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How to write a formal letter

With the advent of email, it is becoming less and less common to write letters, but the few letters that you will write will probably be very important ones, such as covering letters for job applications, covering letters for questionnaires or surveys which are part of your research, or letters of complaint to your bank manager.

It is very important, therefore, that your letters have the desired effect on the reader. In order to achieve this, they should be:

in the correct format

short and to the point


free of any grammatical or spelling mistakes

polite, even if you’re complaining

well presented

This guide will give some general advice on letter writing and includes some sample letters.

If you are replying to a letter it can be a good idea to note how that letter has been formatted and expressed.


There are certain conventions that your reader will expect you to follow; if you don’t, you will create a bad impression.

Here is a letter in standard format. Refer to the notes afterwards for explanation.

42,Greyhound Road
Perry Barr
B42 6HJ

Mr. E. Scrooge
The Manager
Barclay’s Bank Ltd
113 Mammon Street

5 April 2008

Dear Mr. Scrooge,

The text you want to send

Yours sincerely

Jane Teller


1 Your address, but not your name, usually goes in the top right hand corner. You would not
usually include your telephone number or email address here, but this would be

2 The name and address of the person you’re writing to goes below this, on the left. If
you don’t have a specific name, always at least try to put some sort of title. You
should always, however, address the letter to a particular person if at all possible.

3 The position of the date is more flexible. It can go on the left or the right, usually below
the addressee details. The format of the date is also flexible; it could be written
5 April 2003, 5th April 2003, 5/4/03 or 05/04/03. Avoid putting the day and month the
other way round.

4 The salutation at the beginning of the letter depends on whether or not you have the
name of the person.

If you do, write Dear Mr. Ochs, Dear Mrs. Baez, Dear Miss Perhacs, or, if you don’t know
the marital status of a woman, or if she has written this, Dear Ms. Bunyan. It is possible
to write Dear Robert Fripp or Dear Alison Statton, but many people consider this
awkward. If the person has a specific title, use this: Dear Dr. Hammill.

If you don’t know the name of the person, you would traditionally write Dear Sir. This
is clearly somewhat sexist, so many people prefer Dear Sir/Madam or Dear Sir or Madam.

The ending of the letter depends on how you have started: see below.

5 It is common now to put the subject of the letter directly below the salutation. This
would be in bold or underlined. The purpose is to give the reader an idea of what the
letter is about before reading it, and to be able to pass it on to a more appropriate
person if necessary.

If you are replying to a letter which had a reference (or ref.) on it, you should repeat this
on your letter, probably on the same line as the date, but on the other side of the page.
Write Your ref.: xxxx/xx

6 The content of your letter should be as short as possible, divided into short, clear

7 It is common to end your letter with a phrase such as I look forward to hearing from
you. It’s OK to do this, but it’s a bit meaningless.

8 To end the letter, you would normally write Yours sincerely if you have started the
letter with the name of the person, or Yours faithfully if you have started with
something like Dear Sir.

9 Sign you name directly below this and then print it below the signature.

Be concise and relevant

The person you are writing to may be deluged with letters and if yours is 3 sides of dense text, then there is every possibility it will end up in the bin. Letters should take seconds rather than minutes to read.

As a result, get straight to the point and stick to it, don’t include any unnecessary or supplementary information, don’t use any flowery language or long words just for the sake of it, and don’t repeat too much information which may already be included in a CV, for example.

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