Write for Results, Communicate with Confidence



business letters
clarity, brevity, simplicity
good news/bad news letter
language that sells
manipulating the language
responding to a complaint letter


The two most important parts of the business letter are the first paragraph, which contains the purpose, and the last paragraph, which contains the outcome.

The purpose should state clearly why you are writing the letter. Be direct. There's nothing wrong with writing, "This letter is to let you know. . . ."

Sometimes you might want to introduce the purpose with a brief reference to seeing the person again or enjoying yesterday's lunch. But don't belabor the issue. Use that only as an introduction.

Must you always include the purpose in the first paragraph? No. There are two exceptions. One is the good news/bad news letter. The other is a letter that mentions or asks for something to which the reader might react adversely. For example, in a letter asking for a raise, begin with a discussion of your accomplishments and the reasons you deserve a raise.

The body of the letter includes the details of your topic. Write from the reader's perspective. What is in it for her? Anticipate her questions. Don't tell her anything she doesn't care about or need to know. Too much detail can be confusing.

The last paragraph should contain the outcome. It tells the reader what he is supposed to do or what to expect. For example, "I'll call you next week."

Keep your sentences and paragraphs short. Limit the letter to one page if possible. Brief letters are read first and responded to quickly.

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Clarity, brevity and simplicity are the three goals of effective communication. Think of them as the larger context in which you will find the other guidelines and techniques of good writing.

Clarity: Clear writing is writing that cannot be misunderstood. Clarity means there can be no ambiguity in your writing. When writing is clear, your words can have only one meaning.

Brevity: Mark Twain, the famous American writer, wrote to a friend, "Sorry for the long letter. I didn't have time to write a short one." Brevity doesn't mean writing the perfect first draft; it means editing to cut repetitious and unnecessary information and ten-dollar words that might alienate your reader.

Brevity means using as few words as possible to convey your meaning. If you can delete a word without changing the meaning, do so. For example, does "very" add meaning to "hungry"? Of course, because you can be mildly hungry or extremely hungry. On the other hand, you cannot be very famished.

Simplicity: Use easy words and short sentences to convey your meaning. When possible, use one- and two-syllable words. Many times, when you use words with three syllables or more, you force your reader to work too hard. It's far better to write, "Grandmother, what big eyes you have," than to tell granny that her ocular implements are of an extraordinary order of magnitude.

Don't worry. You won't sound like a simpleton. The fact is that simple writing is a sign of clear thinking and hard work. Writing that is wordy and rambling is a sign of a writer who doesn't care or doesn't know any better.

Using simple words does not mean you should limit your vocabulary. On the contrary, with a large vocabulary, you can express yourself clearly and precisely-in as few words as possible. A good vocabulary lets you use one word to convey your meaning rather than several words to define what you're saying. With a strong vocabulary, you can say "tolerate" instead of "put up with" and "imminent" rather than "likely to occur at any moment."

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Written business communication often requires the input of more than one person. When editing another's work, keep these guidelines in mind.

First, don't change the meaning. Be careful when substituting, deleting or adding a word, phrase or even punctuation. Changes in the text might significantly alter the writer's meaning.

If you're not certain about revisions, check with the writer first. The writer should keep a copy of the original for verification in case discrepancies occur, and each draft should be clearly marked with a number or revision date.

When editing, don't change the style unless it is inappropriate. Although some uniformity is often desirable within a department or company, we all have the right to our own "voice." (And it is very difficult to write in a style that is not one's own.) If the writer's style is ornate or circumspect, the editor should not change the style to one that is simple or direct unless the original style is inappropriate.

Be careful not to overedit. Be sure all changes are justified. Saying the same thing another way is not justification for changing another person's writing. The revision should be better, not just different.

Edit with empathy. Consider using a very light, thin mechanical pencil when editing. If you want to be sure the revisions are easy to see, use bright green, orange or purple ink. Red ink can evoke a negative emotional response.

Control your ego; remember that an editor's role is that of co-pilot, not pilot. Edit with an open mind, a big heart and a light hand.

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The "Good News/Bad News" letter is one of the most effective letters you can write. This letter is appropriate when you have a legitimate complaint and want resolution. For example, the hotel where you stayed had no hot water, and you had to shower in cold water before your business meeting. You feel you should not have to pay the full amount for the room, and you would like compensation.

The crucial elements of the good news/bad news letter are structure and tone.

The structure has four parts: (1) an opening paragraph of good news (2) the bad news (3) a solution (4) an expression of goodwill.

The opening paragraph should prepare your reader by reinforcing with good news. Try to say something positive about your past experience with the company, individual or product. Good news sets the stage and puts the reader on your side.

The body of the letter should explain the bad news. Be clear about the problem. Give as much detail as the reader needs, but don't tell the reader anything she doesn't care about or need to know.

Paragraph three should offer a solution to the problem. Do you want a refund, an exchange, a credit to your charge account? When you offer a solution, you save the reader time. She doesn't have to call you to find out how you would like the problem settled.

End the letter with an expression of confidence in the problem being solved. Remember that the person to whom you are writing is not responsible for creating the problem. She didn't design, manufacture, package, ship or deliver your purchase.

The tone of the letter is important. Sound objective. Explain the facts without being judgmental. Don't blame the reader for the problem. Avoid the personal pronoun "you." Use passive voice rather than active voice.

Instead of saying "You sent me the wrong part," try "The wrong part was sent to me," or "I received the wrong part." The tone should focus on the problem, not who was responsible for the error.

Be tactful and diplomatic. If you sound angry or rude, you will not encourage the reader to solve your problem quickly.

Here's an example of the good news/bad news letter.

Dear Sir or Madam:

I have stayed at your hotel numerous times during business engagements, and I have always been satisfied with the service and accommodations.

Unfortunately, during my recent visit on July 11, 2001, there was no hot water available, and I had to shower in cold water before a business meeting.

I'm sure you will agree that the charge of $100.00 for a room with no hot water is unreasonable. I would appreciate some kind of partial refund on my Visa account number xxxxxxxxxxxxx, expiration date xxxx.

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to being a guest at your hotel again.

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When you sell a product, service or idea, you'll want to understand the difference between features and benefits, the principal components of selling.

Features are easy to define. The features of Alexander Communications, for example, are seminars in business writing skills, customized workbooks and expert instructors.

Your clients need to know the features of your business, but what they BUY are the benefits. Features are centered on the seller, benefits on the buyer. Your clients want to know how they will benefit from your product or service. Will they save time, increase sales, improve morale, be more efficient, present a better image?

To write about benefits, try viewing your product or service from the customer's perspective. The easiest way to write about benefits is by using "you language." Re-write these examples with "you language."

  1. I can teach you.

  2. Our software is easy to use.

  3. Our hotel has the best city views.

Notice that these revisions are from the perspective of the buyer.

  1. You will learn.

  2. You will find our software easy to use.

  3. You will enjoy the best views of the city from our hotel.

Whenever you define a feature, ask yourself if you can write the same fact as a benefit. Instead of thinking "This is what WE offer," think "This is what YOU get."

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Three watchwords of good writing are Clarity, Brevity, Simplicity (CBS). The definition of clear writing is "writing that cannot be misunderstood." If we mean school bus, we don't want to write vehicle, because vehicle is too vague, too general. All readers will create the same mental image with the words school bus. But if we write vehicle, the reader might envision a car, motorcycle, boat, truck or bus. (And if the reader lives in California, as I do, she or he might envision a bicycle, surfboard, skateboard or roller blades.)

Most of the time our goal is to write clearly. But sometimes we intentionally want to be vague. We might strive for ambiguity because we want to
soften a harsh message
hide our true meaning
imply a different meaning
remain uncommitted
respect the feelings of others

Compare these two sentences. How do they differ? Which is more direct, which vague? Who are the intended audiences?

  1. XYZ Corporation pleads guilty and agrees to pay $50 million.

  2. XYZ Corporation confirms $50 million settlement agreement.

The first sentence was a headline in a major metropolitan newspaper. The second was a headline in an industry newsletter. Notice that the second sentence softens the bad news by avoiding the mention of pleading guilty. To plead guilty is an unambiguous legal term that means the same to all readers.

Here's another example. This is from a full-page ad for a company that sells (or maybe hoped to sell?) electricity.

"At XYZ Energy Resources, we offer electricity that features sources like water, wind and underground steam."

What does it mean to "feature sources like" water, wind and underground steam? Is there a commitment here about the source of the electricity? Is the company trying to present itself as environmentally friendly? Is the company hoping the reader will infer that XYZ Energy Resources doesn't create electricity by burning fossil fuels?

The examples about confirming a settlement and creating electricity are examples of manipulating the language. If you want to find other examples of manipulation, read the message from the president of a company that had a bad financial year. You'll find such messages in the front of annual reports. Look for the "letter to the shareholders."

To intentionally write in a vague style is a skill-though not always an admirable one. It is a skill used by people who understand the power of words. Words, after all, create meaning.

Most of the time when we write in a vague style, we do so unintentionally. Look at this example.

"The non-profit group is expected to get a portion of the proceeds, about $7,000."

To what does $7,000 refer? Is it the proceeds or a portion of the proceeds? The sentence above was from an article in my local newspaper. My guess is that the writer meant to convey that the non-profit organization would get about $7,000. Notice how there is no room for misunderstanding if we revise the sentence to read, "The non-profit group is expected to get about $7,000, a portion of the proceeds."

This particular kind of unintentional ambiguity is called a misplaced modifier. That's a fancy way of saying that descriptive words are in the wrong part of the sentence. The easiest way to remember "misplaced modifier" is with this example: "The little girl stood next to the horse in the blue dress." Of course we all know that horses prefer red dresses, not blue.

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Before you begin to write, it is important to identify your purpose: your reason for writing. Are you going to explain, persuade, promote goodwill, analyze, warn, justify?

Your writing will seldom have only one purpose. Since you will usually have a combination of purposes, you will want to clarify them first. For example, perhaps you want to promote goodwill by thanking your customer for the new order for fire extinguishers. You might also want to remind your customer about the importance of following the safety rules when using the extinguishers. In addition, maybe you want to persuade him or her to take advantage of your volume discount. After you have separated your purposes, you will need to prioritize them; doing so will help you organize your thoughts before you begin writing.

In a letter, memo or email, it's a good idea to start by clearly stating the purpose: "This letter is to let you know that the fire extinguishers will be delivered on Friday, May 2." Don't make the mistake of thinking you are merely conveying information. Always ask yourself what purpose the information serves. And don't avoid identifying the purpose altogether: chances are if you don't know where you are going, you'll end up somewhere else (and any old road can take you there).

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  1. Before responding, you should investigate what happened. Be sure you have all your facts. Then decide what you can do to remedy the situation.

  2. Refer to the complaint letter by date.

  3. Identify the item, problem, etc.

  4. If you or your company is at fault, apologize early in the letter.

  5. Explain how the error occurred only if that information is relevant or important.

  6. Be specific about how you will solve the problem.

  7. If you cannot solve the problem the way the customer wants, try to make a partial adjustment.

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