Business letter writing

Letter-writing is an essential part of business. In spite of telephone, telex and telegraphic communication the writing of letters continues; in fact most telephoned and telegraphed communications have to be confirmed in writing.

The letter is often evidence of an arrangement or a contract, and must therefore be written with care; even the shortest and most usual of letters may have this importance. The need for thought in writing is clear when you realise that in speaking either face-to-face or by telephone the reaction to the spoken word can be seen or heard immediately, but reaction to a letter is not known until the answer is received.

When you have written a letter, read it through carefully; see that you have put in everything you intended, and have expressed it well; read it again, trying to put yourself in the place of the receiver, to find out what impression your letter will make.

It is obvious that what has been said in the previous paragraph becomes even more important when you write a letter in a foreign language. Unless you know that particular language very well you are certain to translate some phrases from your own language literally; these phrases may then convey quite a different meaning from that intended. It is in any case impossible to translate all business phrases literally as each language has its own characteristic idiom. With this in mind we have given as large a selection as possible of English phrases in general use.

A question frequently asked is: 'How long should a good letter be?' The answer is: 'As long as is necessary to say what has to be said'. The manner of interpreting this varies, of course, with the writer, and also very greatly with the nationality of the writer.

Because the aim of the letter is to secure the interest of the reader, and his co-operation, the letter should begin with sentences that will introduce the matter without undue delay, and polite forms to help the introduction must not be too long. The letter should continue with the subject itself and all the necessary information or arguments connected with it, but the wording must carry the reader along smoothly; jerky, over-short or disjointed sentences spoil the impression. The letter should have a suitable ending one that is not long but makes the reader feel that his point of view is being considered. This is especially necessary when sellers are writing to buyers.

Waste of time in subsequent letters should be avoided by giving all the information likely to be required, unless the writer purposely refrains from going into too much detail until he knows the reaction of his correspondent.

A good vocabulary is necessary, both in your own and foreign languages; repetition should be avoided as much as possible, except where the exact meaning does not allow any change of word.

Everyone has a characteristic way of writing, but it must be remembered that the subject of the routine business letter lacks variety and certain accepted phrases are in general use. This is of great help to the foreigner, who can rely on them to compose a letter that will be understood. Let us say, perhaps, that a routine business letter is like a train, running on a railway track, whereas other letters are like cars that must, of course, keep to the road but are otherwise given greater freedom of movement than a train.

This greater 'freedom of movement' applies also to business correspondence dealing with matters of policy, special offers, negotiations, reports and customers' complaints, all of which are matters that demand individual treatment. Here the correspondent must not only make his meaning clear but also try to create in the reader's imagination a true impression of his attitude. This is by no means so difficult as it may seem if the writer will remember that simplicity of word and phrase usually gives the impression of sincerity. Also a style of writing which is natural to the writer carries his personality to the reader.

In foreign trade, with its numerous problems and complications, the use of forms is a necessity; it facilitates the handling of goods at the various stages, indicates that regulations have been complied with, and saves unnecessary correspondence. It is the repetitive nature of many business transactions that makes it possible for the form to do the work of the letter. A study of the wording on forms is therefore advisable, and one or two specimens relating to certain transactions will be found in later chapters.

The growing use of the telephone and telegraph is also reducing correspondence in this age when, as never before, 'time is money'. Another factor is the increasing personal contact in international trade. With any one part of the world only a few hours' flying time from any other it is not surprising that many businessmen prefer to make, personal visits in order to discuss important matters on the spot.

Other modern conditions and tendencies that have their effect on the nature of correspondence are the establishment of foreign companies by large international organizations, business tie-ups between pairs of firms in different countries, export and import controls and restrictions, currency controls and the financial policies of governments.

The really competent correspondent therefore needs to understand something of the principles and practice of modern commerce. There is no room in this book for even an outline of these principles, but some brief explanations of certain procedures are given in order to help the less experienced student to understand the letters that follow


2The letter heading and the layout

Business letters are usually typed or notepaper bearing a specially designed heading which provides the reader of the letter with essential information about the organization sending it. Normally the heading 'will include the company's name and address, its telephone numbers and telegraphic addresses, the type of business it is engaged in, its telex code, and in many cases the names of the directors. It is becoming increasingly common for firms to print an emblem or trademark on their stationery.

Note the layout in the example. Currently there are several ways of setting out a business letter in Britain, and policy in this respect differs from company to company. The form in which a business letter appears has not been standardised in the United Kingdom to the extent it has in the U.S.A. and most European countries, and many British firms still indent the first line of each paragraph, and use more punctuation in the inside name and address and in the date than is the case in our example. Nevertheless there is a growing tendency in Britain, due largely to foreign influences and the widespread use of the electric typewriter, to use block paragraphing in other words, to begin every line at the left-hand margin and to dispense with unnecessary punctuation in the date and the name and address of the person or organisation written to. It is still considered necessary to put a full stop after abbreviations, as we have done in the case of Co. (Company), Ltd. (Limited) and St. (Street) in our example. However, it is becoming more and more common to type Mr. and Mrs. i.e. without a stop and this practice may well be extended to other abbreviations in the near future


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