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Most everyday writing is casual. Tweets, Facebook updates, holiday cards, friendly emails —these have their own simple etiquette, and we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them before we lick that stamp or hit send.


  Sometimes, though, the occasion calls for something more formal. Whether it’s a letter to your political representative about an important issue, a cover letter to a potential boss, or a business proposal letter, these require a bit more care if you’re going to be taken seriously. Here are a few points to keep in mind when you’re writing your own formal letter, whether it will go through the mail or via cyberspace.


  1. Understand your purpose


  Why are you writing? What do you want the reader to do after reading your letter? Do you want to change her mind or convince him to take a specific action? Are you seeking forgiveness? Do you mean to complain about bad service or a faultyproduct? Are you trying to get hired? What’s the “ask”?


  Once you know this, you can —and should —cut everything out that doesn’t serve that purpose.


2. Identify your audience


  Knowing your audience helps you choose your language and target your ideas more precisely. I write differently in a letter to another lawyer than I do when the addressee is a non-lawyer executive or even an elderly “pro bono” client. In a letter to the editor, your real audience is the publication’s readers—who are they? Don’t use jargon that your reader won’t understand.


  3. Keep it short


  Most of us endure a constant flood of written communications, and we have a limited amount of time to spend reading it. You therefore have a better chance of being read if you keep your letter to one page. A multi-page letter with long paragraphsand complex sentences looks overwhelming. The busy reader will be tempted to set it aside for when she has more time—and she might never get around to picking it up again. Use short paragraphs, short sentences, short words.


  4. Use simple language


  It’s the writer’s job to be understood. Even if your audience is highly educated, you should avoid big words and long, complex sentences. People aren’t stupid; they’re busy. Make our job easier, and we’re more likely to give your letter the attention it deserves. Formal writing does not require the use of big words. Don’t try to sound sophisticated; try to be clear. Use “ask” instead of “request.” Say “buy” instead of “purchase.” Instead of “enclosedherewith please find,” just say, “I’ve enclosed” or “Here is. . . .”


5. Lead with the most important point


  As journalists say, don’t bury your head. Find a way to open with the idea or information that you most want your reader to focus or act on. The first paragraph might be the only one he reads, so don’t hide the “ask” in the last paragraph.


  6. Follow the rules


  There are rules for formatting a business letter. You ignore them at your peril.


  7. Proofread. Then proofread again


  No matter how grammatically gifted you are, errors and typos can creep in. When you think you’ve finished writing, read your piece slowly and attentively, watching for those typos. Don’t trust spellcheck. If possible, print a hard copy of your letter and read it—out loud—with a pen in hand, marking those typos, awkward sentences, confusing lines. If it’s really important, have somebody else read it and let you know if you’ve missed something.


  8. Let it cool before sending


  Especially if you are writing to persuade or complain, you probably are motivated by some pretty strong feelings. Absolutely write your first draft in the white-hot heat of passion. Express your feelings. Get it all on paper. But then . . . before you print and sign, or hit send, walk away for awhile. Go do something else. Let that heat of passion cool. Then come back and re-read what you’ve written. Is it fair? Is it smart? Is it true? Is it kind? Would you regret having it read on television, in front of your boss and your grandmother? Make the changes that seem appropriate after your emotions have settled.

  写说服信或投诉信时,你的情绪想必很激动,甚至忿然作色。你洋洋洒洒、一吐为快。但是……在你打印、签名或寄出前,还是先放一放吧。先干点别的, 冷静冷静。回头再读刚刚写的东西,你觉得判断公正么?分析可否理智?是否言如其实?语气妥当与否?如果就这么在电视上、老板或祖母面前读这封信,你会不会后悔?情绪稳定后,做些适当润色吧。

  Then, and only then, hit send.