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How to Write a Formal Letter: Professional Letter Format & Examples

Written by Scribendi


When the need to write a formal letter arises, casual writers can be stumped.

Is there a specific format you need to follow? How do you come across professionally?

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Letter-Writing Breakdown

Writing a letter is simple when you know the correct format.

Here's a breakdown of standard letter format:

1. Heading (your address and the date)

2. Address (the recipient's name and address)

3. Salutation (a greeting, followed by a colon)

4. Body (the main part of the letter)

5. Closing (a goodbye, followed by a comma)

6. Signature (handwritten between the closing and your name)

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How to Write a Business Letter

When writing a formal letter, it is important to follow letter-writing conventions. 

1. Be concise

State the purpose of your formal letter in the first paragraph, and don't veer off 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. 

In short, this means that every word you write should serve a purpose. Consider what is necessary to include and what is not.

2. Use an appropriate tone

A formal or business letter should be written in a tone that is slightly more formal than your everyday language. Avoid slang or jargon; contractions, such as "I'm," "can't," and "it's;" and vague words, such as "good" and "nice." 

Be polite and respectful, even if you are complaining.

3. Proofread

Proofreading is important. Once you have finished writing your formal letter, check the grammar and spelling carefully. Use the spell-checker on your computer and reread the letter yourself, as the spell-checker will not catch every error. 

It is a good idea to have someone else proofread your formal letter, even after you have done so, as it is easy to overlook errors in a document you have read many times. 

If your formal letter is important enough for you to take the time to write, and for the recipient to read, don't rush this step. Errors will diminish the impact of the statement or impression you are trying to make.

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4. Use the proper format

Remember that first impressions last. Use clean, unwrinkled paper and a matching envelope for your formal letter. Make sure the recipient is addressed properly and that their name is spelled correctly. 

Equally important—don't forget to sign your letter!

Formal Letter Format Example

See Our Formal Letter Example

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How to Format a Letter Professionally

Adhering to the standard conventions of good formal letter writing and presenting your letter attractively are important.

Here are a few formatting tips to ensure that the recipient considers your thoughts seriously and gives them the attention and consideration they deserve. 

1. Heading

The formal letter heading consists of your address (but not your name) and the date. Telephone numbers and email addresses are not usually included here, but they are acceptable to include in your business letter heading, if you wish.

Using the block format, the heading goes in the top left-hand corner of the page.

123 Elm Ave.

Treesville, ON M1N 2P3

November 23, 2008

2. Address

The address consists of the name and address of the person to whom you are writing. You should address your formal letter to a specific person, but if you do not know their name, at least include their title. 

This address is usually placed four lines below the heading if using a word processor, or one line below the heading if handwriting your letter.

Here's how to write an address on a letter:

Mr. M. Leaf (Name)

Chief of Syrup Production (Title)

Old Pancake Company

456 Maple Lane

Forest, ON 7W8 9Y0

3. Salutation

Skip one line after the address, and then type your salutation. Your choice of salutation depends on whether you know the intended recipient of the formal letter. 

The most typical business letter greeting is:

Dear

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.

Ms.

may be used if you don't know the marital status of a woman. Furthermore, if the person has a specific title, such as:

Dr.

make sure that you use it. 

Here are examples of each salutation in use:

Dear Mr. Trunk:

Dear Ms. Root:

Dear Mrs. Branch:

Dear Dr. Acorn:

4. Body

Skip one line after the salutation, and begin the body of the formal letter. This is the main part of your 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.

5. Closing

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:

Yours sincerely,

Ezra Twig

6. Signature

Your actual handwritten signature is to be inserted next, with your name typed on the following line.

Your typed business letter signature marks the end of your letter, and while you can write a postscript (P.S.) containing additional information, it is better to include all pertinent details in the body of the letter itself so that nothing is accidentally overlooked.

Read How to End a Letter

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How to Format a Business Letter

The conventional format for business letters is presented below so that you can follow the key style points.

1. Style

There are three common styles of formal letter formatting:

1. Block format: In block format, the entire letter is left-justified and single-spaced; however, in the body, paragraphs are double-spaced. This is the most formal letter type.

2. Semi-block format: In the semi-block format, each paragraph is indented instead of left-justified. The semi-block format is the least popular style of business letter. 

3. Modified block format: In modified block format, the heading, address, and body of the letter are left-justified and single-spaced, just as in block format. However, the date and closing are centered.

2. Font

As with most formal documents, official letter format calls for a standard serif 12-point font. 

Times New Roman is a conventional choice that is easy for your recipient to read.

3. Spacing and indentation

Most formal business letters use single spacing and no indentation. However, both spacing and indentation will depend on whether you choose a block, semi-block, or modified block format. 

The block format is recommended for professional letters. It uses single spacing and no indentation.

4. Punctuation

There are only 2 rules for punctuating a formal letter: 

1. Use a colon after the salutation.

2. Use a comma after the closing.

Be sure to follow these 2 rules to use proper letter format.

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How to Write Different Forms of Business Letters

There are many business letter types. Smart Business Box lists the following 21:

 

1. Acknowledgement letter

2. Adjustment letter

3. Apology letter

4. Application letter

5. Circular letter

6. Commendation letter

7. Complaint letter

8. Cover letter

9. Demand letter

10.  Follow-up letter

11.  Interest letter

12.  Introduction letter

13.  Job appointment letter

14.  Memorandum letter

15.  Networking letter

16.  Order letter

17.  Query letter

18.  Quotation letter

19.  Recommendation letter

20.  Resignation letter

21.  Sales letter

1. Acknowledgement letter

Purpose: To confirm that a communication has been received

What to include: What you are acknowledging

2. Adjustment letter

Purpose: To respond to a complaint letter

What to include: What steps you are taking to rectify the situation

3. Apology letter

Purpose: To accept responsibility for a mistake and ask forgiveness

What to include: What you will do to avoid future mistakes

4. Application letter

Purpose: To display a candidate's skills and experience

What to include: Hard data to back up the candidate's skills and experience

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5. Circular letter

Purpose: To share information with a group

What to include: Brief notes to disseminate knowledge quickly

6. Commendation letter

Purpose: To recognize effort and express gratitude

What to include: The reason you are extending commendation

7. Complaint letter

Purpose: To express an issue with a service or product

What to include: A professional tone

Read How to Write a Letter of Complaint

See Our Complaint Letter Example

8. Cover letter

Purpose: To communicate the goal of a package of documents (typically provided to an educator or employer along with a resume for the purposes of application)

What to include: A mention of what is included in the package and any required actions

Read How to Write a Cover Letter

See Our Cover Letter Example

9. Demand letter

Purpose: To inform a supplier that a delivery is late and demand delivery

What to include: Order details along with proof of purchase

10. Follow-up letter

Purpose: To initiate conversation following a meeting in order to remind or to seek further discussion

What to include: The details of your initial meeting and your reason for reaching out

See Our Follow-Up Letter Example

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11. Interest letter

Purpose: To show interest in working for a company (even if the company is not actively seeking applications)

What to include: How you can benefit the company

12. Introduction letter

Purpose: To express interest in initiating a business relationship

What to include: Your name and the reason you are writing a formal letter of introduction

Read How to Write an Introduction Letter

13. Job appointment letter

Purpose: To affirm an employee's position in a company

What to include: Congratulations and the start date

14. Memorandum letter

Purpose: To remind employees of a corporate change or policy

What to include: Formal letter-writing conventions (e.g., memo format)

See Our Memo Examples

15. Networking letter

Purpose: To initiate contact in order to build a professional relationship

What to include: Your qualifications

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16. Order letter

Purpose: To order products or services

What to include: The products required, along with their quantity and price and the expected delivery date

17. Query letter

Purpose: To propose publishing in a formal letter

What to include: An attention-grabbing hook

Read How to Write a Query Letter

See Our Query Letter Example

18. Quotation letter

Purpose: To estimate the price of a product or service and provide the terms and conditions

What to include: A clear price quote

19. Recommendation letter

Purpose: To prove background experience or skills communicated to an educator or employer

What to include: How you know the candidate and hard proof of their areas of expertise

Read How to Write a Recommendation Letter

See Our Recommendation Letter Example

20. Resignation letter

Purpose: To announce an employee's departure from a company

What to include: A thank you for specific opportunities

21. Sales letter

Purpose: To introduce a client to a business

What to include: An impressive pitch and a strong call to action

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Conclusion

Now that your formal letter has been written, read it in its entirety to ensure that you have communicated your points clearly. 

Better yet, try a professional editing service to ensure everything is coming across the way you intended. Then, you will be ready to send your letter to its recipient and await excellent results.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What Is a Business Letter?

A business letter is a formal document typically drafted by a member of an organization to another member of the same or another organization, or to a client, employee, or other professional party. 

Business letters are typically drafted for professional purposes and to have documentation and/or a record of an event, for example.

What Is a Good Greeting to Start a Letter?

A common greeting to begin a letter is "Dear." 

If you're wondering how to start a letter when you do not know the name of the person you are addressing, you may use "To whom it may concern." However, it is better to address your recipient by name in formal letters.

What Are the 3 Formats of a Business Letter?

Common formal letter formats are as follows: block format, modified block format, and semi-block format. 

In block format, the text is left aligned. Block format is considered the most formal business letter format. In semi-block format, the text is also left aligned, but some information is indented. In modified block format, some information is right aligned.


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About the Author

Scribendi Editing and Proofreading

Scribendi's in-house editors work with writers from all over the globe to perfect their writing. They know that no piece of writing is complete without a professional edit, and they love to see a good piece of writing transformed into a great one. Scribendi's in-house editors are unrivaled in both experience and education, having collectively edited millions of words and obtained nearly 20 degrees. They love consuming caffeinated beverages, reading books of various genres, and relaxing in quiet, dimly lit spaces.

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