The Perfect Business Letter

When sitting down to complete a business letter assignment in school, students know intuitively that they are engaging in a type of writing that is much different from the typical school assignment. One goal of this workshop is to upgrade that intuitive understanding to conscious status and, by doing so, sharpen your understanding of the distinct differences between business and academic writing that must be observed asbiz letter you transition between the two worlds.

School Writing v. Business Writing

It may sound crass, but the difference between the two can be summarized simply: In school you write to get grades. In the real world, you write to do your job.

It's helpful to think of most school writing as a type of exam: You write to demonstrate to a specific teacher that you understand and can use material in a specific discipline. Those who become outstanding writers in school have usually mastered an important skill of audience analysis: figuring out exactly what an audience of one (the teacher) wants and how he or she wants it delivered.

The audience of one in school becomes the audience of many in the work world. Moreover, everyone who may read your business writing will not be known to you. Especially when your business writing travels outside the company, as it does when in letter format, you have little idea of how many people may read it, much less who they are. And the real kicker: Unlike teachers, few in the business world get paid to read your writing no matter how poor it is. Other key differences include:


Business  Writing

           Academic  Writing


Business writing seeks to communicate work-related objectives and practices that help achieve a business-related goal.

Primary purpose is to convey to the teacher /professor mastery of the subject and correctness of expession.


In business writing priority is placed on using plain, direct language so that the greatest degree of clarity is achieved for the highest number of people.

In academic writing, emphasis is placed on depth and complexity of ideas and evidence, written for an expert audience that expects dense prose.


Business writing seeks understanding and agreement between parties and provides all information necessary for readers to take action, if action is required.

Academic writing done by students seeks to impress upon the evaluator that the student understands the concepts and has mastered information relevant to the subject.

Clearly, when authoring a business document, you are taking on a higher degree of responsibility because of potential consequences, both positive and negative, that the writing can have. These consequences are particularly serious for the writer since the lifespan of whatever you write in the work place is potentially your entire career, compared to the duration of a course in school.

How to Create Your Business Letter

These inherent differences between the two worlds of writing, business and academic, are also reflected in the steps successful writers follow when creating real-world documents like business letters.

It's helpful to divide your audience into primary and secondary members. Your primary audience is those whom you are certain will read what you write. The secondary audience is those who may be likely to read it. Your task is to speak directly to the needs of the primary audience while keeping in mind this secondary audience: what they know about the topic and their possible attitudes.
In order for your writing and its purpose to be clear for your audience, it must be twice as clear for you, the writer. Good business writers can provide sharp, succinct answers to the question: What do I want my readers to know and/or do after reading what I write? Write the answer down and filter all writing choices through its prism.

Based on the crystal clear idea of what the writing hopes to achieve, the outline represents how the writer will achieve it by arranging information and instructions in the exact order the audience should  encounter them for best effect.

The formats for business and technical writing are well known and expected by your audience. These standard formats are usually (1) adhered to rigorously and (2) are modified by any guidelines you have been given by your organization.

The first draft is your first opportunity to combine all of the above. However, it should be far from your last. Gone are the days of "once and done" the night before the assignment is due. Especially important is building in some time for a draft to get cold before you revisit with fresh eyes.

As the old saying goes: "There are two types of business writers--those who seek feedback before they send something out and those who work in the mail room." Never let your audience be the second set of eyes to see what you have written. Inbetween yourself and your audience, insert a knowledgeable person who will act as a proxy for your audience and give you honest feeback .

Business Letter Styles

The two most common formats of business letters today are the full-block format and modified-block format (see below). Note that the full-block format should be used only with letterhead. One variation on these two styles includes indenting paragraphs in the body section. As always, follow the style preferred by your organization unless there is a clear reason not to.

Example of Full-Block Format

full block

Example of Modified-Block Format

modified block

Letter images from Alred, Brusaw & Oliu, The Technical Writer's Companion, 3rd ed..
Bedford-St. Martins, 2002.