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General Letter-Writing Hints

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Every letter should be grammatical. It must be free of typographical, spelling and punctuation errors. This may be the toughest part of letter writing if you no longer have a secretary and are having to rely on your own skills. Using the spelling check on your computer will help some, but it won't catch problems with your grammar, some typos (your error still looked like a word, so the machine didn't catch it), and incorrect punctuation. Proofread each letter carefully to be sure no gremlin stepped on your keyboard. Errors cost-they make you appear careless.

The letter should be clean. If you're sending out copies of the same letter to many different people, you may photocopy or offset-print your letter. But be sure the copies are clear, with no smudges or "edges" and no faint print (or print that squiggles).
The Salutation. Even if you're answering a blind ad, don't ever write: "Dear Sir or Madam," or "To whom it may concern." Use the person's name in the salutation: "Dear President," "Dear Chairman," "Dear Mr.," "Dear Mrs. ," "Dear Miss," or "Dear Ms.," (when you have a woman's name without a Miss or Mrs.) If you have a job title, you can use that, "Dear Department Head," "Dear Recruiter," etc. Use a colon after the person's name, not a comma. If you don't have any idea whom to address, you can leave out the salutation entirely and use a subject line. "Subject: Marketing Director position advertised in the Chicago Tribune June 15, 1990."

Tone of the letter. Be friendly-almost the same as you would be when writing to someone you know well. The letter should sound conversational when you read it out loud and give that feeling. Project enthusiasm. Let the letter recipients feel your confidence. You can do the job for them.

Even if you feel desperate about getting the job, you shouldn't sound or read as though you are. Don't mention any outside factors that don't bear directly on the topic. Get directly to the points you want to make and leave everything else out.
Length. Keep your letters from one to one-and-one-half pages long. Write short paragraphs. (If a paragraph is much longer than six or seven lines, see if you can break it into two paragraphs.) Set up the letter so that it has a lot of "white space." You know from your own experience that busy executives tend not to read anything longer than one or two pages. If the letter is longer, they either put it aside or skim it quickly, reading the first paragraph, the first sentence of subsequent paragraphs and maybe looking at the signature. They put it aside, and may never look at letters that look dense and complicated. Increase your readership by using little words, short sentences and short paragraphs.


Readability, or how easily a reader can read something, is made up of several factors, including sentence complexity and length, vocabulary level, style and tone. The average business communication should be written at about the level of a Reader's Digest article-i.e., seventh to ninth grade level. One of the easiest ways to check your personal level is to use the Gunning Fog Index. This index considers sentence length as a measure of sentence complexity and the number of multisyllabic words as a measure of vocabulary level. Neither is absolutely true. But a high Fog index is more likely to indicate a difficult select than a low fog Index. And it's easy to do. Here's how:
  1. Choose several of your writing samples-about 100 words each. Count the total number of words, then count the number of sentences. Divide the number of words by the number of sentences to find the average sentence length.

  2. Count the number of words containing three or more syllables. Don't count proper names, compound words formed by combining short easy words (overcome, grandfather), or words which become three syllables because -ed, -es or -ing have been added. Then calculate the percentage of difficult words by dividing the number of difficult words by the total number of words and multiplying by 100.

  3. Add the average sentence length (calculation 1) to the percent of difficult words (calculation 2) and multiply this by the constant 0.4. The result is the Fog Index or approximate reading level.
This is about the top level for letters. Above that, the letters are too hard to read and end up in the file on the floor or in the "to be read" pile on some manager's desk.

A few simple ways to check for readability without using the Fog Index.
  • Rewrite any sentence that goes over two or three lines. It's too long.

  • Try to keep sentences under 14 words, if you can.

  • Keep sentences simple: no more than 20 percent compound (two sentences joined by and or another conjunction), 40 percent complex sentences (these are the tricky ones with clauses).

  • Check for overuse of multisyllabic words and excess words and phrases.

  • Get rid of those that aren't essential.

  • Use the other suggestions in this section to edit your writing.

If this article has helped you in some way, will you say thanks by sharing it through a share, like, a link, or an email to someone you think would appreciate the reference.

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