More Q&A on the Art of Writing Letters

This is part two of a two-part article.

A well-written letter is a vital part of your direct mail package. But writing letters is more art than science, so giving advice on this subject is difficult. There are formulas, but great letters often bend or break the rules.

However, people ask me questions, and I try to give them the best answers I can. In last month’s column, I discussed headlines, the salutation, how to begin a letter and where to introduce the offer. Now I’ll answer questions about the body and end of a letter.

· Where should pages break? Whether it’s curiosity or an urge for “closure,” cutting a sentence in two at the bottom of a page encourages the reader to flip the page and finish the sentence. I almost always do this on page one and, when possible, on odd-numbered pages that follow. (For multi-page letters printed one side only, consider doing this on every page, though it could become annoying when letters are longer than four pages.) Wherever the reader must turn a page, consider adding typed or handwritten kickers, such as “More” or “Over, please.”

· What should the body of a letter accomplish? The body of the letter should expand on the benefits, details, testimonials and specifics. However, every letter is different, so don’t look for a formula here. The idea is to make a personal connection with the reader and make your offer in a one-to-one way. If you have an enormous amount of supporting information, consider putting it in a brochure. Letters and brochures should not duplicate each other. As they say, “Letters sell; brochures tell.”

· How long should a letter be? This question always reminds me of a story about President Lincoln, who, when asked how long a man’s legs should be, replied, “Long enough to reach the ground.” A letter should be just as long as it needs to be. No more. No less. Ideally, you should write a letter, edit it, see what sort of length you have and work from that. Many sales letters run four to eight pages. Longer letters can work for information-intensive products. Shorter letters can work for lead generation and simple offers.

Tip: If you want to cut costs by trimming your letter, I suggest writing a longer letter first and testing it against a shorter version of the same letter. A fundraising letter I wrote, for example, tested equally well at eight and six pages, so we knew that the cut would save money without hurting response.

· How should a letter end? End with your offer, sweeteners, guarantee and a clear call to action. You can end with a reference to what you said at the start of the letter, bringing the letter full circle. However, the most important thing is to stop when you’re done selling. So it’s often best to just sign off immediately after your call to action. Here’s how I ended a business-to-business letter:

Ask for your FREE Demo CD today! It’s ready and waiting. I just need your OK to send it to you. There’s no cost. No obligation.

Just go to (company Web site) and ask for it. I’ll send your FREE Demo CD as soon as I hear from you.

· Who should sign the letter? Your letter should be signed by the person from whom your offer makes the most sense. Often this is a person of high authority, such as the company president. But it also could be a vice president, editor, publisher, inventor, marketing director, spokesperson, etc. Ask yourself, “Who would make this offer? Whom would people expect to make this offer? Whom would people be most inclined to listen to and believe?”

· Do you really need a P.S.? What should it say? People like to know who a letter is from, so they’ll glance at the signature at the end. Therefore, because of its proximity, the postscript is in a visual hot spot. And traditionally, a postscript represents an important afterthought, so it’s inherently intriguing. Therefore, it’s wise to include one on every letter. However, if you use a P.S. on the main letter, I suggest not using one on any additional letters, such as lift notes. It robs the original P.S. of its unique quality. And a secondary letter is akin to a big postscript or afterthought anyway, albeit written by a different person.

A postscript should be short – ideally three to five lines – and present an important message, a prime benefit, a restatement of the offer, a reminder of the deadline, a sweetener or whatever you feel is most effective in this prime spot.

Do you have a question? Don’t be shy. E-mail me at [email protected] If I know the answer, I’ll tell you. If I don’t, there’s a good chance I’ll say something reasonably intelligent and helpful anyway.

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