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Writing Effective Letters

Use this guidance as an adjunct to the Federal Plain Language Guidelines.

Identify your audience

It is easy to identify your audience in a letter; it is usually the person you are writing to. However, you must also consider any additional readers. For instance, if you write to a member of congress about a constituent problem, the office of the member may attach a cover letter and send it on to the constituent without any further explanation. Therefore, you must write so that both audiences understand your letter.

Organize letters to meet your users’ needs

Once you’ve decided who your readers are and what they need to know, the next step is to present the information in an order that will make it easy to understand. Although letters will differ depending on the audience or the subject, your letter should usually have the same basic elements:

Start with the main message

Always start by putting your main message up front. Some people feel that bad news should be buried. But research shows that readers will always look for the bottom line. When you bury the main message, you only make it harder on your readers.

Readers at Department of Veterans Affairs gave this example. When the message was buried, readers learned to turn to the second page to search for the old and new rating. If their rating was unchanged, they knew their request was denied:

Benefits Denied Benefits Approved
Old Rating 10% Old Rating: 10%
New Rating 10% New Rating: 20%

Letters may need a sympathetic opening

Research shows that the tone of a letter does affect how readable it is. A cold mechanical letter can cause readers to turn off before they read your message. That does not mean that we write to a customer the same way we would write to a relative. But it does mean you should use compassion and common sense.

After the main message, use an overview sentence

The overview sentence is about the content. It’s one sentence that acts as a kind of table of contents. If the main message is “Your benefits have been denied. . .”; the overview sentence might be, “This letter will explain why we denied your benefits, what you can do if you think we’re wrong, and how long you have to reapply.” You should present the information in the letter in the same order as in the overview sentence.

Think of your letter as guidance to get from Point A to Point B.

  • The overview sentence is like the directions that tell the reader what to look for en route.
  • In longer letters, use headings as road signs that tell the reader when they’ve gotten there.

Letter headings

Question headings are especially helpful in your letters because they provide the questions that readers are asking and guide readers to the answers. Statement Headings are the next best choice because they are still very specific. Topic headings are the most formal so many times management is more comfortable with them.

Use pronouns

It’s especially important in letters to engage the reader by using pronouns. Refer to the reader as you, but not if it sounds accusatory or insulting. That doesn’t mean that you should put your letter in passive voice. Instead, put the emphasis on the agency by using “we”.

Accusatory use of you Better tone using we
You were not very clear. We did not understand your message.
You did not send a payment. We did not receive your payment.

Choose the right tone for your letters

Make sure your tone doesn’t turn your readers off and prevent them from responding to your documents the way you need them to. Tone is important in all documents, but especially in letters and notices. The tone of your letter will project your attitude to the reader. Although you can’t hear it, tone in a letter has much the same effect as it has when you speak to someone. What’s your reaction when someone speaks to you in a cold tone? Do you tune out of the conversation; pay more attention to the tone than the content; or walk away? Readers do much the same thing. When the tone of a letter is cold or harsh, many times readers will put down the letter and pick up the telephone.

Create a professional, compassionate tone

There are several different techniques that you can use to create a professional, compassionate tone, depending on the content of your letter:

  • Focus on the reader by using you and active voice,
  • Use a sympathetic opening when appropriate,
  • Apologize when you have done something wrong; and
  • Use terms like we regret or unfortunately; when delivering bad news.

Use you and active voice in your letters to focus on your reader

One of the worst tone offenders in government writing is referring to people as if they were inanimate objects. Nothing turns people off more than being spoken to as if they were just a number. In the example below, the only two changes to the sentences are the use of “you” and active voice.

Before After
The leg injury is disabling, therefore, the payee is entitled to benefits. We found that you have a disabling leg injury; therefore, you are entitled to benefits.

Can you feel the difference in the tone?

Use a sympathetic opening

Use a sympathetic opening only when appropriate. For instance, if you are writing to a recent widow who is asking questions about benefits, you may want to start the letter by saying: “We are sorry to hear about the death of your husband.” If, however, this is the fourth letter you’ve sent to the same widow, don’t just add the line by rote.

Apologize

If you are writing to correct a mistake your agency made, you should start out by apologizing for the error. Or, at the least, acknowledge that you made a mistake. And please do it in active voice.

Before After
An error was made in calculating your refund. We are sorry. We made a mistake when we calculated your refund.

A sympathetic opening should be no more than a line or two. The sympathetic opening is important, but it should not bury the main message.

Delivering bad news

When delivering bad news, it helps to temper the situation by prefacing the statement with a term such as “we regret” or “we’re sorry” or “unfortunately”. For example, you might write, “Unfortunately, we cannot approve your application.”

In each situation, you must determine which term you find more comfortable. Is it necessary to deliver bad news in this manner? No. But it sets a tone that may keep your customer reading. And if you think about it, this is the way we usually handle things in person. In person we frequently say, I’m sorry but you don’t qualify for this benefit. But many times in letters we just jump right in with “You are not qualified for this benefit.” Which version would you rather receive?

Tense in your letters

While in general you should write using present tense, letters may require you to tell a story in the tense that it occurred. If, however, you are giving instructions, present tense is the easiest for your readers to understand.

Expressing requirements

While in general we prefer must as the clearest way to express an obligation, in letter we must consider tone. You can use one of the following to convey your message clearly, depending on the attitude you want to convey to your readers. For instance:

  • You need to complete this form to apply for benefits.
  • You have to send us this information within 30 days.
  • You must pay this bill or we will foreclose on your home.

The first sentence is the least forceful; the third is the strongest. But even if you don’t use “must” as a requirement, avoid shall_._

Divide your letters into short sections and use lots of informative headings

Headings will help you keep your sections short, especially if your headings are very specific. Look at your letter when it’s completed. If you see sections that are too long, check to see if everything in that section belongs under your heading. If not, it usually means that either your heading is too general or you’ve chunked information under a heading that does not belong there.


Too general

Helpful Headings

Headings are helpful because they guide a reader to find information. They are also helpful because they help the writer to organize.

Headings come in several types including topic, statement, and questions. All of these headings help outline the document for both the reader and writer. An example of a topic heading is “Benefit Information.” And example of a statement is…

Specific and concise

Why are Headings Helpful?

Headings are helpful because they guide a reader to find information. They are also helpful because they help the writer to organize.

Headings help outline the document for both the reader and writer.

Headings come in several types including:

  • topic
  • statement
  • questions

An example of a topic heading is “Benefit Information.” An example of a statement heading is…


Limit each paragraph to one topic

Limiting paragraphs to one idea is an important key to clarity. Here’s a segment from a Veterans Administration’s letter. The letter and the rewrite are taken from their ReaderFocus Writing Handbook. In the first example, the original in one paragraph is not only overwhelming, it’s hard to understand just what you are entitled to without reading it several times.

One paragraph example

In the first example, so much information is given in the paragraph that it’s hard to understand any of it.

If, due to your active military status, you will suffer a reduction of income and find it difficult to maintain your mortgage obligation, the Act provides that the interest rate of your mortgage can be reduced to 6 percent per annum until your period of active duty has ended. You will incur no penalty or obligation to repay the forgiven interest amount. Therefore, you should inform the holder of your mortgage (or its agent) of your inability to continue the payments required by your mortgage contract. If you have already fallen behind in your monthly payments, the holder of your loan can defer payment of the delinquent amount until your period of active duty has ended, and at that time you should make arrangements for a repayment schedule.

Two paragraph example

In this second example, the information is broken into two separate paragraphs: one about the type of protection you can receive; the other about how to qualify. Notice that the first paragraph is even easier to follow because it uses a vertical list.

This is the protection you can receive until your period of active duty service has ended:

  • Your mortgage holder can reduce your annual interest rate to 6%.
  • You will not have to pay a penalty or the forgiven interest amount (the amount above the 6% rate).
  • Your mortgage holder can postpone payment of any money you may now owe.

To qualify for this protection, you must tell the mortgage holder that you will lose income while you are in active service, and it will be hard to keep up your mortgage payments. You should also make arrangements for a repayment schedule.

Reminder: Remember to show the mortgage holder a copy of your order to report to active duty.

Use lots of lists in letters

Vertical lists highlight important topics and make it easy for the reader to identify all elements in a series of requirements or procedures. They can be especially important in letters. In the example below, we’ve created a checklist for the reader.

Before

When you come to class you should bring a tablet, a pen or pencil, the form you just completed, two copies of your 171, and a resume if you have one.

After

When you come to class you should bring the following:

  • A tablet
  • A pen or pencil
  • The form you just completed
  • Two copies of your 171
  • A resume (if you have one)