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How To Write Letters and Memos That Snap, Crackle and Pop!
By Jack Pachuta   Printer Friendly Version

That stack of correspondence in the upper left-hand corner of your desk often seems like it will never go away. Some people consider it to be a fact of business life that everyone has letters and memos in this desktop location that I often refer to as Death Valley. That name is given to the corner because any correspondence that ends up there "dies." It never sees the light of day again. Why? Most letters and memos that are written in the business world aren't readable and don't offer enough incentive for addressees to pick them up to read.

The writing disciplines discussed here are based upon the work of a consultant friend of mine, T Frank Hardesty. They have been modified for my individual requirements, a process that you must also go through to ensure that the disciplines apply to your unique situation. Although they are specifically aimed at business letters, the underlying concepts apply to many other communication opportunities.

Notice that they are called disciplines, not rules. Disciplines are practices that structure a related process to make people get better at something else. For instance, a football player will lift weights - not to become a better weightlifter, but to learn how to use his strength more efficiently when blocking and tackling. In the same way, these disciplines will help focus your letter and memo writing skills so that you are aware of the impact you have on others through your daily written business correspondence.

No more than 22 words per sentence.

Some people are impressed by their ability to string words and concepts together ad infinitum. They are enamored by the strength and complexity of their sentence construction. In reality, though, they are doing a huge disservice both to themselves and to their readers. Long, complicated sentences are difficult both to construct and to decipher. Short, crisp sentences are read and receive responses.

Two sentences per paragraph.

This discipline causes many people to cringe, especially technically oriented individuals. Most people do not know where to end one paragraph and begin the next. They look for some hidden clue that will automatically tell them that it's time to tell the reader something different is being discussed.

Think about it - no one challenges where you break your thoughts. In your letters and memos, it isn't worth deliberating at length where one thought really finishes and another begins. Just count - one period, two periods and begin a new paragraph.

When you do this, you will create white space. Every advertising major knows the psychological advantages of white space. It makes a written document look readable and entices the eye to continue. It makes a document look less imposing and more inviting - the type of document that gets read and generates solutions.

Many people feel as if these first two disciplines restrict their style and inhibit their ability to say what they want to say. However, to emphasize how much can be said in 22 words and two sentences, here is the entire story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears told with two sentences that total 22 words:

A girl on a woodland walk found an empty house. Because she ate, broke furniture and fell asleep, the owners were angry.

That's it - the entire story. In addition to encouraging a person to get to the point quickly, this skill is valuable to those who have young children. Each night my two young daughters ask for a bedtime story. With enough practice, that story can take about 15 seconds, allowing me to get back to the sports page before it gets cold.

Use the shortest possible words to explain complicated thoughts.

In most cases, you'll be able to accomplish this using words that have no more than three syllables. If you use words that are sesquipedalian, your readers will have the same reaction that you just had when you saw my foot-and-a-half-long word.

When people don't understand a word, they read through it, developing their own interpretation for what's in the memo. Don't let someone else determine what you are saying. Use forthright words that everyone can easily understand.

To show how effectively this can be done, reread your freshman assignment in English literature, the soliloquy of Hamlet which begins, "To be or not to be . . ." Look closely and you'll realize that not one word in the text is longer than three syllables, and very few three-syllable words are present. We can all agree that the person who wrote it knew what he was doing.

Never begin a sentence with There is or There are.

This is a discipline that I have added to Frank's original list. My reason is quite simple. Any sentence, which begins with those words, buries its subject two words deeper than is necessary.

"There is a hidden meaning in the message" can be changed to "A hidden meaning is in the message." "There is a better way to write letters" can become "A better way exists to write letters." In both examples, the subject is pulled forward to assume a position of greater prominence and better communications.

Never begin a paragraph with We, I, My, or Our.

When any of these words appear in the prominent spot at the start of a paragraph, the writer is emphasizing his or her own importance and de-emphasizing the opinion of the other party. A good salesperson understands that success is determined by taking the other individual's point of view. When a paragraph begins with a "first-person" word, it automatically loses its sales appeal.

Yet, how often in the corporate world have you looked at the memos that cross your desk and notice that every paragraph begins with the word "we?" It is a pattern that, when broken, can make succinct letters and memos stand out and get read.

Never use a semi-colon.

Very few people (mostly English majors) know how to use semi-colons. As a result, the majority of writers use this punctuation incorrectly.

The solution: don't use them at all. If you are connecting two sentences by a semi-colon, put a period at the end of the first sentence, capitalize the next word and make two sentences. Then, of course, start a new paragraph.

Use one side of one sheet of paper.

Long letters and memos don't get read. Short ones do. Certainly technical papers require longer explanations, but the everyday correspondence that you create will be read more often when it is short and to the point. And, none of your ideas will be acted upon unless someone first picks up that sheet of paper with the inclination to find out what you have to say.

Yes, this discussion of business writing was a bit whimsical. It was meant to be. However, try these disciplines for your next 10 letters and memos. If you like what you see, continue to use them or modify them to meet your special needs.

If you don't like them, forget this article and continue to do things the way you've always done them. It's all up to you. Very few people feel as if they are getting the desired results from business correspondence. A few disciplines and tweaking of the dials might be just what are required to add that luster to the surface of your communication skills.


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