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Business letter writing etiquette

Valerie KhooYou might think that the old-fashioned letter has become a relic of the past, but it’s still in wide use in the business world. You just don’t see it as much because letters are rarely sent by snail mail anymore. Instead, they’re written, signed and attached to emails.

That means we still need to understand the business letter writing conventions so that we don’t offend our readers with inappropriate sign-offs, or use old-fashioned terms that should have been retired along with the telex machine.

So what’s acceptable in today’s business environment?

Well, if your company has a style guide, this should clearly outline exactly how to treat salutations, honorifics, sign-offs and so on. However, if you don’t have a style guide to follow, here are some simple rules that will ensure you are following correct letter writing conventions in the modern business world.

Salutations

Quite simply:

Dear John

There is no need to insert a comma after the name. In the past, it was standard practice to use a comma after the name like this:

Dear John,

But in today’s environment, it’s perfectly acceptable to omit the comma.

Honorifics

Depending on how formal you want to be, you might want to include an honorific such as Mr or Dr or Ms.

If you do, there is no need to insert a full stop after the honorific. So this is correct:

Dear Mr Smith

The above is standard practice in Australia. However, it’s common to see Americans insert a full stop like this:

Dear Mr. Smith

Sir/Madam

If you don’t know the name of the person you’re writing to, you use:

Dear Sir/Madam

However, don’t use “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” if you DO know the name of the person you are writing to. Always address them by their name.

Letter headline

This should clearly summarise what your letter is about. For example:

Your recent application for a home loan.
OR
Changes to your internet access during March 2012

You need to write a simple headline that indicates to the reader exactly what your letter is about.

In the past, you would often see this kind of heading:

RE: YOUR LETTER DATED 23 APRIL

Although the use of “RE:” (which is short for “regarding”) is acceptable, it’s not necessary these days. Furthermore, it’s more helpful if the reader can see an at-a-glance summary of what the letter is about rather than be pointed to the date of their previous correspondence.

Your sign-off

For formal letters, if you know the name of the person you are writing to:

Yours sincerely

If you don’t know the name of the person you are writing to:

Yours faithfully

For informal letters (when you’ve gotten to know the reader or exchanged several emails/letters)

Sincerely
Kind regards
Regards
Best wishes

You should also insert at least three “line spacings” between “Yours sincerely” and your name like this:

Yours sincerely
[line spacing]
[line spacing]
[line spacing]
Valerie Khoo
Managing Director

Unless your company style guide says otherwise, there is no need to use a comma after “Yours sincerely”. It’s perfectly acceptable to do so but it’s considered old-fashioned.

Beware: A common mistake is to capitalise the second word in the sign off.
You should NOT do this. The following are wrong:

Yours Sincerely
Kind Regards
Best Wishes

What do ‘cc’ and ‘bcc’ stand for?

You use these terms in emails all the time, but do you know what they stand for? They originate from an era when carbon paper was used to make copies of letters – long before we all got photocopiers in our offices.

Cc: is an abbreviation of ‘carbon copy’. You ‘cc’ people who need to be kept in the loop about the contents in the letter, but who do not need to take any action or reply.

When you cc: someone in a letter, this is usually indicated underneath the signature like this:

Yours sincerely

Matt Damon
cc: Ben Affleck

Bcc: is an abbreviation of ‘blind carbon copy’. You ‘bcc’ someone when you want them to receive the message, but don’t want other recipients to know they have received it. The other recipients are ‘blind’ to the fact that someone else is receiving it.

If you bcc: Ben Affleck, you don’t indicate this on the original copy that is going to the intended recipient (otherwise they would no longer be ‘blind’ to it). Instead, you only include it underneath the signature of the copy that is being sent to Ben:

Yours sincerely

Matt Damon
bcc: Ben Affleck

The art of letter writing

While this may seem like a simplistic topic to cover, I believe it’s very important. The way you communicate in your letters speaks volumes about your professionalism and competence.

Over the next few of years, we’re going to see a clear division develop between the businesses that care about these issues, and those that don’t. It’s not simply a trivial matter of good grammar and punctuation. It’s an attitude about whether the little things matter. Because it’s those very little things that can make the biggest difference in your business.

Valerie Khoo is Managing Director of the Sydney Writers’ Centre in Milsons Point, Sydney. As one of Australia’s leading centres for writing training, it runs short courses to help people get published and improve their business communication skills. Visit www.BetterBusinessWriting.com.au for more information.

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