Letter Writing -- Organizational Plans

Good News and Bad News Letters


Direct Requests
Assumption: audience will respond positively
Audience: Eager or interested

Plan: Direct
1st - state the request or main idea
2nd – provide an explanation, giving necessary details
3rd – close with a cordial request for specific action

Resist beginning with a personal introduction. Instead, state what you want in the first paragraph and use the introductory material in the explanation. Even though you expect a favorable response, be polite and patient.

The middle explains the request. Why do you want this? What will you use it for? This helps your reader provide you with correct and adequate information. Sometimes it is helpful to list questions you need answered.

In the closing, clearly restate your request. Provide specifics like time limits, specific address to send to, other details. Close with expression of appreciation, goodwill.

For routine requests:

What do you want to know?
Why do you want to know?
Why is it in the reader’s interest to help you?

In response to an advertisement:

Where did you see the ad?
What do you want?

Be sure to specify address, other mailing information

What exactly is needed?
How will filling your request benefit the reader?

Claims (formal complaints)/adjustments (claim settlements)
Maintain a courteous tone, even if you think the person is an idiot!
Include a clear, concise explanation
Ask for a fair and reasonable solution
*Assume that a fair adjustment will be made

What do you think of this letter? Rewrite as necessary, using direct plan:

At a local business-supply store, I recently purchased your "Negotiator Pro" for my computer. I bought the CD because I saw your ad for it in MacWorld Magazine, and it looked as if it might be an effective tool for use in my corporate seminar on negotiation.

Unfortunately, when I inserted it in my office computer, it wouldn’t work. I returned it to the store, but since I had already opened it, they refused to exchange it for a CD that would work or give me a refund. They told me to contact you and that you might be able to send me a version that would work with my computer. You can send the information to me at the letterhead address. If you cannot send me the correct disc, please refund my $79.95. Thanks in advance for any help you can give me in this matter.


You’ve decided to take your hard working staff (all 6 of them) to a Chiropractic seminar in Orlando. Put together a direct request letter to the travel agent, describing your requirements, so he can check on plane fares, hotel, other arrangements, and provide you with a cost estimate (don’t worry; it’s tax deductible!).

 More on Good News messages:

Beginning with a statement of purpose prepares your audience for the explanation. Make your opening clear and concise.

Instead of:  
I am pleased to inform you that after deliberating the matter carefully, our human resources committee has recommended you for appointment as a staff accountant.

Write this:
You’ve been selected to join our firm as a stall accountant, beginning March 20.

Provide necessary details, maintaining the supportive tone. Even when the message must convey mildly disappointing information, put the negative answer into as favorable a context as possible.

Instead of: 
No, we no longer carry the Sportsgirl line of sweaters.

Write this:
The Olympic line has replaced the Sportsgirl sweaters that you asked about. Olympic features a wider range of colors and sizes and more contemporary styling.

Courteous close. Leave your audience with the feeling that you have their personal welfare in mind. If follow-up action is required, clearly state who will do what next.

Responding to claim/adjustment requests:
*In general, it pays to give customers the benefit of the doubt.

When your firm is at fault: don’t blame an individual; don’t over-apologize; don’t avoid lame excuses ("nobody’s perfect" "mistakes will happen"); don’t promise this will never happen again. Explain your efforts to do a good job, implying that the error was an unusual incident.

When the other person is at fault:   If the claim is unjustified, let the patient know that the mistake is theirs, but maintain a positive and respectful tone. Avoid being condescending or preachy, while you are pointing out the problem (so the patient doesn’t make the same mistake again).

When a third party (insurance company?) is at fault:    You can (1) honor the claim with a good news letter and no explanations (2) honor the claim but explain that you are not really at fault, (3) take no action and suggest that the patient file against the other party.

Goodwill messages (congratulations on a promotion, appreciation message, condolences).

– Make sure your compliments are grounded in reality.
NOT "We were overjoyed to hear of your promotion"   BUT "Congratulations on your promotion"

Back up compliments with specific points. Be careful to promise only what you can and will provide "Please let us know if we can help you in any way in the future".  

Analyze the following letter and rewrite to improve:
We read your letter requesting your deposit refund. We couldn’t figure out why you hadn’t received it, so we talked to our maintenance engineer as you suggested. He said you had left one of the doors off the hinges in your apartment in order to get a large sofa through the door. He also confirmed that you had paid him $5 to replace the door since you had to turn in the U-Haul trailer and were in a big hurry.

This entire situation really was caused by a lack of communication between our housekeeping inspector and the maintenance engineer. All we knew was that the door was off the hinges when it was inspected by Sally Tarnley. you know that our policy states that if anything is wrong with the apartment, we keep the deposit. We had no way of knowing that George just hadn’t gotten around to replacing the door.

But we have good news. We approved the deposit refund, which will be mailed to you from our home office in Teaneck New Jersey. I’m not sure how long that will take however. If you don’t receive the check by the end of next month, give me a call.

Next time, it’s a really good idea to stay with your apartment until it’s inspected as stipulated in your lease agreement. That way, you’ll be sure to receive your refund when you expect it. Hope you have a good summer.

Thank you for contacting us about your purchase of the "Knights of Balthazar" game for your MacIntosh. We apologize for the problem and want you to know how it happened.

We outsource our packaging to a firm called TriTech, which does the design work and prints the boxes. Unfortunately, the box that contained your CD for Balthazar was mistakenly labeled. It will work only on an IBM (or compatible) platform.

We are taking care of our customers even though this problem was caused by TriTech. If you will send the entire CD, the box, the warranty card, and your receipt, we will gladly replace it with a CD that will work in your computer. We also need to know how much memory you have and the system you are running. (Balthazar won’t work on anything less than a System 7.)

Thanks for your patience. Again, we apologize for this even though it was beyond our control. We always want to do the right thing for our customers. Incidentally, I am inclosing our latest catalog of interactive CD games. We hope to do business with you in the future.

Your letter to Tanaka Asata, President of SONY, was forwarded to me because I am the human resources director. In my job as head of HR, I have access to performance review for all of the SONY employees in the United States. This means, of course, that I would be the person best qualified to answer your request for information on Nick Oshinski.

In your letter of the 15th, you asked about Nick’s employment record with us because he has applied to work for your company. Mr. Oshinski was employed with us from January 5 1995, until March 1, 1998. During that time, Mr. Oshinski received rating ranging from 2.5 up to 9.6 with 10 being the top score. As you can see, he must have done better reporting to some managers than to others. In addition, he took all vacation days, which is a bit unusual. Although I did not know Mr. Oshinski personally, I know that our best workers seldom use all the vacation time they earn. I do not know if that applies in this case.

In summary, Nick Oshinski performed his tasks well depending on who managed him.

Bad news messages

Assumption: Reaction will be negative
Audience: Displeased to unwilling

Plan: Indirect
1st – begin with a buffer
2nd – provide reasons supporting the negative decision
3rd – give a clear, diplomatic statement of the negative decision
4th -- close on a helpful, positive, friendly tone

The purpose of using the indirect plan in this situation is to avoid a blunt "no" at the beginning, which can alienate the reader, keep him/her from listening to the reasons for the decision, and can decrease or destroy "goodwill". Some critics believe that the indirect plan is manipulative, dishonest, and thus unethical. This plan is only unethical if insincere. Breaking bad news with kindness and courtesy is not unethical; consideration for the feelings of others is never dishonest, and that consideration helps your audience.

To be sure goodwill is maintained, incorporate "you" attitude; emphasize the audience’s goals instead of your own
look for the best in your audience
use positive rather than negative phrasing.

1. Begin with a buffer. This is a neutral statement closely related to the point of the message. If possible, base the buffer on statements made by the person you’re responding to. Avoid giving the impression that good news will follow. For example, consider the impressions given by the following two statements: Your resume indicates that you would be well suited for a management trainee position with our company compared with: Your resume shows why you are interested in becoming a management trainee with our company.

When writing the buffer:

         avoid saying no

         avoid using patronizing language "you should be aware that…"

         avoid wordy and irrelevant phrases and sentences (rubber stamps), like "we have received your letter" or "We are writing in response to your request."

         avoid apologizing; this weakens your explanation of the unfavorable decision.avoid writing a buffer that is too long

Your buffer should be:
assertive and pleasant






find a point on which you and the reader share similar views

we both know…


express sincere thanks

Thank you for sending…


convey your willingness to help in any way you realistically can

XYZ Chiropractic is here to help you achieve your goal of …


assure the reader that you’ve closely examined and carefully considered the problem, or mention an appropriate action that has already been taken

We have reviewed your payment records carefully to see ..

Good news

begin with the part of your message that is favorable

We are sending you a refund…


find an attribute or achievement to compliment

Your resume shows your abilities…


favorably discuss your service, as it relates to the letter

Chiropractic as proven to be of benefit to…


demonstrate that you understand the reader’s goals and needs

So that you can…, we are…


2. Provide Reasons for Your decision. If you’ve done a good job of composing the buffer, the reasons will follow naturally. Cover the more positive points first; then move to the less positive ones.

Your goals is to explain WHY you have reached your decision before you explain WHAT that decision was. If you present your reasons effectively, they will help convince the audience that your decision is justified, fair, and logical. Be tactful in highlighting just how the decision benefits the reader, instead of focusing on why it is good for you or your business. You may need to use facts and figures to help convince your audience that you’re acting in their best interest.

Avoid hiding behind company policy. To say, "Our policy is not to …" implies that you haven’t considered the individual and his/her unique situation. If you must use "company policy," briefly explain its purpose, or, better, explain how the reader can try to meet the requirements.

Avoid apologizing when giving reasons. Apologies are appropriate only when someone has made a severe mistake or done something terribly wrong. Apologies tend to give an impression of ineptitude. Focus instead on the way you are handling the problem, not on why it occurred.





Avoid negative, counterproductive words:

Instead of…                                                  Say this…

"We have received the broken …"           We have received the … you sent us."

I cannot understand what you mean       Please clarify your request

There will be a delay In …                          We will take care of this as soon as…

Your account is in error                             Corrections have been made ,,,

Sorry for your inconvenience                   he new procedure will save you time ...

We regret the misunderstanding               will try to be clearer next time…

Unfortunately, we haven’t received…     It has not arrived yet.

The enclosed statement is wrong                        Please recheck the enclosed statement.

NOTE: Sometimes "you" attitude is best observed by avoiding the word you.

"You failed to…" does not promote goodwill.

The reasons paragraph should be

3.  Break the Bad News.

Since your audience has read the buffer and understands your reasons, the bad news becomes a logical outcome of the reasons that came before, and the audience is psychologically prepared to receive it. However, the audience may still react emotionally if the bad news is handled carelessly.

Three techniques for saying no clearly and painlessly:

De-emphasize the bad news. This relates to the principle of subordination. The word subordination means "to order under;" something that is subordinated is given lesser importance. This principle comes into play in a bad-news message in three ways:

Placement within the letter. The rules of rhetorical emphasis show that the greatest emphasis is, first, at the beginning of something, and, second, at the end. The point of least emphasis is in the middle. To de-emphasize something, like bad news, place it in the middle, where its effect will be lessened.

Placement within the sentence. In a complex sentence, the dependent clause has less weight: Although we cannot refund your money, we will be able to treat you in the future. Placing the bad news in the dependent clause also de-emphasizes it.

Minimizing amount of space devoted to the bad news.

Use a conditional (if or when) statement to imply that the audience could possibly have received, or might someday receive, a favorable answer: "When you have more experience, you are welcome to reapply."

Tell the audience what you did do, can do, or will do, rather than what you did not do, cannot do, or won’t do. Rather than "We are unable to serve you, so please call your nearest dealer" say "We sell exclusively through retailers, and the one nearest you that carries our merchandise is…." You do not have to state the bad news directly, just imply it, thus softening the blow.

When implying bad news, be sure your audience understand the entire message—including the bad news. It would not be ethical to overemphasize the positive. So if an implied message might leave doubt, state your decision in direct terms, avoiding blunt statements that might cause pain and anger:

Instead of…                                      Use…

I must refuse your request                        I won’t be in town on the day you need me…

We must deny your application     The position has been filled

I am unable to grant your request              Contact us again when you have established…

We cannot afford to continue        The program will conclude on May 1
this program

We must reject your proposal       We’ve accepted the proposal from


4.  End with a positive close

An upbeat, positive close

builds goodwill
offers a suggestion for action
provides a look toward the future.

Keep your close as positive as possible; don’t refer to, or repeat, or apologize for the bad news. Refrain from expressing doubts that your reasons will be accepted ("I trust our decision is satisfactory" (what if it’s NOT?!)

Encourage addition communication ONLY if you are willing to discuss this further

(i.e., avoid the rubber stamp phrase, "If you have any further questions…"

Keep a positive outlook on the future; don’t anticipate future problems: "If you have any more problems, please let us know.

Be sincere; avoid saying "If we can be of any help, please contact us" unless you’re certain you want to do this.

Be confident about keeping the person as a customer
(avoid "We hope you will continue to do business with us…."

Remember that the close is the last thing the reader has to remember you by, so try to make it positive.

Direct plan for bad-news messages. Although the indirect plan is preferable, you may sometimes want to move right to the point. This might happen in a job rejection letter, for example, or in a short internal memo.

Some special circumstances for bad news messages:

         Denying cooperation with routine requests:

Rewrite then check the suggested rewrite below:

Our company policy prohibits us from participating in research projects where disclosure of discretionary information might be necessary. Therefore, we decline your invitation to our sales staff to fill out questionnaires for your study. Thank you for trying to include Qualcomm in your research. If we can be of further assistance, please let us know.

We at Quallcomm Corporation appreciate and benefit from the research of companies such as yours. Your present study sounds interesting, and we certainly wish we could participate.

Unfortunately, our board requires strict confidentiality of all sales infomraiton until quarterly reports are mailed to stockholders. As you know, we release press report at the same time the quarterly reports to out and will include you in all our future mailings.

Although we cannot release projected figures, we are more than willing to share data that is part of the public record. I’ve enclosed several of our past earnings reports for your inspection. We look forward to seeing the results of your study. Please let us know if there is any additional way we can help.

         Declining invitations and requests for favors. In this circumstance, your use of the direct or the indirect plan depends on your relationship with the reader.


         Refusing adjustment of claims and complaints. A patient who requests an bill correction is emotionally involved; therefore, the indirect plan is generally used for a refusal. Your job as a writer is to avoid accepting responsibility for the unfortunate situation and yet avoid blaming or accusing the patient. Keep in mind that tact and courtesy can build goodwill. Even if the claim is unreasonable, rationally explain your refusal without apologizing or relying on company policy. End the latter on a respectful and action-oriented tone.

When refusing to make a bill adjustment: demonstrate understanding of the complaint; explain your refusal; suggest alternative action.

Bad News Employment Letters
Letters to prospective employers may be written in direct order. On the other hand, letters to job applicants and employees are often written in indirect order, because the reader will most certainly be emotionally involved.

a.  Refusal to write a recommendation letter. Many former employers refuse to write these letters, especially for employees whose performance has been unsatisfactory. Since the prospective employer to who you’re writing has no emotional involvement, the letter can be brief and direct:

We received your request for a recommendation for Y.J. According to guidelines from our human resources department, we are authorized ton confirm only that Ms. J worked for Tandy, Inc. for three years from June 1995 to July 1998. Best of luck as you interview applicants.

(notice that the letter does not directly, and bluntly, refuse to give a recommendation!)

b. Rejecting Job applications. Three principles: open with the direct plan; the reader is expecting bad news, so a buffer will seem manipulative and insincere; clearly state why the applicant was not hired.; close by suggesting alternatives. A rejection letter need not be long.

c.  Negative performance reviews. The purpose of these reviews is to improve employee performance by: (1) emphasizing and clarifying job requirements, (2) giving employees feedback on their efforts; (3) guiding continued efforts by developing a plan of action, with rewards and opportunities. The tone should be objective and unbiased, with nonjudgmental language. The focus is problem solution.

In a negative performance review (a) confront the problem right away (no buffer); (b) plan out your message, being clear about concerns and including specific examples of actions; (c) deliver the message in private; (d) focus on the problem caused by the behavior; comparing with goals, identifying consequences, showing your own commitment to helping solve the problem; (e) ask for a commitment from the employee.

d.  Terminating employment. Goals: (1) to present the reason for this action; (2) to avoid statements that might involve the company in legal action; (3) to maintain goodwill. Present specific reasons for asking the employee to leave. Make sure all reasons are accurate and verifiable. Tell the truth about the termination and help as much as you can to make the transition smooth.


Bad News Documents

I am responding to your letter of about six weeks ago asking for an adjustment on your fax/modem, model FM 39Z. We test all our products before they leave the factory; therefore, it could not have been our fault that your fax/modem didn’t work.

If you or someone in your office dropped the unit, it might have caused the damage. Or the damage could have been caused by the shipper if he dropped it. If so, you should file a claim with the shipper. At any rate, it wasn’t our fault. The parts are already covered by warranty. However, we will provide labor for the repairs for $50, which is less than our cost since you are a valuable customer.

We will have a booth at the upcoming trade fair and hope to see you or someone from your office. We have many new models of office machines that we’re sure you’ll want to see. I’ve enclosed our latest catalog. Hope to see you there.


I regret to inform you that you were not selected for our summer intern program at Equifax. We had over a thousand resumes and cover letters to go through and simply could not get to them all. We have been asked to notify everyone that we have already selected students for the 25 positions based on those who applied early and were qualified.

We’re sure you will be able to find a suitable position for summer work in your field and wish you the best of luck. We deeply regret any inconvenience associated with our reply.