Most of you who write letters – for business or personal use – have probably never given much thought to the design of your letter. Most of your attention – rightly so – has been with the words.

But much like an ad, a brochure, a postcard or any number of other promotional pieces, the direct mail letter also needs to be designed.

The reason is that most people don’t read our letters. They scan them – usually very quickly looking for key points that might be important to them. It only make sense then to spend some time helping the reader scan your letter so that the points that are important you are noticeable and readable to your readers.

Here are 10 quick tips:

1. Use a headline above the salutation. In the industry, we call this a Johnson Box named after copywriter Frank Johnson who first tried the idea. Don’t worry that a headline in your letter makes it look less like a letter. If you have something important to say, the Johnson Box will increase your chances of getting it read.

2. Use short sentences and short paragraphs. In school, we are taught that using compound sentences is an advanced form of writing and that each paragraph should include multiple sentences of the same idea. In direct mail writing, you can forget all that. Short, simple sentences get read. Compound sentences get skipped over. Paragraphs are often just one sentence and almost never more than 4 lines in length.

3. Alternate the size of your paragraphs. If you start with a one-line paragraph, go next to a 3 line paragraph, then back to a shorter paragraph. By alternating paragraph length, you are making it easier for the reader to scan. I like to save my strongest selling points for my shortest (one line) paragraphs to make sure they are noticed.

4. Indent and separate paragraphs. For easier reading, indent each paragraph by three or four spaces. Then at the end of the paragraph, skip a line before you begin the next paragraph.

5. Use generous margins. If you set your margins at 1.25 inches on both sides, that leaves you with a six-inch column width – which is a comfortable reading width. (FYI – newspapers use very short column widths to improve readership.) Sometimes you need to go wider than six inches to make everything fit, but don’t go too much wider. It might be better to use a second page.

6. Insert your call to action early in the letter. Don’t wait until the end. Even if you don’t want to give all the details for responding, you can insert (around the 3rd or 4th paragraph) something like: Call today for our free information kit and find out why …)

7. Be careful with bullets. Many people use bullets because they seem like a good way to get all your points across at one time. That’s true. The reader’s eye is often drawn to bulleted copy – sometimes at the expense of other more important information. Also, try to use bullets sparingly. Too many bullets will just get skipped over.

8. Use underlines and boldface, but not italic. Both are good ways to get your key selling points noticed. They stand out from the normal text. But use them sparingly for your most important points. Italic type does provide a nice alternative to normal type, but it does not highlight the way underline and boldface does.

9. Indent whole paragraphs. If you have one central message, offer or call to action, you might want to highlight the whole paragraph by indenting the whole paragraph from the left and the right.

10. Use a PS. The PS is a highly read part of a sales letter. You can take advantage of this by making sure the PS contains important sales information that you want your reader to see.

Most of these points are common sense and certainly do not require the skills of an experienced graphic designer. But they are important and will improve both your readership and your response rate.


Written by Bob McCarthy

This article may be reprinted without permission as long as the article includes the following credit: Bob McCarthy is a freelance copywriter and consultant specializing in direct marketing and lead generation. His website is He can be reached at 508-473-8643 or by email at

About Bob McCarthy

Bob McCarthy is a direct response consultant and copywriter with a focus on direct mail, email and digital marketing. Bob works with B2B, B2C and Non-Profit clients. You can download his free ebook, "Making Snail Mail Work: 13 Lessons in Direct Mail Strategy."