Improve your letters and emails instantly!
Today you’re going to find out how to learn business writing by writing simple direct letters and emails with purpose.
I use the words “letter” and “email” interchangeably through this article since the concepts are essentially the same.
I have written this article to be a hands on guide for you with lots of examples of things you should be doing and also things that you should avoid.
When you’re done,
- you’ll quickly learn how to identify ways to improve your letters and emails instantly.
- you’re going to know the dos and don’ts in professional letters and e-mails,
- how to structure an e-mail with a salutation and opening a body and a closing.
- what you should write and what you should include in each of these parts.
- how to Avoid miscommunications by using simple direct conversational language.
- how to avoid common mistakes and how to sound more professional.
- and strategies on how to communicate when you have a negative situation and you want to turn it around.
Building A Professional Email or Letter
When writing professional emails or letters, we want to follow a structure like this one.
We have the title of the email or the subject line (in the case of email) and then in the email or letter itself we have a salutation an opening a body and a closing.
We usually try to space these parts of the emails out using lines like blank lines in between them and then the person that’s reading them sees it visually very organized as well.
Each of these parts has its purpose and there are things that we should include and things that we shouldn’t include each of these parts.
Subject Line (Only For Emails)
So let’s start with the subject line or the title of the email.
Remember I said this article would be all based on examples right? So let’s start right away.
Here are four examples of subject lines. Two of them are good. Two of them not so much.
So I want you to think which ones are good and why are they good and which ones could be improved and where could they be improved.
URGENT! Please review and comment on the budget 2021 by November 30th.
Budget 2021: Review by November 30
Instructions to onboard interns
So let’s review it together now.
What did you think of the email title: Help!
This is definitely one that I would not recommend. Do you think the person receiving this e-mail has any idea what the e-mail is going to be about, when they read “Help”?
They not only have no idea what this is about but this subject line causes anxiety. You’re either going to think it’s spam or if you know the sender it’s going to cause so much anxiety and you’re going to be like Oh my God what do they need help with.
And you’re going to open that e-mail already with that anxiety which is not something that we want in a professional setting.
So yes definitely do not use help as an email title.
Now what about this one: URGENT: Please review and comment on Budget 2021 by November 30th.
There are two main things that I don’t like about this subject line. One it also causes anxiety to the reader because of the urgent in all “CAPS LOCK”.
The person that’s receiving that e-mail should be able to tell by reading that e-mail without having the word urgent in it.
So If I’m receiving this email and I know that I have to review the budget by November 30th. There is a deadline right there. Just based on that I know the sense of urgency.
So there’s no need to write in all caps lock urgent in the beginning of the email. That’s only going to make me more anxious.
The second thing that I don’t like about this e-mail title is that it is too long. There are 12 words, if you’re opening this e-mail on your cell phone or even in the computer sometimes you might not even see the entire subject line because it is so long.
So it kind of defeats the purpose of having too much information there.
In addition short phrases and short titles usually grab your attention more. So summarizing improvement area for this e-mail is remove the urgent and make it shorter more concise.
Now you can probably tell that the third subject line is the revised version of this one that we just talked about.
It says budget 2021 review by November 30th.
So this one is straight to the point and it’s still giving you all the information to summarize the e-mail.
The best way possible.
- You know it’s about the budget 2021.
- You know that the action they’re expecting from you is a review.
- And you know the deadline November 30th.
Finally the last e-mail title was: Instructions to onboard interns. This subject line is very straightforward simple. You know what it’s about. So I don’t see any problem with it.
The email title is the first thing the reader is going to look at when they see the e-mail. So you want to make sure you’re not putting any triggers in this email title that will cause emotions that you don’t want your reader to have.
The main goal of the subject line is to summarize the e-mail. You want the person to look at it and know what this e-mail is going to be about.
You don’t want to use caps lock and you want to avoid too broad or too general words such as help, urgent that will also causing anxiety in the reader.
Remember if something is urgent the reader should be able to tell by reading the subject line without the word urgent in it.
You also want to make the title was short and direct as possible.
So why did you think about your subject lines? If you go back to the previous e-mails you sent or even the e-mails you received, do you think they’re good enough?
Or do you think there are ways they could have improved them?
Now let’s talk about the salutation or the opening greeting up the email.
We’re playing the same game here.
This time there are six examples of salutations. Three of them I would recommend three of them I would avoid.
So here are the three ones that I would not recommend.
Dear Ms. Chung.
To Whom It May Concern.
Now you may be thinking why is that I don’t see any problem with Dear Miss Chung. That sounds professional and formal to me. And your right to think that.
A lot of people write this way and a lot of people don’t see any problem with it. But I do not recommend using Mr, Ms., Mrs. when writing professional emails.
Let me ask you this.
Do you think on a professional setting that you would treat a woman differently based on if she’s single or if she’s married? Based on her marital status?
Probably not right.
So why should you change the way you greet her based on that? A lot of times Mrs. is used not only for married women but for older women.
And then I ask you the same question.
Should we be treating people differently because they’re older or because they’re younger? But going beyond these more ethical questions, there are other things they should consider here as well.
A lot of times when we’re emailing clients or people from other companies we don’t know anything about their personal lives.
So how am I supposed to know the marital status of the person I’m talking to?
I probably don’t.
So there are many scenarios that you’re just gonna be like Oh should I call this person Miss or Mrs. What if I make a mistake and they get offended?
And now bringing Mr. back into the conversation.
Sometimes we’re dealing with people in other countries that have very different names that we’ve never heard of.
And sometimes we don’t know what is their gender.
Maybe I wrote my salutation as dear Miss Chung but it actually should have been: Dear Mr. Chung.
So for all these reasons, my recommendation is that the safest bet is just to remove these pronouns. Instead of Dear Miss Chung. I could have instead said Dear Sarah, Chung, or whatever that person’s first name is.
However if the person you’re dealing with has a title such as an academic title, then I do recommend that you use it in your greeting.
We saw that in the example.
Dear Dr. Smith.
So let’s look at dear Dr. Smith. Dear is probably one of the most formal ways that you can start your email. We’re using the word Doctor and then their last name.
Which also makes it very formal and then you’re ending your salutation with a colon which is also the most formal way that you do it.
We usually use a comma but if you want I use a colon that makes it even more formal.
Now let’s go to the next one that I do not recommend which is Hey Jeff.
What do you think is wrong with this one?
Hey is a greeting that is very informal. Even if you’re very close or very intimate with someone. I would not recommend using Hey in a business setting.
Of course you can use your own discretion when making this decision. But I would personally use Hey to talk with friends family outside of the business setting.
Instead for more informal versions I can use Hi, I can use Hello, such as the example Hello Sarah. In this example I’m using Hello which is a more informal way to greet the person I’m writing the first name Sarah and I’m using a comma.
There’s nothing wrong with this way and I would recommend it for more informal situations.
Finally let’s take a look at To whom it may concern.
Sometimes if you work in sales for example you may not know the name of the person that you’re addressing an email to.
Maybe you have look at their website, you have looked at LinkedIn, you just can’t find the name of that person but you still want to send that email. And that’s when a lot of people write to whom it may concern.
The problem with this salutation which I’m sure you know instead it is generic. Because it’s not addressed to anyone in particular the person that’s going to read this e-mail is going to know that they’re going to open it see the generic salutation and the chances of them ignoring he message is very high.
Imagine if you are the person receiving an email with a greeting to whom it may concern. Are you going to pay as much attention as you would in an email that was saying your first and last name?
So that’s the issue that I see with this greeting. Even though it is very respectful and professional, it is very generic.
So your response rate might be pretty low.
So how do you work around that?
It’s the other example that I provided.
Let’s say you work in a small food industry and you want to start selling your supplies to Nestlé. You’ve tried to find who you should be talking to but you just can’t find the name of this person.
Instead of writing to whom it may concern you can instead right: Dear Nestlé procurement team.
Now you still don’t have the name of the person. But in this e-mail you’re being very specific who you are addressing it to.
Whoever reads it knows that this email was created specifically for Nestlé specifically for their buyers.
So this is what I suggest.
If you don’t have the name of the person still try to make it as personal as possible so that it grabs that person’s attention.
So let’s summarize what we learned about salutations.
- I recommend that you do not use Mr. Mrs. Miss.
- I recommend that you do not use Hey as a greeting.
- And I recommend that you avoid making your salutation generic.
Now here are the things that we should be doing.
- Start with an expression such as Dear, Hello, Hi, Good afternoon.
- After that write the person’s name.
- If it’s more informal maybe you can write just her first name.
- If it’s very formal you can write their first and last or just their last name and then finish the greeting with a comma or a colon for a more formal setting.
- Make sure to also include any academic titles that this person may have.
Once again I recommend you to go back to your emails. Look at the salutations and try to find what is working and what can be improved.
Now let’s talk about the opening of the e-mail that comes right after the salutation.
Business Writing Opening Sentences
The opening of the email can vary a lot based on what your goal or what your purposes with any email.
So right now we’re also going to start with examples.
But this time your objective is not to find the ones that are good or bad but try to find which ones are better suited for which situations.
The situations we have are:
- a cold lead. So if you do not know the person yet and you’re making a first introduction.
- a response to an e-mail that was first sent to you and now you’re responding.
- a response that we got but from a conversation that you initiated. So you sent an e-mail this person responded. And now what you’re going to say back.
- and the final situation is starting a conversation sending the first e-mail with someone that you already know.
Now take a look at these examples and try to find out which ones are better suited for which situations.
My name is Lillian R. Claire and I'm a local real estate investor.
I hope you are well.
Thank you for getting back to me.
Thank you for your contact.
Pretty simple right?
In the opening e-mail, you might also want to lead the topic of the email as well try to front load the idea in a nice and empathetic way.
Let’s go to the next part about the body of the email or letter.
And we got out the most important part of the letter/e-mail: The body.
As always we’re gonna start with examples. This time we’re going to have five examples of the body.
Now because we’re talking about the body of the e-mail these examples are a bit longer. So make sure you take the time to really read them and try to find improvement areas.
Overall three of these e-mails could be improved and two of them have a very strong body of the email.
I’d like your input on how I can better assist our client Central Perk. Their CEO, Gunther, is considering downgrading their subscription. He claims the functionalities they’re using are all available in our Basic plan. Although I was able to confirm that’s the case, I was wondering the best way to approach this? Should I try to sell them to keep the Premium, or assist them with the downgrade?
Additionally, I’d like to discuss a potential raise of my base salary for the new year. In the last 12 months, the accounts I manage have reflected in an increase of 10% in revenue for the company. Based on that, I’d like to schedule a meeting to discuss a revision of my base salary. Are you available next Thursday at 10 am?
Let’s start with the first example. What did you think of it? There are two improvement areas to this e-mail. In my opinion one of them is bigger and the other one is just a tiny detail.
The main one is this is just one email but with two very different topics I’m sending an e-mail to my manager asking about input with an issue with a client and in the same time asking for a raise.
What do you think are the chances that in his response he’s really got to focus on this client issue but it’s going to conveniently forget about the raise.
Or maybe he will address both topics but then you’re going to have one thread of conversation with those two topics and then each email you’d have to address both topics and it’s just confusing.
So the improvement area in this case is separate this into two emails.
We don’t want to mix different topics into one email. We want an e-mail to be focused in one thing only.
So in this case they would have been better to send one email about the client issue another email about the raise and then you can get responses and follow up accordingly.
Now let’s look at the second one. What did you think of it?
I would like to follow up on the status of the sales projections for next year? Make sure to SEND YOUR FINAL DRAFT BY THE END OF THE WEEK.
Remember when we talked about the subject line and we talked about avoiding capitalizing every letter of every word? This is what’s happening in this one.
Sometimes when we’re writing an email we really want to make sure the reader won’t miss part of the information.
This part is so important they can’t miss this. I want to emphasize it. And then some people just capitalize it all like we see here.
Problem with that is the same one that we had with the subject line when I’m reading this e-mail this part makes it seem like the person is yelling at me screaming mad and he makes me feel uneasy.
So if you want to draw more attention to a specific part of your e-mail a better way to do that would be to underline that or to make that part bold just different ways.
But do not capitalize everything.
In order to pay the invoice, please choose 1 of the payment methods: credit card or bank transfer. If you choose to pay via credit card, the website will ask for your credit card information and the payment will be processed instantly. If you choose to pay via bank transfer, you will be provided the bank information: Institution number, account number, and transit number. Once you have paid the invoice, please send us a copy of the proof of payment.
Now what did you think of the third one? For this one there’s also two main things that I would improve.
The main one is that this is a huge paragraph it’s so long you get so bored reading it. There’s a big
chance that the person you’re sending this to will not read the whole paragraph.
They’ll start reading it and then they’ll get bored and they’ll just scan through the information to see if there’s anything they can’t miss.
And that creates a big potential for a miscommunication. A good way to think about it is every message that you send every email has a purpose.
You want to sell something you need to form something need to educate a person or you need to negotiate.
There’s always an objective behind an email.
You want to take the risk of investing your time writing an email and then this person doesn’t even read it.
So you want to make sure you do everything you can to make sure that that e-mail is this easy to read and to understand as possible. And one way to avoid long paragraphs is to cut them short is to make lists is to organize your email with headings.
You really want to organize information so that it’s very easy for the reader to understand what is your goal with this email.
The other improvement area for this e-mail is just a tiny number one right in the beginning of that phrase. Don’t you think that number one seems a bit awkward there?
As a general rule we try to write down the number if it’s a number less than 10 and then for bigger numbers you don’t have to do that because it won’t look as good if it’s all written down this huge number.
But for smaller numbers just write them down it’s going to look a lot more professional.
And now let’s review the other two e-mails that are really good and understand what makes them so good.
Date and Location
The Christmas party will take place on Dec 18th, at the rooftop of Comfort Hotel, located at 123 King St East.
The festivities will follow this schedule:
6:00 - 6:30 pm - Reception
6:30 - 7:00 pm - Welcome speech from the CEO 7:00 - 8:00 pm
- Performance Awards
8:00 - 9:30 pm - Dinner
9:30 - 11:00 pm - Party
Dress code for the event in business formal. Please refer to this link for more information.
So this one is a good example of how to take one topic where there’s a lot of information and instead
of writing one huge paragraph really organizing information so that it is very readable.
In this case we’re separating information into: date and location where we have just one sentence with information there, then we have another heading with a very organized schedule.
Can you imagine how confusing this would have been if I didn’t organize it into time slots and what was going to happen and instead tried to write a whole paragraph explaining everything.
It’d be so confusing.
But this way it’s so easy to understand and straightforward. And then we have one more section about the dress code.
So overall this e-mail is very organized very easy to understand. Very easy to locate information if I have to go back and oh what was the address.
It’s right there I know where to find it. It’s a very good email.
In order to submit your application, please follow these steps:
1. Click on "Apply Now";
2. Complete the mandatory personal information (fields indicated with *);
3. Attach your resume and your cover letter;
4. Click on "Submit application."
And then this other email is an example of how you can organize information when you have a sequence of actions and you don’t want to have it all in one paragraph as well. So you can create a list with all the steps that you have to follow and that makes it very easy for the reader to follow along.
So it really just improves communication facilitates the understanding and decreases the back and forth.
So let’s summarize what we learned about the body of the email.
- First we want an e-mail to be focused in one topic and a one topic only.
- We don’t want different topics competing against each other and one of them overruling and the other one not getting enough attention.
- If not you have just one topic but there’s still so much information to cover on this one topic you want to make sure to break it down.
- You can use lists you can use subtitles just really make sure to organize your thoughts and avoid those long paragraphs.
- There is a goal with every email and we want to make sure we achieve that so we want to be as clear as possible.
- Avoiding long paragraphs and long sentences also keeps people paying attention. It keeps them focused on what you’re saying.
- Make sure to use short direct sentences. That’s gonna give rhythm to the email and it’s gonna make it sound more assertive.
- Avoid using contractions such as I’m, we’re, you’re and use the extended versions I am you are we are. That’s gonna sound a lot more professional.
- If you’re using numbers make sure to only use the numerals for numbers eleven above or for other scenarios such as Times measurements and other things like that.
So what you think of these examples? Were you able to identify things that maybe you weren’t paying attention to before?
Remember to go back to your emails and review them. How could you have improved them?
And now let’s talk about the closing of the email starting with examples of course.
Here are three examples two of them are good ones and one of them is not ideal.
Can you find out which one and why?
Please contact me to discuss further details.
Please return the signed copy of your contract to room 105 by the end of the day on Monday.
Do not hesitate to reply to this letter if you have any further questions.
So the one that I would not recommend is please contact me to discuss further details. Why do you think that is?
Please contact me. Contact me when? Contact me how? By phone? Email? Scheduling a meeting? If it is by phone then what is your phone number? If it is by meeting in person. Where should we meet?
This is just so broad it’s missing a lot of information.
You can also argue that to discuss further details is not specific enough. Which details what can we discuss? What else can you tell me about this topic?
One of the main disadvantages of having a closing that is not very specific like this one is that it will cause the reader to go back and ask some clarification questions.
So this will cause some back and forth.
You could have just written all the information in the first place and you’d be saving the both of you so much time.
As we can see in this other example that is very specific.
Please return to your signed copy of the contract to Room 105 by the end of the day on Monday.
Please return what? Your signed copy of the contract. please return where? room 105. please return when? by the end of the day on Monday.
No further questions to ask. but what about the third example.
Do not hesitate to reply to this email if you have further questions.
It’s not really that a specific is it? But in this case it doesn’t seem like it needs to be maybe.
Maybe in this case.
This was a very informative email. I’m not really expecting a response so I’m just making myself available. Do not hesitate to contact me. Do not hesitate to reply to this email if you have any questions.
But if you don’t have any questions.
No response is also OK.
So what have we learned about the closing of the email?
- If you need an action from the other person make sure to have that information in the closing of the email.
- Make sure that information is very specific and actionable and that you have a deadline.
- If you don’t require any action from the reader it’s just nice to have a closing thought.
- Making yourself available.
Now go back to your previous emails. Did you include a closing in them? Were they specific? How could you have changed them?
Right before your signature you can close your email with the closing greeting.
A few examples are:
- Kind Regards
- Thank you
- Talk soon
Make sure to have a comma in the end of your closing greeting because right after that comes your name and the rest of your contact information in your signature.
I really hope you found this article interesting , engaging and that you learned new ways of how to improve your business writing instantly.
If you have any questions please let me know.