Even in this world of Twitter, email, and Facebook updates, you’d be remiss to think that the standard rules for composing a business letter have gone the way of the carrier pigeon.
A properly formatted business letter not only shows off your level of professionalism, it also shows character, tact, and maturity. Sure, anyone can send anyone an email…but when you need a more formal way to communicate, like when you’re applying for a job, writing to a customer, or seeking funding for a project, a business letter is the way to go.
It’s been years (15 to be exact) since I took business typing at Orono High School. To this day I still think that what I learned in that class has helped me in college, grad school, and in my professional life. Not only do I type at lightening speeds (not to brag) but I know how to format any business letter or resume.
There are several formats for a business letter, but they generally fall into two categories: block and indented. The difference? The block format has no indentations and the indented format does. Simple, really.
The first thing on the page should be your return address. If you are writing this on company letterhead that already has the address on it somewhere, you can leave this off.
The next thing that should appear is the date. It’s important to include it because correspondence is frequently filed in date order. Plus, if you are sending a follow-up, it’s easy to mention “…in my letter dated February 1…”
The date is followed by the complete name, title, and address of the recipient. In many cases the person who opens the mail is not the same person you are addressing it to. Including the name and address on your letter ensures it’s being sent to the right person, even if it gets separated from the envelope.
If you don’t know if a female recipient is married or not, it’s perfectly acceptable to use “Ms.” If you don’t know the title or correct spelling of a persons name, find out. I can’t tell you how annoying it is to get a letter with my name spelled wrong. Especially when it is so easy to find out. Go online or better yet, call and ask the receptionist.
Next comes the salutation. You can either use a comma or a colon after their name.
Now it’s time to write your actual letter. If you are using the block format type every line flush with the left margin. If you are using the indented format, indent the first line of each paragraph. Don’t get all fancy-schmancy and use some hard-to-read font. Use Times New Roman or Georgia. The letter should be single spaced, too, and a single line should separate each paragraph.
The most common closing is “Sincerely”, and I suggest you keep it simple and use it followed by a comma and your name. You will leave space after your typed name so that there is room for you to sign it with a pen.
Are you enclosing a resume or other materials with your letter? Be sure to indicate it with “Enclosure” or “Enclosures” under your name. This way the recipient will be sure to acknowledge what you have included with your letter.
If you are emailing this letter, it’s wise to use it as the body of your email and including it as an attachment. Note that some computers can’t open certain documents (like .docx). It’s best to attach it as a .doc or .rtf – or even as a .pdf file.
Here’s a map to more clearly show you the formatting:
(Image courtesy of HeavenlyCabins under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.)
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