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[letter]Organize Your Letters Carefully

Once you've decided who your readers are and what they need to know, the next step is to present the information in an order that will make it easy to understand. Although letters will differ depending on the audience or the subject, your letter should usually have the same basic elements:

Opening Paragraph(s)

The opening paragraph should contain the following--

Following Paragraphs

Present information in a logical order--

  • In the order the reader would ask about it.
  • In chronological order.

Main Message

Always start by putting your main message up front. Some people feel that bad news should be buried. But research shows that readers will always look for the bottom line. When you bury the main message, you only make it harder on your readers.

Readers at Department of Veterans Affairs gave this example.  When this message was buried, "Your benefits have been denied," readers learned to turn to the second page to search for the old and new rating. If it was still the same, they knew their request was denied:

Benefits DeniedBenefits Approved
Old Rating 10%Old Rating:  10%
New Rating 10%New Rating:  20%

Sympathetic Opening

Research shows that the tone of a letter does affect how readable it is. A cold mechanical letter can cause readers to turn off before they read your message. That does not mean that we write to a customer the same way we would write to a relative. But it does mean you should use compassion and common sense. See the section on "Tone of Your Letters" for an example.

Overview Sentence

While the Main Message is about the subject of the letter, the Overview Sentence is about the content. It's one sentence that acts as a kind of table of contents.

If the main message is "Your benefits have been denied."
The overview sentence might be, "This letter will explain why we denied your benefits, what you can do if you think we're wrong, and how long you have to reapply."

You should present the information in the letter in the same order as you show it in the Overview Sentence.