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Because you are a landlord you are in business.  Since you are in business you inevitably will have to write letters.  We include here some guidelines to making business letters more effective, which we have developed through experience over the years.  The object is to help you develop the art of placing your thoughts on paper coherently and succinctly, minimizing reliance on prewritten form letters that may or may not fit your needs and may lead to a stilted and choppy presentation.  We are concerned with content and not format, but you will find at the end a number of links to the classic letter formats that you can set up on your word processor or typewriter.  There is no unanimity on the “best” style, but we hope the following ideas will help you to develop your own.  Your own style will ultimately be the “best” for you.

            For assistance in improving your writing style in general, there are many books available.  We suggest one that is available from Amazon in the right margin of this article.  If you prefer something that is on line, try Strunk’s Elements of Style.  It is an older edition, 1918, but still useful.

The first step:  think

The first step in the letter writing process should be to ask yourself why you are sending a letter at all.  If you send one, what do you want it to accomplish?  Omission of this initial step often leads to a rambling, weak, or incomprehensible jumble. 

The primary reason to communicate by letter is to make a record.  Some communications are best made in person.  A letter may not be justified at all or may even be unwise.  For example, gratifying your temper by blasting someone with words you would not dare use in his presence is not justification for a letter.  If a letter is justified, then a careful formulation of what the object of the letter is will usually suggest how the letter should be drafted.

Terse is powerful

There are no magic formulas.  Letter writing is a form of communication and you want to communicate your thoughts in a concise way.  Suppose, for example, that the object of your letter is to get the tenant to stop parking his car on the lawn.  This suggests a letter the body of which would be the following:

“Please stop parking your car on the lawn or I may be forced to evict you.”

Mission accomplished.  This demands 100% of what you want and says all you need to say.  Anything more would be surplus.  Add a salutation and close and you are done.  There may be other things you want to say, but you would add them only if they pertain to the purpose of the letter and reinforce your demand.  You would not write the following:

“You keep parking your car on the lawn all the time.  When I go to the unit I find tire tracks on the lawn and may have to replace it at a substantial cost.  Time and time again I have told you not to park the car on the lawn, but you continue to do it.  I am very disappointed that you do not follow my instructions and park your car in the carport.  By the way, your rent is late and you sometimes leave the mailbox door open.  So stop parking your car on the lawn, please, or I may have to evict you.  This would be a very unpleasant thing for me and I am reluctant to do it with the Holidays coming up.”

Contrast the two examples and decide for yourself which is more effective.  On the other hand, you may, in proper circumstances, add a little to your bare demand.  Suppose we have a late rent situation, but it is a first offense and you think your tenant will not make it a habit if warned.  You might write your letter like this:

“Your rent was received three days late this month.  Please remit the agreed $35 late charge within a week.  We consider late rent payment a serious matter and typically will not renew a lease with a tenant who pays late.”

Note that in this example there are more words, but all the words are necessary.  The purpose of the letter is to collect a late charge, but it also tells the tenant why the $35 needs to be paid, when to pay it, and gives him a motive to avoid late payments in the future.  All of these are legitimate components of the major purpose of the letter.

Delete, delete, delete

The Bard wrote that brevity is the soul of wit.  He might have said the same about business letters.  The first point in this article emphasized the necessity of carefully formulating the object of the letter.  This leads to brevity and coherence.  Business letters are not a source of reading enjoyment.  They are functional.  The addressee may have dozens of letters to go through each day, and will have to take action on each of them.  This may only be a small part of his duties.  He will appreciate brevity more than kind words and perfunctory chitchat.  After you have drafted the letter, go through it and carefully remove anything that does not reinforce the object.  On the other hand, do not omit necessary details.  Use as many words as you actually need, but not one more.

Think of your letter as shaped like a pyramid.  Put your case succinctly in the first paragraph, this is the apex.  Use subsequent paragraphs, if necessary, to work the details into a broad base to support your case.  Conclude your letter with a decisive statement of what should happen and when (see below).

Do not wander

One of the cardinal rules of business letter writing is to restrict each letter to one subject.  The reason for this is that the primary purpose of a business letter is to make a record.  Place yourself in the position of the person who will receive the letter.  He will want to place your letter in a file so he can retrieve it at a later time, if necessary.  You will want to do the same.  But your files will be broken down by subject matter.  If you deal with multiple subjects in the same letter, archiving becomes difficult.  Be wary of a letter with a subject line that reads something like:

“SUBJ:  Plumbing job at 1234 Main Street and tickets to Saturday’s football game.”

Unless the plumbing job and the tickets are somehow related, this is a good indication that two letters, one on each subject, should be substituted for the one.

If you decide that two letters are in order, send them in different envelopes, even if you mail them the same day.  Sometimes, in haste, it is easy to assume that all the items in the envelope deal with the same thing.  When this happens, one or more of the items may be overlooked.  How do we know this can happen?  We know because we have done it.

Eschew smarm

Because business letters are written for the record, it is a good idea to omit extravagant salutations or closes, or discussion of personal or potentially embarrassing matters in them.  Some recommend the inclusion of some persiflage in business correspondence, suggesting that it helps put the recipient at ease and builds rapport.  This may be true, but if the letter has to be retrieved a few years later and introduced into evidence in a court of law, say, then such detours may be embarrassing.  If you must include compliments on the restaurant your correspondent selected for lunch, write them in a separate note clearly not intended as part of the letter or for inclusion in the file.

Terse and businesslike as your letters may become, there is no reason they cannot be friendly or, at least, courteous.  While the use of first names in a business letter is usually not a good idea, the tone of the letter should be as if you and the recipient are having a friendly conversation on a topic of mutual interest.  Where appropriate, the tone may be peremptory, as in our demand letter example above.  Anger, however, has no place in a writing that may be archived for years.  If your letter is one of complaint remember that complaint and whining are two different things.  State your demand and, if necessary, the justification for it, and let the recipient know that action is necessary within a limited time.  Do this courteously.

Close your letter with a crisp and positive short sentence or paragraph suggesting what should happen next and who should do it.  Boilerplate like “thank you for your courtesy and cooperation [etc.]” is definitely falling into disfavor.  Use a strong closing sentence like the following:

“I believe I have described our conversation accurately.  If you have anything to add, please let me know immediately.”

“Please include the suggested clause in your draft lease and send me a copy as soon as you can.”

“We will store your abandoned personal property on the premises for 15 days.  If you do not retrieve it within that time we will dispose of it.”

            For the complimentary close, “sincerely” or “very truly yours” will suffice.

Wait if you can

Once your letter is dropped in the mailbox or you press the “send” button on your email screen, it cannot be recalled and will be out there for a long time.  For this reason, our final suggestion is to allow the letter to sit on your desk for a day and reread it before you send it.  Sometimes this is not possible, and if it is a routine matter it is usually not necessary.  If the letter is important, however, and time permits, it is always a good idea.  People are sometimes amazed at what they have written, especially if they were angry at the time they wrote it, when they go back and read it after even a brief lapse of time.

Business letters are generally written in time-honored formats.  Using them can enhance your credibility with correspondents and is a sign of courtesy to those who rely on such formats in setting up many of their clerical routines.  You can find examples of these formats and instructions on their use at the following links.  All of them are generally accepted for business use and which one you decide to use is a matter of personal preference.

Business Envelope Parts  

Downloadable Sample Letters  

Full Block Format  

Modified Block Format

Modified Semi-Block Format  

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