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A short Guide for writing Letters

Although writing letters is not rocket science it has its rules and pitfalls where you can fall, if you lack the knowledge how to write a letter. Writing letters is simple, yet tricky and the fact that there are even university courses (i.e. Business Correspondence) that teach students how to write letters, suggests that writing letters is more than just common sense and good grammar. Well, you can't do without common sense and good grammar but having only them in your letter-writing arsenal is not enough. There are rules regarding style, arrangement, formatting, punctuation, etc. that distinguish a bad-written letter from the perfect one. Many word processors offer help in formatting and arranging the letter but it does not hurt if you know how to do it because if you don't when the word processor suggests you options, you will not be able to choose wisely.

Also, no matter how good your writing skills are, be prepared to write drafts. After you write a draft and think over it for some time, you will see that there are so many other things you can add, or that can be re-written in a more precise, concise or understandable way. Writing letters in the last minute before the deadline, for instance the cover letter you will submit together with a project, is hectic and if you don't give yourself time to think over the letter, you will certainly miss some of the important points that you would have otherwise included.

Although there are differences, most notably in style, for the various types of letters (personal, business letters, etc.), the basic rules are not so different. Style and letter arrangement are standalone topics and they are explained in separate articles. We suggest that you first read the basics about style and arrangement and then return to the punctuation and formatting sections below.

Punctuation, Spelling & the Meaning of Words

Style is important to make a good impression with your letters but if you want to make them look really professional, small items like punctuation and spelling are make or break. Spelling mistakes are one of the most irritating things in a letter because they reveal not only illiteracy, but above all negligence (running a spell checker is so easy that there is no excuse to skip this last step in checking your letter). Word processors are not always helpful in proof-reading a text because generally word processors do not check for words that do not have the right meaning. Spell checkers only check if the words in your letter are present in their dictionary - i.e. you have written 'male' instead of 'mail', or 'mane', or 'mall'; but a spell checker will not report an error because there is a word 'male'; and it is spelled exactly like this. So, if you have a sentence like: 'When I came to the office, I checked the male.' instead of 'When I came to the office, I checked the mail.', a spell checker will not report you an error.

Well, as far as punctuation is concerned, spell checkers are more useful. They generally report missing capital letters in the beginning of sentences, missing commas or wrongly inserted commas, etc. put still they are not that intelligent to tell you all.

Formatting Rules for Writing Letters

In comparison to style and arrangement, formatting rules are so few that they hardly need much attention. But still, if one does not know them, the result can be embarrassing. Though it looks more than obvious one shouldn't do it, it is not an exception to see business letters in bright, shiny colors and fancy fonts that are difficult to read. Bright, shiny colors and fancy fonts are for personal letters mainly, though you can occasionally use them in promotional letters as well but they do not belong to serious formal letters.

One of the most irritating violation of formatting rules is when you use many different font types and font sizes in your letter. Or even worse - you just don't notice that the first five words of your letter are formatted in Arial 10pt., the next fifteen are in Verdana 12 pt., the end of the paragraph (together with half of the next one) is in Times New Roman 12 pt., and so on, and so on. To everybody, who has ever touched a word processor, such a letter looks ridiculous.

Bold and italic make a piece of text stand out from the rest. This is true when you have in bold or italic a couple of words, which you want to emphasize, not when half of your letter is bold and/or italic. Such a heavy overuse of bold and/or italic is unacceptable, especially in formal letters.

There are some other formatting items that need attention. Technically speaking, indents, spaces and tabs are also formatting but since they are part of the letter alignment, they are described in the Writing Letters - Alignment Rules article.