The best way to write your letters is in your own natural style. Having said that, there may be occasions during which you want to modify your natural style to better fit the occasion and your audience. For instance, if you are a naturally upbeat, cheery person, you would want to use a more somber tone in a condolence note.
Let’s look at four basic options for letter tone — forceful, passive, personal, and
impersonal — including how and when to use each.
Forceful tone is used when addressing subordinates or others who, basically, have to do what you tell them to do. You are not asking them; you are ordering them in no uncertain terms — which you can do, because you have the power.
This does not, however, give you license to be cavalier or crude. Indeed, the real skill is in getting people to follow your commands without harboring ill will toward you. To achieve a forceful tone in your writing:
1. Use the active voice.
2. Be direct.
3. Take a stand.
4. Avoid hedge phrases and weasel words — language that equivocates rather than speaks plainly and directly (e.g., “might,” “may,” “perhaps”).
5. Be clear.
6. Be positive.
7. Don’t qualify or apologize.
Passive tone is used when addressing superiors and others who, basically, you have to listen to and please — bosses, customers, clients. To achieve a passive tone in your writing:
1. Suggest and imply.
2. Do not insist or command.
3. Use the passive voice when possible.
4. Do not pinpoint cause and effect (e.g., solve the problem, but do not look to lay blame on the reader or anyone else).
5. Use qualifiers (for example, “might be,” “may,” “approximately,” “roughly”).
6. Divert attention from the problem to the solution.
7. Focus on the solution to the problem, rather than assigning blame.
Personal tone is used when you want to give support or establish or improve a relationship. It is most appropriately used with people you know, rather than strangers, or at least with people whose situations you know about and empathize with. To achieve a personal tone in your writing:
1. Be warm.
2. Use the active voice.
3. Use personal pronouns ( “I,” “we,” “you,” and so forth).
4. Use the person’s name.
5. Use contractions (we’ll, it’s, they’re, can’t).
6. Write in a natural, conversational style.
7. Write in the first person (“I”) and in the second person (“you”).
8. Vary sentence length.
9. Let your personality shine through in your writing.
Impersonal tone is used when you either want to keep a relationship on a strictly professional level, or when you want to distance yourself from the other person or the subject at hand. Impersonal tone is also used when the relationship is adversarial, or to stress the urgency and serious nature of the situation being written about. To achieve an impersonal tone in your writing:
1. Do not use the person’s name.
2. Avoid personal pronouns when possible.
3. Use the passive voice when possible.
4. Write in the third person (for example, “the company,” “the vendor,” “the
purchasing department,” “the client”).
5. Write in a corporate or formal style.
6. Be remote and aloof.
Lenght of the letter
Whenever possible, keep your letter to one page. Today’s busy readers really appreciate seeing that everything is on one side of a sheet of paper. Even Winston Churchill used to require of those serving under him that they express their concerns on no more than one side of a single sheet of paper.
If you have more to say, you can go to a second page, and possibly a third. No more than that. Exceptions include sales letters marketing products by mail (those can run four to eight pages or more) and family Christmas/holiday letters.
For ordinary business correspondence, if your letter is taking up more than one side of two or three sheets, consider splitting the content between a shorter letter and an attachment or enclosure, such as a report.
The art of being concise in your letter writing can require considerable effort in the rewriting and editing stage. Philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote to a friend and apologized for sending a long letter. He said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.”