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Learn How to Write Business, Formal, Official letters

Up until now, Amber’s team leader has handled all formalities and has been the main channel of communication between the team and the client. Her team has developed a new SAAS product, with Amber leading the proceedings. One fine morning, a text lit her phone screen up, saying:

“Amber, send the update specifics highlighting feature set and product benefits to the client ASAP.”

Amber was visibly flustered, running here and there finding the right words to draft an official business mail to send to the client.

Amber is not the first one who was completely thrown off writing an official letter, and most certainly not the last one either. Because…

A business letter has a language of its own.

Despite the fact that composition has been a part of the school curriculum since time immemorial, drafting a professionally accurate letter can be a challenging task, nonetheless. But how do you NOT be a bundle of nerves and curate a formal letter that emanates character? Let’s find out.

What is a business letter?

A business letter is the standard mode of communication between two individuals or businesses, or a company and a client. It is often a representative of the company, serving as a channel of interaction between people. In the 21st century, while handwriting may be a lost art, formal letter formats remain the preferred mode of communication in a professional setting.

Why write a business letter?

Well-drafted letters have time and again altered the course of history itself. Ask Abe Lincoln, who thanks the day he received a letter from Grace Bedell asking him to let his whiskers grow out to win the elections.

As a programmer or developer, writing bug-free codes obviously takes precedence over a written formal letter. That being said, you must learn the art of formal writing as you progress in your career onto managerial roles.

Even though electronic communication is “all the craze” right now, there are three primary reasons why organizations write and send formal letters.

  • Instruct business actions

One of the most important objectives of a business letter is providing instructions to the recipients regarding business actions. In a legally binding formal letter, an organization can lay step by step details required to finish the task at hand, invite a call-to-action, persuade a sale, etc.

  • Build relations

People make trades with whom they trust. Thus, in a professional environment, formal letters can be used to strengthen business relations as well. They can be used to convey insights and appreciation credibly.

  • Add a personal touch

A well-formatted and neatly folded business letter acts as a representative of an individual or a business. It shows that you took time and gave efforts even before the recipient reads the actual contents of the letter. This conveys a sense of professionalism and confidence in language skills.

Components of a business letter

This is how the framework of a business letter sample looks like:

Sender’s contact details/ Printed letterhead

Date and time

Receiver’s name and address

Attention: <Addressee>

Subject

Salutation

Body

Signature/closing

Enclosures

Important components of a business letter

Unlike electronic modes of communications, you need to be careful about formal letter formats while drafting one yourself. Experts say there are 9 essential components of a written formal letter, which are discussed below.

  • Sender’s contact details

Ideally, when writing as a part of an organization, you should have a printed letterhead that contains the sender’s address and contact details in full. This eliminates the need to search for an address while sending replies. Also, a printed letterhead enhances credibility of the sender, making the letter look far more official.

Example 

John Doe

123 ABC Street

City, State 123456

Tel:

Email:

  • Time and date

Include the time and date to inform the recipient when the letter was written. If you use a message for financial interactions with a client, you can keep track of such orders or invoices and tally them using the dates. 

Make sure to use the standard U.S. format, i.e. November 10, 2020.

  • Receiver’s name and address

The recipient’s address on a business letter is usually added to avoid searching for it later. Historically, it was placed to make sure that this address would appear in the small window through the envelope. Make sure to include the complete address, so that it does not get delivered to the wrong location, or worse, get lost in transit!

Example

Mary Jane

456 XYZ Street

City, State 123456

Tel:

Email:

  • Subject

This is often considered an optional component, but a crisp subject line can be one of the best ways to grab your recipient’s attention. Mention the purpose of the letter in a phrase; there’s no need to finish each other’s sentences.

  • Salutation

Always include a formal salutation followed by a colon (:) in a business letter. Usually, only if the recipient is an acquaintance, use their first name. For everything else, resort to the last name. If you are sending the letter to an organization or a body, you can use a generic salutation like To Whomsoever It May Concern.

Example 

  1. To Whomsoever It May Concern
  2. Dear Hiring Manager
  3. Dear Human Resources Manager
  4. Dear Sir / Madam
  5. Respected Sir/Sirs
  6. Dear Judge Jefferson
  7. Dear Mr. Shaw or Dear Ms. Shaw
  • Letter body

“Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.” - William Shakespeare

Write your business concerns in one to three paragraphs. Make sure to keep it short and crisp, get to your point quickly, and format it correctly. In the first paragraph, introduce your concerns and the purpose of writing the letter. 

Restrict subsequent paragraphs to a single issue. Bring it to a close in the last section with a concluding point.

  • Complimentary close

End your letter with a short yet polite complimentary close, followed by a comma. A complimentary close adds a personal touch to the letter, further solidifying the relationship between the sender and recipient.

Example

  1. Thank you / Thanking you
  2. Yours faithfully / sincerely
  3. Yours respectfully
  4. Best regards
  5. With sincere thanks
  • Signature

Include your personal stamp of signature in the letter. In a printed message, this signature is a demonstration that you have verified and approved the contents of the said letter. Leave four lines under the complimentary close, add your name in block letters, and sign or stamp above the title.

  • Enclosing

Type or write a single line titled ‘Enclosing’ if you are attaching documents such as a resume or transcripts. You can also list the titles of each document in an ordered manner if there are multiple documents you need to send along with the letter.

If only Amber knew these before!

Optional components of a business letter

Apart from the essential components, you can add some optional ones too, depending on the context.

  • Attention line

While writing to an organization, the attention line can narrow down the recipient from a group. Leave two lines under the recipient’s address and write or type the specific recipient’s name.

E.g. Attention Mr. Geller

  • Carbon Copy

C.C. is a formal way of mentioning the entire list of recipients, notifying who else knows the contents of the letter. You will find a carbon copy salutation on letters containing memorandums and agendas.

  • PostScript

This section includes some additional information that is added at the end of the letter after the signature. Postscripts are added to emphasize and bring attention to a particular point or include a topic after the message has been written. Begin with a P.S. abbreviation and indent it according to the rest of the format.

E.g. P.S. Tally the invoices and update them on a Google Sheet.

How to format a business letter?

As mentioned earlier, you need to be exceptionally careful about formal letter formats. Take this as a career advice. An organization will maintain a standard format and send all the letters in the same design to each and every client.

The format of an official letter may vary according to the institution, but there are specific universal standards and variations consistent everywhere. You can choose one of the following formats:

Block format

This is one of the most common formal letter formats in which you can write a business letter.

  • Alignment: Left Alignment
  • Indentation: None
  • Line spacing: Single
  • Paragraph spacing: Double

Modified block format

  • Alignment: Date, Signoff, and Signature start from the center, rest left aligned
  • Indentation: None
  • Line spacing: Single
  • Paragraph spacing: Single or Double

Semi block format

This is similar to the block letter format but has a more informal appearance.

  • Alignment: Left Alignment
  • Indentation: Five spaces for the first line of each paragraph
  • Line spacing: Single
  • Paragraph spacing: Double

Forming the business letter body: Your ultimate vade mecum!

Let’s come back to Amber’s dilemma. She can very well throw some random characters together using the format mentioned above and send a halfhearted business letter to her client.

The fallout? Disappointment.

A business mail without character is, after all, no better than an auto-generated text.

Only when you blend the literal and abstract meanings of the term ‘character’ can you dish out a professionally accurate and meaningful business letter.

Therefore, in addition to a spot-on format of an official letter, you also need the ABC to draft a formal letter as unique as a blue diamond.

  • Choose the right tone: Active vs. passive voice

Grammar Nazis will throw a tantrum and die of a headache when you keep using passive voice in a letter. However, passive voice emphasizes the action more than the doer, which may often be the requirement when it comes to business writing.

The trick is to find the perfect balance between them. When you want to focus on the subject, you should form sentences in the active voice. Instead, if you’re going to focus on the instructions, go with passive voice.

E.g. ‘Your request for an extended deadline has been rejected by the client’ sounds way less rude and abrupt than ‘Client denied extending the deadline.

  • Be courteous: Arrogance is a flaw

Chivalry is not just a fancy word with a neat meaning; it is a way of life. - Vaughn Ripley

Remember that words can make or break a day. Most business letters need to be crisp and concise since the recipients will often make an educated decision based on your words. Thus, soften the communication as much as possible without dragging sentences, while maintaining a professional approach.

Trivia: 

How to be courteous in letter writing

  1. Be constructive and positive.
  2. Write with a sense of participation and exchange ideas.
  3. Appreciate whenever possible.
  4. Show respect to the recipient and yourself.
  • Personal pronoun: The power of YOU

Directly address the recipient wherever possible. In a written formal letter, addressing the reader makes the content engaging, making the recipient feel that you are now talking to them. Using third-person addresses as ‘one’ can excessively formalize the content, which is out of place in most contexts.

E.g. ‘You need to create a feature vs. benefit chart for our sales team’ directly addresses the reader and provides informational steps at the same time.

  • Be concise

‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’ – William Shakespeare

While writing an official letter, you will often be including directional steps on which the recipient will take action. Thus, wasting your time with dragged sentences and unnecessary information is beneficial to none. Write concise steps and deliver a crisp message. Maybe, save the chatter for a scheduled call later.

For E.g.: ‘As a responsible employee of your esteemed and venerated organization, I would like to bring to your attention the delay in submission of several files in the last project that we handled over the weekend for one of our oldest clients from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Lost track?

Exactly.

  • Use additional pages if required

Having to call and follow up immediately after receiving a written letter defeats the purpose of the letter itself. While a professional letter format needs to be concise and should deliver the message as quickly as possible, it should also contain complete information. Do not refrain from using additional pages whenever required and provide straightforward yet tangible steps for the recipient to follow.

  • Formatting: Spacing and margins

Design is intelligence made visible.” – Alina Wheeler

As mentioned above, each institute most likely has a company letter format that is used as a standard for each and every letter sent from the firm. Before sending a letter to an organization, make sure that you are well acquainted with the formatting design language (such as the spacing and margins) that your organization wants to follow.

For individuals and the self-employed, it never harms to keep a standard and stick to it. Use either a block or modified block format for business letters, or semi-block format if you are sending an official message to a close acquaintance.

  • Handwriting and fonts: Be a little mystical
A picture containing table, coffee, food, plateDescription automatically generated

Will you sign a contract that was drawn with crayons?

Before writing an official letter, you must choose a font that is easy to understand. The style of text used in a message should also be large and clear so that the recipient does not have to squint his/her eyes.

Apart from the widely accepted Times New Roman size 12, you can use simple, legible fonts like Calibri, Arial, Cambria, Verdana, and Courier New. Steer clear from novelty fonts such as Comic Sans and Lucida Handwriting; do not opt for handwriting fonts in a typed letter.

  • Punctuation

Let’s eat grandpa. Let’s eat, grandpa. 

Punctuation saves lives.

A written business letter requires no particular punctuation apart from what is needed for proper sentence construction. Previously, punctuation in the address and date lines were standard, but are now not usually added as they are pointless.

In business letters, salutation takes a colon instead of a comma if you’re writing to a business firm or an institution.

Example

John Doe

123 ABC Street

City, State 123456

Tel: 98765 43210

Email: abc@xyz.com

Dear Mr. Jefferson:

Yours faithfully,

Finalizing the letter

Drafting a proper business letter is nothing short of an art, and hence, it is also one of the essential technical interview preparation tips. 

Writing an official letter is job only half done. Now, since the message will be a representation of you or your organization, presentation is equally as important as the content within the formal letter format.

  • Edit and review

After you have drafted the letter and provided a clear, concise message, go over the content once again before printing it out. For a written formal letter, you can prepare the letter on a rough copy before jotting down the official one.

Proofread the letter contents and edit out any unnecessary jargon, dragged sentences, and incorrect grammar. If necessary, have a colleague re-read the contents to make sure that you did not miss out on any information. Once you are confident of the message, go ahead and print it on the official letterhead.

  • Don’t staple the letter

Label the pages if there is more than one in your letter. According to the strictest norms, you should never staple a business letter. The recipient should be able to figure out the page order according to the contents or page numbers in the footer.

  • Posting the letter

Once you are done formatting the letter and reviewing its contents, it is ready to find its destination. If the envelope has a see-through window, the recipient’s address should perfectly align while folding the letter. However, if it does not, write or type the address on the envelope.

If you are emailing the letter, add its purpose in the subject line of the mail. This will ensure that the recipient is certain about the content and pays attention to it at the earliest.

Finally, take a deep breath, firm your resolve, and motor ahead.