How to write a Formal letter

A formal letter is also known as a business letter. It goes without saying that formal writing is also known as business writing. Firstly, let us answer some questions related to business letters and business writing. 

  • What is a business letter?

    A business letter is a written or typed message from one business party to another, from one individual to an organization, or from one individual to another within an organisation for business related purposes.

  • What is the difference between an informal letter and a business letter?

    Basically, it is the purpose and the way they are written. An Informal Letter is written in a conversational and friendly manner because it is written between friends or very close acquaintances. A business letter is written solely for business purposes and therefore has formal language.

  • For what Purposes can formal letters be written?
    • to apply for jobs
    • to make an enquiry of a service, information, etc., or to deliver such.
    • to make an appointment.
    • to lodge in a complaint.
    • to applogise
    • to recommend someone for a certain job or position, or to recommend a service to praise for a service offered etc.

  • What guidelines should I keep in Mind when writing for Business purposes?

    The word business seems to have connotations of being busy. Indeed, most, if not all, business people are busy people. They are always running around from one business appointment to another, from one meeting to another.

    In this hectic world, business people seem to have no time to do other things that are not related to their business. They will only pay real attention to something in so far as it affects their business. You should bear this in mind whenever you embark on any business writing. To get any good results, you need to write in such a manner that convinces your targets that you have something of substance, something that will contribute positively to their business. So how can you do this?

    Firstly, Know your purpose for writing. Ask yourself questions like:

     

    Why am I writing this formal letter?

    What response do I want from the recipient (s)?

    What do I hope to achieve from writing this formal letter?

    Indeed, what is my goal?

    In short, think before you write.

    Don’t think as you write along!

    Having got your purpose clear in mind, write in a clear, concise manner . Remember, you are writing to an audience that is occupied with a lot of things.

    For example, do you know how many job application letters the company you are writing to is going to receive? Probably in the hundreds! So where the heck are they going to get the time to thoroughly examine all those letters?

    So even though you know some ‘cool’ words or ‘smart’ phrases, now is not the time to use them. They don’t care how large your vocabulary is. They just want to understand you! So don’t get all philosophical, poetic or downright extravagant in your language. If they can’t get what you are saying, they will just toss your letter aside (and most likely into the bin) and consider the next one.

    Here is an example of bad business writing:

    “I had served in several elevated capacities at secondary school, and my prowess at working with others was manifest and discernable to all my vigilant educators. Though being finicky, they, in sincerity, eulogized me for my conspicuous leadership qualities…

    Hmm….impressive English indeed. But do you reckon the person you are writing to has the time to look up those big words in the dictionary? Far from it! So, if you don’t want the letter to be tossed into the waste paper basket, learn to write simply and clearly.

    You could more appropriately say:

    I am acquainted with being in leadership, having served as a prefect back at secondary school.

    Concise, straight to the point – that is what we are talking about.

    But sometimes, writing too bluntly, too concisely may do more harm than good. It may sound rude.

    Instead of saying:

    “We were appalled by your bad services and demand that you improve.”

    You might say,

    “Your services proved to be unsatisfactory, but we have the confidence that you can do better.”

    Writing in the active voice, as opposed to the passive voice will help you write clearly and concisely. Using active voice in business letters is advantageous because…

    • It helps you to write in a clearly style
    • It prevents ambiguity

  • What format should I follow when writing a formal Letter?


Here is a sample of a business letter (bear in mind that future articles will discuss the various types of business letter individually). It shows the standard format of a business letter.

sample of formal letter

I would like you to take note of the following:



  1. Return Address

    This is the address of you, the sender. It is always a good practice to leave a line after the address and before the date, which should be written in full.

    The return address is usually on the right hand side of the paper as shown above.

    Most companies have their own stationary, where the company logo and address is already printed. If you are thus using company stationary, you may not need to type the return address. In some circumstances, after the last item in the address and before the date, one may include a line for the telephone, fax or email.

  2. Recipient’s Address

    This is the address of the person, or company you are writing to. It is usually on the left hand side. It is a good practice to leave a space between the recipient’s Address and the return address. Note that, after the address, there is no date, since it is already indicated on the return address.

    Precede the recipient’s address or inside address with the title of the person you are writing too. This is appropriate because it ensures that the letter reaches the appropriate person in the company, otherwise, it may be lost. In our example, the recipient of this letter is the Human Resource Manager.

  3. Salutation

    Formal letter writing demands that the salutation be formal. Common salutations are:

    Dear Sir/Madam

    This one is used if you do not know the gender of the person you are writing to, and if you do not know the person. If you know the gender, you might appropriately write:

    Dear Sir or Dear Madam as the case may be.

    You may opt to leave out the person’s title in the recipient’s address and use it instead in the salutation:

    Dear Human Resource Manager:

    Some people advocate writing the name of the person if you know him:

    Dear Mr. Tembo

    But I would not recommend this because there may be sudden changes in the company work force, and there is the danger that the letter may not be considered at all.

    However, there are certain situations where using the person’s name may be appropriate. For example, if you know me personally (and by personally, I mean we are close friends), you might say:

    Dear Michael

    But if you are not that close to the person, you might appropriately address him by his sir name:

    Dear Mr. Sinkolongo

    For ladies, Use Mrs if she is married, Miss if she is not and Ms if you do not know the status.

    In most cases, companies or individual business people, require that you address the formal letter to a particular individual. A company may say, for instance, that you address the letter to the General Manager or a certain named individual, whereas a person who runs a private business may require that you address the letter to him. Pay attention to these instructions if you want the letter to reach at all. For example, I may say:

    Write to me at the following address...

    And of course, I would give you an address, and I would expect you to address the letter to me.

    Remember too, the salutation always ends with a full colon or a comma.

  4. Heading

    The heading in the above formal letter is:

    Re: Application for Position of Electrical Engineer.

    As you can see, it is prefaced by either Re: or Ref:

    The heading is a swift way of informing the reader of what the letter is all about. At one glance, the reader knows what the formal letter is about. It can either be centered or justified left, depending on what works best for you.

    For the heading to serve its purpose, it must be more prominent than the other text. Making the text bold or underlining it can serve this purpose.

    However, for what its worth, the heading is not popular in modern formal letter writing. It is usually left out. It’s entirely up to you. Considering its usefulness, I am quite inclined to use it.

  5. Body

    The body of a formal letter is brief. This is because business writing is straight to the point as stated above. When we write a formal letter, we want to hit the nail on the head, and not beat about the bush.

    The purpose of writing is stated right in the very first paragraph.

    With reference to the advertisement in the Post Newspaper of 9th January, 2006, I would like to apply for the position of Electrical Engineering in the Engineering department of your company.

    Most of us, unconsciously, make the mistake of starting thus:

    I am writing to….

    I think they already know that we are writing! But within this cliché of a statement is the very reason for writing the first paragraph: to state the purpose of the letter!

    Remember, when writing the first paragraph, you are answering the question: “Why are you writing to us?”

    The paragraphs are so succinct that they may be only a sentence long sometimes. That’s okay; the shorter, the better. The point is to leave out non-essentials.

    Paragraphs contain one main subject. They should not include too many ideas, otherwise the reader will be confused. In addition, they should be well-structured and follow a discernible logic. They should build on what has been stated in the opening paragraph.

    Your paragraphs may be indented or they may be written in block form – like the way this one is written. I favour the block form because of its convenience, especially when you are typing out the letter using a computer.

    A little word about language: I said that it should be formal language. Well, sometimes, if you are writing to a very close business associate, you will obviously find yourself using a blend of business language and informal language. This is okay. Work to maintain a perfect balance if you are to use informal language.

    Your style also serves to give an impression of how serious you are. If you are too informal, the reader will think that you are not serious. But if you are too formal, you might make your reader uncomfortable, perhaps even frighten her! Restricting your use of passive voice will assist you greatly to this effect.

    The concluding sentence should be a summary of what you’ve talked about, but more so an effort to elicit a response.

    In the formal letter above, the most wanted response is an interview, so he mentions this. Depending on the response you want, make it easy for the reader to respond accordingly. If you would like further correspondence, provide your address or number. If you would like a meeting, suggest a day or ask the person to do so.

  6. Complimentary Close

    The complimentary close in the formal letter is determined by the salutation.

    A Salutation of Dear Sir, Dear madam or Dear Sir/Madam is accompanied by :

    Yours Faithfully.

    A salutation of Dear Mrs. Sinkolongo, Dear Ms Jones or Dear Miss Smith is accompanied by:

    Yours Sincerely

    A salutation of the type Dear Nancy may be accompanied by:

    Yours truly or something along such lines.

    Here is how to do it:

    Leave a line, then write the appropriate close, i.e, Yours faithfully or Yours sincerely followed by a comma.

    The complimentary close may be justified left , centred, or may be on the far right. It is however, a practice to start the close exactly at the same line the return address starts.

  7. Signing off

    This is where you write your name, and if need be, your designation and company.

    Here is how to do it:

    After the complimentary close, leave about two lines, and then write your full name. In between your name and the complimentary close, you many put your signature.

    The way you put your name is important because it will determine how you will be addressed. For example, if you sign off of Mrs. Helen Bwalya, you will addressed thus if the person you are writing to replies:

    Dear Mrs. Helen Bwalya,

    If appropriate, you may include your designation. For example:

    Yours faithfully,

    JJones
    Justine Jones,
    Human Resource Manager.

    Your signature should be signed by hand, of course, to show that personal touch.

    I once saw my father signing a hand full of formal letters, so I reckon sometimes, the outgoing mail in a company may only go if authorized by a certain individual in the company.






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