The writing of business letters calls for two classes of skills. First, we need to know how to lay out a business letter in acceptance form, and be thoroughly familiar with it, so that in practically every letter we write we use the standard layout. There will always be the odd letter that for some reason is non-standard, but in general we should write naturally in the well-tried, standard way, so that our correspondents will feet at ease with the letter when it arrives. The other skill is the ability to write in good English, with the letter’s subject matter falling into clear paragraphs, each of which is written in lucid sentences. The ability to write in sentences, both simple sentences and more complex sentences, ensures that each part of the letter expresses a complete thought, or a group o related thoughts. This enables our correspondent to follow the points we are making, in logical steps, and to arrive at the end of the letter with a clear understanding of our point of view on the matter, or matters, that we have raised.
These two aspects require a great deal of explanation, and we shall learn the skills best if we understand the reasons behind the various practices that have been adopted over the years. We will therefore start by considering the legal aspects of business correspondence.
The legal aspects of business correspondence
Almost all business activity is contractual in nature. This means that the two people engaged in any particular transaction are undertaking certain obligations to one another and at the same time acquiring certain rights. Thus the furniture manufacturer who agrees to supply some of his/her products to a wholesaler is entering into a transaction by which he/she accepts an obligation to supply the goods specified in return for a right to receive a monetary payment called ‘the price’. Where a service is to be supplied, the arrangement is just the same. For example, a security company agrees to protect premises with its security guards and specialist devices, in return for an agreed contractual fee.
Should any dispute arise, it can be settled by going to court, with the aggrieved party suing the other party. To sue someone is to summon them to court, to show why you should not have the justice you are seeking. The judge will look at correspondence that has passed between you (including any document such as contracts, invoices, memos, etc.) and will pronounce judgment in the matter. It is the legal nature of correspondence that requires setting out the correspondence in a standard form of layout. The chief points are:
1) The names and addresses of both parties to the contract must be stated on all correspondence.
2) All correspondence must be clearly dated.
3) To assist in tracing correspondence, it is usual to give references at the top of the letter.
4) To make the subject matter of the letter clear, it is usual to give a subject heading at the start of the letter.
5) To start the letter itself, we need some sort of greeting. This is called the salutation, and may be a general greeting, such as Dear Sir.
6) We then have a number of paragraphs that deal with the matter in hand.
7) Finally, we need a concluding section. This is called ‘the complimentary close’ or ‘subscription’.
8) If copies are being sent to other departments, there may be a list of their names, headed CC (copies circulated).
If all these details are included, the court will have no difficulty understanding what the parties have done. Clearly we do not expect to finish up in court when we start to deal with a supplier or customer, but in case we do, the formal layout described will serve as evidence.