This section is from the book "The Business Man's Encyclopedia", By 27 Experts. Also available from Amazon: The Business Man's Encyclopedia.
The essentials which go to make up a good business letter may be divided into two classes- mechanical make-up, and contents. Before a letter can come into existence the mechanical side must be attended to. The subject matter may be pertinent and well composed and yet the letter itself be so arranged typographically and so disposed on the page that the unity of the whole is lost. The display as a whole should balance. Before the stenographer starts the address, calculation should be made as to how many lines the letter will run and as to how it should be disposed on the page. The body of the letter should neither be crowded near the top nor bottom of the sheet, but should be so placed that, viewed in connection with the letter head, it presents a well balanced and artistic effect. This effect is often underrated, being in fact passed by without a thought by the average stenographer, and the ordinary business man is so busy seeing that his dictation is correctly transcribed that he gives little thought to this essential. Harmony of color effect should be observed. A yellow paper bearing the firm announcement in blue, the letter in green and signed with purple ink is not to be recommended.
Letters blurred in copying and wet from the press or otherwise violating the rule of neatness cannot help but produce an unfavorable impression. Orthography and capitalization, particularly of proper names, should be exact and uniform. A misspelled word in the body of a letter, particularly if a mere transposition of letters in typewriting, may occasionally slip in and do no particular damage, but the misspelling of the name of the party addressed may lose an order, and cannot help but militate against the general effect of the letter. Neatness- uncompromising neatness- that should be the first effect of a letter, giving the idea that the firm putting out the writing is thorough master of the minor (as well as the major) details of its business.
In letter-writing, contents may be divided into subject matter and expression. The subject matter is, broadly speaking, what the writer says. This should coincide with two other things- (1) what the writer wants to say, and (2) what the one addressed wants to know. Something which is the a b c of life and a mere matter of routine to the writer in a certain line may be abstruse and complicated to a non-technical reader. To avoid an offensive simplicity of language on the one hand and excessive technicality on the other is one of the tests of a good business correspondent. There is a tendency to slight simple questions asked by different inquirers day after day, which must be avoided by putting oneself in the place of the one asking the question, and giving the knowledge for which he is looking.
One of the most, if not the most, important essentials of a good business letter lies in correct expression. The one thing which causes more failures in business correspondence than any other, is the incorporation of personal peculiarities in a letter. There may be called to mind, in fact, more than one established business backed by ample capital, having a broad field and financed by capable and conservative business men, that is at the mercy of a poor correspondent. This is ably expressed by Forrest Crissy, who says:
"So apparent must be the importance of this branch (tact and tone in business letters) of business systematization, that scarcely a word of argument is needed to enforce its necessity. Very recently a large wholesale merchant said to me: 'I have recently been obliged to discharge the head of my credit department- my confidential man. He is honest, conservative and shrewd, but recently I have been awakened to the fact that his incapacity to write a letter which does not leave a sting, a chill, or at least a sense of lofty indifference, is hurting my business more than would some downright reckless blunders. When he writes a letter granting a good customer a larger line of credit he gives it a twist that somehow makes that customer wish he hadn't asked for credit and thus placed himself under added obligations. And if he refuses to meet the request for such a favor the refusal is so put that it seems a studied effort to conceal a strong unwillingness to give any credit at all. Yet this man has always considered himself an adept in letter-writing and for a time he completely hypnotized me into that view. But at last the steady withdrawal of patronage and the occasional outspoken retorts which his letters provoked forced upon me a recognition of the real condition of affairs. Then I went out after a man who could write a business letter that had just the right ring to it; that was neither so sloppy that it sounded hypocritical or so stiff and stilted that there was no tone of good hearty business friendliness in it. I have found him. He comes high, but the difference in results is remarkable. Of course, there are other things required than this form of literary ability- if that's what you'd call it. He must have business experience, business judgment and all the other cardinal business virtues; but the addition of this peculiar capacity to write business letters that hit the mark is a rare gift and makes him a star man.'"
Simplicity and clearness as an element of expression cannot be rated too highly. The saying of a thing in the plain language of the common people, not only adds to the style and dignity of a letter, but has the most vital element of being understandable. As Chas. R. Weirs says, "Eloquence, either real or imaginary, has no place in a business letter."
Whatever else may be neglected in writing, courtesy should not be slighted. A man may be told nearly anything face to face- it is qualified by the bearing, tone of voice, manner and earnestness of the speaker. A sentence may be given an entirely different meaning by a tone or gesture- it may even be diplomatically changed after partly spoken, to make it conform to the unconscious demand of the listener, and most of all - spoken speech is transient. What is written, on the other hand, is put down in black and white to stay. The record is permanent. It can be offered in evidence, can be dug up years afterwards from a musty file, and discourteously written can queer, not only an immediate sale, but the sales of a decade.