Answers to 5 Common Questions About Writing

By Gary Blake | March 2, 2018

Are there any questions I can ask myself before starting to write that will help me focus my message?

Your effectiveness as a writer depends on how well you identify the reader and respond to his or her needs. Before you begin to write, ask yourself the following questions to help you focus on your reader:

  • Who is your reader?
  • Who else is likely to read what you’ve written?
  • What do you want your reader to know, do, or believe as a result of your communication?
  • What is your reader’s attitude toward you and toward the subject about which you are writing?
  • How much detail does the reader require?
  • Which form of organization will persuade the reader to accomplish the purpose?
  • What specific style and tone will the reader best respond to?

What is the most appropriate salutation in a business letter?

There are several possible salutations and you need to find one that suits your relationship with the reader.

If you are on a first-name basis with the reader, your salutation will reflect that: “Dear Bob,”

The comma warms up the message and may be used along with the first name of the reader. If you are writing to a stranger or to anyone who you are on a last-name basis with, use a colon (e.g., Dear Mr. Fitzgerald:)

Stay away from the all-purpose and impersonal salutations “Dear Sir or Madam:” or “To Whom It May Concern:”

If you want to address a woman who has used Miss or Mrs. in her correspondence with you, you may mirror that in your salutation: “Dear Miss Jones” or Dear Mrs. Webb.” In all other cases, defer to “Dear Ms. Jones.,” since “Ms.” does not reveal marital status, which has its pluses in the world of business.

If you have received a letter from a person whose name does not reveal the person’s sex (e.g., Terry Jones, Leslie Smith), then you need to have “Dear Terry Jones:” as your salutation.

People sometimes get concerned that the word “dear” is old-fashioned because you are not, strictly speaking, “dear” to your reader. Maybe this is why e-mail messages often leave out “Dear” and may just begin with a name (e.g., Mel, I’m writing to you today …”

There are special salutations used when one writes to a doctor, a judge, a clergyman or high ranking officeholder. Those, we’ll discuss in another section.

Which closing is the best: Sincerely? Sincerely yours? Cordially? Best regards? Very truly yours? Yours sincerely, or Best wishes?

I usually close with “Sincerely,”

“Sincerely yours,” sounds almost embarrassingly intimate in 21st century parlance, and the same can be said for “Very truly yours.”

Are you really very truly “theirs”? This same logic knocks out the inverted “Yours sincerely,” as well.

While “Regards” does add a dollop of friendliness to a business message, “Best regards,” seems to overdo it; after all, what other kind of regards can there be? Using “Cordially” as a close seems as antiquated as the word “cordial.” It has the academic smell of an out-of date Gregg Manual. While I believe it is nice to be “cordial,” few people use the word and so the closing, “Cordially,” calls attention to itself.

What’s the purpose of a RE line, how is it written and, in general, what type of information should it contain?

A “RE” line (“Regarding”) helps line up important information for the reader prior to reading the actual document. For example, a “RE” line in insurance may tell the reader the date of the loss, the policy number, the name of the policy holder and the dates the policy is in effect.

In memos, a “RE” line can elaborate on a “Subject Line.” So, if the subject of the memo is “Training, “the RE line may be “December 15th Meeting to Discuss Budget for 2012.” The RE line focuses the reader on the specifics to be elaborated on in the message itself.

When you are tempted to label a memo with a general idea (e.g. “Bad Faith Lawsuits,” the RE Line, in a sense is asking for more details: What about “Bad Faith Lawsuits”? This may prompt you to be more specific in writing your RE line: “9 a.m. Meeting to Discuss Strategy for the Smith Bad Faith Lawsuit.” Now, the reader knows what the message will be about!

Should I use “cc” when carbon paper has been obsolete for a generation? Is there a more acceptable modern substitute?

Although there hasn’t been any carbon paper in offices for a generation or more, the acronym “cc” is still around. Part of this is due to its being innocuous and handy. Maybe that’s why Microsoft Word uses it when offering memo and e-mail formats to word processor users.

Some might argue that “cc” stands for “courtesy copy” and can, therefore, be used with impunity. But most of us know that the phrase relates to “carbon copy.”

Like all antiquated words, phrases or acronyms, “cc” has a more modern substitute that doesn’t link it to its carbon-dated past. You can write just “Copy:” or “Copy to:” and it will do the trick.

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About Gary Blake

Gary Blake is director of The Communication Workshop, offering claims writing webinars and seminars to claims professionals throughout the US, Bermuda, Canada, and the UK. Blake is the author of The Elements of Business Writing (Pearson Education), used at more than 100 insurance companies. He has written about claims writing for a number of industry publications. His e-mail is More from Gary Blake