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Category : Writing Styles and Formats

Business Letter Format

Whenever you are contacting an individual or an organization for a formal or official purpose (e.g., a cover letter for a resume, a request to a college or university, communication to colleagues at another organization, or a request to a landlord), you should consider using an acceptable business letter format. Remember that the way in which you present your information can affect the way in which your letter is perceived, thereby affecting the final outcome of your correspondence. Whenever writing to someone other than a dear friend, always lean toward a more formal letter and format. This will help you to develop a more professional image, and the recipient will likely take you more seriously.

The content of your letter should be direct, concise, professional, and error free. You should state your main point or request and provide succinct justification for this point or request. The closing paragraph will likely restate the main purpose or request and specify any call to action. Remember that you do not need to introduce your name in the body (e.g., “My name is John Smith”). The closing signature line will serve that purpose. Also, be sure to use an easily readable, professional font (e.g., Times New Roman or Arial) in size 12.

The actual format of the letter is rather important. Business letters often adopt a block format or indented format, both of which I will discuss later. Despite the formatting differences, both include the same basic elements. First, the sender’s address should be included. Often, this address is included in a letterhead. However, if you are not using a letterhead, you should type the address at the top of the page, followed by a line space. Then, you should include the date on which you wrote the letter (e.g., January 16th, 2012), followed by a line space. Next, you should include the full mailing address of the recipient, including their name and formal title. If at all possible, you should address the letter to an individual instead of the generic “To Whom it may concern.” This may take some investigation, but you can often identify the appropriate recipient by perusing the company website or making a call to the organization.

The salutation comes next. This is the opening to the letter itself in which you greet the recipient (e.g., Dear Dr. Smith:). Erring on the side of professional formality, you should use the same last name and title as included in the recipient’s address. If you know the recipient personally, you can use the individual’s first name only (e.g., Dear John,). The salutation is often followed by a colon or a comma. The following two or three paragraphs should contain the body of the letter.

The letter ends with a closing. At this point you should include a closing word or phrase (e.g., Thank you, Respectfully, Sincerely, or Best regards) followed by a comma. Then, leave four to five blank lines for your handwritten signature, followed by the typed full name of the sender. Always be sure to hand sign the letter. If you enclose any other documents with the letter, such as a résumé, an application, or copies of important supporting documents, you can indicate this by simply typing the word “Enclosures” on the line below the sender’s name. If you included many enclosures, you can also list them by title at this point.

Regarding the format of the business letter, a block format or an indented format are the most acceptable. In the block format, all of the information, including the sender’s address, the date, the recipient’s address, the salutation, the body paragraphs, and the closing are placed flush with the left margin of the letter. Also, a line space is placed between the paragraphs to better distinguish between them. In the indented format, the sender’s address and the closing and signature lines are usually placed along the center or right side of the document, and the paragraphs are indented one-half inch. Lines are also skipped between paragraphs in this format as well.

I find that a visual of each of these formats most accurately conveys the way in which all elements should be formatted. The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has provided excellent visual examples of each format at the following link: http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/BusinessLetter.html.

The Use of Acronyms in Academic Writing

Acronyms are often used in academic writing in order to avoid the repetitive use of long, cumbersome titles. Acronyms are defined as words formed by the first letters of words in a name or title. For example, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is most often called NATO, and ASAP is often used in place of the phrase “as soon as possible.” Typically, acronyms do not involve the use of periods after each letter in the title; instead, the capitalized first letters of the words in the title appear together as one “word.”

When we choose to use acronyms within a written text, we must carefully consider what acronyms to use and how to define the acronym such that our readers will fully understand the reference. For example, you should generally stick to acronyms that are used within the field for which you are writing rather than creating new, unused acronyms. Also, in order to avoid confusion for your reader, you must find ways to define the acronyms that you use. This is important because acronyms can have multiple meanings. For example, NATO has also been used to represent North African Theater of Operations and National Association of Theatre Owners, Inc., among others. Moreover, ASAP has been used to represent Army Substance Abuse Program and Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel among others. Clearly, the use of acronyms without proper definition can create confusion for your reader.

Generally speaking, two approaches are used to properly define acronyms within a text. First for longer, stand-alone works, like a text book or a thesis, a list of definitions and acronyms used throughout the text is sometimes included near the beginning of the work (e.g., after the table of contents). However, in most shorter texts, a more direct method of defining acronyms is adopted. In the latter case, acronyms are usually defined at the first point of use in the text with a parenthetical reference after the full title. For example, in a paper that discusses the operations of NATO, the first time in which the acronym is used could perhaps be a sentence defining the entity. The following example shows how the acronym should be defined in this case: “The North American Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military alliance of countries from North America and Europe who are committed to fulfilling the precepts of the North American Treaty.” Once an acronym is defined, it should be used for all subsequent references to that term throughout the document. Thus, in our example, North American Treaty Organization would be used only in the example sentence, and NATO would be used in every other reference to this organization.

One caveat to the parenthetical definition of acronyms is their use in abstracts. Keep in mind that since abstracts are treated as separate documents from the full manuscripts that they describe, all acronyms used in both the abstract and the manuscript must be defined in both documents.

For the Sake of Consistency

Some “rules” of writing are up for debate. Indeed, certain elements are actually not hard and fast rules; rather, they are open for interpretation and choice. For example, the hotly debated “serial comma” (i.e., the comma following the “and” in a series of items) may cause grammarians considerable consternation, but in the end, the writer can choose whether to include the serial comma or not. Another example is the block or indented formatting for paragraphs. Should each new paragraph be indented, say five spaces? Or should each paragraph appear flush with the left margin and a line space included between the two paragraphs? In essence, that is up to the writer. Either is acceptable.

However, one thing remains unacceptable, i.e., inconsistency. Once you make a choice on a writing style, you should consistently use that style. If you use the serial comma once, you should use it in all appropriate situations. If you use the block format at the beginning of your document, you should use it throughout.

Another area where consistency is sometimes lacking is the choice of adhering to British writing styles and spelling conventions versus American writing styles and spelling conventions. Either is acceptable, but you must choose one and stick with it throughout your document. The use of acronyms is another example. If you choose to use an acronym, you should use in for every reference of that term throughout the document after you define the acronym in question.

Overall, consistency is quite important in the written text. Be sure that you follow the same stylistic and formatting choices that you make at the beginning of the text, including the ways in which you format headings and subheadings. This will ease the flow of your text and minimize confusion for your reader.