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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.

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