10 Essential Characteristics of a Business Letter
Although there are different types of letters, each is relevant in a specific context and the parts are generally common to all such letters. One needs to be familiar with not only the different parts of the letter but also, equally importantly, about their positioning in the letter.
When we refer to a business letter, we refer to it in its totality, including both external and internal features. As we have seen in the earlier chapters, a good business letter not only carries across the message as intended, but also creates the right impression on the reader.
A letter has many parts—outside, inside, top, bottom, and middle, left, right, first page, second page, enclosures and annexure. Each one of these parts has certain significance and carries a definite place in the context of letter writing.
All these external and internal features concerning a business letter carry a time-tested position and significance. ‘All the same, when we refer to a position or placement, we are not necessarily referring to a very rigid position for all times.
Over a period of time, business writers have brought in flexibility and improvisations resulting in certain choice of positioning as well. Thus, notwithstanding the various types and places relevant to a business letter, it is possible to have different styles in writing a business letter.
Let us take a look at the various parts of a business letter and their essential characteristics:
The letterhead announces the name of the business. It often suggests what the business is about—whether it is a bank, an insurance company, a transport agency, a trading firm, a building contractor or an estate agent.
While some businesses choose to mention their name as well as their line of business in their letterhead, others confine only to the name. Quite often the constitution of the business is also stated—public limited, private limited or government undertaking.
Along with the name and line of business, some relevant particulars such as date of establishment, location of head office or registered office, telephone number, fax number and e-mail address are also furnished on the top of the letterhead.
Apart from all these details, the letterhead also carries prominently the logo of the business. If it is a public sector undertaking, as per the official language policy, all these details will have to be furnished bilingually. Each business decides what details it wants to include about itself on the top of the letterhead.
Sometimes the details are distributed among the top and bottom portions of the letterhead. The name and logo are covered in the top and the address, phone number, fax number and website are given at the bottom.
Letterheads have the potential to create a favourable impression and hence much thought and effort should go into their design and selection. The colour and quality of paper, the size of the letterhead, the types and fonts used and the spacing are all carefully decided.
Such is the importance of the letterhead that some businesses even seek the assistance of advertising agencies or other such specialists in designing their letterheads. A good letterhead not only informs, but also impresses. If the letterhead is the first introduction of the business, one must ensure that it is done well.
When the letterhead does not give the full address or the exact place from where the letter is emanating, the letter writer will have to incorporate these details himself. The writer should mention specifically the branch, the zone, the section and the department from which the letter is emanating.
In its absence, if the business is a large multi-branch, multi-department and multi- division establishment, the receiver of the letter will have difficulty in knowing the exact source of the letter and may fail to respond.
In practice, this keeps happening quite frequently in large organizations and people keen to respond will have to waste much time and effort in finding out from which branch, office, division or department the letter has been sent.
Too many details, thoughtlessly placed on the letterhead rob the elegance out of it. On the other hand, not furnishing relevant details makes the letterhead an understatement or inadequate. It is essential to strike a proper balance between the two.
2. Reference Line:
Business letters have reference details which help in clearly tracing the letter to its source and context. When the business is large, in terms of functions and customers covered, it becomes necessary to compartmentalize the activities into different regions and functions.
A separate file can be maintained for each customer. Reference details usually consist of abbreviations, letters and numbers. They may also carry the initials of the person drafting the letter or maintaining the file. The reference line helps both ways.
On the one hand it helps the letter writer or anyone else within the organization to know the exact context in which the letters were written, and makes it easy to relate it to the specific context on receipt of the reply. On the other hand, it also helps the receiver of the letter to make out the exact source and context of the letter and helps the receiver to respond.
Each organization or business would have normally evolved its own reference pattern and the business letter writer has to become familiar with the method followed. In the absence of such reference particulars, the business will have to spend considerable time in relating it to the exact file even after it reaches the branch or department concerned.
Not taking any chance on this, some organizations make it a point not only to mention the reference number but also request the recipient of the letter to ‘Please quote this reference number in all future correspondences.’
The originating reference number of a letter for any business would be stated thus: ‘Our reference number’. Similarly, in any business letter, it would be necessary to refer to the other party’s reference details as well.
This is stated as, ‘Your reference no.___ dated___ ‘. This may be stated below the subject line or as the first sentence of the body of the letter.
When a particular business letter is part of a series of such communication over a period of time, or part of a protracted correspondence, the letter writer may have to refer to the earlier correspondence, in which case one may have to list out the relevant ‘Our letters__ dated__ ‘ and ‘Your letters___ dated__ ‘.
If the relevant letters
Are too many, instead of referring to all such letters the letter writer may state, ‘Please refer to our earlier correspondence on the subject, resting with our letter dated ‘.
3. Date Line:
The date line follows or stays close to the reference line and clearly mentions the date, month, and the year of the letter. The date is mentioned in many ways—22.05.2002 or 22 May 2002 or May 22, 2002.
The most appropriate way of stating the date would be the second one, i.e., 22 May 2002 for its lack of ambiguity. It is worth noting that the sequencing of date, month and the year, when written only in figures, varies from country to country.
In the United Kingdom, like it is in India, the date, month and the year are written in that order, viz., 22.5.2002. In the United States of America, however, the practice is to write the month first and then the date and the year.
For example 12 May 2002 is written as 5.12.2002. In view of these different practices, writing the date as 22 May 2002 ensures that there is no misreading of the date of the letter. To ensure elegance, it is also appropriate that writing the day in letters—ninth or eighteenth—and using abbreviations for months—Feb or Apr—are avoided.
4. Inside Address:
Inside address refers to the addressee or the person to whom the letter is addressed. It may be an individual, a functionary, a group or an institution. The letter may be addressed by name or by designation.
The inside address need not give the full postal address which has to be necessarily furnished outside. It is generally restricted to the name and/or the designation, the department and the office, since this position is well recognized.
The word ‘to’ may be avoided for greater elegance. Another place normally used for inside address is the bottom of the letter, on the left side at the end of the letter.
When the letter is addressed by name, care should be taken to mention the correct initials, name and surname as the individual would like to be addressed. Please take due care in writing the correct name, for that is the least that the letter writer owes to the addressee.
If the letter writer does not make due effort to ascertain and mention the correct name of the addressee, it amounts to indifference and discourtesy and qualifies as a bad letter. Spell the name correctly, for it makes the reader or the addressee much more responsive.
Mr Jagdish should not be mentioned as Mr Jagdeesh or vice versa. Mrs Rajashree cannot be addressed as Mrs Rajashri. Same is the case with the surnames and initials. If it is Banerji do not change it to Bannerjee or vice versa.
In good business letter writing, it is very essential to write the name exactly as the person spells it. If the person has a title such as professor, doctor, father, revered, justice, captain or brigadier the same is to be correctly stated.
When there is no title, Mr or Shri is commonly used for men and Mrs, Miss, Smt. or Kumari, as the case maybe, is used for ladies. Ms is used when one is not sure of the marital status of the lady who is being addressed. The plural of Mr is Messers, which is used in addressing partnerships and groups. Likewise, the designation of the person, whenever mentioned, should be proper.
One should be particularly careful when addressing letters to dignitaries like the President, the Governor, the Chancellor, the Ambassador, and the Pontiff or to religious heads. The appropriate title such as His Excellency, His Highness or His Holiness will have to be used after ascertaining the same from the appropriate authority.
Many such exalted offices will have what are known as protocol officers. Any mistake in addressing the person inside the letter certainly distracts the impact of an otherwise well-drafted letter.
5. Attention Line:
Attention line usually appears on the right side of the inside address and is relevant when the letter is addressed to a designation, to the group or to a firm. The attention line draws the attention of the specific person to the contents of the letter.
There is no need for an attention line when the letter is addressed to a specific person. Attention line usually reads, ‘Kind attention of Mr so and so.’ The attention line does the important function of ensuring that the letter reaches the particular person whose response is essential.
Salutation is a must for every letter. It relates the letter to the reader. It can take many forms such as
‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’ or ‘Dear Mr so and so’ or ‘Dear Shri so and so’ or ‘Dear Mrs so and so’ as the case may be.
When the letter is addressed to an organization or a group, the salutation is in the plural form, i.e., Dear Sirs. When the status of the person is high and additional respect is intended to be conveyed, ‘Dear’ is omitted and the salutation is Sir or Madam.
7. Subject Line:
After the salutation, the next part of the letter is the subject. The subject of the message is stated clearly and boldly at the centre of the letter. This helps to draw and focus the attention of the reader on the specific subject or topic or area which the letter covers.
The subject should be stated clearly yet briefly, i.e., in a few words. Often the receiver of the letter looks at the subject and decides as to how important or urgent its contents are for him.
A skilled letter writer learns to state the subject in a manner that attracts attention. The subject should fairly reflect the essence of the letter. Furthermore, since this particular position in a letter is meant for the subject line, mentioning “subject’ maybe avoided to ensure greater elegance. Where appropriate, the subject itself may be mentioned in bold letters.
The message is the body of the letter which comprises the opening line and the message to be conveyed. The message is organized into appropriate paragraphs in order to convey thoughts sequentially. The paragraphs are so designed as to cover related thoughts and facts.
The opening line usually starts with an acknowledgement or introduction. It may draw reference to earlier correspondence, if any. The opening line or the introductory paragraphs endeavour to put the message in perspective.
In the next paragraph or paragraphs, as the case may be, the message of the relevant communication is dealt with. It is important to note that the message is the essence of communication and the very reason for writing the letter.
The length of the message would vary depending upon the thoughts and details which the letter writer wishes to convey. The message is the crux or core of the letter and all other features are embellishments or accompaniments.
The message of the letter, in other words, is usually the content or subject of the communication. The letter is written because the message has to be conveyed.
9. Closing Line:
The closing line paragraph is very important for the letter. It should sum up the message and emphasize the action intended. Good writers take pains to make the closing line as effective as possible.
The complimentary closing line comes after the message and before the signature. It is ‘yours faithfully’ or ‘yours sincerely’ or ‘faithfully yours’ or ‘sincerely yours’ as the case may be. When the salutation is ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’, the closing line is ‘yours faithfully’, and when the salutation is ‘Dear Shri’ or ‘Dear Mrs’, the closing line is ‘yours sincerely’.
The complimentary closing line is followed by the signature. Every letter must end with a signature. The signature gives authenticity to the message.
An unsigned letter is usually of little significance. Unsigned letters are deficient and the addressee may not act upon them. Official letters also carry the designation of the person below the signature.
Postscript or PS. is an afterthought. Some times, however, a postscript is used by a letter writer to reemphasize a particular point in the message.
Some of the other parts or related aspects of the letter are enclosures or annexure, continuation page, spacing, folding, outside address, envelopes and window covers. These too, call for adequate attention in order to ensure the elegance of the letter. Enclosures contain related relevant information and accompany the letters.
The reference to the enclosures is made at the end of the letter—Encl: 2 or Encl: Copy of draft agreement or in the body of the letter appropriate to the message— (Please see annexure 1) or (Please refer to the table enclosed).
Reference to the continuation of the matter in the next page is indicated for greater clarity. The spacing of the letter is important in terms of ensuring elegance and making the letter attractive. Spacing should be such that there is neither crowding of sentences nor undue gaps in between.
When the letter extends over several pages, it is essential that all the page numbers are clearly mentioned and appropriately stapled. Quite often, seemingly elementary aspects are overlooked—the stapling or pasting is done so badly that one has to struggle to open the letter intact or the enclosure which is mentioned in the letter is left out.
One can bring in considerable imaginativeness in letterheads, envelopes, colour of the type, spacing and page presentation. While commonly accepted and widely followed positions of various parts are stated in the foregoing paragraphs, it is pertinent to reiterate that a skilful letter writer can bring in variety and flexibility in approach without sacrificing the principles. Good letters do stand out and gain attention.