If you’re replying to a complaint, a tricky letter or a difficult problem put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Be professional. You may have to give an unwelcome answer, but do so as politely as possible. Apologise early, if you are going to do so.
If it’s your fault, say so. Apologise completely and concisely and sincerely. And whether it is your fault or not, try to emphasise what you can do for the other person.
Setting out your letter
A letter needs a beginning, middle and end. Your letter should start ‘Thank you for your letter of 15 April’ and not ‘I acknowledge receipt of…’ ‘Further to your recent….’
The middle will be your points, answers and questions in a logical order. If it is a long letter, break it up using sub-headings. Use paragraphing throughout, with about three or four sentences to each paragraph.
A suitable final sentence might be ‘I hope this has answered your questions’, ‘Thank you for your help’ or ‘If you have any questions, please ring me.’
It is now common practice to write the dates as 7 July 1991 instead of 7th July 1991.
If you are on first name terms with the reader, use ‘Dear Janet’. Otherwise use ‘Dear Mr Smith’, ‘Dear Miss Smith’ or ‘Dear Ms Smith’ if writing to a woman and don’t know which title she prefers. If you don’t know the person’s name, use ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’.
These are not usually necessary. However, if you are going to use one, don’t use all capitals; just put the heading in bold. And don’t use ‘re’.
Don’t put commas after:
- each line of the address;
- the greeting (Dear Jane); or
- the ending line (Yours sincerely).
Also, you don’t need full stops in initials – Mr P D Smith, the DSS and so on.
If you start ‘Dear name’ end ‘Yours sincerely’. Otherwise, end with ‘Yours faithfully’.
Make sure that your letter clearly says which person the reader should contact
and how, with any extension number if necessary.
If you want to emphasise something, use bold type. Don’t use lots of capital letters as they are unfriendly and harder to read.
Always read your letter when you have finished.
- Make a note of the points you want to make in a logical order.
- Use short words. Long words will not help your writing style.
- Use everyday English whenever possible. Avoid jargon and explain any technical terms you have to use.
- Keep your sentence length down to an average of 15 to 20 words. Stick to one main idea in a sentence.
- Use active verbs as much as possible. Say ‘we will do it’ rather than ‘it will be done by us’.
- Be concise.
- Imagine you are talking to your reader. Write sincerely, personally, in a style that is suitable and with the right tone of voice.
- Check that your letter is clear, helpful, human and polite.