How to create templates for well-crafted, personalized notes that will impress clients and colleagues.
In Part 1, I discussed the benefits of creating well-written, boilerplate letters for various scenarios—ready-to-go communiques for clients that you can personalize on the fly. Now, let’s talk about how to construct your letters’ foundations.
Organize a letter the same way that you would a longer email.
Paragraph one: State your business or the main thrust of your letter. You’ll make your major point(s) in this paragraph.
Paragraph two: Give any details or necessary information for clarification. If this paragraph begins to grow into verbal overload, subdivide it into subtopics, each representing a separate paragraph. Long chunks of text are tough on the eyes and brain. Break them up into digestible morsels.
Concluding paragraph: Finish with a short, courteous sentence or two. I usually call this the “encouraging word.” It should be polite and positive.
Drafting, Editing, Revision, and Proofreading
What you choose to say and how you say it are paramount.
First, decide what information you must include in the letter; resist the temptation to add anything else. Consider typing a rough draft on the computer for editing before writing the final copy on your letterhead. The editing process can easily require extensive changes, additions, deletions, and reorganization. Next, tear it apart. Be thorough, and be brutal.
Once you have a draft, read it several times, each for a different purpose.
1. Read it first for content.
Does the letter clearly say what you want it to say? If you’re not sure, ask a colleague to read with fresh eyes. This is especially important if your letter’s topic is sensitive in some way—if you’re imparting bad news, say. Being clear makes it less likely you’ll be misinterpreted.
Does it focus more on the recipient than on you? Use the word “you” more than the word “I.”
Does the letter have a positive tone? Avoid using too many negative words, if possible. Perhaps you’re rejecting an offer from another firm to work in tandem. You might say, “Thanks for your generous offer. Unfortunately, our schedule is full right now. But we’re open to the possibility of working together in the future, schedule allowing…” Note that the passage does not contain the words “no,” “not,” or “can’t.”
2. Next, read for word choice and unnecessary words.
Be sure you’ve used just the right words for the job. Worry over the wording, but keep it simple. Do not try to impress with obscure words. If you find that you must look it up, chances are that your reader will, too. This does not make your message any clearer; in fact, it does the opposite.
Most of all: Say what you want to say with as few words as possible. If a word or phrase does not add anything to the message, delete it.
3. Read for sentence structure.
Are all of your sentences of a similar length? Do they all begin with the subject of the sentence, or with the same word? If you answered yes, do a little sentence surgery. Change up the structure for variety and rhythm.
Try to use some action verbs, to give your sentences extra power. And DO avoid verbal flights of fancy. Keep it simple and clear. You need no poetic allusion here nor metaphors that sing the body electric. This is business writing, forthright and unadorned.
4. Finally, proofread for errors.
Look for the usual suspects: subject-verb agreement, commas, misspellings that spell-check did not catch. Autocorrect occasionally creates more mistakes than it cures. For example, it abhors the possessive pronoun “its” and often adds an apostrophe. Your computer cannot do the grunt work for you.
The most egregious errors involve sentences: fragments, run-ons, and comma splices.
Reading your letter aloud can help you find errors your eyes missed. Your lips tend to read exactly what you wrote, not what you thought you wrote, pausing at commas and stopping at end punctuation.
How does it sound?
Is there a sentence that sounds awkward? Smooth it out and make it sound more natural. Do any sentences seem so long and complex that the meaning gets lost? Chop them up into shorter sentences. Sometimes a very short sentence creates emphasis.
Aesthetics and Overall Impression
You have now drafted an excellent letter! Now it’s time to personalize it and hand-write it on your gorgeous, well-designed agency letterhead. (If you’re pressed for time and you must print a letter you’ve composed on your computer, sign with blue ink and include a quick personal note at the end.)
In converting your boilerplate to a personal letter, adapt the tone to the recipient. Is this a colleague you know well? Then you can be more informal and personal. “I look forward to seeing you in Chicago,” you might say to a fellow PI you’ll be meeting at a conference in a few weeks.
If this is a cold-call letter, you’ll write more formally. Remember: Formal does not mean stilted. Avoid sounding like a bureaucrat. Sound like yourself.
Whenever possible, I suggest addressing the envelope by hand. Mailing labels are necessary evils when sending dozens of mailers in one go. But for a personal letter, hand-addressing will make your note get opened before all the others.
*One last top-secret lifehack: IF you have the time and energy for it, pick up an old typewriter and type letters to clients you most want to impress. Yes, it takes extra time. But I can assure you from experience: people will be truly wowed.
Early in the part one of this article series, I refer to letter writing as an art. It can be—if a writer knows how to use language effectively.
Using the tools outlined above may seem like a lot of work. But remember, you’re constructing a boilerplate, so you only have to do the heavy lifting one time.
That initial boilerplate may evolve. With practice, you’ll get better at writing clear, concise, readable letters that say exactly what you mean. In time, communicating well can become second nature.
And as with any art, a great letter pleases the viewer and communicates your message, and its creation seems effortless to everyone (except you) who reads it.
The Grammar Examiner taught high-school English for 40 years and was recognized by her citywide public school system as an outstanding ACT-prep instructor.
A tough-love drill sergeant in the classroom, she was affectionately known as “The Dragon Lady” by her students, who dared not call her by this name in person.