I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me, holding an empty piece of paper, saying, “I have to write this letter and I don’t know how to begin.”
Whenever I sit down to write with someone, the first thing we do is talk. That helps the writer organize and focus on what he wants to say. So if you can’t get started writing, perhaps you can start by talking. When you can explain something clearly to another person, you’ve got the basis for writing it. If you happen to be all alone, that’s okay. Nobody will report you for talking to yourself.
Before we begin, I like to break the task into smaller steps – “doable doses,” as James Taylor calls them in one of his early songs. If writing doesn’t come easily to you, then thinking about the whole thing is too daunting. One little step is “doable.”
So what are the steps? Let’s talk about writing a business letter.
- Identify the purpose in your own mind. Are you explaining something? Asking for information? Arguing about something? What do you hope to achieve with this letter? As soon as you’ve identified your purpose, write it down. Then you’ll have something to come back to if you lose your focus.
- Let the reader know the purpose. Nobody likes to go through six paragraphs in order to find out what you’re talking about. Tell the reader right up front what you want, and then make your case.
- Set the context. There are always certain facts or statements on which the rest of the letter is based. You’ll have to use your judgment as to how much background you need.
- Know what you want to tell the reader. Once you’ve told the reader what he’s going to be reading about, then you can give him new information. What specific points of information are you going to include?
- Organize your points in logical order. You want information to flow smoothly from one point to the next. You’re building something when you write, and you want it to stand on a solid foundation. If information comes in random order, you’ll have your reader jumping back and forth trying to understand where you’re going. Nobody wants to work that hard.
- Before you close, repeat the purpose of the letter. If you’ve asked for something at the beginning, repeat the request. Leave the reader with the most important idea that puts a cap on the whole thing.
- Get rid of the mistakes. Review your grammar, spelling, and sentence structure. You want your reader to pay attention to what you’ve said. Mistakes are distracting. If you’ve got certain types of mistakes, you’re not going to be taken seriously. If you’re not able to eliminate all the mistakes without help, get help. If you find a small typo, for Heaven’s sake, don’t be too lazy to fix it. Never say, “Oh that’s okay, they won’t notice.” Yes They Will!
- Think about whether the letter is too long. Look for things you can cut without removing key elements. Have you included irrelevant information that doesn’t move you closer to achieving the purpose? Take it out. It may be a few words, a whole sentence, or even an entire paragraph. Be ruthless, but be sure to keep the important parts in.
- Watch out for that nasty computer! If you are working on a computer, it’s easy to overlook errors you create when you cut and paste. When you remove a few words, make sure that the part you keep still makes sense, and that it’s a correct sentence. Make sure that subjects and verbs still agree. Make sure you haven’t unintentionally cut words you need.
- Put it down. Have a drink of water. Come back and read it again. Sometimes you can get so close to a piece you’ve been working on that you can’t even see it anymore. You read it through, but your eyes skim over whole phrases because you’ve read them too many times. Before you proofread your letter for a final okay, walk away. A very good editor I know likes to read it backwards, sentence by sentence. That way, his brain is less likely to make assumptions about what it sees on the page. I’ve found some pretty embarrassing mistakes that way, myself.
- Reconfirm that you’ve done the job. Try to read the letter as though you were reading it for the first time. Does it make sense? Is anything missing? Is it easy to understand? Have you made your point? Be critical. It will help you achieve the desired result.
All this may seem like it’s going to take an awfully long time, but it doesn’t have to. Clarity of thought will speed the process to a great degree. So will practice. The more you write, the better you’re going to become.