How To Write An Effective Letter – And Why You Should Do It, Too

Continuing on our sub-theme this week of skills that complement strong personal finance management, I want to cover the topic of how to write an effective letter. In this electronic age, many people have forgotten the elements – and the value – of sending a letter via postal mail, but this skill is something important that everyone should recognize as part of their repertoire.

What value does this have? A letter is very concrete and can be used as evidence of information exchanged between two parties. To a business, a letter means business in a way that a phone call or an email do not. If you need to get your point across and telephone calls aren’t cutting it, a letter is the way to go. Sadly, fewer and fewer people are using this tool, which actually makes the power of a letter today even stronger – it means pay attention even more than before.

When should I send a letter? A letter should be used whenever you have difficulty achieving the resolution that you want by telephone or by electronic communication. For example, if you have bill collectors calling you day and night, the most effective way to ask them to stop is by letter requesting that all contact be in writing (along with a copy given to your lawyer). Another example: if you’re ever disputing a bill, a letter is the best way to get your case across, as an individual who is not serious enough about a dispute to send a letter often won’t get the resolution they want. In both of these cases, a well-constructed letter is the way to go.

What should a formal letter contain? If you are writing a formal letter for the first time, here are the basic elements (along with suggested placements) for what the letter should look like.

Your address should appear in the upper left corner of the page, followed by an empty line, followed by the address of the recipient. This way, the contact information is clear for both parties.

After this, skip another line, center the text, and write Attention: followed by the name and title of the person you are contacting. For example, if you’re writing to Jim Nolan, VP of Customer Relations at a company, this line should be “Attention: Jim Nolan, VP of Customer Relations” … the company name should be understood. Also, this is the only line that should be centered; everything else should be aligned to the left.

Skip another line, then start off with an appropriate address: Dear Mr. Nolan (or Ms. Nolan in the case of a female recipient).

Skip yet another line, then begin your main letter. Keep it brief and stick to the facts; don’t write a ten page tome or else no one will read it. Start off by clearly stating the issue at hand with dates and other specific information, then in another paragraph state the resolution that you wish to see. A final sentence should give information on how to contact you, something like “I can be reached at the address given above or by telephone at …”

Finish with a “Yours truly,” then insert three blank lines, then type your name. After you print it, sign it in pen above your name. Put it in an envelope and send it out.

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  1. Rob says:

    Any suggestions for how to deal with Ms/Miss/Mrs/etc if you don’t know their marital status?

  2. Trent Trent says:

    Ms. by default if you have no idea.

  3. yipyip says:

    Also important is to give a (reasonable) deadline by which you expect resolution. Without a deadline, you run the risk of appearing to be a pushover.

    It also gives a clear time frame for escalation, for both parties, and helps to reduce abuse by such disreputable companies as telcos.

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