Writing Well

The Professional Edge: Writing on the Job

  • Tech Support: “What does the screen say now?”
  • Person: “It says, ‘Hit ENTER when ready.'”
  • Tech Support: “Well?”
  • Person: “How do I know when it's ready?”

Ready or not, it's time you mastered the basics of business writing: letters and resumés. First, we'll review the characteristics, different purposes, and formats of business letters. Then, I'll teach you how to write the most important kinds of business letters, including good-news letters, bad-news letters, resumés, and cover letters.

The Desk Set

Author! Author!

Along with good interpersonal skills, the ability to write well is the single most important factor in promotions and job security. The ability to communicate effectively in writing can also be the decisive factor in a candidate getting a position. Ben Ordover, a division president at CBS, notes, “Many people climbing the corporate ladder are very good. When faced with a hard choice between candidates, I use writing ability as the deciding factor. Sometimes a candidate's writing was the only skill that separated him or her from the competition.”

Say there's an improvement in the company's billing policy—and you're the lucky employee who gets to write the letter about it. Perhaps you need to announce a smaller holiday party or a limit to “Dress-Down Fridays,” or reject a would-be employee. Or it's time to move on and you need to send a cover letter and resumé. Whatever the task, successful professionals know how to write winning letters and resumés. Now you can, too! Here are their secrets.

While no two kinds of business letters are exactly the same, they do share certain features besides their format.

  • They are brief but complete.
  • They state the writer's purpose clearly and concisely.
  • The language is always polite.
  • The tone matches the occasion. A letter to a colleague, for example, is appropriately friendly, but business correspondence in general is formal.
  • The relationship between the writer and reader is established in the beginning of the letter.
  • The writer provides any necessary background information.
  • If the reader is required to take action, the writer states the action outright.
  • If the letter is a response to a letter, phone call, or personal visit, the writer mentions the date of the previous contact.
  • Business letters are always typed, never handwritten.
  • They follow a set format, explained in the following sections.

Style and Substance

Business letters are single-spaced on 8 1⁄2 × 11-inch letterhead. There are three different formats you can use: the block style, the modified block style, and the semiblock style. The differences among the three styles depends on paragraph indentations and the placement of headings and closes. Here's the run-down:

Write Angles

Pick one letter style—the block style, the modified block style, or the semiblock style—and stick with it. You're less likely to make mistakes if you're consistent.

  1. The block style has all parts of the letter flush left.
  2. The modified block style places the heading on the upper-right corner and the close and signature on the lower-right corner, parallel to the heading. The paragraphs are not indented.
  3. The semiblock style places the heading on the upper-right corner and the close and signature on the lower-right corner, parallel to the heading. The paragraphs are indented.

Which format should you use for letters you write on the job? The block format is becoming more popular with business communication, while the semiblock format is more commonly used for personal letters or letters that don't carry a company letterhead. In general, match your letter style to the company's letter style.

Block Head

Here are the guidelines for the block style. Vary them as previously explained if you wish to use the modified block or semiblock style instead.

DateMonth (spelled out), day (followed by a comma), year.
Inside addressThe recipient's address. Place two lines after the date.
SalutationRecipient's title, last name, colon (for example: Dear Ms. Rozakis:).
BodyShort, single-spaced paragraphs stating the information.
CloseCapitalize the first word, conclude with a comma (for example: Yours truly,). Place two lines after the last line of the letter.
SignatureSign your name in blue or black ink. Leave three lines after the close for your signature.
InitialsIf the letter is typed by someone other than the writer, insert the typist's initials below the typed name of the signatory. Capitalize the writer's initials; use lowercase for the typist's (for example: LR:st or LR/st).
Enclosures“Enclosures” or “Enc.” indicate that additional material is included with the letter.
CopiesList other recipients alphabetically or by rank. Write cc: before their name to show they are receiving a copy of the letter (for example: cc: Jill Aron, Ben Carson).

If you don't know the gender of the person you're addressing, use the person's full name and omit the title. Avoid “Gentlemen” and “Dear Sir,” since they are considered biased language. If you don't have a clue who will be receiving the letter, fall back on the traditional “To Whom It May Concern.”

Appearance Is Reality

Good letter design is more than a matter of looks: It also saves time and money. Letters that are hard to read waste time and create extra work for the recipient. Well-designed letters create customer satisfaction and show that you value the people both inside and outside your organization. Good letter design is just plain good business.

Here's how to make your letters look as professional as they read:

Word Watch

White space is the empty space on a page. It is a key element in all document design.

Write Angles

Times New Roman is a “proportional” font, so-called because each letter is the same size. Courier is not a proportional font, because every letter is a different size. Both of the previous sentences are written in a 12-point font, but notice how much larger Courier appears than Times New Roman.

Write Angles

Good-quality letterhead paper is the writing equivalent of the power suit; it always makes a great impression. Traditionally, local printers typeset letterhead, but a good-quality laser printer and software package can create fine letterhead as well.

  1. Leave 1 1/2-inch margins all around your message. In nearly all cases, the side margins will be preset on your word processing program. With very brief letters, center the text by increasing the top margin.
  2. Use white space (space without writing) to separate and emphasize key points within the letter. Provide sufficient white space around paragraphs, too.
  3. To help readers locate key elements, use headers (words or phrases that group points). You can also use indented lists, bullets, or numbers—just as this does!
  4. To get maximum impact, put key elements such as a chart in the upper-left and lower-right quadrants of the page. Since we read from left to right, top to bottom, these quadrants attract our interest most.
  5. Go easy on highlighting, decorative devices, fonts, and color. Keep it simple and professional.
  6. Decide whether to justify the right margin (line up the type), based on the situation and audience. Justified margins let you add about 20 percent more text on the page. However, use them only with proportional type to avoid distracting wide spaces between words.
  7. For letters of application and resumés, use good-quality, heavy, white bond paper and matching envelopes. Today's fonts make it easy to create your own attractive and professional-looking personal letterhead. Use company letterhead for official company business.
  8. When possible, limit your letters and resumés to one page. No one wants to read any more than that.
  9. Consider your audience's needs and expectations. Show that you understand the reason for the business communication and the context in which it takes place.
  10. Use conventional letter formats, as explained earlier.

Now that you've got the basics, let's explore some of the most common letter-writing situations you're likely to encounter in your professional life, starting with good-news and bad-news letters.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.