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Remember the Three C's: Clear, Concise and Correct!
Even in the age of texts and emails, you will likely have occasion to write a formal business letter. Whether you're on the job or writing on behalf of your family from a home office, an easy-to-follow format will help you communicate clearly.
Parts of the Business Letter
The generally accepted format for a business letter includes these components:
- Letterhead: The sender's name and address, sometimes a logo, pre-printed on standard 8-1/2 x 11 paper or stationery.
- Sender's Address: Street address, city, state and ZIP code if not on a letterhead; the sender's name and title are not included because they will appear at the bottom of the letter.
- Date: The date the letter is written, using the format of month (spelled out completely), date and year.
- Recipient's address: Also called the inside address, it's the name and title of the person you're writing with the street number and name, city, state and ZIP.
- Salutation: The greeting, usually "Dear" followed by the person's name.
- Body: Three or four paragraphs with the content of your letter
- Closing: Typically the word "Sincerely," followed by your name and title.
- Enclosure: Indicates that additional documents are included with the letter.
Formatting the Letter
If you're using a word processing program such as Microsoft Word (Windows) or Pages (Mac), templates are available with all the formatting done for you. It's easy to do your own formatting, although, as there is a standard acceptable format, with some slight variations, for today's business letter.
Set margins to one inch all around. If you're using letterhead, you may need to increase the top margin slightly. Select a font that is easy to read, generally Times New Roman, size 12. Arial is also acceptable.
Most writers use block format, meaning that all margins are left-justified. Use single-line spacing throughout. Type the sender's name and address, leave a blank line, type the date, then leave another blank line before typing the inside address. Use one blank line each to separate the inside address, greeting and first line of your letter. Leave one blank line to separate the body paragraphs and to separate the body from the closing. Finally, leave four blank lines between the word "Sincerely" and the sender's name and title (to leave space for a handwritten signature) and another four lines if adding the word "Enclosure."
Use Standard Greetings and Closings
It's better to write to a specific individual at a company rather than using an impersonal greeting such as "Dear Sir or Madam" or "To Whom It May Concern." Do some research online or call the company to get the name and correct spelling of the person you're writing. Include a personal title and last name, as in "Dear Ms. Smith" or "Dear Dr. Jones." Use a first name only if you know the individual and regularly use that form of address, such as "Dear Kate." When a name could belong to a person of either gender, it is acceptable to use the full name, as in "Dear Chris Stevens." If you cannot learn the name of an individual, use the job title in the salutation; for example, "Dear Human Resources Director." Follow the opening greeting with a colon (:).
When closing a letter, use the word "Sincerely" followed by a comma. Save a closing such as "Yours truly" for personal correspondence. Sign the letter, preferably with blue ink so it doesn't look like a photocopy, in the space between "Sincerely" and your printed name and title.
It's doubtful anyone has ever read a business letter and wished it were longer! Use a short introductory paragraph to state your purpose in writing the letter. One or two middle paragraphs should provide supporting details. The final paragraph restates the purpose of the letter and may include a request for some type of action.
Remember to Proofread
Ensure your letter gets the attention it deserves by carefully proofreading before sending. You can't always count on spell check, especially when it comes to proper names. Be sure you've got the correct title and mailing address of the person to whom you're writing. Re-read the letter to make sure you've clearly stated your message with just enough detail to make your point. Avoid jargon and abbreviations unless you're certain the reader will understand your meaning.
Denise Dayton is a a freelance writer who specializes in business, education and technology. She has written for eHow.com, Library Journal, The Searcher, Bureau of Education and Research, and corporate clients.