Letter Writing 101

April 18, 2011 at 2:53 PM 1 comment

In school we all learned how to write a business or formal letter. We were taught that there are set rules and guidelines that must be followed and we all got our letters back with some degree of red marks for poor punctuation, spacing, salutations, indentation, etc. These rules are not so set in stone today.

With that said there are still some guidelines that should be used to help us format a solid letter structure.

  1. spelling and grammar. In the world of electronic communications we are spoiled by spell and grammar check capabilities. Some of you need no further explanation and understand the limitations of these tools. Others do not care. For example, learn your homophones.
  2. addressee/salutation. Although your organization may have a “formula” for creating the standard addressee and salutation for constituents, you must honor constituents wishes first and your relationship with the constituents second. If a constituent tells you that they prefer to be addressed as Mrs. John Smith you must oblige, even if it seems too formal or archaic. On the same note a constituent that has a personal relationship with the Executive Director may be offended if a letter from the ED is addressed to Dr. Robert Brown and not Bob. As an organization you must make your naming structure a policy but be flexible.
  3. format. I am assuming that we all use some type of business letterhead for print communications. Although there are some best business practices the format of a letter should include some very specific parts and often in this order: date, address block, salutation, letter body, valediction, signature and attachments.
  4. font. Traditionally serif fonts are used for print and sans serif fonts are used for electronic media. Although i still think this is valid rule of thumb, it is not the only way. Keep in mind that the standard is Times New Roman at 11 or 12 point type. Use bold, italics and underlining sparingly within the body of the letter. Do not use multiple types of font, especially since letters are typically one-page in length and are printed on letterhead which often times will include a different text font than the body of the letter.
  5. letterhead. Letterhead creates branding and consistency. Your letterhead should include your logo, organization name, tag line and basic contact information. Some organizations use a sidebar to provide other relevant information like board member names and affiliation. If a side bar is not used then all information should be included in a 2-inch header and a 1-inch footer area. The footer is a perfect place for an organization to include address, phone, Web address, primary email, etc.
  6. closing. The closing includes the valediction and name and signature area. The most common business valediction is “Sincerely,” but others include “Best Regards,” “Respectfully,” “Cordially,” etc. Be sure to include a title with the name and signature. This is especially important for stewardship type communications. Knowing that a Volunteer Board Member is writing a thank you letter has a completely different connotation than the development staff.
  7. boilerplate. A boilerplate refers to ready made content. In the public relations realm a boilerplate is typically found at the end of a press release briefly describing the organization. In letter terms this same concept is applied to a standard paragraph that applies to the specific circumstance addressed in the letter. A year-end tax statement may recap the previous year’s successes, while a thank you letter may address why financial support means so much to the organization. These should be standard in language use, but may specific in detail.
  8. attachments. Attachments should be listed at the end of the letter below the closing. This is a simple, but critical aspect of any letter that is being used as a cover letter for other documentation. Simply use the word “attachment” followed by a : and list each individual attachment.
  9. technology. Use your available technology. In word there are several built in default fields that will enable you ti insert default fields such as today’s date. Merging from a database or excel spreadsheet into word can provide ease and continuity in your letter writing. Proper technology use is worth the investment of time and money.
  10. proofing. Finally, take a minute and proof everything. If you are taking the time to prepare mass print or electronic communications have at least two other individuals proof your text. If you are responding electronically via email read your own text before hitting send. You may still make mistakes, but taking the time to reduce these risks can make you stand out from the rest.

We respond quickly and do not take the time to review our responses. Although sometimes forgivable and in certain circumstances hardly noticeable, poor spelling and grammar can distort the message or miscommunicate an issue. Your letter structure may be dictated by the style of your letterhead, the placement of a window on your window envelope, or organizational or business preference. Letter writing is an art and not black and white. Take the time to plan and review all your daily communications.

My true letter pet peeves include a combination of the above especially in email communication. What do you like or dislike about the communication you receive from organizations you support?

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About the Author

Susan Douglas is a non-profit advisor, social media consultant, educator and trainer, software and donor database implementation specialist and all around guru for the non-profit community. Susan has worked in non-profit development and management for 13 years and is currently an affiliated partner for Non-Profit Partners.

Although Susan has spent the majority of her professional career building traditional fundraising and awareness campaigns, Susan is most passionate and excited about emerging new media and how these tools can help foster and nurture real relationships with community advocates on behalf of the non-profit organizations she serves.

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