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Use Proper Form, But Remember Why You're Writing
Writing a formal letter can make even seasoned writers squirm. Chances are, you're writing to a stranger, so it's kind of like a blind date. You don't know much about the person who will read it, but you do know you'll be judged on it. You want to make a good impression so that whatever you're requesting in your letter will be granted. No pressure; right? Just take it step by step, and you'll have a letter you'll be proud to send.
Head to the Computer
Formal letters should always be typed on plain paper or letterhead. While handwritten letters give a personal touch to your baby shower thank-you notes, for formal letters, save your pen for your signature only.
Form Is More Than a Formality
Using proper form does more than make a good impression; it may determine whether your letter gets to the right person. For example, when writing to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, their website states that you must write on both the letter and on the envelope the type of request (i.e., Original Submission, Brief for an Appeal, etc.) and also the form number you're enclosing. When writing to a government agency, large corporation or other entity with many divisions, check their website for exact addresses. Look for current names with the title you're addressing, too. Writing, "Dear Ms. Smith" is always more impressive than "Dear Sir or Madam," although that's also correct when you don't have a name.
Use Block Format
Block format is most appropriate for formal letters, such as cover letters for job applications, letters of resignation, complaint letters, and, certainly, letters to judges, courts and elected officials. This format is justified throughout, which means the address, date, greeting, body copy, closing and signature should all align against the left margin, while the body of the letter is justified on both sides to form a block of copy. Skip a space between paragraphs, but don't indent them.
Set Up Your Letter
Your address comes first. If you're writing on letterhead, you don't need to retype the address. If you're not using letterhead, type just your address, not your name or title. Your street address goes on the first line and your city, state and zip code on the second line. "USA" isn't necessary, but if your letter is being sent to another country, type the country in ALL CAPS underneath the city, state and zip. (On the envelope, omit punctuation in the address. For example, 42 East Mulberry Street in Toledo, Ohio should be typed as "42 E Mulberry St" on the first line and "Toledo OH," followed by the zip code on the second line. This conforms to computerized systems.)
Skip a line and enter the date using the U.S. format of month, day and year. Don't abbreviate the month. If you began the letter one day and finished it several days later, use the date on which you finished the letter.
Skip a line again and add:
recipient's name, title
division or department name
city, state zip code
Use the titles Mr. and Ms., or Dr. for someone with an advanced degree, unless you know the person prefers being addressed another way.
Do the Honorable Thing
Greet your recipient as personally as you can, using the same title you used in the address. A dignitary, such as a judge, is addressed as, "The Honorable Kathleen O'Malley" in the address and "Dear Judge O'Malley" in the greeting, even upon retirement. This goes for high-ranking elected officials, too. As for local officials, it's not a must to give your town's mayor the Honorable title, but he'll be pleased if you do. Add a colon at the end of the greeting line.
Catch More Flies With Honey
No one likes to be yelled at, even through the mail. So regardless of your topic, being professional means being polite. That's different from being wimpy. Your tone should be firm, no-nonsense and to-the-point, but polite, even if you're angry. Telling the reader, "Your product stinks!" will make them angry, too, and possibly less inclined to help you.
Use a three-paragraph format. In the first paragraph, state why you're writing. By stating, "I was extremely disappointed in the frozen pistachio pancakes I bought from your company recently," you're conveying the problem and the product in one sentence, right upfront. Give a few details such as where and when you bought it.
Elaborate further in the second paragraph and explain what you'd like the company to do for you. "Please refund the price I paid, $4.49. My receipt (or the boxtop) is enclosed," is clear and concise. Alternatively, write that the company can refund your money or supply a "replacement product."
The third paragraph is your summary. Briefly recap your problem and your proposed solution. Add a sentence that conveys your appreciation for their looking into your problem.
Close With Dignity
"Very truly yours," "Thank you" and "Respectfully" are appropriate closings for formal letters, followed by a comma. Avoid overly friendly or trendy closings such as "Cheers" or "Best." Skip four lines; then type your full name and title (if any). Sign your name, in black ink, in the four-line space. If you have several enclosures, typing "Enclosures" under your name alerts the reader to look for them. You may list the enclosures if you wish.
Remember that although you're writing a formal letter, a person is going to read it. She may have some leeway in deciding what action to take on your behalf, so do all you can to make her want to help you. Years from now, when you pull out your formal letter to show your children how to write one, you'll be grateful for both your proper form and your self-control.
Tempted to use an unusual font so your letter will stand out? Don't. Readability is most important, so most formal letters are written in Times New Roman, with 12-point type.
- Purdue Online Writing Lab: Writing the Basic Business Letter
- Honor & Respect: How to Address a Judge
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: Form Filing Tips
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: Questions and Answers
- Oxford Living Dictionaries: How to Lay Out a Letter
- Career Trend: The Best Fonts for Business Letters
- Western Michigan University: Writing Style Guide: Addresses
Barbara Bean-Mellinger is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area who has written about careers and education for work.chron.com, workingmother.com, classroom.synonym.com and more. Barbara holds a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and has won numerous awards for her writing.