Attention spans are shrinking lower and lower all the time because we’re living in a world that’s all about speed. Everything is being designed and developed to make things go faster, which makes us as humans impatient with the slightest delay in our fast-paced lives (we demand everything from fast cars and internet to fast take-away delivery).
Therefore, the ability to write a quality letter is more important than ever. It must grasp one’s attention immediately, and then hold it, just like the perfect opening line in a novel. It’s no longer enough to take your pleasant time reminiscing about this that and the other thing; people don’t have time, and frankly, they no longer want to read things.
Which makes figuring out how to write a letter that will actually work seem like a daunting task, but by breaking it down into several simple steps, you’ll quite easily find yourself with the perfect draft that will make an impression. All it takes is a little bit of time and dedication.
The most obvious factor to consider when writing a letter is how to format it correctly. There are a number of different ways, depending on the purpose of the letter, but they all adhere to a few basic principles. Firstly, any kind of formal letter should begin with your name and address on the top right of the page. This has, admittedly, become less of a tradition in the modern world of e-letters, but it still makes it look nice and professional and as if you care. After this, sticking to three or four short paragraphs (with emphasis on short) in the body of the letter (covering things like who you are, why you are writing and thanking them for their time) is recommended, before ending with a professional and courteous yours sincerely’ or best regards’.
2. Who is the recipient?
Dear who? Before you send a letter, do absolutely everything you can to find an actual name to send it to. If it’s a cover letter for a job application, find the manager’s name. Dear Hiring Manager’ is acceptable, but by making it personal, you’re going to immediately stand out as an individual with focus and diligence. Any other type of formal letter ought to do the same. Obviously, the chances are you know who it’s supposed to be aimed at, at least roughly, but if you don’t have a name to address it to, the chances of it being overlooked are far greater.
3. What’s the purpose?
Are you selling yourself for a job? Trying to gain business? Is it speculative (in which case it will be even harder to grasp attention)? It sounds very simple, but just as ambiguity doesn’t favour the party that drafted a legal document, it really doesn’t sit well in a letter. You must have a very clear goal in mind before even writing the first draft. If it helps, write down and answer a few points on a piece of paper before beginning:
– Why am I writing?
– What do I want to achieve?
– What’s the next step?
Any other questions you can think of, write them down. By having these types of questions clear in your mind, your letter will automatically become something of interest to the recipient – not to mention the fact that it will be much easier to write.
Perhaps what you should remember even as you define your purpose is never to be too contemplative. This is for the reason that the essence of writing your letter may as well be lost when you think too much of what to put into it. The general rule is to start writing and wait for the ideas to flow on the go.
Tailor your letter depending on how formal it needs to be. Carrying out a bit of research into the recipient, whether it’s a company, an individual or a group of individuals, will give you a good indication as to what tone and style of writing they will respond to. In some instances, the way in which you write could prove to be more important than the actual content. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should forsake quality content in the hopes that the right tone will win them over, but it is handy to keep in mind.
5. Grammar & spelling
It sounds so obvious, but exceptional grammar and spelling are absolutely essential. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing to someone who can’t even spell themselves – you must, must, must make sure you present yourself as a wordsmith. You never know when a letter might resurface and come back to bite you. It’s unlikely, but you just never know, and it’s not worth taking the risk. Spelling and grammar is important when sending text messages, so of course it’s important regarding how to write a letter.
6. Consider your font
It should probably go without saying, but do not write a formal letter with a ridiculous font. This may be one sure fire way of highlighting your personality, but it’s also a sure fire way of highlighting the completely wrong personality. Always write a letter with a simple, clean font like Times New Roman, Arial or Calibri. A bit of research may help you deduce whether the recipient will respond more to a sans-serif font or vice versa, but any of these three is generally a safe bet.
7. Show your personality
Even if it’s strictly formal, you want to stand out from the crowd. Show off your personality a little (and as we already know, this isn’t through a use of a fancy font). Tell the recipient why they should be paying attention to you out of everyone else. Don’t be afraid to say something original, or even drop a little humour here and there (although don’t go overboard, which might backfire by reflecting you as immature, and try to avoid too many exclamation marks).
…and the redraft again. Even if it takes you quite some time, this letter is designed to achieve something. Whatever that is (which you should know before you start writing), the only way it’s going to do that is if it’s in the best possible condition it can be. You don’t have long to grasp the reader’s attention, so make every word sparkle. It’s even worth leaving it a day or two (if it isn’t completely urgent) to come back to and read with a fresh pair of eyes, which will help you to highlight anything that doesn’t read well or typos you previously missed.
9. Be assertive
Being assertive doesn’t mean being aggressive or rude, it just means being clear and forthright about what you want. An employer or potential business partner is going to be put off if they start reading a letter which is unsure of itself. It will have a knock-on effect which reflects badly on you; it implies a lack of confidence, even if that’s the furthest thing from the truth.
10. Be confident
Don’t be afraid to tell them why you’re worth listening to. You don’t have to be arrogant about it; just write in a way that embellishes your achievements and skills honestly. It’s not just employment covering letters which are about selling yourself – all letter writing is selling yourself in some way or another. In order to do that, you have to give the reader something to be impressed by. Try to make it relevant to the situation, of course, but a clever wordsmith will find ways of slipping in impressive morsels of information without the reader even noticing.
11. Don’t over complicate
Try to be as concise as possible without losing vital information. Tying back into that problem of people not have the time or attention to read big sprawls of text, if you write a letter which is stuffed with superfluous information and over-explanation, it’s likely it will be disregarded. People want something that is easy to read. That doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality – you just have to figure out how to squeeze in all of the vital information as neatly as possible.
12. Be diplomatic
Regardless of what your letter is designed to achieve, taking a diplomatic approach can help to soften and temper the recipient’s attitude into one that will pay attention and care. It’s just tactics, really; a way of playing both figurative sides of an issue, and even if they know exactly what you’re doing, it will show them that you are a tactful and clever person.People like problem solvers.
13. Be informative
Use your knowledge to impress them. Discuss issues that the recipient is immersed in, offer solutions to their problems and a background for your knowledge. People pay attention when they find something interesting or potentially useful, and information is one of the best ways to offer this. As ever, don’t be tempted to run off on tangents which don’t really have any bearing on the situation at hand – that’s only going to bloat your letter and put people off reading it before they have even taken in the first line – but drops of engaging and interesting information woven into your letter relevantly will almost certainly impress.
Even in a formal letter, a bit of flattery can go a long way. People love to be told how great they are. It sounds vain, but everyone is the same deep down. This doesn’t mean you have to overdo it (too much flattery looks pleading and desperate), but the odd compliment droplet of congratulations may just help your letter to subconsciously stand out in the recipient’s mind.
15. Be unique
Sticking to a format doesn’t dictate how you can sell yourself within it. Use flair and charisma. People often think that writing a formal letter means you have to do exactly the same thing as everyone else. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Be formal with your exceptional spelling, grammar and mastery of words. Be elegant and charming, make bold statements, do something do elevate your letter to the top of the pile. At all cost, remember that regardless of the reason for drafting your letter, each letter must always have a unique approach.
16. Make it relevant
Regardless of the end goal, relevance and purpose are key. Tying into being as concise as possible, make sure that whatever you are writing is relevant to both your situation as well as the recipient’s. Writing a letter which is completely out of context – and that might be a result of the intended recipient being focused on other things at the time or simply not being the best person within the company to address your letter to – is almost certainly going to result in its oversight. You have one chance – make it count.
17. Consider a hand-written letter
Be careful with this one as sending a hand-written letter is sometimes regarded as too old-fashioned these days (and may imply you are outdated), but if you are confident that the recipient will respond to it, a hand-written letter printed on nice paper and presented in a nicely-designed envelope can really make an impression. It can show the reader that you really care about what you are writing – care so much that you took the time and effort (and even expense) to reach out to them. In an ideal world, this would be the first reaction from everyone.
18. End it with a punch
Not an aggressive one, mind you. Just something that will leave a final imprint on the reader’s mind, if it hasn’t already. Think of it like watching a film: a really bad ending to an otherwise good film leaves a sour impression, whereas a really good ending to a bad film leaves you feeling impressed and remembering all the good bits. End your letter which a catchy, impressive, meaningful sentence which will stick in their head – it is just as important as having a hooking opening line. Perhaps even more so.
So, now that you have your final draft all shiny and polished to perfection, you can start sending it out. Keep in mind that a great letter can be used template for future letters, simply by tailoring it to each instance.
Despite the constant changes in the professional word, writing quality letters is still one of the most important components of your individual package. Afford it a bit of time, effort and care, and you will almost certainly reap the rewards down the line.
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