matter from your own point of view. Aren't the letters that please you most those that seem to be addressed directly to you?

If you will read carefully and thoughtfully the letters you have to answer and will apply all you know about human nature, you will gradually acquire the ability to analyze every letter and find out a great deal about the writer. You may not be absolutely certain about all his characteristics, but at least you will be able to make a pretty shrewd guess.

You will learn, too, how to adapt your style to persons of various types. For example, bankers, accountants, and credit managers usually write brief, impersonal letters, and appreciate receiving the same kind of replies. Advertising executives, educators, personnel directors, and sales managers are more likely to inject human interest into their correspondence and they respond to letters written in the same vein. Naturally this generalization about types must not be pushed too far; it is of value only as a clue to personality.

The fourth step, selecting the appeal that will be most effective, will not be difficult if you have a clear mental picture of the person with whom you are corresponding.

Fifth, in order to organize your letter effectively, you should, before you begin to write or dictate, have clearly in mind what you are going to say. At first you will find it helpful to make written notes about each letter before you begin to dictate. State your purpose in writing the letter. Then write down the points that will contribute to that purpose. As you become more experienced, make mental notes and carry in your head an outline of what you are going to say.

The order in which you present your points is important. Your opening must be strong enough to command attention. Then make your letter move; make each statement lead logically into the next. When you have said all that needs to be said, stop—not abruptly, but with a strong, definite close. Don't just fade out with a weak ending such as "Hoping," "Trusting," or "Anticipating." Let your last statement, whether it be an expression of courtesy or an appeal to action, be positive and forceful.

Don't Use Stereotyped Expressions

Having planned your letter carefully, you may safely heed the advice to "write as you talk." Dictate your letter as if you were talking to your correspondent across your desk.

If you take this attitude, you will be less likely to use those worn-out expressions that used to be considered essential in business letter writing. No one would think of talking in such a stilted fashion as, "We beg to acknowledge receipt of your esteemed favor of the 16th inst.," yet some businessmen persist in using these stereotyped expressions when they write. Such "rubber stamps" add nothing to a letter; they take up precious space and time, and are not natural, courteous, or sincere. You skip them when you find them in your mail, but are you ever guilty of using them? Here is a brief list of interest-killing phrases:

Yours of the 2nd inst. received and contents noted In reply wish to advise

Re your inquiry would state

Your kind favor of recent date

We beg your kind indulgence

Attached please find as per your request

Assuring you of our appreciation

Thanking you for past favors I beg to remain

You can readily think of other worn-out expressions that take the life out of a letter. Whenever you are tempted to use one of them, say to yourself, "Would I say that?" If the answer is "No," don't put the expression in your letter.

Use Simple Words

Keep your language simple and natural. Don't use pretentious words. It has been said, "A great man is a man who is willing to use a little word when he knows a big one that means the same thing." Pretentious words, like pretentious dress, are not in the best taste. The purpose of words is not to call attention to themselves, but to carry your message.

Dr. Frank Dignan used to say that he could take any group of letters and arrange them in the order in which they had secured results merely by counting the number of Anglo-Saxon words in each. His advice was to stick to the rugged short words that have aroused the emotions of English-speaking persons for hundreds of years and leave the flowery language of Greek and Latin origin to the field of literature. If you are not interested in classifying words as Anglo-Saxon, on the one hand, and Greek and Latin, on the other, just remember to give preference to simple, everyday words, and you will have practically the same result. The next time you write a letter, go through it and strike out every long word, substituting a shorter word in each instance.

The Right Word

First, have clearly in your own mind the idea that you wish to express; then choose carefully the words that will convey that idea to the mind of your reader. This sounds simple and easy, but it implies a skill which can be acquired only through determined effort, a skill which, though cap-able of immeasurable development, never becomes entirely automatic but requires constant practice and vigilance.

Writers of good business letters no less than producers of literature must be constantly on the alert for the right word. They may well heed the advice given by one great writer to another—by Flaubert to Maupassant. Speaking of the training he received under Flaubert, Maupassant says:

Having . . . impressed upon me the fact that there are not in the whole world two grains of sand, two insects, two hands, or two noses absolutely alike, he forced me to describe a being or an object in such a manner as to individualize it clearly, to distinguish it from all other objects of the same kind. "When you pass," he said to me, "a grocer seated in his doorway, a concierge smoking his pipe, a row of cabs, show me this grocer and this concierge, their attitude, all their physical appearance; suggest by the skill of your image all their moral nature, so that I shall not confound them with any other grocer or any other concierge; make me see, by a single word, wherein a cab-horse differs from the fifty others that follow or precede him." . . . Whatever may be the thing which one wishes to say, there is but one word for expressing it; only one verb to animate it, but one adjective to qualify it. It is essential to search for this verb, for this adjective, until they are discovered, and never to be satisfied with anything else.

In order to find the right word you must have a large vocabulary from which to choose. Cultivate an interest in words; learn to know their precise meanings and also their connotations, that is, the ideas that they suggest.

This doesn't mean that you should become "literary." Never use a word for its own sake; use it only for what it will do in accomplishing your purpose. Don't search for ponderous and learned words; use simple words.

The right word is not only a word that expresses your idea accurately or describes precisely the object you have in mind, but it is also a word that is clearly understood by your reader. Scientific and technical terms are precise, but they are not clear to the general public. Such terms are appropriate in communications between members of the same trade or profession, but should be avoided if possible in letters to laymen.

Use Picture Words

In order to write clearly and vividly use concrete words, that is, words that call up definite pictures in the mind of the listener. You can learn a great deal from advertising copy writers, who are masters in creating mental pictures that arouse desire. They appeal to all the five senses—sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. If you read an advertisement that said a certain brand of crackers was "swell," tasted "grand," and had a "marvelous" texture, would it make you want to try the crackers? Probably not, because swell, grand, and marvelous are vague, overworked words; they convey no definite idea. But consider some of the expressions used by a copy writer who successfully described this soda cracker. He called it a "golden cracker" with a "nut-like flavor, sealed-in crispness, dependable freshness."

Action words, verbs, can also paint pictures. One writer says, "This bread comes direct to you from our ovens." Even more effective is the writer who says, "This bread is rushed to you straight from our ovens."

Of double value are the words that imitate the sound of what they describe, for they make two impressions on the listener's mind. They are known as onomatopoeic (on' omat'o-pe'ik) words. Such words as crisp, luscious, bang, growl, rippling, sizzle, and snort can often help you paint a clearer picture. They help arouse desire, as the copy writer realized who wrote the advertisement for "sizzling steaks."

Be Concise

Business letters should be long enough to say courteously all that is necessary, but should not waste words. Every word should count.

Instead of saying "at the present time" say now; instead of "in the near future," soon; instead of "in the neighborhood of" say near or about.,

Most business letters do not need to be more than a page in length, but the exact length is not so important as keeping the language concise. Long, rambling sentences are also out of place in a business letter. Keep your sentences as short as you can without making them choppy. Short paragraphs, too, are more suitable than long ones; the short paragraph is more inviting in appearance, more easily read, and more quickly comprehended.

Conciseness, of course, is not to be confused with a telegraphic style in which the articles a, an, and the are omitted, or the pronouns I or me are left out of sentences. A salesman should as soon think of calling on a customer without his necktie as of leaving these words out of his letter.

Sales Letters

Sales letters are of two general kinds—letters sent in response to inquiries and unsolicited circular letters. Each type of letter calls for special treatment, but there are certain general principles that apply to all sales letters.

Five Steps in Selling

Every successful sales letter does five things:

1. It first attracts attention.

2. It develops a genuine interest in whatever is being sold.

3. It convinces the reader that the article is exactly as represented.

4. It awakens desire.

5. It leads to a "yes" answer, to action.

Notice that all five steps have to do with the reader, not with the writer of the letter. Attention, interest, belief, de-sire, and decision are already well developed in the writer before he begins his letter; his task is to transfer them to the mind of the possible customer. The letter writer's chief thought, therefore, must be given to the person who is to read the letter. This is what is meant by the "you" attitude. The value of a letter is measured solely in terms of its appeal to the recipient.

And yet simple as this is, few sales writers fully grasp it. Developing a real interest in the people we are dealing with is the most important principle of successful selling. To get interest you must first give it.

Attracting Attention

It may be assumed that a letter sent in reply to an inquiry will receive attention. Such a letter should be prompt, should show appreciation of the inquiry, and should answer it fully and clearly.

The inquirer has shown his interest in the product or the service in question. Upon the basis of that interest the letter writer should build increased interest leading to desire and action.

Getting attention for the unsolicited letter is not so simple a matter. Since the first impression is of the utmost importance, the opening sentence should attract attention. Startling devices are sometimes used, such as a joke or a surprise remark. These devices, however, have been overworked and they are rather dangerous. Whether you use a question, an exclamation, or a startling statement to catch the reader's attention, be sure that you lead him into consideration of your real message without loss of interest.

Developing Interest

Interest is developed not merely by painting a glowing word picture of the product, but by showing what it will do for the prospect. For example, if you are writing about a washing machine, you must show the housewife what it will do for her. You may be more interested in the machine from a mechanical or engineering standpoint, but you must see through the eyes of the woman who will use it, show how it will save her back-breaking labor, will give her more leisure.

Conviction, Desire, and Action

To convince the reader that the article is exactly as represented, the whole letter must have a tone of sincerity. If you study the sales letters you receive, you cannot fail to notice that some of them sound sincere—they make you believe what is said—while others make you feel like picking holes in every statement. What makes the difference? The letters that convince you appear to contain only facts; they make no promises that could not reasonably be fulfilled. The letters that you discredit make extravagant statements and promises. The writers seem to regard you as extremely gullible and not very intelligent. Your confidence is thus destroyed. In a good letter everything contributes to building up a feeling of confidence.

It is not enough to create interest and belief. You must also awaken desire. You must make your reader want what you are selling so much that he is willing to make a sacrifice for it—to part with some of his money.

The final step is to secure action. Make the recipient of your letter do something definite—fill in an inquiry blank, ask a salesman to call, or send in an order.

Letters of Application

Applying for a position in writing is much more difficult than making application personally because you must convey an adequate idea of your personality through what you say. You may never have an opportunity to meet the employer unless your letter makes him want to see you.

You Must Sell Yourself

A letter of application is a sales letter. You are trying to sell yourself, your services, to an employer. As in any sales letter, you must take the "you" attitude. Consider yourself from the point of view of your prospective employer. Let your letter show him what you can do for him.

Your letter will be judged, of course, not only by what it tells directly, but also by its appearance and by the manner of expression. Use paper of good quality; single sheets of regulation size, eight and a half by eleven inches, or seven and a half by ten and a half, are best. Avoid colored paper and the folded sheets that are designed for social correspondence.

Make Your Letter Easy to Read

Be sure that your letter is neat and easy to read. It should be typed, if possible. Be sure that there are no misspelled words or grammatical errors. Your letter will look better and be easier to read if it is spaced well and if the paragraphs and sentences are short. Write on one side of the sheet only. Don't make the letter too long. If detailed in-formation is called for, you may tabulate the information on a separate sheet.

Let your first paragraph show the purpose of your letter—to apply for a particular position—and, if possible, suggest your fitness for the position. If you are writing in answer to an advertisement, say so, but not in such stereotyped fashion as, "In reply to your advertisement in today's Times, I herewith submit my application for the position." It is more effective to say, for example, "For five years I have been working and studying to prepare myself for the type of position which you advertise in today's Times."

As you go on to tell about your education and experience, try to bring out the facts that have most bearing upon the position in question. Be specific in what you relate, but do not go into unnecessary detail. If you are a beginner, you will naturally devote a considerable part of your letter to your education, emphasizing those studies that might qualify you for the position. If you have had considerable experience, it is sufficient to say that you are a high school or college graduate, as the case may be, and to mention any special training that you have had. Let your approach be positive rather than negative. For example, don't say, "I have had no experience. . . ." Don't, of course, exaggerate; be sure that your statements are all true.

Give two or three references, preferably persons in business in the city in which you are seeking employment. Be sure to give the full name, street address, and telephone number in each case, and don't fail, of course, to give your own complete address and telephone number. Remember that your prospective employer is a busy man; make it as easy for him as you can to read your letter, to obtain additional information about you, and to get in touch with you when he is ready for an interview.

The close of your letter should be strong and positive. Don't "beg" or "request the courtesy"; make the person to whom you are writing feel that an interview would be worth while from his point of view.

Unless you are hired at the first interview, you should, within a day or two, write to the man who interviewed you, thanking him for talking with you and giving him additional reasons for your belief that you could be of value.

Collection Letters

Of all business letters, collection letters are the most difficult to write. At first you may think of the collection letter as very different from the sales letter, but really it is not very different. The most successful collection letters are those that apply the principles of salesmanship.

Collection Letters Must Meet Competition

In the first place, it is well to remember that the collection letter, like the sales letter, must meet competition. If some-one owes you money, you are probably not the only creditor. The chances are that other firms are sending out collection letters to the same person. He probably cannot pay all his bills, but it is very likely that he can pay some of them.

Which bills will he pay? Clearly, he will pay the firms that give personal attention to him, and that seem determined to secure their money promptly.

Any letter in order to get attention must give attention. In order to arouse interest it must show interest in the person addressed. A formal reminder that a bill is past due is not enough. The trouble with formal collection letters is that the style of writing shows the debtor at once that his case is being handled merely as a matter of routine. The creditor might as well say, "We are paying no special attention to your indebtedness but are handling it as a part of our routine. You are in no danger of receiving personal attention for several months."

Adjustment Letters

A few years ago it was common to speak of "complaints" and the "complaint department." Now the word "adjustments" is substituted as placing emphasis on the positive and pleasant side.

The adjuster who thinks of his work in a broad way and studies its possibilities realizes that he has a great opportunity—perhaps a greater one than anybody else in the office—to make friends for the house.

He should not be satisfied with merely stopping the complaints with concessions or arguments; his ambition should be to show the customer that his house is both just and kind.

Correspondents often ask this question: "If the customer is wrong, how can I tell him so without making him angry?"

The answer seems to be this: There must be some reason for his wrong point of view; if you can discover that reason and show him that you understand his position perfectly, he will give up the claim of his own accord and feel no resentment.

The Right Kind of Letter Gets Results

Every letter that accomplishes something constructive is based on the principles of business ethics and an under-standing of human nature.

REMEMBER! If your letters don't produce results, in ninety-nine cases out of one hundred you haven't written the right kind of letter.

The best advice that can be given about business correspondence boils down to this: Make every letter just as good as you can, always writing as if you were talking to your correspondent with a full and sympathetic understanding of his point of view.


JOHN M. CLAPP, Doing Business By Letter (2 Vols.), The Ronald Press Company, New York

JOHN M. CLAPP and EDWIN A. KANE, How to Talk, The Ronald Press Company, New York

EDWARD A. DUDDY and MARTIN J. FREEMAN, Written Communication in Business, American Book Company, New York

PAUL W. IVEY, Successful Salesmanship, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New


JOHN B. OPDYCKE, Take a Letter, Please, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York

WALTER K. SMART and LOUIS W. MCKELVEY, Business Letters, Harper & Brothers, New York


1. If you are employed, imagine that you wish to apply for the position you now hold. Make notes for an application in person or in writing. If you are not employed or if you would like to obtain a position other than the one you now hold, make an imaginary application for the position desired. Trying to be as objective as possible, rate yourself as you think an employment manager would rate you.

2. Have you the ability to sell with words? If you are not engaged in selling goods or services, are you usually successful in "selling ideas" or in persuading others to your way of thinking?

3. Are you able to present your views clearly, courteously, and convincingly in business conferences, family conferences, committee meetings, and other discussion groups?

4. Can you give orders that are understood and carried out?

5. In writing and in speaking do you direct your message to the other person, keeping him rather than yourself foremost in your mind?

6. Do you make every word count? In other words, do you refrain from wordiness in your letters and from talking too much in business interviews?

7. Are your letters free from stereotyped expressions?

8. Are the words you use businesslike in the true sense—simple, concrete, accurate, correct, and not too technical?

9. Is the personality that you reveal in your letters one that would appeal to you if you exchanged places with your correspondent?

10. Are your business letters correct in all matters of form?

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