How to write a formal letter

  • A formal letter has a number of conventions about layout, language and tone that you should follow.
  • There are set places to put addresses and the date.
  • How you begin and end the letter is also very important.
Learn how to write a formal letter using the correct layout and language

Although most of our written communication is by email, text message or social media, there are still all sorts of reasons that you might need to write a formal letter. These could include making a complaint, questioning a decision, making a travel reservation or writing to an employer to apply for a job or work experience.

Whatever the reason for writing a letter, you should create the right impression. So, just like dressing-up more formally for a special occasion, it is a good idea to ‘dress-up’ your words in a formal letter, too. This involves following a number of different conventions, or rules.

Addresses and date

The first thing that you need to know about is layout.

  • Begin with your address in the top-right corner of the page.
  • Immediately, below this include the date.
  • Below this, on the left hand side of the page, comes the name and address of the person that you are writing to - the recipient of the letter.

Beginning the letter

Most formal letters will start with ‘Dear’ before the name of the person that you are writing to:

‘Dear Ms Brown,’ or ‘Dear Brian Smith,’

You can choose to use first name and surname, or title and surname. If you don't know the name of the person you are writing to, use:

‘Dear Sir/Madam,’

Remember to add the comma.

Your opening sentence should clearly state why you are writing the letter - get to the point straight away:

  • ‘I would like to apply for the position of ...’
  • ‘I am writing to complain about the poor service we received at ...’
A hand holds a pen, the word 'Dear' is written on a piece of paper
How you choose to start your formal letter is very important

Tone and purpose

Your letter, like the opening sentence, needs to be precise and to the point. Tone, or the way your letter sounds, is very important and finding the right tone can sometimes be difficult. You may need to be firm, but polite. In a formal letter, the aim is to sound ‘businesslike’. Avoid any language that seems casual or chatty.

Think about the purpose of your letter and include all the relevant details to help the reader to respond. For example:

  • In a job application, include some specific details about why you are an ideal candidate for the role.
  • In a letter of complaint, include a summary of what has happened to prompt your complaint, with names, locations and dates, if necessary.

Make sure that each point you make is given a separate paragraph.

A printed formal letter with a hand holding a pen ready to sign a signature
Having a clear structure is essential when writing a formal letter

Ending the letter

Before you sign off and end your letter, make sure that you provide a clear course of action for the reader.

  • Making a complaint? Make it clear that you need a reply.
  • Applying for a job? End on a positive note and say that you are looking forward to hearing from them.

Signing off will depend on how you started your letter.

  • If you used someone’s name, end with ‘Yours sincerely,’
  • If you didn't use their name, you used ‘Sir/Madam’ instead, so end with ‘Yours faithfully,’

Finally, don’t forget to proofread your letter for spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Quiz

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