Business Letters

What this handout is about

This handout will help you write business letters required in many different situations, from applying for a job to requesting or delivering information. While the examples that are discussed specifically are the application letter and cover letter, this handout also highlights strategies for effective business writing in general.

Principles to keep in mind

Business writing is different

Writing for a business audience is usually quite different than writing in the humanities, social sciences, or other academic disciplines. Business writing strives to be crisp and succinct rather than evocative or creative; it stresses specificity and accuracy. This distinction does not make business writing superior or inferior to other styles. Rather, it reflects the unique purpose and considerations involved when writing in a business context.

When you write a business document, you must assume that your audience has limited time in which to read it and is likely to skim. Your readers have an interest in what you say insofar as it affects their working world. They want to know the “bottom line”: the point you are making about a situation or problem and how they should respond.

Business writing varies from the conversational style often found in email messages to the more formal, legalistic style found in contracts. A style between these two extremes is appropriate for the majority of memos, emails, and letters. Writing that is too formal can alienate readers, and an attempt to be overly casual may come across as insincere or unprofessional. In business writing, as in all writing, you must know your audience.

In most cases, the business letter will be the first impression that you make on someone. Though business writing has become less formal over time, you should still take great care that your letter’s content is clear and that you have proofread it carefully.

Pronouns and active versus passive voice

Personal pronouns (like I, we, and you) are important in letters and memos. In such documents, it is perfectly appropriate to refer to yourself as I and to the reader asyou. Be careful, however, when you use the pronoun we in a business letter that is written on company stationery, since it commits your company to what you have written. When stating your opinion, use I; when presenting company policy, use we.

The best writers strive to achieve a style that is so clear that their messages cannot be misunderstood. One way to achieve a clear style is to minimize your use of the passive voice. Although the passive voice is sometimes necessary, often it not only makes your writing dull but also can be ambiguous or overly impersonal. Here’s an example of the same point stated in passive voice and in the active voice:

      PASSIVE: The net benefits of subsidiary divestiture were grossly overestimated.
      [Who did the overestimating?]
      ACTIVE: The Global Finance Team grossly overestimated the net benefits of subsidiary divestiture.

The second version is clearer and thus preferable.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. What if you are the head of the Global Finance Team? You may want to get your message across without calling excessive attention to the fact that the error was your team’s fault. The passive voice allows you to gloss over an unflattering point—but you should use it sparingly.

Focus and specificity

Business writing should be clear and concise. Take care, however, that your document does not turn out as an endless series of short, choppy sentences. Keep in mind also that “concise” does not have to mean “blunt”—you still need to think about your tone and the audience for whom you are writing. Consider the following examples:

      After carefully reviewing this proposal, we have decided to prioritize other projects this quarter.
      Nobody liked your project idea, so we are not going to give you any funding.

The first version is a weaker statement, emphasizing facts not directly relevant to its point. The second version provides the information in a simple and direct manner. But you don’t need to be an expert on style to know that the first phrasing is diplomatic and respectful (even though it’s less concise) as compared with the second version, which is unnecessarily harsh and likely to provoke a negative reaction.

Business letters: where to begin

Reread the description of your task (for example, the advertisement of a job opening, instructions for a proposal submission, or assignment prompt for a course). Think about your purpose and what requirements are mentioned or implied in the description of the task. List these requirements. This list can serve as an outline to govern your writing and help you stay focused, so try to make it thorough. Next, identify qualifications, attributes, objectives, or answers that match the requirements you have just listed. Strive to be exact and specific, avoiding vagueness, ambiguity, and platitudes. If there are industry- or field-specific concepts or terminology that are relevant to the task at hand, use them in a manner that will convey your competence and experience. Avoid any language that your audience may not understand. Your finished piece of writing should indicate how you meet the requirements you’ve listed and answer any questions raised in the description or prompt.

Application letters and cover letters

Many people believe that application letters and cover letters are essentially the same. For purposes of this handout, though, these kinds of letters are different. The letter of application is a sales letter in which you market your skills, abilities, and knowledge. A cover letter, on the other hand, is primarily a document of transmittal. It identifies an item being sent, the person to whom it is being sent, and the reason for its being sent, and provides a permanent record of the transmittal for both the writer and the reader.

Application letters

When writing an application letter, remember that you probably have competition. Your audience is a professional who screens and hires job applicants—someone who may look through dozens or even hundreds of other applications on the day she receives yours. The immediate objective of your application letter and accompanying resume is to attract this person’s attention. Your ultimate goal is to obtain an interview.

As you write your application letter, be sure you complete three tasks: catch the reader’s attention favorably, convince the reader that you are a qualified candidate for the job, and request an interview.

Application letter checklist:

  • Identify the job by title and let the recipient know how you heard about it.
  • Summarize your qualifications for the job, specifically your work experience, activities that show your leadership skills, and your educational background.
  • Refer the reader to your enclosed resume.
  • Ask for an interview, stating where you can be reached and when you will be available. If your prospective employer is located in another city and you plan to visit the area, mention the dates for your trip.
  • If you are applying for a specific job, include any information pertinent to the position that is not included in your resume.

To save your reader time and to call attention to your strengths as a candidate, state your objective directly at the beginning of the letter.

      Example:I am seeking a position as a manager in your Data Center. In such a management position, I can use my master’s degree in information systems and my experience as a programmer/analyst to address business challenges in data processing.

If you have been referred to a company by one of its employees, a career counselor, a professor, or someone else, mention that before stating your job objective.

      Example:During the recent ARRGH convention in Washington, D.C., one of your sales representatives, Dusty Brown, informed me of a possible opening for a manager in your Data Center. My extensive background in programming and my master’s degree in information systems make me highly qualified for the position.

In subsequent paragraphs, expand on the qualifications you mentioned in your opening. Add any appropriate details, highlighting experience listed on your resume that is especially pertinent to the job you are seeking. Close with a request for an interview. Proofread your letter carefully.

Two sample letters of application are presented below. The first letter (Sample #1) is by a recent college graduate responding to a local newspaper article about the company’s plan to build a new computer center. The writer is not applying for a specific job opening but describes the position he seeks. The second letter (Sample #2) is from a college senior who does not specify where she learned of the opening because she is uncertain whether a position is available.

6123 Farrington Road
Apt. B11
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
January 11, 2005

Taylor, Inc.
694 Rockstar Lane
Durham, NC 27708

Dear Human Resources Director:

I just read an article in the News and Observer about Taylor’s new computer center just north of Durham. I would like to apply for a position as an entry-level programmer at the center.

I understand that Taylor produces both in-house and customer documentation. My technical writing skills, as described in the enclosed resume, are well suited to your company. I am a recent graduate of DeVry Institute of Technology in Atlanta with an Associate’s Degree in Computer Science. In addition to having taken a broad range of courses, I served as a computer consultant at the college’s computer center where I helped train users to work with new systems.

I will be happy to meet with you at your convenience and discuss how my education and experience match your needs. You can reach me at my home address, at (919) 233-1552, or at krock@devry.alumni.edu.

 

Sincerely,

Raymond Krock

Sample #2

6123 Farrington Road
Apt. G11
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
January 11, 2005

Taylor, Inc.
694 Rockstar Lane
Durham, NC 27708

Dear Ms. Jones:

I am seeking a position in your engineering department where I may use my training in computer sciences to solve Taylor’s engineering problems. I would like to be a part of the department that developed the Internet Selection System but am unsure whether you have a current opening.

I expect to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering from North Carolina State University in June and by that time will have completed the Computer Systems Engineering Program. Since September 2000, I have been participating, through the University, in the Professional Training Program at Computer Systems International in Raleigh. In the program I was assigned to several staff sections as an apprentice. Most recently, I have been a programmer trainee in the Engineering Department and have gained a great deal of experience in computer applications. Details of the academic courses I have taken are included in the enclosed resume.

If there is a position open at Taylor Inc., please let me know whom I should contact for further information. I look forward to hearing from you soon. I may be reached at my office(919-866-4000 ext. 232) or via email (Brock@aol.com).

Sincerely,

Rebecca Brock

Cover letters

As mentioned previously, application letters and cover letters are not the same. A cover letter identifies an item being sent, the person to whom it is being sent, and the reason for its being sent. A cover letter provides a permanent record of the transmittal for both the writer and the reader.

In a cover letter, keep your remarks brief. Your opening should explain what you are sending and why. In an optional second paragraph, you might include a summary of the information you are sending. A letter accompanying a proposal, for example, might point out sections in the proposal that might be of particular interest to the reader. The letter could then go on to present a key point or two explaining why the writer’s firm is the best one for the job. The closing paragraph should contain acknowledgements, offer additional assistance, or express the hope that the material will fulfill its purpose.

The following are examples of cover letters. The first letter (Sample #1) is brief and to the point. The second letter (Sample #2) is slightly more detailed because it touches on the manner in which the information was gathered.

Sample #1

Your Company Logo and Contact Information

January 11, 2005

Brian Eno, Chief Engineer
Carolina Chemical Products
3434 Pond View Lane
Durham, NC 27708

Dear Mr. Eno:

Enclosed is the final report on our installment of pollution control equipment at Eastern Chemical Company, which we send with Eastern’s Permission. Please call me collect (ext. 1206) or email me at the address below if I can answer any questions.

 

Sincerely,

Nora Cassidy
Technical Services Manager
ncassidy@company.com

Enclosure: Report

Sample #2

Your Company Logo and Contact Information

January 11, 2005

Brian Eno, Chief Engineer
Ecology Systems, Inc.
8458 Obstructed View Lane
Durham, NC 27708

Dear Mr. Eno:

Enclosed is the report estimating our power consumption for the year as requested by John Brenan, Vice President, on September 4.

The report is the result of several meetings with Jamie Anson, Manager of Plant Operations, and her staff and an extensive survey of all our employees. The survey was delayed by the transfer of key staff in Building A. We believe, however, that the report will provide the information you need to furnish us with a cost estimate for the installation of your Mark II Energy Saving System.

We would like to thank Billy Budd of ESI for his assistance in preparing the survey. If you need more information, please let me know.

Sincerely,

Nora Cassidy
New Projects Office
ncassidy@company.com

Enclosure: Report

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing the original version of this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial.

Freeman, Lawrence H. Franklin Covey Style Guide for Business and Technical Writing. Salt Lake City, Utah: Franklin Covey, 1997.

Locker, Kitty O. Business and Administrative Communication. Boston, Mass.: Irwin/McGraw-Hill, 1997.

For samples of various types of resumes and business letters:

http://careers.unc.edu/

http://www.provenresumes.com

http://www.4hb.com/letters/index.html


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