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Style: Topping and tailing
by David Blakey

An old-fashioned technique may improve some of your business letters.
[Monday 16 September 2002]



You should not need me to describe the layout of a standard business letter. It will usually be on letterhead and will include:
  • the date;
  • the name and address of the person to whom it will be sent;
  • a greeting;
  • a heading;
  • the main body of the letter;
  • a closing;
  • the signature of the writer; and
  • the signature block.
Today, all of these are aligned to the left, except for the heading, which is centred, and the main body, which may be justified.

Consider the following letter.
Anna Smith
XYZ Limited
PO Box 74-235
Auckland

Dear Anna

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood


I have pleasure in inviting you to attend the opening of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood exhibition as our guest on 16 September at 7pm.

You may know that we are sponsoring this important exhibition at the Auckland City Art Gallery.

Please let me know if you will attend. I look forward to seeing you there.

Yours sincerely



David Blakey
Managing Consultant


This is a letter in which an old-fashioned technique can be used to great effect.

Anna Smith
XYZ Limited
PO Box 74-235
Auckland


Handwriting
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood


I have pleasure in inviting you to attend the opening of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood exhibition as our guest on 16 September at 7pm.

You may know that we are sponsoring this important exhibition at the Auckland City Art Gallery.

Please let me know if you will attend. I look forward to seeing you there.

Handwriting

David Blakey
Managing Consultant


This is how many letters looked a few years ago. Gradually, the greeting - “Dear Anna” - and the closing - “Yours sincerely, etc” - were handwritten less frequently. Today, most business letters are completely printed, except for the actual signature, of course.

When to do it

Let's look at when you should consider writing the greeting and closing by hand.

One situation is the example above. This is an invitation to an event that is not strictly business. There may be business discussions at the event, but the event can be regarded as social rather than business. Writing the greeting and closing by hand presents the invitation well. Anna will notice that her name has been handwritten and this will increase the “warmth” of the invitation. She may feel special because I bothered to write to her personally. She may feel that I am a friendly person.

A second situation is when your are writing to someone who is a friend. I could write a letter about business issues to Anna if she were a personal friend and write the greeting and closing by hand. You do need to be able to distinguish between a friend and a business acquaintance.

A third - and rarer - situation is when you want to establish that you are the sole author of the letter. Many senior consultants sign letters that junior consultants have written. Many chief executives sign letters that their personal assistants have written. Your signature at the bottom of a letter means that you are taking responsibility for the content of the letter. If you write the greeting and closing by hand, it implies that you have written the letter yourself. In the first example, we have a standard invitation that you personalize by handwriting; in this third example, we have a letter written specifically for a single person. This kind of letter cannot contain standard paragraphs. All the content must have been written by you. In this case, the printed signature block should show only your name and job title; it should not be “for” or “for and on behalf of”your company and you should not write anything like that in by hand.

How to do it

The simplest way to prepare a letter like this is to leave enough space for the greeting to be written in before you write the heading, and then to leave enough space for two handwritten lines before the signature block. If you have never done this before, then print out a copy of the letter and see if you have left enough room. Once you have the spacing right, you can print out a copy on letterhead and see how it all looks when you have written in the greeting and closing. When it looks good, note how much space you will need to leave for the greeting and closing in future. You can save it as a template for your word processor.

You might try having your name in bold - although not your job title - to see if this improves the overall appearance.

You should use a fountain pen. If you do not have one, then a ballpoint pen will do. Do not use fibretip pens. They draw broader lines than a ballpoint pen, without the variation in width or intensity of a fountain pen.

Use blue ink. Sometimes, on a black or grey letterhead, black ink can look very effective. Mostly, a dark blue will look better on any colour of letterhead. Do not match the colour of the ink to the colour of the letterhead if the letterhead is any other colour except blue or black. Do not use green or red ink. Avoid violet unless it really does look good.

Write the greeting and the closing quickly and as clearly as you can. You should not write them slowly and neatly. You should not write them so fast that they are merely scrawls. I usually practice by moving my hand in small clockwise circles before I write, so I will produce a fairly fluid effect.

Keep the greeting straightforward. Just “Dear” and their first name are enough. Do not slip into Victorian phrases, such as “My dear Anna”.

Keep the closing straightforward, too. “Regards” is my own preferred closing, as I use it on emails as well. You can have “Best wishes” or “Sincerely”. Avoid getting Victorian here, too. Don't write that you remain their most humble and obedient servant, even as a joke.

For your name, don't add any flourishes, such as a series of figures of eight under a “y”.

Do not add emoticons. Transforming the dot over an “i” into a smiley face looks horrible.

When not to do it

There are some circumstances when you should avoid a handwritten greeting and closing.

Do not use them for impersonal business letters. A letter that accompanies a formal report should not use them. The letter is likely to be copied to other people. Remember that the report has been commissioned by the person's company, rather than by the person themselves.

Finally, think carefully before using this style for more than a few letters at a time. It may be easy to do for single letters, but you can tire if you have to write several dozen invitations like the one at the top of this article. You will have to “top and tail” each one yourself, and you do not want to make mistakes or to begin to write in a scrawl. Do not try to write the greeting and to include the closing as an image; the difference will be noticeable.


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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Copyright © 2002 The Consulting Journal.