Aug 24

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Writing requests clearly AND politely

Is it possible to write politely and clearly at the same time?  Can you write a polite letter that is nevertheless direct and to-the-point?

When writing letters asking for a particular action to be taken, people commonly write somewhat obscurely – using extra words and phrases so as not to appear demanding; giving lengthy explanations of the situation in the hope that action might be prompted; avoiding bluntness at all costs.  In the process, the desired action doesn’t get mentioned at all.

For example, this letter doesn’t actually ask for a mistaken charge to be refunded:

We noticed that our credit card had been charged for the amount of $XXX on [date], and then charged with the same amount on the following day.  However, we had only stayed in your hotel on the one occasion, for which we were invoiced a single amount of $XXX.

To date we have been delighted with your hotel, where we often stay while visiting relatives.

I rang customer service three days ago and spoke to “Veronica” who promised to call me back but I have not heard anything further.

Trusting we can sort this out quickly,


Right at the other extreme, people sometimes write a very aggressive demand in the hope of a quick response.  UK residents look forward to their annual TV licence demand, which is not known for its soft-spokenness.  A fairly typical example begins with the subject header:


This approach is clear (if the aggressive tone doesn’t stop the reader actually reading it), but certainly not polite.

How do you go about creating a polite tone without losing clarity?

  1. First of all, be clear about what you want your reader to do.  Do you want them to respond to you, and if so how?  If you don’t make that clear in your letter the first time, you’ll only end up writing again – and probably much less politely.
  2. Secondly, make your request as clear as possible.  If you want a reply, then say so.  If you want an action taken, describe it clearly.  As far as possible, give a time frame.
  3. Create politeness by your choice of words, not be being indirect.  It is quite acceptable to simply say “please”.
  4. The longer your letter, the harder it is to control the tone.  Several pages of explanation can easily start to sound rather whiny, which is not the polite tone you’re aiming for.  Be concise.

By way of example, try these:

  • “I look forward to the money being refunded by Friday of next week.”
  • “Please send me your reply as soon as possible.  I can give you more information if you have any questions.”
  • “We have already signed the enclosed form.  Please sign it yourself as well (we have marked where to do this) and send it on to the registry in the envelope we provided.  It needs to arrive by the end of this month.”

And finally, a really classy example of politeness and clarity put together – a letter from lawyers for Jack Daniel’s to the author of a book whose cover was very similar to the Jack Daniel’s trademarks.  The whole letter is impressive, but as a sample:

“In order to resolve this matter, because you are a Louisville “neighbor” and a fan of the brand, we simply request that you change the cover design when the book is re-printed.  If you would be willing to change the design sooner than that (including on the digital version), we would be willing to contribute a reasonable amount towards the costs of doing so. …

We wish you continued success with your writing and we look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.  A response by [date] would be appreciated, if possible.”

Permanent link to this article: http://wordsmadeclear.com/2012/08/24/writing-requests-clearly-and-politely/

1 comment

  1. Mike L

    Hi Angela

    Interesting stuff, as usual.

    The licence fee notice is just terrible. It doesnt even acknowledge the possibility that the occupant doesnt own a TV. As far as they are concerned, we’re all cheats!

    And the tone is so aggressive, you dont even feel like spending the cost of a phone call to ring them. Let them waste their money on their notice! As a PR exercise it is a disaster.

    If I want someone to take specific action, particularly if several steps are involved, I find it helpful to put a box somewhere in the communication (surrounded by plenty of white space – no clutter) with a list of tasks, and a box they can tick off.

    I agree that there is more to be gained from being polite than aggressive. However, if inaction is likely to result in drastic consequences for the recipient, I think they are better off knowing what they are, rather than sugar coating it.



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