How to Write a Letter that Gets a Good Response

Dear Mr. Smithers:

This will serve to acknowledge the receipt of your esteemed letter of the 15th instant and in reply thereto I beg to state . . .

Seldom does anyone receive a letter nowadays that begins with such a time-wasting, dreary windup. Nearly everyone has come to realize that letters ought to be written to the reader’s interests. This introduction certainly isn’t. It requires the reader to wade through more than twenty unnecessary, interest-killing words at the very start of the letter.

If one has in mind the reader’s interests, he will write as nearly as possible as though he were talking to the person ad dressed. Thus he will avoid the too-formal style of writing which suggests that the writer has a stuffy personality and a routine attitude toward the reader.

It is even more important in letter writing than in personal conversation that we follow’ the basic rule of thinking, speaking, and acting in terms of the other person’s interests. There are two important reasons for this.

1. The reader cannot see the writer’s facial expression nor note the tone of voice that might modify the meaning of the actual words used. So the first rule of letter writing is: Take extra care to be courteous. Let’s be sure that the tone of the letter is friendly and that no word is used that might possibly be misinterpreted and offend the reader.

2. The reader cannot ask questions to clear up any doubtful meaning. So the second rule is: Take extra care to make the meaning clear. Otherwise the reader may be put to the trouble of writing his questions to us and of awaiting a reply.

These two main rules apply to all letters, whether business or personal. Courtesy and clarity are mentioned here at the beginning for emphasis, and it may be said that all the other points touched upon later in this article go back to these two fundamentals.

The modern trend in all correspondence is toward friendly informality. Many business letters, even, open with the salutation “Dear Jim,” rather than “Dear Mr. Smithers.” Whether or not one may use such a salutation depends on how well the writer knows the person addressed and on the nature of the subject dealt with.

Before starting any letter, the writer should have definitely in mind what he wants his letter to accomplish.

In social correspondence: If the letter is to cheer up a friend who is ill, keep it friendly, optimistic, free from bad news. if it is to make an appointment, make the suggested date specific as to day, hour, and exact place. If it’s just a friendly note to let someone know you’re thinking of her or him, keep the tone warm and cordial and include any incidental news or comment that may interest or amuse the reader. In every ease the letter should be written with keen sensitivity for the reader’s interests.

Because all the nuances of personal relationships and all sorts of special circumstances are usually involved, it is difficult to cite any specific letters that readers, other than the ones ad dressed, would regard as excellent, or even satisfactory. How ever, here is a personal note that speaks the tactful nature of its writer:

My dear Virginia:

We have just heard from our friends we expect from Atlanta, that they will not be here until late in May. If you still want us and it is quite convenient, we would love to come for the April 25th weekend. However, since you spoke of it any one of many things may have come up which would make it difficult for you to have us—some other engagement, or perhaps George will be home on furlough. So we will understand perfectly if you want to postpone it. Please be very frank about it.

We did have such fun when you were here and we are looking forward to seeing you and playing more of that fantastic bridge. Love to you and Lloyd.



April 7

Noteworthy is the writer’s careful consideration for the reader. See how Jeanne opens the way for Virginia, without embarrassment, to put off the date for an invitation to visit if the time is inconvenient.

In writing business letters, as in social correspondence, we should have clearly in mind what we want each letter to accomplish before we start to write it. Business letters are written to carry information to the reader or to bring a desired response from him. Usually both purposes are involved. The businessman is a man of action. As he finishes reading any report or letter that comes to him he asks, “What shall I do about this?” So in writing a business letter the specific main purpose should be sharply defined; Just what do we want the reader to do upon receipt of this letter?

Here are a few suggestions that may help the writer obtain from the reader the response he desires:

1. Put the main point of the letter at the opening. If one starts by grinding out a lot of meaningless words, he kills the reader’s interest. Let’s not beat around the bush, but let the reader know at once what the main point is. Information of less importance or the argument for our proposition may follow in the body of the letter.

Put the main point of interest to the reader in the simplest, clearest words, in the first sentence of the letter. This renders a real service to him. The person addressed will appreciate it and be encouraged to read the rest of the letter with interest.

But if the letter begins with clouded, meaningless wording, the reader will feel put out; and if he is a very busy person, he may be quite disgusted and toss it aside without reading it.

Let’s not try to “sneak up on” the reader with a touchy proposition, one we think he may be doubtful about. Attempts to build up a ease and then submit the proposition are apt to be regarded as weakness or uncertainty on the writer’s part. Crack right out with it in the opening sentence. The more touchy the subject, the more confidently and frankly one should approach it, even though we may be asking for a job or a raise in salary.

2. Make it clear. Be concise and exact, omitting statements or words that do not bear directly on the subject. Let’s avoid vague terms. No one need hesitate to repeat the same word in the same paragraph or even in the same sentence, if necessary, to be sure he’ll be understood. Using short words and holding sentences generally to twenty-five words or less make under standing easy. This saves the reader time and nervous energy. It may help to bear in mind the advertising writer’s aim: to make the thought “leap to the mind.”

3. To be sure our reader does not overlook any one of several points, we may put each point in a separate paragraph and number it, as is being done here.

4. The letter should close by asking for the specific action we want the reader to take. See that the question “So what?” is answered. If our letter is merely for his information, we should say so at the close, provided that was not so indicated in the opening. If we are requesting several actions, it may be worth while to list and number them separately so that none will be overlooked. Every letter should close as cordially as its subject and nature warrant.

5. Ranking right along with clarity is courtesy. The reader sees only the cold type. In speaking face to face, we convey a large part of our meaning by our facial expressions or gestures. So the writer has to be very sure that his letter has a friendly tone. If the reader doesn’t like the writer’s attitude, his response is apt to be unfavorable, regardless of the merits of the proposition carried by the letter.

If your letter is designed to induce a favorable response, write with the reader’s viewpoints and interests always in mind.

See how closely this letter of application for a position follows these points:

Dear Mr. Johnson:

When I am released from active duty, March 1, I hope I may have opportunity to join your sales staff and to work out a career with your organization which I have long regarded as the progressive leader in its field.

My specialized training for sales and merchandising, indicated in the attached outline of personal experience and background, would make it possible for me to become a producing salesman quickly. Also I have worked in one of your mills during school vacation, so I have a start toward understanding the manufacturing end of your business.

Attached are copies of several letters about me, including one from Mr. A. J. Jones, whom you know.

I am used to carrying out instructions with little supervision, and I find it easy to get along with customers and fellow workers.

May I phone your office for an appointment to see you when I come to San Francisco, March 3?

Very truly yours,

Howard Thayer

This is a businesslike and appealing letter. It is brief and to the point, taking little time or effort to read. In the personal outline that accompanied it was all the information the prospective employer would want to know: the writer’s age, education, jobs held and for how long, full name, and home ad-. dress; also fraternal and like affiliations, and his status as a married man with one child—all this information typewritten and easy to read.

Further, the letter indicates an inclination to work enthusiastically and harmoniously in the interest of the firm. It has the personal touch by reference to a letter from a friend.

When we write a letter of complaint, let’s set out our facts clearly, but state the case so that the other person may act in our behalf without loss of face. Assume the best of intentions on the part of the person addressed. If we expect favorable action instead of an argument, let’s avoid violent expressions that antagonize the reader.

Here’s a business letter of the sort that nearly everyone some- dines has to write:


On October 26 Mrs. Whitaker purchased some dishes at your store and directed that they be shipped to our address—306 Carlisle Avenue, Omaha, Nebraska. The shipment arrived, but on opening it last evening we found that the sugar bowl was broken. This was the only piece of hollow ware, and unfortunately it was placed in the bottom of the comparatively small but very heavy package. I suppose that shifting of the heavy plates in the package broke the sugar bowl.

The lid to the sugar bowl, marked with a large “30” was unbroken.

The bottom of the sugar bowl had the following notations:

69×55  1474-5 105.30 ea.

On the attached sheet I am reproducing in detail the three tags that were on this shipment. (These giving full and specific identification of the package, what it contained, weight, value, when sold, when shipped, number of salesman and packer, number of the package itself, and other details.)

If you have a representative in Omaha I shall be glad to show him these tags and mm over the broken sugar bowl to him. Or, if you prefer, I’ll send the broken bowl to you in Chicago.

I assume you will wish to replace it.

Yours truly,


Not a colorful letter, of course, but it did not need to be. It showed honest intent on the part of the writer and assumed, inoffensively and correctly, fairness on the part of Kempton, Jones & Company. Moreover, the letter and its attachment gave the fullest and most specific information.

Kempton, Jones & Company replied promptly, expressing regret and saying that the broken sugar bowl was being re placed. When this was received, Mr. Whitaker wrote a cordial note expressing admiration for the store and its policies. Mr. Whitaker to this day is a customer of Kempton, Jones & Company.

In answering letters of complaint, it should be borne in mind that the complainant wants action. If he’s right and we’re wrong, let’s say so, promptly and cheerfully, and take the remedial action he requests. If a concession is to be made, it should be made cheerfully, at the opening of the letter, not grudgingly at the close.

If we expect the reader to change his attitude in any controversy, even though the facts are plainly against him, we must make it easy for him to reverse his position gracefully, without loss of face. A letter of irrefutable logic, putting the person addressed definitely in the wrong, will always be bitterly resented. It will seldom, if ever, bring the response the, writer desires. One way of saving face for the reader is to write our letter on the assumption that his attitude is based on misunderstanding or a lack of facts. Then give him the complete facts tactfully, and finally ask reconsideration in the light of all the facts.

An executive of the Associated Press had an uncanny skill in settling disputes that naturally arise occasionally in such wide-flung organizations. This executive was a studious sort, rather than a mixer. But he made up for any shortcomings he may have had in face-to-face personality by the thoughtfulness of his letters. Suppose he had a controversy to settle between two newspapers in Pocatello, Idaho. He would wire his bureau chief nearest to Pocatello for all information, not only as to the business angles involved but as to the personalities of the principal men on each side of the dispute. From all other available sources he would gather similar information. He would then

think out the individual and business interests of each party and finally write his letters accordingly. His letters were written with such keen consideration for each person addressed and expressed such a spirit of fairness for the other party to the controversy, that he could send copies of each letter to both disputants. In this way he settled many a problem by remote control. His letter writing motto was, “Get all the facts, and think hard about the person addressed.”

Many will recall the story of the man who closed his letter with “Sorry this letter is so long; I didn’t have the time to write a short one.” There’s a lot in it. It is easy to let yourself go, let your words flow. But you win the good will of the reader if you make the effort to save him time by writing a letter that is compact and, at the same time, clear, complete, and friendly. A person who writes too much is like one who talks too long; he’s a bore.

Wide and observant reading will help anyone acquire skill in writing. One of the best professional writers attributes his success, in considerable part, to his habit, while reading, of noting down every unfamiliar word he runs across. “I never let a guilty word escape,” he says. At a convenient time he looks the words up in the dictionary, writes down the definition of each, later keeps watch to see how they are used in books and magazines. Likewise, he notes unusually appealing phrases or expressions. “There is a virtue in the physical act of writing these down,” he says. “The act of writing fixes the word in the memory.”

Skill in writing letters, as in every other phase of human endeavor, comes mainly from practice. To learn to write, write. The art of writing is seldom, if ever, a gift. The best writers are the ones who work the hardest at it.

It seems well-nigh impossible to overemphasize the importance of accuracy and clear thinking not only in writing letters but in the whole field of human relations.

People always appreciate service, and in letter writing we can do our readers no greater service than to make the meaning crystal clear and easy to understand.

Beyond that, however, are the important basic effects of the habit of accurate, clear thinking on one’s own personal happiness. Such a habit will help remove the fog and confusion that are in the minds of most people as to what they want and need to accomplish. It will clear up most of the difficulties with other people, for such difficulties usually grow out of misunderstanding rather than actual clash of interests. Profitable, indeed, is the cultivation of the habit of accurate and clear thinking. And the best schooling in that habit is in writing, be cause one must necessarily think clearly if he is to put down thoughts accurately on paper in the symbols of communication that we call words.

You need not be well educated to write effective letters. Un less you are writing for posterity instead of the particular per son addressed, you needn’t worry about smooth flow or rhetorical expression. Just say what you have to say, directly and clearly, in a nice friendly way. The idea is to transmit information or ideas in the way they may be most easily and agreeably received by the person addressed.

We were once associated with a man who wrote letters that brought remarkably good response, although he had had little schooling. He had two practices he always followed in writing a letter of any importance: Before he started he put down a simple statement of what he wished the letter to accomplish. He kept this before him as he wrote. Then, after his letter was finished, he looked it over carefully for any word or expression that might be misunderstood or cause resentment. He developed such a keen sensitivity for the reader’s viewpoint that his associates said he could “smell” anything wrong. He realized

that words take on varying meanings, connotations, and implications; that some words, which express the precise meaning of the writer, may be in any given case symbols of some thing disliked by the reader. If any word or phrase might even remotely imply something distasteful to the reader, out it would go. He was, quite unconsciously, an expert practitioner in the field of semantics. As a result, the tone of his letters was always such as to invite favorable action.

The golden rule of letter writing is: Write to others as you would have them write to you.

We are judged personally by our letters. As the reader runs through the words written on the paper, he forms an opinion of us. He may think of us as being mentally alert, just routine, or confused in our thinking. He may think of us as being helpful and friendly, or self—centered and arrogant. Isn’t it vital, therefore, that we write pleasant letters that are easy for the reader to understand?

Here is a check list for letter writers:

1. Is my letter easy to understand?

2. Does it state the main point at the opening?

3. Is the tone friendly?

4. Is it accurate, specific, and complete?

5. Does it show an active interest in the reader and his affairs?

6. Does it close positively and cordially?

7. If I were in the -reader’s place, would I respond favorably? 

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