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Most professionals must draft formal business letters at some point in their careers. Whether you are looking for a job, leaving a job or communicating with a client, properly formatting and writing a business letter indicates your level of professionalism. To write such a letter, follow the correct format and use professional language while addressing all of the necessary requirements.
The most common format for a formal business letter is the block format. With this format, all text is flush left, with 1-inch margins around the entire page. To write your letter in this format:
- Type your address, unless the letterhead is preprinted with it, in which case you begin with the date.
- Skip a line, then add the date.
- Skip another line, and add the name and address of the letter’s recipient.
- Skip another line, and insert the greeting, followed by a colon.
- Skip a another line, and begin your letter.
- After the body of the letter, type the closing.
- Skip three lines, and then type your name and title.
Indented formatting follows a similar pattern to block formatting in terms of spacing between sections. However, there are some differences with the alignment of sections:
- Type your address and the date with the left edge of the lines aligned with the center of the page. Again, if you are using a printed letterhead, do not retype your address.
- Skip a line, and type the recipient’s name and address. They should be flush left, as with the block style.
- Indent each paragraph of the body of the letter a half-inch, with a single space between paragraphs.
- Type the closing and the signature lines so they're even with the address and date at the top of the page, with the left edge aligned at the center of the page.
Typically, a formal business letter can be divided into five distinct parts:
- An introduction that tells the recipient what the letter is about.
- A reason for writing.
- Information about any enclosures.
- Additional remarks or statements.
- A closing that references future contact.
For example, if you are writing to follow up on an informational interview, you would begin by referencing the meeting and say you are writing to follow up. If you are sending documents, such as a copy of your resume or writing sample, note that in the letter; for instance, “As we discussed, I have enclosed a copy of the article I wrote for XYZ Journal on marketing tactics.” End by reiterating that you appreciated the meeting and that you will remain in touch throughout your job search. Avoid using any abbreviations or slang in your letter, and carefully proofread before sending.
If someone else is typing the letter for you, indicate that on a line underneath the signature line. Skip a line, and then type your initials in capital letters, followed by a forward slash and the typist’s initials in lower case.
If you are including enclosures in your letter, alert the recipient by adding a note at the bottom of the letter. Skip two lines from the signature line, or one from the typist line. Type “Enclosures,” followed either by the number of enclosures in parentheses or a colon and the specific enclosures listed on separate numbered lines, for example, Enclosures: 1. Resume 2. Writing Sample.
If you are sending a copy of the letter to someone else, include a CC line as well. After the enclosures line, skip a line. Type CC, followed by a colon and the name of the additional recipient. If there is more than one person, include each name on a separate line.
Finally, choose a conservative and easy to read font. Times New Roman or Arial in 10 or 12 point are the most common choices for business letters.
- Some people prefer to center the date and closing section instead of aligning them at the left.
- Try to keep the letter to one page. Generally, a short letter will get a quicker response than a long, rambling composition that takes several pages to come to the point.
- Make certain your punctuation, spelling and grammar are letter-perfect. Use your computer's spell-checking program or have someone proofread the letter before you send it.
- No matter how upset you are with the recipient, try not to show your anger in your letter. You are much more likely to get the response you desire if you remain courteous.
An adjunct instructor at Central Maine Community College, Kristen Hamlin is also a freelance writer and editor, specializing in careers, business, education, and lifestyle topics. The author of Graduate! Everything You Need to Succeed After College (Capital Books), which covers everything from career and financial advice to furnishing your first apartment, her work has also appeared in Young Money, Lewiston Auburn Magazine, USA Today, and a variety of online outlets. She's also been quoted as a career expert in many newspapers and magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Parade. She has a B.A. in Communication from Stonehill College, and a Master of Liberal Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Denver.