How to Write a Formal Letter
Use these tips when writing a formal letter
In today's Internet- and e-mail-driven society, the need to write a formal letter arises less often than in the past. However, it is still occasionally necessary to present a formal letter to obtain information, to apply for an academic program or a job, to write a complaint letter, or simply to express your opinion in an effective and coherent manner.
Tips for formal letter writing
State the purpose of your formal letter in the first paragraph and don't veer from the subject. Try to avoid flowery language or long words. Keep the letter short and to the point. This excerpt from Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (4th edition) provides the perfect rule of thumb:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Use the right tone
A business or formal letter should be written in a tone that is slightly more formal than your everyday language. Avoid the following: slang or jargon; contractions such as I'm, can't, it's; and vague words such as good and nice. Be polite and respectful, even if you are complaining. Take a look at our formal letter example to see what tone is appropriate.
Once you have written your formal letter, check the grammar and spelling carefully. Use the spell-checker on your computer and then read the letter over yourself as the spellchecker will not likely catch every error. Use a dictionary or thesaurus, if necessary. Check the grammar and punctuation for correctness and make sure the sentences are complete. It is usually a good idea to have someone else proofread your formal letter, even after you have done so, as you may have overlooked errors in something that you have read over many times. If this formal letter is important enough for you to take the time to write, don't rush its completion. Errors may diminish the impact of the statement or impression you are trying to make.
Use proper format and presentation
Remember that the first impression is the one that lasts. Use good quality paper and a matching envelope for your formal letter. Make sure the recipient is addressed properly and that his or her name is spelled correctly. Equally important—don't forget to sign the letter!
Present your ideas properly: Formatting a formal letter
Adhering to the standard conventions of good formal letter writing and presenting your letter attractively will ensure that your thoughts are seriously considered by the recipient and given the attention and consideration they deserve. Here are a few formatting tips:
The heading consists of your address (but not your name) and the date. Telephone numbers and e-mail addresses are not usually included here, but they are acceptable. Using block format, the heading goes in the top left-hand corner of the page.
123 Elm Ave.
Treesville, ON M1N 2P3
November 23, 2008
The inside address consists of the name and address of the person to whom you are writing. You should try to address the formal letter to a specific person, but if you do not know his or her name, at least try to include his or her title. This address is usually placed four lines below the heading if a word processor is used or one line below the heading if the letter is handwritten.
Mr. M. Leaf (name)
Chief of Syrup Production (title)
Old Sticky Pancake Company
456 Maple Lane
Forest, ON 7W8 9Y0
Skip one line after the inside address and then type the salutation. Your choice of salutation depends on whether or not you know the intended recipient of the formal letter. The most usual greeting is
- followed by the person's name and punctuated with a colon. If you don't know whether the person you are addressing is a man or a woman, you may begin with
Dear Sir or Madam
- , again followed by a colon.
- . may be used if you don't know the marital status of a woman. Furthermore, if the person has a specific title such as
- , make sure that you use it.
Dear Mr. Trunk: Dear Ms. Root:
Dear Mrs. Branch: Dear Dr. Acorn:
Skip one line after the salutation and begin typing the body of the formal letter. This is the main part of the letter. Keep in mind the rules outlined above regarding brevity and coherence. It is best to use short, clear, logical paragraphs to state your business.
Closing and Signature
This is the end of the letter. Skip one line after the last paragraph of the body of the letter and type the closing. Only the first word of the closing should be capitalized. It is punctuated with a comma. Leave several lines after the closing and type (or print) your signature. Your actual handwritten signature is to be inserted between these two printed lines, written in ink.
Get help with your letter writing
If your letter writing skills have become rusty from disuse, don't worry. Submit a draft of your document to our letter editors and they'll provide you with a clean and concise correspondence. Check out our letter writing e-book, which features several examples of formal letters.