Everyone should be familiar with how to write a letter—from what type of letter you should write to the letter-writing format you should choose. These are the basic concepts of letter writing you need to know, along with some helpful examples.
What type of letter should you write?
There are no hard-and-fast rules. What letter-writing format you choose depends on your audience. For a friend or close relative, a casual message is usually the best way to go. There are different types of letters that are appropriate for a friend or close relative. Some include:
- Handwritten letters
- Emailed letters
- Typed social media messages
However, for business contacts or people you don’t know well, a typed formal letter is almost always the most appropriate choice. When used for professional purposes, writing a formal letter is effective for:
- Cover letters
- Letters of intent
- Value proposition letters
- Business memorandum letters
- Promotion letters
- Reference letters
- Resignation letters
- Thank-you letters
These are just a few types of letters that you might need to write in a casual or formal environment. Before writing a letter, consider the formality level of your letter: casual or formal. Each has a distinct format you’ll want to follow.
Knowing how to write a letter, especially formal letters, is essential in business and throughout your career. Here’s what formal letter-writing involves.
Step 1: Starting a formal letter
Begin with the sender’s name and address. Some companies use special paper, called letterhead, that includes contact information and the company’s brand logo.
321 Hyacinth Lane Culver City, CA 90230
321 Hyacinth Lane
Culver City, CA 90230
The next line of formal letter-writing is the date. You can format the date in a couple of ways, after your address.
Additionally, formal letters need the name and address of the recipient two spaces after the date. Incorporating all this information ensures that your letter can be used as a reference to contact you after the recipient discards the envelope.
555 Industry Street San Francisco, CA 94104
555 Industry Street
San Francisco, CA 94104
Step 2: Writing a letter, formally
When writing a letter, you’re ready to greet the person (or business) to whom you’re writing. Skip a space from any addresses you’ve included.
Formal letters begin with “Dear” followed by the name of the receiver. If you don’t have a contact at a certain company, search online for a name, a job title, or department.
As a last resort, use the generic salutation “To Whom It May Concern.” A comma follows all greetings.
Step 3: Writing the body of a formal letter
Although the body of every letter looks different and the information in it varies, there are a few key rules to follow.
- Keep it focused. Business letters should have a clear objective.
- Proofread. Errors can cause misunderstandings.
- Avoid contractions. Write out each word fully.
- Be tactful. Avoid writing anything you’ll regret being recorded for posterity.
Each thought should be contained in its own paragraph. Keeping paragraphs short also helps keep your message clear; aim for no more than four sentences in a paragraph and keep each sentence concise.
Step 4: Ending a formal letter
Leave a blank space between your closing paragraph and the complimentary closing. A complimentary close is a polite way to send your regards to your receiver. One of the most common closers is “Sincerely,” and it’s generally a safe bet.
Remember, only the first letter of the phrase is capitalized. Leave another couple of spaces for the last step—your signature! Type your full name underneath it, for formal letters.
Signature Theresa Grant
Signature Dr. Malcolm J. Carl, Jr.
Dr. Malcolm J. Carl, Jr.
Casual letters have less structure overall, but it has the same basic elements of formal letter-writing. Here’s what you need to know when writing a letter for someone who’s close to you.
Step 1: Starting an informal letter
Unlike formal letters, writing a letter to a friend or close relative doesn’t require the same formalities. No letterhead is needed, although some writers choose to use special stationery.
When writing an informal letter, the first line is the date. It can be left- or right-justified on the page, but is generally at the top of a casual letter. The date is the only precursor needed before writing a casual letter.
Step 2: Writing a letter, informally
Casual letters are easy; you can start with “Hello” or another customary greeting.
For informal letters, using other punctuation after your greeting to emote enthusiasm (e.g. an exclamation point) might be appropriate, based on your relationship with the recipient.
Step 3: Writing the body of an informal letter
The main content of your informal letter—the body—is up to you. The content of a casual letter will vary, so focus on some general suggestions.
- Don’t ramble. Even personal letters should have a clear focus.
- Offer pleasantries. This might be written as “I hope you’re doing well!” or “Congrats on your new pet!”
- Share anecdotes or news. Generally, a casual letter is meant to share information or details that are mutually interesting to both parties.
- Be mindful of your audience. Keep the tone and content of your letter appropriate and relevant to the recipient. Writing a letter to your grandmother, for example, might sound different and contain different details than writing a letter to your college friend.
Step 4: Ending an informal letter
If you have a warmer relationship with the recipient, you can sign off with “Warm regards” or “Cordially.” There are dozens of closing options when writing a letter, so choose one that works best for you and your recipient. Like formal letters, the same rules apply regarding capitalization and commas for all complimentary closings.
P.S. stands for postscript. It’s something you add at the last minute after the letter is complete. Typically, you don’t add postscripts to formal letters; if you need to add something, you’ll have to revise the whole document to include the new information.
In the United States, the maximum weight for a first-class letter is 3.5 ounces. If your letter is more than three pages or you’ve written it on heavy paper, you’ll have to weigh it to make sure it meets the requirements. The size and shape of the envelope matter too. It has to be rectangular and less than roughly 6×11 inches or you run the risk of the post office returning it.
Sending a letter
After you’ve determined that the envelope is the right kind, the hardest part is over. Now, you just have to mail it. (If it’s a personal letter, you can always deliver it yourself. In that case, just write the intended recipient’s name on the outside of the envelope. A bonus of hand-delivery?: You can use any size or shape envelope that you want!)
In the top left-hand corner, write your name and address or attach a mailing label. In the center of the envelope, carefully write the address of the recipient. Besides the state abbreviation and zip code, international letters should include the country for both the destination and return address. Postage rates vary. Check the USPS website for current prices or use a forever stamp for US destinations. Double-check that everything is correct on the outside of the envelope. If it is, fold your letter and insert it inside neatly. Don’t seal it until you’re sure that you’ve included every page you intend to send.
Doesn’t it feel good sending a letter that you know you’ve carefully prepared? Certainly, a well-written letter has the best chance of accomplishing its purpose. But what about a cover letter for a job application? Cover letters have their own set of best practices. Read everything you need to know about how to write a cover letter before you send out your next resume!