Form Letters: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

January 7, 2009

One of the most refreshingly foolish reasons for not offering writing skills training within a claims department is the overconfident over-reliance on form letters for most communications.

Since some claims departments come up with dozens of form letters aimed at fitting every conceivable situation in which an adjustor has to express himself on paper, a claims director often believes that he has protected his department against all possible writing errors.


It’s true that a form letter can be helpful at providing the basis of a letter involving a routine communication. True, a form letter can at least assure you of the basics of format, content, and structure — including a guide to spacing, phraseology and punctuation, but this is hardly a panacea for all writing ills, and does nothing to save time-wasting muddy memos, reports, meeting minutes, marketing plans and status reports.

Recently, I conducted some training sessions at a large Midwestern property and casualty company. As an element of their licensing my “Effective Writing for Claims Professionals” seminar, I agreed to review all of the claims department’s form letters. Since I had already licensed my seminar to them (and had no particular reason to find their form letters either effective or faulty), I looked at each letter with one thought in mind: Could I find anything, large or small, that would clearly improve the letter?

The results of my survey of about 75 letters were that:

• there was an average of seven “problems” per page in each letter; and
• the problems included everything from typos and misspellings to poor punctuation, lengthy sentences, wordiness, poor word choice, stodgy phrases, inappropriate salutations and closings, hedging, poor organization and lack of persuasiveness.

Here’s just a small sample of what I saw in these letters, letters that have probably been mailed, as is, dozens, if not hundreds, of times to claimants, physicians, attorneys, agents, reinsurers and commissioners:

Wordy phrases: “This letter serves to acknowledge” or “We ask that you contact us immediately.”

Stodgy, Inappropriate, or Cliche Phrases: “Please advise,” “Should you have any questions,” “Please forward your bill,” “Pursuant to,” “Thanking you in advance for your cooperation.” (Or its presumptuous twin phrase: “Your cooperation is appreciated”), “Do not hesitate to contact me,” “The above claim,” and its longer cousin “The above-captioned claim.”

Poor Word Choice: Five examples of incorrect use of “i.e.” and “e.g.” (“i.e., CAT scan, MRI, EKG”); using “advising” when “telling” or “informing” is more accurate.

Longest sentence: 54 words.

Longest paragraph: 13 lines.

Redundancy: “Under age of eighteen (18) … .”

Format Issues: ” Re:” lines that do not spell out dates, use of # instead of “Number,” lack of indentation, and superfluous categories.

Faulty Grammar: Dangling modifiers such as “When received, we will give your claim prompt attention.” (When we are received?) More than 12 cases of subjects and verbs disagreeing.

Poor Punctuation: Numerous problems with extra and missing commas (e.g., before “which” clauses); missing hyphens (e.g., “case by case basis,” “day to day progress notes”), missing apostrophes; salutations such as “Dear Counselor,” in which the colon is preferred.

These issues are not all. The more vital problems include wishy-washy denials, tangled phraseology, lack of cohesiveness, and unpleasant tone. Some of the letters, though technically correct, were unpersuasive, abrupt, and insincere.

As the saying goes, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” This is especially true when applied to business writing. Savvy claims executives are aware that an untrained writer can invent spectacularly original ways to subvert meaning; corrupt the intent of a form letter; and, out of laziness, parrot the phraseology that screams “form letter!” to the reader.

Claims adjusters become professionals when they master their letter writing to the point where they trust their instincts toward clear, conversational “plain English.” They become better at achieving speedy settlements when they have had their consciousness raised about poor tone, as exemplified by negative words, aggressive statements and saber rattling when writing to opposing attorneys.

If claims adjusters (as well as loss-control, underwriting, and customer-service people) are to achieve greater productivity, they must have a clear signal from management that effective writing is just as important as, or even more important than, the technical training, the installation of a new computer system, or other things that distract adjusters from, once and for all, learning the art of writing. Although the best computer system, form letters, and grammar checkers may prevent some letters from missing their mark, the human brain, attuned to the nuances — and benefits — of plain English is still the best defense against ineffective correspondence.

In response to anyone who feels that some of the errors cited are no more than “trifles,” I would remind him or her that, to quote an old saying, “Trifles make for perfection … and perfection is no trifle.”

Blake presents one-day on-site seminars in “Effective Writing for Claims Professionals” at insurance companies across the U.S. and the U.K., and in Bermuda. Among his clients are CNA, AIG, UNUMProvident, Balboa Insurance, and Farm Bureau Insurance. His book, “The Elements of Business Writing” (Macmillan) is now in its 25th printing. Web site:

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