How To Format a Business Letter

by Craig Shrives

Planning Your Business Writing

A lot of people ramble in their writing because they're thinking while they're writing. In other words, they lack a structure to present their thoughts. This is an easy problem to fix. Do your thinking up front. It's simple, and it's effective. Do this:
  1. Start by writing a title.
  2. Next, write a list of paragraph headings and order them logically.
  3. Write the first draft of the summary.
  4. Check the title is still good.
  5. Write all the paragraphs and re-title them if necessary.
  6. Write the final conclusion and re-write the summary.
  7. Check the whole lot over.
  8. Get it proofread. Get it proofread. Get it proofread.
  9. Press "Send."

The Right Structure

After reading that list, you might feel like you are too much of a free spirit to be shackled like that. If that's the case, write the paragraph headings first, have a quick pop at the summary, and then do what comes naturally. In essence, you're just putting the skeleton in place for your "hammer-shaped" document.

Write Like a Hammer, Not a Christmas Tree

I would wager that hardly anyone reads a newspaper from cover to cover, and that's because there's no need. You might not have noticed it, but stories in newspapers start with the important facts and then the information gets less important as you read down. For example:
BRISTOL MAN WINS LOTTERY AGAIN. Simon Jones from Bristol has won a major prize on the lottery for the second time in two years. After winning a 2 million jackpot in 2010, Simon has now bagged a further 500,000. He said he used the same numbers on both occasions. Simon did not move houses after his first win, and his neighbours say his fortune hasn't changed him. Simon worked as school caretaker before his first win, but bought himself a small sheet-metalwork business with his jackpot. Simon's wife said he still gets up at 6 o'clock every morning to walk the dogs before going to work.
With newspaper articles like this, there is no conclusion, no big twist and no ending. You could stop reading the story at any point and leave happy. Journalists are trained to write like this. It allows the editor to flex the story to fit the page.
"A newspaper consists of just the same number of words, whether there be any news in it or not."
(English novelist and dramatist Henry Fielding, 17071754)
If you were to represent this journalistic style graphically, it would look like an upside-down pyramid. (The width represents the importance of the text.)

To be effective, business writing needs to adopt a fairly similar structure. All the key points need to be summarized at the top. Quite often, these are presented as bullet points, but a summary paragraph is also common. The rest of the document adds the relevant detail. Often, the document will have an ending like a conclusion, which will be a close copy of the key points at the top. There ought to be no surprises in the ending. It is only there to reinforce the key points and to provide a fitting ending to the main body. If you were to represent this structure graphically, it would look a bit like a hammer.

Whatever you do, don't hide the key points at random places in your document. You might have spent three days writing a beautiful report, but your readers don't care about that. You need to spoon-feed them the key points while they've got an appetite, and that means sticking the key points at the top. If they have to read through your whole document and find the key points for themselves, your writing is doomed. It will quickly make its way to the read-later pile. At this point, your document is highly vulnerable to a demotion from the read-later pile to the read-never pile. If you were to represent a bad writing structure graphically, it would look like a Christmas tree.

One of the most important aspects of asking people to do stuff is to make it clear what you want them to do. The best way to make your request clear is to put it right at the top of your letter or email. For example, start your email like this:
Dear all,
The purpose of this email is to request that you:

  • Submit your weekly returns by 1200 hrs on Thursday as opposed to Friday.
  • Meet in the foyer at 0800 hrs on Friday morning.
If needed, the justifications for these requests and the background comes next. Warning! If you start with the justification and the background and hide these requests amongst the text, you increase the likelihood of people failing to respond.

Remember. Write like a hammer not a Christmas tree.
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See Also

Writing titles and paragraphs What is business writing?