There are many common elements that make up the format of a formal business letter. Once you start writing business letters, these become quite familiar.
These elements fall into two general areas:
Letterhead is pre-printed paper businesses use to write letters with. Letterhead comes in two flavors:
- First page
- Second sheet
First page letterhead typically includes the logo and address of the company you represent. As you can imagine, this letterhead is used for the first page of the letter.
Subsequent pages are usually printed on second sheet letterhead. So, if you have a three-page letter, the first page would be printed on fist page letterhead. Pages two and three would be printed on second sheet letterhead.
Second sheet letterhead typically contains the company logo at the bottom of the page. It may also include other elements the company wants to put in there (like the locations of other company offices).
Letterhead is usually professionally preprinted with the elements I identified above. Some firms use electronic letters. Electronic letterhead is essentially a template that will look like letterhead when printed out.
The Different Sections of the Business Letter Format
Let’s look at each section of the business letter in the order that they commonly appear.
Sender’s Contact Information*
Like mentioned above, the sender’s address and contact information is often found on the company’s letterhead. If it’s not there or you aren’t using letterhead, you’ll have to add it.
Typically, this would appear on the right side of the letter. However, its location is really up to your discretion.
Each business letter will indicate the date you wrote it. Typically, this is the first thing you notice about a letter (seeing that the sender’s contact information is usually part of the letterhead).
In the US, you might use a date like this:
January 1, 2014.
The date is typically followed by two spaces (i.e. returns).
Recipient’s Name and Address*
Even though the recipient’s name and address will appear on the envelope, it is customary to also include it in the letter. This appears after the date.
You might wonder whether you should start the name with a formal title like Mr. or Mrs. That depends on how you would refer to that person to their face. If you would call the recipient Bob, then there is no need to address the letter to Mr. Newhart.
If you would refer to the person as Mrs. Cleaver when in her presence, then you address the letter to Mrs. Cleaver.
When adding the address, use the U.S. Post Office’s format.
Reference Line (RE:)*
Business people are busy. They want to know what a letter is about before they read it. That’s what the reference line is for.
The reference line is a title. An example might look like this:
RE: The Oppenheimer Matter
Just like a personal letter, the salutation of a business letter starts with “Dear.” It is followed by a colon. An example might look like this:
Dear Mr. Herman:
Dear Pee Wee:
You use the same judgment on how you address this person that you used when filling out the address.
The body is the content of your letter. It is the most important part of the letter. Remember, writing is talking in the written form. Yes, the spelling, punctuation, and usage in the letter should be correct. But the letter should sound like you are talking to someone. Even though this is a “business letter,” it should be conversational and communicate your message without trying to sound stuffy or overly proper.
When you are writing the body of your letter, keep in mind the type of business letter it is. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look at our What is a Business Letter section.
You can close the letter in several ways. The most common is:
Another common option is:
Whatever phrase you decide to use will be followed by a comma. Make sure you leave a few spaces afterwards for your signature.
Signature and Title*
Your handwritten signature will be followed by your name and your title. If you do not have a title, just leave it out.
Sometimes envelopes include documents in addition to a letter. These are called enclosures. It is important to identify any enclosures contained in the package so the recipient is sure he or she has received everything.
In the office environment, envelopes are often opened before they get to your desk. It is not unreasonable for your recipient not to receive the document that accompanied your letter.
Just like in email, people sometimes send a photocopy of a letter to recipients other than who the letter is addressed to. Often this is done when sending a letter to a team.
In this case, you will indicate this just as you would in an email:
CC: Brad Pitt
Back in the day, business people had secretaries who typed letters for them as they dictated. Of course, this was before there was software that could do this for you.
In the rare case that you are typing a letter that someone else dictated, it is customary to include your initials in capital letters followed by a slash and the typists initials in lowercase.
So, if Dick Grayson was typing a letter for Bruce Wayne, it would look like this:
These elements make up the business letter format. But you don’t necessarily need every element in your letter. I have indicated the sections that are essential with an asterisk.