Thursday, September 27, 2007
Write vs. Wrong
Writing is something we all have to do, and yet it’s a task many people dread. Especially when we’re staring at something as dry and boring as a business letter. But composing professional correspondence doesn’t have to be intimidating – there are a few ground rules anyone can master. Try these tricks to make your next letter cleaner, sharper and just more fun to read.
– Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Think about what you REALLY want to say, then pour those pure thoughts onto paper (or keyboard) without editing them. You may want to scream, “I could never say THAT to my client!” But write it down anyway. If you skip this essential first step, you run a very great risk of not getting your idea across at all. Your message must be crystal clear in your mind first; then you can “dress it up” in a way that’s appropriate for the particular situation. And later, when you’re struggling with a tough phrase or section, go back and look at your “raw” version – often you’ll discover a ray of inspiration shining through that rough first draft.
– Get active! Whenever possible, use an active voice in your writing, not a passive one. “She gave it to me” is much more vibrant than “it was given to me by her” (not to mention grammatically superior!). Choose strong, evocative verbs as much as you can (“I spied” over “I saw,” “we grabbed some lunch” instead of “we got some lunch.” These choices will add tremendous energy to your writing.
– Less is more. Often we repeat ourselves, with very minor variations, in an effort to make sure we’ve gotten our point across. Instead, push and pull your sentences like Silly Putty until you can fit the most possible meaning into the fewest possible words. Your letter will pack a stronger punch for it, guaranteed.
– Make it personal. Don’t use generic salutations or phrases – even if you’re sending out a bulk mailing. “Dear Sir or Madam” or – worse – “To whom it may concern” are leads that will steer your letter straight to the round file. Today, it’s easier than ever to develop a personalized mailing that mentions your recipient’s name, company name, and other relevant personal data sparingly but effectively throughout your letter. Your attention to these niceties will pay off in greater attention from your prospect. Speak to them personally if you expect a similar response.
– The devil is in the details. The most basic details can slip under the radar when we’re rushed and trying to finish something we didn’t want to start in the first place! Confirming your recipient’s name, title and address takes a few extra moments, but saves you the embarrassment and extra work of having to resend your letter. Don’t just spell check, but proofread too. Computers can miss the simplest mistakes (like writing “of” where you meant to say “off”). Read through your document several times, and have someone else read it too. If you’re not sure about punctuation or other rules, get yourself a copy of that old workhorse, “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White.
– How do you sound? Next, read your letter out loud. It should sound natural, like it came from you, not yanked from some book on letter writing. The language doesn’t have to be fancy, but it must be clear, direct and succinct if you want to catch and keep your reader’s attention – and hopefully their business!
Writing doesn’t have to be intimidating – but it does take a little time, focus and careful attention to achieve the results you desire. If you follow these simple steps, your next business letter is sure to be a winner.
Allison Wood owns Letter Perfect, a copyediting and writing service in Chapel Hill. She can be reached at 919-923-0820 or [email protected].