April 30, 2016 • By Dennis Beaver
“As a Small Claims Court judge in California’s Central Valley I am amazed at the number of disputes which might have been resolved out of court, if a clearly written complaint letter addressing the problem were sent.
“Before filing a small claims case, you must ask for payment, and this is best done by sending what we call ‘a demand letter’ which should briefly and politely state what you want and why. But, even with help available on the California Small Claims Court website, we often see angry, confusing, rambling, sarcastic letters that go on page after page, likely remaining unread.”
“Dennis, if you would do a story on how to complain — how to write a demand letter — it will be so helpful to the people we serve and I can keep more of my hair!”
To Boston-based attorney, former CNN commentator and legal writing instructor at Harvard, Steven Stark, “It’s not only the average person who has difficulty in writing an effective complaint letter, surprisingly, lawyers are often terrible writers!” he told us with a broad smile.
The advice that Stark gives to attorneys about how to structure their letters, “Applies to anyone. You need to help the reader understand the problem, and therefore, in your opening paragraph, these three points need to be covered:
- What are you complaining about?
- Explain why you are complaining. Without the why, the letter will not make any sense.
- What are you seeking? This needs to be stated.
Stark cautions, “You don’t want the reader to be in the dark, wondering what the problem is and what you want. Say these things right up front. It won’t be the entire statement, but this needs to be in the beginning.”
Don’t let your emotions get the best of you
Complaining is an emotional experience. If we weren’t upset about something, we wouldn’t be writing that letter. We are angry and want to give that person a piece of our mind. And if we do?
“Don’t insult the person that you are making the demand of,” Stark underscores. “Stick to the facts; focus on what happened and avoid a personal attack. Factual support strengthens your case. If the reader senses anger, and feels insulted, they will be less likely to give you what you want.
“This is the time to show and not tell. We do this by being specific and avoiding adjectives or adverbs which do not convey clear meaning. For example, if I say, ‘My leg hurt afterwards,” this is vague, as ‘hurt’ is not specific. However, ‘Ever since the accident I can’t walk upstairs and I cannot turn my leg,’ is visual, showing the reader the consequences of the accident.”
Daily, this column receives emails and letters from across the country asking for our help. And that’s what we do. But sometimes, like the Small Claims Court judge, when 15 pages arrive with no paragraphs, or emails do not contain a phone number, these things are upsetting and reveal a lack of consideration of our time.
“Always be considerate of the reader’s time and eyesight. Paragraphs are essential. Not only do they separate ideas, but white space on the page is visually important, so you are not bombarded with a mass of words.
“Shorter is better than longer. Length does not impress people with the strength of your claim, and too long a letter can detract from your credibility. For most consumer-type complaint or demand letters, two pages at most should be sufficient.”
After you’ve written the letter, “You’ve not done. The next step is to read it out loud, possibly to a friend who will give you an honest answer. Does it sound like something you would say to them — not in anger, just talking in a conversational tone of voice? If so, it’s probably pretty good.
“But if it sounds like somebody shouting, screaming, and pounding their fists on the table, then you’ll need to bring that tension level way down and this is done by concentrating on the facts,” Stark concludes.
So, you’ve written a good letter, just about to drop it in the mail box or press send, but wait! Have you established a time frame in which you want the reader to act?
While this will vary according to the particular problem, that cutoff date is critically important and needs to be stated.
Finally, threatening a negative internet review could be seen as extortion, or blackmail.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.