Though letters were the main mode of communication for thousands of years, today they’re mostly brief messages sent to recipients that are usually outside the organization (Bovee & Thill, 2010). They are often printed on letterhead paper and represent the business or organization in one or two pages. Because communications are increasingly electronic, letters are getting rarer in the workplace. Often, they’re reserved for important communications that have legal implications, such as offering someone a job or trying to collect money your organization is owed.
As genres shift, business communicators are trapped in a weird situation where business documents are set up like letters but are set electronically. For example, your cover letter might be attached as a PDF to an email.
Regardless of the type of letter you need to write, it can contain up to fifteen elements in five areas. While you may not use all the elements in every case or context, they are listed in Table 4.2.1.
Table 4.2.1 Elements of a business letter
|1. Return address||This is your address where someone could send a reply. If your letter includes a letterhead with this information, either in the header (across the top of the page) or the footer (along the bottom of the page), you do not need to include it before the date.|
|2. Date||The date should be placed at the top, right or left justified, five lines from the top of the page or letterhead logo.|
|3. Reference (Re:) *optional||Like a subject line in an e-mail, this is where you indicate what the letter is in reference to, the subject or purpose of the document.|
|Sometimes you want to indicate on the letter itself how it was delivered. This can make it clear to a third party that the letter was delivered via a specific method, such as certified mail (a legal requirement for some types of documents).|
|5. Recipient note *optional||This is where you can indicate if the letter is personal or confidential.|
|6. Salutation||A common salutation may be “Dear Mr. (full name).” If you are unsure about titles (i.e., Mrs., Ms., Mr., Mx., Dr.), you may simply write the recipient’s name (e.g., “Dear Cameron Rai”) followed by a colon. A comma after the salutation is correct for personal letters, but a colon should be used in business. The salutation “To whom it may concern” is appropriate for letters of recommendation or other letters that are intended to be read by any and all individuals. If this is not the case with your letter, but you are unsure of how to address your recipient, make every effort to find out to whom the letter should be specifically addressed. For many, there is no sweeter sound than that of their name, and to spell it incorrectly runs the risk of alienating the reader before your letter has even been read. Avoid the use of impersonal salutations like “Dear Prospective Customer,” as the lack of personalization can alienate a future client.|
|7. Introduction||This is your opening paragraph, and may include an attention statement, a reference to the purpose of the document, or an introduction of the person or topic depending on the type of letter. An emphatic opening involves using the most significant or important element of the letter in the introduction. Readers tend to pay attention to openings, and it makes sense to outline the expectations for the reader up front. Just as you would preview your topic in a speech, the clear opening in your introductions establishes context and facilitates comprehension.|
|8. Body||If you have a list of points, a series of facts, or a number of questions, they belong in the body of your letter. You may choose organizational devices to draw attention, such as a bullet list, or simply number them. Readers may skip over information in the body of your letter, so make sure you emphasize the key points clearly. This is your core content, where you can outline and support several key points. Brevity is important, but so is clear support for main point(s). Specific, meaningful information needs to be clear, concise, and accurate.|
|9. Conclusion||An emphatic closing mirrors your introduction with the added element of tying the main points together, clearly demonstrating their relationship. The conclusion can serve to remind the reader, but should not introduce new information. A clear summary sentence will strengthen your writing and enhance your effectiveness. If your letter requests or implies action, the conclusion needs to make clear what you expect to happen. This paragraph reiterates the main points and their relationship to each other, reinforcing the main point or purpose.|
|10. Close||“Sincerely” or “Cordially” are standard business closing statements. Closing statements are normally placed one or two lines under the conclusion and include a hanging comma, as in Sincerely,|
|11. Signature||Five lines after the close, you should type your name (required) and, on the line below it, your title (optional).|
|12. Preparation line||If the letter was prepared or typed by someone other than the signatory (you), then inclusion of initials is common, as in MJD or abc.|
|13. Enclosures (attachments)||Just like an e-mail with an attachment, the letter sometimes has additional documents that are delivered with it. This line indicates what the reader can look for in terms of documents included with the letter, such as brochures, reports, or related business documents. Only include this line if you are in fact including additional documentation.|
|14. Courtesy copies or “CC”||The abbreviation “CC” once stood for carbon copies but now refers to courtesy copies. Just like a “CC” option in an e-mail, it indicates the relevant parties that will also receive a copy of the document.|
|15. Logo and contact information||A formal business letter normally includes a logo or contact information for the organization in the header (top of page) or footer (bottom of page).|
Let’s take a look at a sample letter.
1111 Random St.
T3T 3T301/01/2020Re: Offer of Employment at XYZ CompanyDelivery: Canada Post Registered MailNote: ConfidentialDear Ms. Gagnon,This letter is to formally offer you employment as a Bean Counter at Bubba’s Bean Barn. As a member of our bean counting team, you will be responsible for using best practices in bean counting to efficiently count a wide variety of beans and work effectively with a team of other bean counters. Your starting salary will be $65,000, including benefits, which have been outlined in the attached benefits package. You will start on Feb. 1st 2020 at 8:30 am.On behalf of all of us at Bubba’s Bean Barn, welcome to our bean team! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.Sincerely,
Bubba Jean McBeanGSM/epEnclosures: Benefits package, full job description.
CC: Jen Yee
Figure 6.3 image description: This diagram shows that the letter is a slow medium and these days is quite formal. It’s mostly used to communicate with people outside of organizations or if there are legal implications. As well as, solicit documents and to communicate when time isn’t a strong constraint. [Return to Figure 6.3]