Chapter 10: Business Documents
You’ve practised different types of academic writing so far, but what if you want to send a letter to your member of Parliament or write an amazing cover letter for a job application? As you’ve probably guessed, the academic essay form doesn’t always work in these situations. Business and professional writing should be clear, concise, and direct.
So, you might be asking, what differentiates business writing from academic writing? First, there’s style. Business documents are written in a formal style, meaning that you should avoid using contractions and colloquialisms (slang and informal writing). And second, there’s form. Most business documents have specific forms that you should follow. These forms apply to everything from headings to what you should include in each paragraph. There are many kinds of business documents (letters, résumés, and memos, to name just a few), and each of these document types has a standardized form you should follow.
In this chapter, we’ll go over the style and forms you should use for standard business letters, cover letters, and résumés. In the next chapter, we’ll discuss how you can present yourself professionally online.
When do I write a business letter?
It is appropriate to send a business letter any time you want to conduct a formal correspondence. Business letters are often sent to companies, politicians, and institutions. For instance, if you wanted to write a letter to your local member of the legislative assembly about funding for your school, you would voice your concerns in a business letter. When you ask a company for a refund for a faulty product, a business letter is likely to get your money back. And when you want to inquire about a job opening, a business letter may help you get a favourable response.
How do I write a business letter?
The main thing to remember about a business letter is that you should follow a specific format. Business letters always include the date, the sender’s address, the recipient’s address, a salutation, a body, and a closing line.
The most common way to format a business letter is called block formatting. In block formatting, everything should be left-aligned. The letter should be single-spaced, with double spacing between each paragraph. Do not indent the beginning of each paragraph. Choose a font with good readability, such as size 12 Times New Roman or Arial.
The first line of your letter should be the date the letter was finished. Use the date format acceptable in the recipient’s country. For instance, if you are writing to someone in Canada or the United States, you would format the date as January 1, 2020. However, if you are writing to someone in Europe, you would write 1 January 2020. Do not abbreviate the month for any date format. Place a blank line after the date.
The next section of your letter should be the sender’s address. Since you are writing the letter, this will be your address. Write your name on the first line of the address. Write your street address on the second line, and your city, province, and postal code on the third line. Leave a blank line after your address. You can also place the sender’s address after the signature and printed name on the last line of your letter; however, this is stylistic and entirely up to you.
Next, you need to include the recipient’s address, also called the inside address, in your letter. No matter what format you are using, this address will always be left-aligned. The first line of the inside address should be the recipient’s name. If you cannot find out their name, you can leave this line out.
When writing a business letter, always address the recipient by their title. For instance, you would write “Premier Horgan” instead of “Mr. Horgan” or “John Horgan.” If you do not know a woman’s marital status, you can address her as “Ms.” If a person has several titles, try to find out which one they prefer being addressed by. If you can’t get this information, use the highest-ranking title they have. For instance, if someone has a PhD and is also a professor, you can address them as either “Dr. Roxane Gay” or “Roxane Gay, PhD.”
If you are writing to someone in a company (for instance, if you were writing to inquire about potential internship opportunities), include the company name on the next line. If you are writing to an individual not associated with a corporation, such as a politician, you do not have to include the company name. The next line should be the recipient’s street address. The line after that should be the city, province, and postal code. If you are writing to someone outside of the country, include the recipient’s country on the following line in capital letters. Leave a blank line after the recipient’s address.
The next line of your letter should be the salutation. The salutation will say “Dear” followed by the same name you used in the recipient’s address. If you addressed your letter to “Roxane Gay, PhD,” you can write “Dear Dr. Gay” in your salutation. If you do not know the name of the recipient, you can use the salutation “To Whom It May Concern.” You can also use this salutation if you do not know the recipient’s gender. Use a colon (:) after your salutation and leave one blank line after it.
The first paragraph of a business letter lets the recipient know what the letter is about. You should begin your letter with a polite opening line explaining who you are and why you are writing. Next, state the purpose of your letter, but keep it concise—you will explain all the details in the rest of your letter. Place a blank line between each body paragraph.
The following paragraphs will explain all the relevant details of your letter to the recipient. In this section of the body, explain why the purpose of your letter is important, and provide facts to support your case. However, be sure to keep your language concise. Also, divide your paragraphs logically. If your letter has two main points, you should use two body paragraphs to provide details and your reasoning.
The last body paragraph acts much like the conclusion of a paper. You should restate your purpose and include a brief word on why it is important. You should conclude a business letter by thanking the reader for their time. Place a blank line between your last body paragraph and your closing.
The closing of your letter should be brief. “Sincerely” is generally accepted as a formal closing, but if you are writing a slightly informal business letter, you can end with “Thank you.” Only capitalize the first word of the closing and follow it with a comma (,). Leave two lines blank and type your name. When you print the letter, place your signature in between the closing and your typed name.
Finally, if you want to include any items with your letter, list them after the word “Enclosures” one line below your typed name. An enclosure can be anything from a résumé to a writing sample. Keep in mind that if you want to include a sample of work you’ve done for a company, you should make sure you have the right to share that work with others.
Sample business letter
January 18, 1926
221B Baker Street, London
506 West 35th Street
New York, New York 10001
Dear Mr. Wolfe:
My name is Sherlock Holmes, and I am a private investigator operating out of London. I have read about your work, and I would like your advice on a matter of criminal affairs. At the moment, I am working on a very difficult kidnapping case in which the perpetrator has demanded a ransom. I would like your opinion on how to catch the criminal, retrieve the victim, and save the family a hefty fee.
So far, I have gathered a number of clues. The victim was last seen on London’s east side at 10 a.m. on Saturday the 8th of January. She is of the feline persuasion and has often been known to leave the house in the mornings to hunt mice. She is said to have a sleek brown coat, sapphire eyes, and white markings on each of her paws. On Monday the 10th of January, a typewritten ransom note was delivered to the family’s house. It demanded a sum of 1,000 Canadian dollars. The family has until the end of the month to deliver the money.
Using this evidence, I have reached the conclusion that a native of Britain must have perpetrated the crime. The emphasis on Canadian dollars is clearly a distraction, but not a good one. Clearly, our criminal is lacking in experience. I suspected a certain Mr. Moriarty for a time, but it does not follow his pattern of behaviour to go after a cat. I am sending copies of several notable London newspapers for you to peruse—perhaps you will catch something I have missed.
Your assistance in this matter would be most helpful. It is of great importance to the victim’s family that justice be served, and I believe your professional judgment will be quite helpful in my solving of this case. Thank you very much for your time regarding this issue.
Enclosed: The London Times, The Telegraph, The London Evening Standard.
Cover Letters and Résumés
A cover letter is the introduction to your résumé. The purpose of your cover letter is simple: it should entice your prospective employer to read your résumé. A cover letter should be a short three- or four-paragraph document. Each paragraph has a specific purpose.
Explain to your reader how you heard about the job or internship for which you are applying and why you wish to work there.
In these paragraphs, you should explain who you are and why you are a good candidate for this job. Describe the skills and abilities you will bring to the job. You should point out accomplishments from your résumé that indicate your strengths. For example, if you babysit regularly for a neighbour, you might point out that you are punctual, responsible, and organized, which is why your neighbours trust you to take care of their children.
You should highlight something from your résumé. Because a résumé is written in short phrases, you may wish to expand upon an experience or award listed on your résumé in your cover letter. For example, you could write:
I have excellent time management skills. As you will note on my résumé, I have done after-school tutoring for three years, while also playing in the Charles Hays Secondary School Marching Band. As a band member, I am required to practice with the band six hours a week. I practise playing the trombone on my own four to five hours a week. I tutor four hours a week. I have maintained a straight A’s since my first year of high school.
What do you expect to happen next? Do you want the company representative to contact you? Will you contact them? In the closing paragraph, you spell out your expectations, and thank your reader for their time and consideration.
Although your cover letter is short, it is not an easy document to write. Consider it a 15-second advertisement for you. You want your letter to capture your reader’s attention and get them excited about reading your résumé.
Parts of a cover letter
- Your return address (Type out your complete return address.)
- Date (Write out the name of the month, followed by the day and the year.)
- Inside address (This should include the name of the person to whom you are writing, their title, the name of the organization or institution, and the address of the organization.)
- Greeting (Use your addressee’s title and last name only, not their first name.)
- Body of your letter (Typed, using a business font such as Times New Roman, size 11–12 font, single-spaced, with a double space between paragraphs.)
- Your signature
- Your name, typed out
Sample cover letter
123 South Arlington Avenue
Anytown, British Columbia V1A 1A1
October 8, 2019
Susan Jones, Admissions Officer
Lapkin School for the Arts
444 South Marion Avenue
Lapkinsville, Ontario M5M 1A1
Dear Ms. Jones:
Enclosed are my résumé, transcripts, and portfolio for application to the Lapkin School for the Arts Summer Internship Program. I learned of this program through my art teacher at Arlington High School. I wish to participate in this internship program because, as an intern at Lapkin, I would be exposed to some of the most prestigious programs in the country. As an aspiring artist, I would be proud to be a part of this internship.
I will be graduating from Arlington High School in June 2022. As you will note on my enclosed résumé, I have maintained an outstanding GPA, participated in art shows, and volunteered ten hours each week after school. I have received numerous awards for my art. Notably, I was named Best New Artist in the British Columbia Innovative Arts Show; I received a first and third place award for my watercolour and acrylic still life paintings at the province-wide High School Art Show; and I received an Honourable Mention in the National Art Exhibit for ninth graders.
I have taught art classes at Anytown Elementary School since 2008. When the provincial budget cut all elementary art classes, my art teacher at Arlington High organized Arlington Art Outreach, a program in which high school art students go to local elementary schools to teach art. After one semester of tutoring, I was selected to become a tutor mentor and trainer. In this capacity, I develop original lesson plans, solicit donations to provide art supplies, and provide teaching tips to tutors. I believe these activities demonstrate my passion and leadership ability and make me an excellent candidate for your internship program.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to further discussing my qualifications for this internship with you. I can be reached at (555) 222-5555, or you can email me at email@example.com. I will call you in two weeks to check on the status of my application.
A résumé is a concise summary of your personal strengths and accomplishments. There are many reasons why you may need to write a résumé. You may be applying for a job, to a college, or for a scholarship or grant to help pay for your education. Regardless of the organization for which you are writing your résumé, there are rules that you should follow to create a document that effectively and accurately represents you.
In most cases, a résumé should be one page and should be clearly formatted so your reader can easily spot your personal information and your qualifications.
Parts of a résumé include:
- Contact information
- Additional information (if necessary)
The first thing your reader should see on your résumé is your name and contact information. Your name should be at the top, with nothing else written on the same line. Under your name should be your address, phone number, and email. Be sure you have an appropriate email address (e.g., “2cute4u” or “1337ninja” are amusing to you as a high school student; however, such a frivolous email address may seem inappropriate to a prospective employer or college admissions officer. Your first and last name, or first initial and last name, followed by your email service provider is a good choice: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com).
List the name and location of the high school you currently attend and your graduation date. If you have good grades (a 3.0 grade point average [GPA] or above), include your GPA under your education.
The term “experience” does not mean the same thing as “employment.” “Experience” refers to the accomplishments that make you a good candidate. As a high school student, you may feel you don’t have much experience. However, there are things you can list that will indicate your skills and positive characteristics to your reader.
Have you played on a sports team? Have you tutored at an elementary school? Did you participate in a fundraiser? Did you help organize a school event? Do you volunteer for a non-profit organization? These accomplishments indicate that you have leadership skills, work well with others, and are interested in things other than yourself. All of these characteristics would be appealing to a prospective employer.
Next to each item you list, include the date(s) you were involved with that activity.
You want your résumé to fill one page. After you have completed the four sections listed above, if you still have space, here are some other items you may wish to include:
- Awards, honours, scholarships
- Affiliations (clubs, professional or student organizations, sports teams, philanthropic organizations). What was your position in this organization? If you were an officer or team leader, indicate your title and the dates you held that position.
- Special accomplishments (projects, publications, certifications)
- Special skills (other language(s), photography, computer expertise, etc.)
Next to each activity or accomplishment, list the date(s) of any awards received or when you were affiliated with the organization.
Sample résumé A
123 South Arlington Avenue
Anytown, British Columbia, V1A 1A1
Arlington High School
Graduation date: June 2022, Anytown, British Columbia
Arlington Art Outreach, January 2018–present
Anytown Elementary School
Art Tutor: Teach art to elementary school students grades 3–6 in an after-school program six hours a week; classes range in size from 8–15 students. Develop lesson plans; critique student work in a positive, nurturing manner; mentor students.
Tutor Trainer: Train high school tutors in developing art lessons, art evaluation techniques, and classroom management; schedule tutors in three elementary school programs.
Community Outreach: Solicit donations to support AAO; educate the public about the importance of art.
Anytown YMCA, June 2017–present
Anytown, British Columbia
Computer Co-Pilot: This program matches a high school volunteer with a senior citizen to teach them how to use computers more effectively.
Best New Artist in the British Columbia Innovative Arts Show, October 2018
Provincial High School Art Show, January 2019
First Place Watercolour; Third Place Acrylic Still Life, National Art Exhibit, April 2017
Honourable Mention for Watercolour, Ninth Grader
References provided upon request.
Sample résumé B
701 Front Street
Nelson, British Columbia, V9Z 9Z9
Rogers High School, Nelson, British Columbia
Graduation date: June 2023
City High School Baseball Team
- Play various positions, including catcher, outfield, and second base
- Work with teammates on improving skills such as catching, throwing, and batting
- Support coach by staying after on practice days to clean and put away equipment
- Participate in annual team fundraiser for team travel and uniforms
Kootenay Little League
May 2014–October 2018
- Played on several Little League teams; my team went to playoffs each year
- Played various positions, such as pitcher, catcher, and outfield
- Helped my father coach my younger brother’s team; worked with individual players on special skills
Rogers High School Baseball Team Annual Fundraiser Advertising Team Leader
- Solicited donations from sponsors to advertise in the program for our annual fundraiser
- Took photographs of team members to use in the program
- Help plan and create the layout for the 27-page program
Sports, skateboarding, photography
References available upon request.
- Draft an outline for the body of a formal business letter. Include the purpose of your letter in the first paragraph and relevant facts and details to support your purpose in the following paragraphs. Make sure your closing paragraph restates your purpose and reinforces why it is important.
- Compose a formal business letter to a local politician advocating a change to your school or community. For instance, you could write to your MLA to voice concerns about your school’s library funding. You could also write to your mayor to propose a community cleanup project. Write about a cause that you are interested in!
Cover Letters and Résumés
- Write a letter applying to be an after-school tutor or coach for a local elementary school. When writing your letter, be sure to consider: What qualities would such a job require? Explain in your letter why you would be a good choice for this position.
- Think about a job you would like to do this summer. What sort of skills will you need to be able to do this job? What makes you think you would be good at this job? Make a list of the skills you think would be appropriate for this job and indicate why you think you would be good at this job. Then organize a résumé that indicates your qualifications.