Etiquette Tip of the Month

Does it bother you when you receive a business letter that is not well written, properly formatted, and presented? It bothers me. Making a good first impression is crucial to business success. You know the importance of a good handshake to giving a good first impression when meeting someone in person. Equally important as part of your total professional appearance is making a good first impression with your business correspondence.

Here's a baker's dozen of ideas to help you produce professional business correspondence, with style.  If you want to practice your writing, send me a sample and I'll be happy to provide a complimentary round of coaching on the letter you submit. Be sure to include your email address for a personal response.

  1. LETTERHEAD:  Generally business letters are written on 8.5 x 11 sheets of quality plain paper or pre-printed stationery. Your name or company name should be clearly identifiable. Your address and other contact information should also be easy to find and read.

  2. FORMATTING THE LETTER:  Use a consistent type size and style that is easy to read and helps define your overall company image. The most common layout style for business correspondence is to justify to the left margin and to place an extra line space to indicate new paragraphs. Whether you indent the first line or not is a matter of style and both are fine. My only recommendation is not to right-justify the letter as it often makes the letter more difficult to read. Take care in laying out your letter to have balanced margins all around.

  3. HEADING:  Begin all business letters with the following information, in this order:

    List the date the letter is being sent, spelling out the entire date in either the American (April 1, 2004) or European (1 April 2004) styles. Do not use any form of abbreviation. Typically no more than two to three line spaces follows this line.

    Addressee and Inside Address
    Write the following information each on separate lines:
    Title or position
    Company name
    Street Address, including suite number
    City, State, Zip Code, and Country (as appropriate

    As a sign of respect, especially for first-time letters to someone you have never met, it is best to address the person properly as Miss, Ms, Mrs. or Mr. (as applicable), followed by their first and last name. If the addressee has a designation, such as M.D. or Ph.D., use only one style at a time. For example, list John Smith, M.D., not Dr. John Smith, M.D. Please remember Ms is a proper word requiring no period to stand for an abbreviation.

    When entering the name of a state type the entire name, such as Pennsylvania, not the postal code PA. The postal code should only appear on the envelope. Follow this block of information with two line spaces.

  4. GREETING AND SALUTATION:  Letter writing protocol dictates all letters begin with "Dear" followed by the addressees honorific and last name, followed by a colon, not a comma. For example, write "Dear Dr. Smith:" Again, Dear Ms Smith is best for first time letters.  As you become better acquainted with the person, one style is to type in their proper name, then strike it out by pen and hand write their first name to show less formality. Follow this information with two line spaces.

  5. BODY TEXT:  The current style is to write letters in as conversational a manner as possible. Long gone are the days where letters were written to sound more formal in an attempt to elevate your level of professionalism and education. Avoid phrases such as "Pursuant to" or "Please find enclosed" and stick with the same phrases you use in business conversation. I like to write letters using a sandwich approach: begin and end all correspondence with positive and cordial sentiments. Sandwiched in the middle, write the core information you want to convey. Separate each paragraph of text with two line spaces.

  6. CLOSING:  End letters with a cordial phrase you are comfortable using-Sincerely, Yours Truly, or Best Regards-followed by a comma. Depending on space left at the bottom of the sheet, allow four to five lines spaces for a signature.

  7. SIGNATURE LINES:  Type the name of the person who wrote and signed the letter, using both their first and last name. In cases where a woman wishes to be addressed a specific way, be sure to add Mrs., Ms, or Miss in parenthesis before her name. If the letter is written by more than one person, include a signature line for each. A second signature line may be used to list the person's title or position, as applicable.

  8. NOTATIONS:  At the bottom of the letter, typically two line spaces below the second signature line list notations for Enclosures, Postscripts, and Courtesy Copies. List courtesy copies as "cc" with the names of all individuals who are receiving a copy of the letter. I like to highlight each "cc" person's name when sending their copy.

  9. IDENTIFYING INITIALS:  When someone other than the author types and finalizes a letter, it is customary to include a line indicating who performed this work. Show the initials of the writer of the letter in capital letters, followed by either a colon or forward-slash and the assistant's initials in lower case letters. For example, RFH:sjs or RFH/sjs.

  10. PROOF READ:  Always print out a copy of your letter and read it before signing and mailing.  Look that the margins and format are pleasing to the eye.  Read the letter for spelling, grammar, and correct contact.

  11. FOLDING:  One of my biggest frustrations in receiving a letter is how sloppy and incorrectly it is folded. A crookedly folded letter communicates a lack of care, interest, and professionalism. Letters typed on standard 8.5 x 11 paper, mailed in a standard #10 business sized envelope should be folded in thirds, leaving the top flap just slightly short of meeting a perfect one-third fold. Leaving a little flap allows the receiver to open the letter more easily. If you are using a smaller envelope, fold the paper first in half lengthwise, then in thirds horizontally.

  12. INSERTING:  Place the folded letter into the envelope with the top flap in front and upright in the envelope. When the person opens the envelope he or she can easily pull the letter out, open it, and read it. Inserting it any other way makes it more difficult to open and read.

  13. ADDRESSING THE ENVELOPE:  For that initial good impression, use printed envelopes that match your letterhead. Your return address should be easy to find and read. When addressing envelopes, use the U.S. Postal Service guidelines for the fastest delivery service: Type all addresses. Use all capital letters. Eliminate all punctuation. Insert one space between the city and state and two spaces between the state and zip code. Again, there is not comma between the city and state. Use only the two-letter state code. For complete details on this and other related postal guidelines, see

BONUS:  Print a draft copy of every letter before it is finalized on letterhead. Another irritation is how letters are received with typed information all bunched up at the top of the letterhead. Again, this shows a lack of care and concern to format the letter to show well on the page. Take care in laying out your letter to have balanced margins.

Happy Practicing!

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