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Proper Letter Format: How to Write a Business Letter Correctly

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What comes to mind when you hear the phrase business letters? Do white envelopes with fancy letterheads and stuffy writing come to mind? In most cases, you’d be right.

Even if almost everything is done via email nowadays, business letters aren’t extinct or considered totally out of style so it still pays to know how to write and format them properly.  

Parts of a Standard Business Letter Format

As you’ve probably learned in primary school, business letters are composed of different parts. This section covers what’s included in each part and the correct business letter format.

1. Sender’s Information

It’s important to know how to address a business letter properly, especially if you’re expecting a reply.

This section includes your complete address, phone number, and email address. Some people like to include their complete name at the top of this list, but some people think it’s redundant because you’ll be signing the letter with your name anyway. You don’t need to include this if the paper you’re using has a letterhead.

What to include and formatting:

  • Name
  • Street Address
  • City, State, Zip Code
  • Country (if not in the same country as your recipient)
  • Your Phone Number
  • Your Email

2. Today’s Date

Spell out the month and include the complete year. Write the month, date, and year if sending a business letter in the U.S., but start the date with the day (e.g. 18 October 2018) if you’re sending a letter in the U.K. or Australia.

3. Addressee Information (a.k.a. Inside Address)

Include the recipient’s information, starting with their name, followed by their job title and complete address. Address the recipient using Ms., Mr., or use any job-appropriate title as necessary

  • Name
  • Job Title
  • Company Street Address
  • City, State, Zip Code
  • Country (optional)

4. Salutation

The salutation used in the addressee section doesn’t have to be the same as the one used here. It all depends on how close or familiar you are with the address, and the context of your letter. The Dean at the College of Sciences may be your aunt, but if you’re writing to her in an official capacity, it’s best if you use the salutation “Dean (Last Name)” or “Dr. (Last Name)” because there’s a chance that other people handle her correspondence. Military and religious titles should be written as is.

Not sure of the recipient’s gender? Don’t use Mr. or Ms., just write “Dear” followed by their full name. If you don’t know who the exact contact person is, “To Whom it May Concern” will do. You can also address the department or group that'll handle your letter, such as “Members of the Hiring Committee” or “Condominium Association Management.”

Always end the salutation with a colon, not a comma.

5. Body Text

The body of the letter is usually composed of one to three brief paragraphs, each with a specific intent and organized for clarity. 

  • Introduction. Explains the reason for the letter and what you want to achieve with it. If the recipient doesn’t know who you are, you can also mention mutual connections here.
  • Second paragraph. Gives more detail about your request, such as the steps you’ve taken or fees paid. In case of marketing or job application letters, the second paragraph is where you’ll sell the product you’re promoting or your application.
  • Third paragraph. Optional and is included in situations where the second paragraph isn’t enough to explain the situation in full. 

Closing

The closing includes one or two sentences that request the recipient to take whatever action is requested in your letter, and thanks them for reading your mail.

Examples of business letter closing:

  • Please email me at (your email) or call me at (your business phone) to schedule a meeting. Thank you for your consideration.
  • If you need to discuss anything with me or the team, please don’t hesitate to call us at (your phone). We're always at your service.

Complimentary Close               

The complimentary close is a sign-off phrase inserted before your signature. You've got lots of options here, but in general you should avoid those that denote appreciation or thanks in letters where you’re not requesting anything.

Examples

  • Regards
  • Sincerely
  • Cordially
  • With gratitude
  • Kind Regards
  • With appreciation
  • Yours truly

The Signature

Sign the letter below the complimentary close. Make sure to leave at least four single spaces between your name and closing so there’s enough room for your signature. You may want to include your job title, phone number, and email address below your full name too.

Signature

Enclosures

Before the age of email, people wrote “Enclosures” at the bottom of business letters to indicate that the envelope includes other documents. Think of it as the print version of “see attachment” for emails.

Enclosures are noted at the bottom left of the letter, a couple of spaces below your signature, followed by a list of the documents included. For example:

Enclosures:

  • Brochure
  • Order form

3 Types of Business Letter Formats

Business letters usually come in one of three main formats, full block, modified, or indented.  While there’s no right or wrong format, there are instances like in university applications, where a specific format is required. If you’re not sure which format to follow, just check previous letters you’ve received from the institution and follow the same formatting.

1. Full Block

Full block is the most common format for business letters because it’s the easiest one. You don’t have to worry about indents and everything is left justified. Single spacing is used instead of indents for new paragraphs.

Below is an example of a full block letter from the University of North Carolina Writing Center:

2. Modified

The modified format is a bit hard to remember because not everything is left-justified. The addressee, salutation, and the body of the letter are left justified, while the sender’s address, date, complimentary close, and signature are aligned to the right.

In the example below, there are two spaces between the sender’s address and the date when the letter was written and three spaces between the recipient’s address and salutation. There are also two spaces between the first paragraph of the letter body and salutation and two spaces for every new paragraph.

The complimentary close, signature, and the last paragraph of the letter are all two spaces apart.

Below is an example of a business letter in modified format from Savvy Business Correspondence:

letter format

3. Indented

The indented or semi-block format is similar to the modified format, except that the start of every paragraph is indented. 

Business Letter Formatting and Design Tips

Your business letter needs to make a good first impression, because in some cases reading that letter will be the first time the recipient “encounters” your company.

1. Professional Letterhead

Companies aren’t the only ones who can use letterheads. Solopreneurs, job applicants, and anyone who wishes to make a brand for himself can use a letterhead to make their letters unique. Letterheads can also be used to verify the document’s authenticity to the recipient, which is often the case for government letters and bank letters.

letterhead stationery
You can find professional letterhead stationery templates on Envato Elements or GraphicRiver.

Letterhead design varies, the only thing that’s consistent is that it must include your company’s name and logo, address, and contact information. If you don’t have a logo or company name, just replace this with part with your full name.  Since business letters are formal, choose a letterhead design that’s not too busy or colorful that it detracts from the message you’re sending.

Don’t use stationery or scented paper.

Want to create your own letterhead? Check out these templates from Envato:

2. Business Letter Margins

It’s good to save trees, but don’t squeeze too much text into one page that there’s no margin left. Leave 1” to 1.5” per side.

3. Plain Font

Avoid fancy fonts and hard to read cursive. Stick to Verdana, Arial, Courier New, or Times New Roman with a minimum font size of 12.

4. Formal Letter Spacing

Use single space between paragraphs to make the letter easier to read. You should also use at least one single space between all elements of the letter, except between your signature and printed name where four line breaks are required.

5. Second-page Letterhead for Additional Pages

Business letters should be concise enough to only need one page, but that’s not always the case. Legal contracts, complaints, and some advisory letters sometimes require additional pages.

To avoid confusion in case the letter pages get separated, the second and subsequent pages should include a letterhead and a page number at the top. You may also want to include the date and recipient’s name.

Types of Business Letters

Business letters are sent for all sorts of reasons. Businesses send it to their customers or to other businesses they work with, such as vendors or logistics partners. Individuals write business letters for business and less formal purposes too.

Here are some examples of types of business letters:

1. Letter of Complaint

Not all complaints can be aired and addressed properly on social media, some topics are a little sensitive or embarrassing you don’t want to run the risk of it going viral. Then there are complaints where a call to the company’s customer service hotline isn’t enough. For all these complaints, a printed letter of complaint is the answer.

Make your complaint brief, to the point, and polite. Don’t just make it about what the company did wrong tell them exactly what you want them to do about it.

2. Resignation Letter

A resignation letter is what an employee sends to their boss when they want to quit their job. In most cases, you’ll need to allow at least 14 days or two weeks before your official departure date from the company.

Below is an example of a resignation letter from American Recruiters:

Resignation-letter

Note: If you don't know the gender of the person who'll receive your letter it's better to use a generic greeting like "to whom it may concern" than to use "Mr./Ms." or "Sir."

3. Cover Letter

A printed cover letter is sent along with a resume to briefly explain why you’re a good candidate for the job. Good cover letters are like appetizers in a sense that it gives recruiters a sense of what they can expect from you, without necessarily repeating what’s already on your resume.

Read these guides for more information about writing a cover letter:

4. Recommendation Letter

Recommendation letters are sent to verify an applicant’s good standing with a previous employer or manager. In some cases, these recommendations are nothing more than a template generated by someone from HR after filling in the blanks about an employee’s start and end date. If you’re writing a cover letter for a good employee, however, it’s better if you go beyond the template to show that you appreciate the time you worked together.

Check out this guide if you need any help with writing a recommendation letter:

5. Letter to Request information

Letters requesting for information are often sent to businesses by individuals or representatives of other businesses when they want information on a particular product or service. These letters can also be written to government offices when requesting information about applying for a permit or inquiring about a government procedure.

Below is an example of a letter to request information from Word Mart:

Request-of-information-letter

Note: If you don't know the gender of the person who'll receive your letter it's better to use a generic greeting like "to whom it may concern" than to use "Mr./Ms." or "Sir.":

6. Adjustment or Change Letter

Have you ever received a letter stating your phone bill’s due date was adjusted, or that the amount you’re paying has been changed? That’s an adjustment letter. It’s not all about dates and amounts though, adjustment or change letters are also sent when businesses want to notify customers about changes in the product or service they bought.

Below is an example of a due date adjustment letter from Corporate Finance Institute: 

adjustment-letter

7. Business Announcements and Invitations

Stockholder letters, new product announcements, and charity events are business letters. Letters announcing a new CEO, an IPO, and even those inviting you to a convention also fall under business announcement letters. These letters are either sent as an internal memo so all employees are aware of changes within the company, or as an announcement to company stakeholders.

Here’s an example of a business invitation for an educational seminar from Letters.org:

business invitation

Note: If you don't know the gender of the person who'll receive your letter it's better to use a generic greeting like "to whom it may concern" than to use "Mr./Ms." or "Sir."  

Tips on Writing Business Letters

Using the right justification and including all the right elements isn’t enough for a good business letter. Even more important is to strike the right tone and ensure that your recipient understands your letter’s intent.

Keep the following tips in mind next time you write a business letter.

1. Short and Simple

Avoid highfalutin words and flowery descriptions. Keep the first paragraph brief. If you’re not sure how to start, just write “I’m writing in reference to…” then explain your request from there.

2. Reader's Benefit

It’s easier to get the recipient’s cooperation if you write a letter with their benefit in mind. Emphasize what you can do offer them instead of what you want them to do.

3. Right Tone

What's the purpose of the letter you’re sending? Are you expressing thanks, sympathy, or demanding payment for debt? Whatever it is, you've got to establish the right tone so the recipient understands the urgency of your request.

4. No Jargon

Avoid jargon unless you’re absolutely sure the recipient will understand what you’re talking about.

5. Use of Personal Pronouns

Even if this is a business letter, it’s okay to use personal pronouns like you, I, we, and us. Stick with “I” if you’re writing based on your opinion, and use “We” if you’re writing on behalf of the company.

6. Add CC When Needed

Did you know that “CC” means courtesy copy? Back in the day when letters where typewritten, “CC” meant carbon copy because that’s what typists use when making duplicates. Either way, this is the abbreviation you should include below the enclosure line if you plan to send a copy of the letter to someone else.

If you’re sending a courtesy copy to more than one person, list the second name underneath the first without the “CC.”

Example:

“Cc: Mark Smith, Chief Financial Officer XYZ Widgets”

The Format for Email Business Letters

According to texting experts, Text Request, only 20% of emails are opened and 95% of texts are read within three minutes of receipt, while a huge amount of mail gets lost or trashed immediately, it’s no wonder some businesses go as far as sending correspondence via print and email followed by a shortened version as a text, just to ensure the recipient gets it.

To maintain an air of formality while adapting to the digital medium, the formatting and all elements of the printed business letter are still included in an email business letter, except for two small differences. The subject line serves as a letter summary or an indication of what the letter is about. The sender’s information is located at the bottom of the letter, just below the printed name of the sender. 

To learn more about how to format email messages study the following tutorials:

Send Wisely

Use a business envelope if you’re sending a letter via post. Use an envelope with your company’s logo so the recipient can immediately recognize it’s from your company and to prevent your letter from getting trashed along with other promotional junk they receive. 

If you’re not sure whether your handwriting is legible, use your printer and word processor to print the address on the envelope. Send important documents and time-sensitive letters via courier. 

Now that you've learned how to format a letter, you can start sending out your own business letters.

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