Format of a Formal Letter

Help with formatting formal and business letters. A summary of writing rules including outlines for cover letters and letters of enquiry, and abbreviations used in letters.

There are times in life when you will probably want to write a formal letter instead of an informal letter or email. These include cover letters for job applications, letters of enquiry, letters of resignation, legal correspondence and many more. In these situations it's important that you follow the expected letter format.

Use a formal letter format

Layout is a crucial aspect of professional writing. It sets the tone and communicates the seriousness of the content within.

The Power of Proper Formatting: The layout of your letter speaks volumes! Ensure it's professional and communicates your message effectively.

The example formal letter shown below shows you a general outline for a formal or business letter. Further information about each part can be found after the image.

Formal Letter Template

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Follow formatting rules and conventions

When writing a formal or business letter, there are certain rules and conventions that need to be followed. These rules ensure that the letter maintains a professional tone and is easily understood by the recipient.

You must try to write as simply and clearly as possible, and avoid making the letter longer than necessary. Remember not to use informal language like contractions.

Keep your letter's content concise, clear, and relevant. Every word counts!

How to start a formal letter

1) Include your name and contact information

The return address should be written in the top right-hand corner of a formal letter. This will usually your address, but could be any other address to which a reply should be sent.

2) Include the recipient's name and address

Add the address of the person you are writing to. The recipient's address should be written on the left, often starting below your address. If you are going to print and post the letter using a windowed envelope, make sure you align this address with the clear plastic window.

3) Include the date

There is no strict rule about the placement of the date, but it can be placed on either the left or right side of the page after the recipient's address. Write the month as a word.

4) Use the right greeting or salutation

The tip to starting a formal English letter is to greet the person you're writing to in the correct way. This is known as the 'Salutation'. If you know the name of the person you're writing to then use 'Sir' or 'Madam' here, otherwise write their full name, including their title. Remember, try not to be too informal or casual.

Salutations Set the Tone! - Greet your recipient appropriately, whether you know their name or not.

a) If you do not know the name of the person you are writing to, use the following form (it is always advisable to try to find out a name):

Dear Madam,
Dear Sir,
Dear Sir or Madam,

b) If you know the name, use the title (Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms, Dr, etc.) and the family name only. If you are writing to a woman and do not know if she uses Mrs or Miss, you can use Ms, which is for both married and single women.

Dear Mr Jenkins,
Dear Ms Hamers,
Dear Mrs Hutchins,
Dear Miss Davis,
Dear Dr Green,

Did you know?
Complex Salutations

In the past, English formal letters had a variety of intricate salutations based on the social status and relationship between the writer and the recipient. For example, letters to clergymen might begin with "Reverend Sir" or "Most Worthy Sir."

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How to write the letter body

5) Create the body of your letter

The body content should be clear, concise, and relevant to the purpose of the letter. It should not include any unnecessary information or informal language.

Be direct and try to keep it as brief as possible, often between three or four paragraphs in total.

The first paragraph should be kept short and is designed to introduce you and to state the purpose of the letter- to make an enquiry, complain, request something, etc.

The paragraph or paragraphs in the middle should contain the relevant information behind the writing of the letter. Most letters in English are not very long, so keep the information to the essentials and concentrate on organising it in a clear and logical manner rather than expanding too much.

The last paragraph should state what action you expect the recipient to take- to refund, send you information, etc.

How to end a formal letter

6) Close the letter with a formal sign-off

Just as there are conventions about creating the salutation, there are also rules about how you close or sign-off your letter. If you do not know the name of the person, end the letter using 'Yours faithfully'. If you know the recipient's name, use 'Yours sincerely'.

7) Add your signature

Sign your name, then print it underneath your signature using capital letters (or type it). If you think the person you are writing to might not know whether you are male of female, put your title in brackets after your name. Optionally, it can also be helpful to include your phone number and email address.

8) Proofread!

Now that you've completed the first draft, read if over from start to finish and check for any errors in grammar and spelling. Make sure it reads well and that the recipient will understand what the letter is about.

Proofreading is Key! - Before sending, always check for errors. A well-proofed letter showcases attention to detail.
Did you know?
Lengthy Closings

In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common for formal letters to have long and ornate closing statements. An example might be: "I remain, Sir, with the most distinguished consideration, your most obedient servant."

Free formal letter template download:

This sample formal letter template can be a useful tool for ensuring that all necessary information is included in the correct format.


Abbreviations Used in Letter Writing

There are several abbreviations that are commonly used in professional letters. From "AKA" to "TBD", getting to know these common abbreviations will help to keep your letters sharp.

Also Known As - Used to introduce an alternative name or alias for a person or thing.
As Soon As Possible - Used to indicate the urgency of a request or action needed.
Attention - Indicates that the letter is intended for a specific person or department.
Blind Carbon Copy - Similar to CC, but the recipients' names are not visible to other recipients.
Carbon Copy - When you send a copy of a letter to more than one person, you use this abbreviation to let them know.
Chief Executive Officer - Refers to the highest-ranking executive in a company or organization.
Close of Business - Specifies that a task or response is expected by the end of the business day.
Enclosure - Used to indicate that additional documents or materials are included with the letter.
End of Day - Specifies that a task or response is expected by the end of the workday.
End of Month - Specifies that a task or response is expected by the end of the current month.
Estimated Time of Arrival - Indicates the expected time of arrival for a package, person, or event.
For the Attention Of - Similar to 'Attn', FAO is used to show that you intend the letter for a particular person or department.
Frequently Asked Questions - Refers to a list of commonly asked questions and their answers.
For Your Information - Used to provide information or share something without expecting a specific response.
Not Applicable - Indicates that something does not apply to the given context or situation.
Per Procurationem - A Latin phrase meaning that you are signing the letter on somebody else's behalf; if they are not there to sign it themselves, etc.
Postscript - (also written as 'P.S.') Used when you want to include an additional thought or message at the end of a letter after the signature.
PTO (informal)
Please Turn Over - Used to make sure that the other person knows the letter continues on the other side of the page.
Regarding - Indicates that the letter is in reference to a particular subject or previous correspondence.
Répondez s'il vous plaît - (also written as 'R.S.V.P.') French abbreviation meaning "Please respond." Used to request a response to an invitation or inquiry.
To Be Determined - Indicates that a decision or information is yet to be finalized or confirmed.

Outline: A Covering Letter

A covering letter accompanies your CV or resume when applying for a job. It should include information about the applicant's qualifications, experience, and interest in the position. This is a simple formal letter example that uses a fairly conventional layout of the paragraphs.

Opening Paragraph
Briefly identify yourself and the position you are applying for. Add how you found out about the vacancy.

Paragraph 2
Give the reasons why you are interested in working for the company and why you wish to be considered for that particular post. State your relevant qualifications and experience, as well as your personal qualities that make you a suitable candidate.

Paragraph 3
Inform them that you have enclosed your current CV and add any further information that you think could help your case.

Closing Paragraph
Give your availability for interview, thank them for their consideration, restate your interest and close the letter.

Outline: A Letter of Enquiry

A letter of enquiry is sent when you are approaching a company speculatively, that is you are making an approach without their having advertised or announced a vacancy. It's an example of a basic business letter, and should include information about the applicant's qualifications, experience, and interest in the company.

Opening Paragraph
Introduce yourself briefly and give your reason for writing. Let them know of the kind of position you are seeking, why you are interested and how you heard about them.

Paragraph 2
Show why their company in particular interests you, mention your qualifications and experience along with any further details that might make them interested in seeing you.

Paragraph 3
Refer to your enclosed CV and draw their attention to any particularly important points you would like them to focus on in it.

Closing Paragraph
Thank them, explain your availability for interview and restate your enthusiasm for their company and desire to be considered for posts that might as yet be unavailable.

What is MLA letter format?

What is MLA letter format? MLA letter format refers to the guidelines recommended by the Modern Language Association for writing and formatting letters in a uniform and professional manner. This format is commonly used in academic settings, such as when writing cover letters for research papers or submitting correspondences to scholarly journals.

The primary purpose of following MLA letter format is to ensure clarity, consistency, and proper organisation in written communication. The format includes specific guidelines for elements such as the heading, date, recipient's address, salutation, body paragraphs, closing, and signature. By adhering to these guidelines, writers can effectively convey their ideas while maintaining professionalism and adhering to academic standards.

More information: Using MLA Format

What is APA letter format?

What is APA letter format? APA letter format, which is short for American Psychological Association letter format, is a standardised way to structure and present written correspondence in the field of psychology and other social sciences. It outlines specific guidelines for fonts, margins, spacing, and citation style to ensure consistency and clarity in academic communication.

This format is widely used in research papers, professional letters, and manuscripts, aiming to provide a cohesive and professional appearance. The APA letter format emphasises readability and organisation by including a clear heading, concise and formal language, and proper referencing. Additionally, it includes specific guidelines for the placement of addresses, dates, salutations, subject lines, body paragraphs, and signatures, allowing writers to maintain consistency and professionalism in their correspondence.

Overall, the APA letter format serves as a tool to enhance communication within the academic community and ensure that ideas and information are conveyed accurately and effectively.

More information: Using APA Format

What is Chicago letter format?

Chicago letter format is a specific style of formatting business letters that is commonly used in the United States. It follows a set of guidelines to create a professional and visually appealing document.

The format typically starts with the sender's contact information, including the name, address, phone number, and email address. This is followed by the date on which the letter is written, and then the recipient's contact information, including their name, title, company name, and address.

An appropriate salutation is used to address the recipient, after which the body of the letter is typically divided into paragraphs, with each paragraph conveying a distinct idea or point. It is crucial to maintain a polite and formal tone throughout the letter.

It is common to include a complimentary closing, such as "Sincerely" or "Best regards," followed by the sender's name and title. Lastly, the sender's initials may be included, along with any enclosures or attachments.

The Chicago letter format ensures that business correspondence is clear, organized, and professional, allowing for effective communication between parties.

More information: The Chicago Manual of Style Online

Final Thoughts

This comprehensive guide has provided an in-depth exploration of formal letter writing, covering the importance of formal letters in various contexts, such as job applications, legal correspondence, and enquiries. We've delved into their layout, rules, and content, emphasising the need for clarity, conciseness, and adherence to professional standards. We've also provided useful templates for a covering letter and a letter of enquiry, along with a list of commonly used abbreviations.

Mastering the art of writing this type of letter is an essential skill in both professional and personal contexts. The ability to communicate effectively and appropriately through a formal letter can open doors and facilitate important conversations. By understanding and applying the principles outlined here, you can ensure your formal letters are clear, concise, and convey your message effectively.

Remember, practice makes perfect! - The more you write, the better you'll get. So, keep practicing and refining your skills.
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