While email and texts have become the standard form of written communication in today’s fast-paced, digital world, there’s still a place for old-fashioned, snail mail letters.
The physical heft of a letter gives the communication a psychological weight that email and texts just don’t have. Digital communication is ethereal and ephemeral, and consequently lends itself to impulsive and flippant transmissions. A letter, on the other hand, is tangible evidence that someone has put some thought into their writing. They’ve outlined, edited, and stuck to a structured business form in the missive’s creation. To send that letter, its author had to take the time to get an envelope and a stamp. They then had to check that the address was written correctly to ensure its safe arrival. In short, a physical letter shows that someone took the time to give a damn. And that’s hard for the recipient to ignore.
Want to cut through the endless piles of applications employers get? Instead of submitting yet another resume through the online mill, send yours through the mail.
Want to let your elected representative know your views on an issue? Instead of signing a cookie cutter petition, write them a letter.
Want to show a friend you’ve really been thinking about them? Instead of sending a lousy, “What’s been going on?” text, write them a note.
Whenever you want to ensure that your message is taken seriously, choose the ponderance of a physical letter over the flimsiness of digital communications.
But what if you’ve never written a letter? First, don’t feel bad. If you grew up in a time when the internet had always existed, maybe you’ve just never thought about writing one. But why not give it a try? By the time you’re finished with this article, you’ll be ready to write your very first.
The Two Types of Letters: Formal and Informal
There are two types of letters: formal and informal.
Formal letters have certain formats and protocols you should follow and are used when you’re communicating with businesses, government officials, or individuals you don’t know very well.
Informal letters have fewer rules and are used when you’re writing close family and friends.
Formal letters have more rules regarding structure and protocol, so let’s look at that type first.
How to Write a Formal Letter
Formal Letters Should Be Typed
While nothing looks handsomer than a letter written with spectacular penmanship, handwritten letters are too personal (and possibly messy) for formal situations. Since formal letters are used when business is discussed, you want to make sure your writing is legible and professional. Save your handwritten letters for when you write your grandma or best gal; type your letter if you’re writing a congressman or potential employer.
What Type of Paper to Use
For most formal letters, feel free to use standard white printer paper. If you want to add a bit of panache to your communication, swap it out for some nice cream colored resume paper. It has more of a fabric feel and hearkens back to an aristocratic time when people wrote on sheepskin.
In the United States, standard paper size is 8.5″ x 11″. In other countries, it’s labeled as “A4.”
Choose the Right Font
A formal letter isn’t a time for you to show your zany, creative side. No comic sans (does anyone ever use comic sans?). Keep it strictly business.
For printed letters, fonts with serifs are your best bet. They just look sharp and they’re easy to read on paper. Fonts without serifs give your writing a bit of airiness and informality. For formal letters, you can’t go wrong with Times New Roman or Georgia.
Choose Your Form: Block or Indented
Formal letters follow, well, a form. The purpose of this form is to make the letter easy to read and to direct the reader as to where to look for important information.
With block form, all of your text is typed flush left with one-inch margins all around.
With indented form, you indent the first line of a paragraph one inch. You also put your address and date so that it’s right justified. We’ll show you what that means here in a bit. Indented form was the way most people wrote business letters before the proliferation of PCs.
Block form is the easiest to format and the easiest to read. Indented format adds a bit of visual interest and old-school flair. Either is acceptable for formal letters.
Type Your Address and Today’s Date
The first information you put on a formal letter is your name and address. Then skip a line and type the date that you’re writing the letter.
If you’re using block form, this will be typed at the top, left justified. It will look like this:
If you’re using indented form, place your address at the top, with the left edge of the address aligned with the center of the page, like so:
If you’re typing your letter on letterhead with your name and address, you do not need to type out your name and address. Just the date will do.
Type the Recipient’s Address
After the date, skip a line and type the name and address of the recipient, left justified for both block and indented form. If the letter is going to the company where the recipient works, the name of the recipient goes first, followed by the name of the company.
When typing the recipient’s name, use their full name, including title. If she’s a doctor, it’s “Dr. Laura Duncan.” If he’s a state representative, it’s “Rep. Mike Walls.” Professor? “Prof. Fears.” You get the idea.
Type the Salutation
Skip a line and type your salutation. You can’t go wrong with “Dear [Name of recipient],”. If you know the recipient well, go ahead and use their first name. If you don’t know them well or the relationship is formal, use their title and last name, e.g., “Dear Mr. Ferguson,” “Dear Prof. Slater,” etc. Make sure you spell the recipient’s name right!
If you’re writing a letter that’s not directed to anyone in particular in the organization, go with “To Whom It May Concern,”. Ideally, before you write a letter, you’ll do your research so that it’s directed to someone specific. Use “To Whom It May Concern,” only after you’ve diligently looked into whom to address and ascertained that a specific name isn’t available.
With the salutation in formal letters, you can follow the name with either a comma or colon. Back in the day, it used to be strictly colon as it connotes more formality than a soft, breezy comma. Most business etiquette folks agree that commas are fine today. If you want to add some military seriousness to your letter, go with the colon.
Type the Body
For block forms, single space and left justify each paragraph within the body of the letter. Leave a blank line between each paragraph.
For indented forms, single space and indent the first line of each paragraph one inch. Leave a blank line between each paragraph.
With formal letters, keep it concise and to the point. A formal letter should not be more than one page, unless absolutely necessary.
Use the first paragraph for a short pleasantry— “I hope you’re well.” — and then get right to the point — “I’m writing in regards to…”.
Use the rest of the letter to justify the importance of your main point, by providing background info and supporting details. Use bold, crisp language. Avoid passive voice when possible.
The closing paragraph should restate the purpose of the letter and, in some cases, request some type of action or follow up. If you have a question or request, make answering or fulfilling it as specific and turnkey as possible. Don’t be vague! Ask something the recipient can say yes or no to, or that makes it easy for them to direct you to the proper resource. Your recipient is likely a busy person, and the easier you make it for them to answer your letter, the more likely you’ll be to get a response.
End with another pleasantry such as “I look forward to talking to you soon” or “Please don’t hesitate to reach me by phone if you’d like to discuss in detail.” In many cases, it’s appropriate, and polite, to add: “Thank you for the time and consideration.”
Type the Valediction
After your closing paragraph, skip two lines and put your valediction — also known as the “complimentary close.”
If you’re writing someone you don’t know well or have a formal relationship with, you can’t go wrong with choosing “Sincerely” for your valediction. Something like “Yours Truly” can also work if “Sincerely” doesn’t seem to have the right feel.
If you have a closer relationship, feel free to use more informal closings like “Warm(est) regards,” “Kind(est) regards,” “Best wishes,” or simply “Best.”
On block formats, the complimentary close is positioned flush left; on indented form letters, the complimentary close starts in the center, flush with your address and date.
After the complimentary close, skip three lines and type your full name. Feel free to include any credentials here like CPA, Ph.D., or Esq.
Sign your handwritten name between the valediction and your typed name.
Enclosures. If you’re enclosing additional items with your letter (like a resume), skip one line beneath your signature block and type “Enclosures,” or “Encl.” You can also indicate the number of additional documents by putting the number in parentheses. So if you had two enclosures you’d type “Enclosures (2).”
Separate Mailing. If you’re sending an additional document that’s not in this mailing, indicate with “Separate Mailing,” or “Under Separate Cover,” followed by the name of the piece. For example, “Separate Mailing: May TPS Report.”
You’d put this one skipped line beneath the signature block.
Courtesy Copies. If you’re sending this same letter to other people, let the recipient know with “CC:” or “Copies to:” followed by the names of the other recipients. List the names in alphabetical order by last name. This would go one skipped line beneath the signature block or one skipped line beneath your enclosure or separate mailing notation.
Typist’s Initials. If someone else has typed the letter out while you dictated, have them include their initials in lower case letters two lines below the signature block. If you have enclosures or separate mailings, put it one skipped line beneath those.
How to Fold Your Formal Letter
If you’re putting your letter in a standard sized mailing envelope, fold it into thirds using the “C-Fold.” Bring the bottom of the sheet up so that it’s two-thirds of the way up the page, and crease. Then fold down the top portion so that the crease matches up with the bottom of the paper.
How to Write an Informal Letter
Informal letters are for friends, family members, or other associates with whom you have a close relationship, and unlike formal letters, they don’t have a strict form or protocol.
Feel free to handwrite your informal letters. In fact, we’d encourage you to do so as it adds some character and personality to your letter. Your handwriting is unique. Reading someone’s handwriting brings their personality and presence to the recipient — it feels like a part of the person is there, even if they’re actually hundreds or thousands of miles away.
You can use any type of paper you want — notebook paper, copy paper, etc. I’ve found writing with nice stationery makes the writing experience more enjoyable. (If you’re in need of some masculine stationery, check out our selection in the AoM Store.)
No need to put your or your recipient’s address at the top. Just a date in the upper right hand corner.
For the salutation, “Dear [recipient’s first name],” is fine. You can also omit the “Dear,” and just write their first name. You can even use an endearing nickname like “Knucklehead” or “Goomba-head.”
No protocols on the formatting of body paragraphs. Feel free to use block or indented. And be as lucid or concise with your writing as you want.
What should you write in your informal letters? For a general letter of correspondence, you should share what’s been going on in your life, ask what’s been going on in the recipient’s, and respond to any questions they asked you in their last letter.
Of course, there are also personal letters written for various specific purposes (notes of gratitude, congratulations, condolence, etc.). For insights on the types of letters you can pen, read our article on the 7 letters everyone should write before they’re 70.
Close with any valediction you like: “Best regards,” “All the best,” “Cordially,” “Love,” “Gratefully” (if it’s a thank you note), etc.
How to Address an Envelope
First rule of addressing an envelope: Write legibly! Naturally, if you don’t write the recipient’s address legibly, the postal service won’t be able to deliver it to their home or business. And if you don’t write your return address legibly, then even if they do get your letter, they won’t be able to write you back!
This sounds very basic, but I can’t count the number of times I haven’t been able to respond to a reader’s letter because I can’t read their return address which they rendered in a chicken scratch scrawl. You may be tempted to do this step quickly and sloppily because you know your address so well; but remember that the recipient has never seen your address and has to be able to copy it accurately in order to send a reply you’ll actually receive.
So, if you’re hand addressing your envelope, do so legibly! (This is doubly true if you’re sending mail internationally, as the recipient may not be familiar with the address format or the language of your street/town.)
The recipient’s address goes in the middle of the envelope in this format:
Floor Number, Apt. Number, Unit Number, Etc.
City, State Zip Code
For international addresses it’s going to be different. The format varies between countries and even within a single country. It can be confusing. Whether you’re an American sending mail abroad, or an international sending mail to the States, the United States Postal Service recommends using this format.
Your address (the return address) goes in the upper lefthand corner. Write your name and address in the upper lefthand corner so the post office knows where to return the letter in case it’s undeliverable. The return address is also important for informal letters where you haven’t written your address in the letter itself. This is what your recipient will use to write you back.
And make sure it goes in the lefthand corner. I get letters from people who write the return address on the back of the envelope, along the seam of its closure. When I open up the letter, I end up tearing through the address and have to piece it back together to try to figure out where to send my response (yes, I could get a letter opener, but I prefer to open envelopes with my manly paws).
There you go. How to write a letter. It’s a lost art, but one worth preserving.