Writing AdviceWriting, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2018

The Art of Writing the Perfect Formal Letter


Sometimes it seems like letter writing is a lost art form. Formal letters are becoming a rarity and have been replaced by all sorts of modern communication—from informal emails to texts to Snapchat. Even though we have come a long way technologically in communicating with each other, it's still important to know the basics of writing a formal letter just in case there is an occasion for one. Learning the basics of writing a formal letter can also help us improve communication in the other, more modern ways of writing to each other. Here are some things to remember when you start to write your own formal letter.

Why you would need to write a formal letter

In this day and age, you may be wondering why you would even need to write a formal letter. Though it may be a rare occasion in this digital era with its emphasis on abbreviations and getting everything into 140 characters or less, there are still a few times when letter-writing skills can come in handy. For example, in addition to cover letters there are also grants and applications to universities or even certain jobs that may require a formal written letter, so you want to be prepared when those pop up.

You could also write a letter if you have been using a product or service for many years and all of a sudden the product has changed and you become dissatisfied. Though social media is a quick way to get a company's attention, it may not have lasting imprint on them to affect change in the way you want.

Another good reason to write a formal letter is if you read an article online or in a newspaper that you disagree with and want to let the editor know your thoughts. This formal letter is called a "letter to the editor" and often they get published in the publication, so you definitely want to ensure that it is well written and your thoughts are easily understandable.

Lastly, you could also make your grandma's whole year by writing her a traditional letter and sending it in the mail, which is another very good reason to know how to write one.

Be professional in tone

The very first thing you need to keep in mind when writing a formal letter is to always be professional. Though you can be a little lax about spelling and grammar in emails or social media posts to friends, when you write a formal letter you want to make sure that everything is precise and accurate. Avoid using Internet jargon like "LOL" or "idk." Always be respectful in your language, even if you're trying to convey disagreement or complain about a service or product. Using antagonistic language will never get your point across effectively and may tarnish any chance you have to work together with the person or company to fix the problem.

Though it's important to be professional, it's also important to use language that's relatable. Just because a letter is formal doesn't mean that you need to use overly complicated words that are uncommon. You don't want your letter receiver to have to use a dictionary while reading it because your point may get lost in the midst. Be formal, but not too formal.

The basics of the heading and salutation

When you are writing a formal letter, the first thing you need to do is figure out who you are addressing. If you are writing a letter to the editor, for example, you need to address your letter to the editor-in-chief of the paper. If you are writing a cover letter, then you will need to address the hiring manager that was listed in the advertisement for the job.

It is always best to do address a letter with the recipient's name. In some cases you may find that you don't have a name to address to—especially in the case of applying blindly to a job advertisement where there's not much info about the hiring manager online. However, you should exhaust all efforts to find the recipient's name so that your letter can appear more personal.

Once you establish who you are writing the letter to, then you will need to set up a correct heading. Though getting the right heading may not seem all that important, it establishes a rapport with your letter recipient. They know that you've taken the extra steps to get their information correct and will be more likely to read on in the body of the letter.

Start out your heading with the sender's address, but don't include your name. Below the two lines of your address, put today's date. After you have written out the sender's address, put a space of one line and then enter the inside address, or the address of the person or company you are writing to. The inside address will include the recipient's name, his or her title, company, and then address. If you are unsure if your recipient is a "Miss" or a "Mrs.," then it is always best to use "Ms" to avoid any embarrassing incidents. If you know that your recipient is a medical doctor or holds a PhD, then be sure to use "Dr." before their name.

After you have written the inside address, then you will need to write a formal salutation to start off the letter. It is standard to use "Dear" followed by the recipient's name. Typically, if you are writing to someone you haven't met then it's appropriate to write their personal title ("Miss," "Ms.," or "Mr.") followed by their last name and then a colon. If you are unsure of a person's gender, then use their first and last name in both the inside address and the salutation.

Sample heading and salutation
Here's an example of a heading with a proper salutation.

Be concise in the body of the letter

When you write a formal letter, write with purpose. It is likely that your recipient is a very busy person who doesn't have time to read a meandering letter. Know what purpose your letter serves and write about that and that only.

After your salutation, skip a line and then start the body. In the first paragraph, give a brief introduction to who you are and why you are writing. After you have established those first important details, the rest of the letter body should be spent explaining what your business is and why they should know or care about it. Using facts and convincing language will undoubtedly be appreciated by your recipient. Be concise, use good language, and be sure to proofread and fact check everything you send in.

Closing your letter

Once you have written the body of the letter and you feel you have gotten your business established and your point across with the recipient, then you will need to close it out. After the last body paragraph, skip one line to write the closing. There are many ways to do this, but the generally accepted lines are:

  • Sincerely Yours,
  • Best,
  • Yours Sincerely,
  • Looking forward to hearing from you,
  • Respectfully,

After the closing line, skip four lines and then write your full name to sign the letter.

Small details to remember

In addition to making sure your heading, salutation, body, closing, and signature are correct in your formal letter, you should also get the overall look of your letter to be professional as well. Use a standard font, such as Times New Roman, and a standard size, such as 12 point, for formal letters. Anything bigger will make it look like you are trying to take up space and anything smaller will make it difficult on your recipient to read.

You should also make sure that your margins are a standard size (around 1 inch) and that you aren't using double spaces between lines. Most business letters are left justified and use single spacing throughout, so be mindful of these aesthetic choices in your letter writing.

Letter example

The following is an example of a formal letter, complete with heading and salutations.

6872 Elm Ave.
Toledo, OH 43601
December 4, 2016

Ms. Persephone Johnson
Editor-in-Chief
Toledo Daily News
456 Editor Avenue
Toledo, OH 43601

Dear Ms. Johnson:

I am writing to you today in response to the op-ed piece, "Why You Should Absolutely Declaw Your Cat" in Thursday's issue of the Daily News. As a longtime cat owner, I was very disturbed by the writer's opinion of this delicate subject.

Though declawing your cat may seem like the easiest way to prevent your home from being torn to shreds by your kitty's claws, the truth is that this is an inhumane practice that many vets are starting to shy away from. To declaw a cat is to remove your kitty's naturally given tools. This would be the equivalent of cutting off a human's fingers just so they wouldn't get into too much trouble.

Cats without claws are unable to defend themselves against other animals and the surgery provides absolutely no medical benefit to them. The Humane Society is staunchly against declawing cats, except in the cases of medical emergencies such as tumors.

Instead of declawing, cat owners should be patient with their feline companions when it comes to unwanted scratching. The truth is that scratching is a very natural behavior of cats, and should not be eradicated from their activities. The owner needs to instead redirect scratching from things like furniture or wood floors to toys and scratching posts. Cats typically scratch when they are bored, so as cat owners we need to make sure they are getting everything they need to live happy, fulfilled lives.

This reader thinks that the writer of this piece should have more thoroughly checked her sources on declawing and the harm that it creates for cats.

Respectfully,

Gina Davis

The importance of letter writing

Whether you are writing a letter to your prospective new boss, you are trying to get a donation for your business or nonprofit, or you are writing a letter to the editor at your local paper, it's important to be accurate and confident in your writing. Paying attention to small details like getting the heading correct or using the right salutation will make your letter more credible in the eyes of the recipient. They will automatically assume that you are competent and professional, which will hopefully make them more receptive to what you have to say in the body of your letter.

Before you send your letter off to your recipient, have someone look it over. Whether it's a friend, colleague, a copy editor, or a teacher, it's worth getting someone to proofread, provide suggestions on how to improve, and to get feedback on what you have written. Though the formal letter may not be as fun to write as a novel or an op-ed, it's am important genre of writing that can accomplish a lot in just a few paragraphs.

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