Although most business communications occur digitally these days, knowing how to format and draft a formal business letter is still important. You never know when you might be asked to write a letter of recommendation for a peer or report, or when you may need to submit a formal resignation (two weeks’ notice) letter. Keep reading to learn more about how to write a formal business letter.
What is the Purpose of Sending a Business Letter?
At its simplest, a business letter is a formal document used to communicate with another peer, a company, clients, employees, or stakeholders. Business letters are often used for serious, important correspondence, such as job offers, recommendations, resignations, and cover letters.
The recipient of your letter may have a stack of other letters to read. As such, ensuring that your business letter is properly formatted, well-written, and error-free is of the utmost importance. You may not get another chance to communicate your message, so taking the time now to learn how to write a business letter may pay off in the future.
Format Your Formal Business Letter
Now that you know the “why” behind business letters, let’s dive into the “how.” Here are a few general steps to follow the next time that you need to write a formal business letter.
Understand the Assignment and Gather Necessary Information
Though all business letters should be written professionally, it’s important to remember that the type of business letter you’re writing drives the goals you need to accomplish. For example, you’ll draft a reference letter differently than you would a resignation letter or a post-job interview thank-you letter. Keep the task at hand in mind when you’re drafting your letter.
Similarly, you should gather all the necessary information before you start. You’ll want to know to whom the letter should be addressed, as well as the recipient’s contact information. Having this information is essential to ensuring the letter makes it to the right place and person.
Choose the Proper Greeting
Choosing the wrong greeting or one that doesn’t match the seriousness of the correspondence could insult the recipient or result in your letter not being read. Conversely, choosing the proper salutation can help you get off to the right start and be taken seriously.
If you happen to know the recipient’s name, be sure to include that in the greeting. Here are some examples:
Mr. or Ms. First Name Last Name,
Dear First Name Last Name,
Dear Mr. or Ms. First Name Last Name,
If you don’t know the recipient’s name—which may be likely if you’re writing a job reference, letter of recommendation, or cover letter—it may be tough to know how to address a business letter. If this is the case, do an online search to find out who the likely person is, or the name of the team or department you’re writing to. If you can’t find an individual, write “Dear [Department/Team],” or, if you are being very formal, it’s a safe bet to address the letter with a phrase like “To Whom It May Concern.”
Get to the Point and Stay on Track
Don’t ramble on about unrelated matters in your professional communications. Introduce the objective of the communications, lay out your points, and keep the messaging simple and concise. Most business letters should be one page, which means that the letter real estate may be limited. Staying on track will help you fit your messaging within one page and focus on the objective you’re hoping to achieve.
Wrap It Up with a Message and Signature
You’ll want to provide closure at the end of the business letter, which usually involves a call to action. For example, if it’s a cover letter for a resume, you’ll want to indicate that you’re interested in the role and why you think you’d be a good fit, and that you’re looking forward to hearing from the employer. If it’s a letter of resignation, you’ll want to end on professional terms and indicate the timeline. Try to keep this closure to a brief paragraph.
Then, you’ll want to enter four single-spaced lines between the closing paragraph and your formal concluding salutation. Examples of formal business letter format for closing salutations include: Respectfully, Cordially, Sincerely, Respectfully yours, or Yours sincerely. Then, enter another few lines before typing out your full name and listing your title. If you’re printing and mailing the letter, sign your name in the empty space between your closing salutation and your printed name.
If you’re sending the letter electronically, do not include the address/date sections at the top and begin with the greeting instead. At the end, include an electronic signature with your name and contact information.
Sample Business Letter Format
Here is a business letter format example. This sample is based on a fictitious offer of employment letter.
[Your First and Last Name]
[Title of Current Position]
[Name of Current Company]
[City, State ZIP code]
[Name of Recipient]
[Recipient’s current position (if known) – If unknown, address it to the company or department within a company]
[Recipient’s current company]__[Recipient’s City, State ZIP code]
Dear [Insert full name of contact],
I’m writing to inquire about a position with [company name].
[Insert supporting details that may be relevant to the letter (e.g., background, relevant experience, why you are interested in the role, etc.).]
[Add a concluding line (e.g., “I am very excited about the opportunity and would love to join the team. Please reach out to me at the contact information below. ”)]
[Actual or electronic signature]
[Any additional contact information (ex. website, social media links, etc.)]
Tips for Writing a Standout Formal Business Letter
There are a few critical items to consider when writing a formal business letter. By keeping these tips in mind, you’ll be well on your way to writing business letters that stand out for all the right reasons.
Don’t underestimate the importance of proofreading—Even professional writers need to build in time to review their drafts before launching them off. Proofreading your business letter, as well as reading it out loud, can help you catch silly mistakes or typos, which can help save you from potential embarrassment. If the letter doesn’t contain sensitive, confidential, or proprietary information, consider asking a peer to proofread to have another set of eyes on the letter to help catch errors.
Prioritize conciseness and clarity—Focus on the objective of the letter, and only include the most relevant details in your communications. Don’t leave out important information, but avoid including errant, unnecessary details that make your letter confusing or overly long.
Communicate deadlines or action items clearly—If you’re writing a letter to ask someone else to do something by a certain date, call that out clearly in the letter. Explain the reasoning behind the actions, if necessary.
Formal Business Letters and You
At some point in your professional career, you’ll likely be tasked with writing a formal business letter. Adhering to the basic format provided here can help guide you toward writing a successful, polished business letter.
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