Knowing how to write a letter is a fundamental skill you’ll use in business, school, and personal relationships to communicate information, goodwill, or just affection. Here’s a basic guide on how to put your thoughts to paper in the correct format.
- Write a formal letter
Know when to write a formal letter. Write a formal letter when addressing someone you only know in a professional capacity. This includes letters written to government departments or businesses, instead of a known individual.
- These letters should be typed, then printed. You can use any text editing software to do this, such as Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, or Text Edit. If the letter is urgent or the recipient prefers email, you can send an email instead.
- When addressing your current boss or coworker, you can be slightly less formal. Email is usually fine, and you don’t need an address at the top of the page.
Write your address and today’s date at the top of the page. Write your name and address at the top of the page, on the left. If you are writing a business letter, use the company name and address instead, or just write on company letterhead. Either way, skip two lines and write today’s date.
- Write out the full date. 19 September 2014 (British) or September 19, 2014 (American) are both preferable to Sept. 19, 2014 or 19/9/14.
- Skip the date when writing an email.
Write the name and address of the recipient. Unless you’re writing an email, skip another two lines and write the contact information for the person you’re writing to. Write each of these on a separate line:
- Full title and name
- Company or organization name (if applicable)
- Full address (use two or more lines, as needed)
Write the salutation. Skip a line again, then greet the recipient with “Dear” followed by their name. You may use the last name, or the full name (first and last), but never the first name alone. Include an abbreviated professional title if applicable.
- If you know the job title but not the person’s name, you may write “Dear Health Inspector:” or a similar phrase. It’s usually possible to find the name with an online search, so try that first.
- If you don’t have a specific contact, write “Dear Sir or Madam:” or “To Whom It May concern:”. These sound a little stiff and old fashioned, so try to avoid it when possible.
Write the letter. Formal letters should open with a clear statement of purpose. Do not use contractions (write are not instead of aren’t), and phrases questions formally (Would you be interested in…? instead of Do you want to…?). Proofread the letter for spelling and grammar when finished, or ask a friend to help you.
- If you are writing on official business, keep it short and direct. If you are writing a distant relative or an acquaintance for social reasons, you can be a little more conversational. It’s still best to keep it to under a page.
Use a complimentary close. A complimentary close ends your letter on a good note and establishes a connection with the recipient. Make two hard returns after the last paragraph of the letter, then write the complimentary close. For formal letters, stick to “Sincerely yours,” “Kindest regards,” or “Best wishes.” Sign underneath the close, as follows:
- For typed formal letters, leave about four spaces between the complimentary close and your typed full name. Print the letter, then sign your name in blue or black ink in that blank space.
- In a formal email, type your full name after the complimentary close.
- You may use a courtesy title for yourself when you put your name at the end of a formal letter. For instance, a married woman could sign as “Mrs. Amanda Smith.”
Fold the letter (optional). If you’re sending a letter through the post, fold it into thirds. 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. Folding the letter this way ensures that it will fit into most envelopes.
Address the envelope (optional). Find the center of the envelope, both lengthwise and widthwise. This is where you’ll write the full address of the recipient, like so:
- Mr. John Smith
- 123 ABC St.
- New York City, NY 99999
Write your return address on the envelope (optional). If the US Postal Service cannot deliver your letter for any reason, it will send the letter back to the return address at no extra charge. Write it as you would the address of the recipient (listed above); the only change is that you might wish to simply list your last name instead of your full name.
2. Write an informal letter
Decide how formal your letter needs to be. How you write the letter will depend on your relationship with the recipient. Consider these guidelines:
- If you’re writing to a distant or elderly relative, or a social acquaintance, write a semi-formal letter. If that person has sent you emails before, you may email them as well. If not, a handwritten letter is a safer bet.
- If you’re writing a friend or close family member, an email or handwritten letter are both fine.
Start with a salutation. The salutation you use will depend on your relationship with the recipient of the letter, as well as the formality of the letter. Here are some possibilities:
- If you’re writing a semiformal letter, you might use “Dear” or “Hello” as a salutation. Use the first name if that’s how you talk to each other, or the courtesy title (Mr or Ms) if not.
- If you’re writing an informal letter, you can use “Dear” or “Hello,” as well as more informal greetings such as “Hi” or “Hey.” Follow it with the first name.
Start the letter. Move to the next line and start writing. If you’re writing a personal letter, start by asking after the recipient’s well-being. This can be as formal as “I hope you are well” or as informal as “How’s it going?.” Imagine the recipient is in front of you; how would you talk to them?
Write what needs to be communicated. The primary purpose of a letter is communication. Let the other person know what’s going on in your life, including the details. For example, don’t just tell your grandma “Thank you for the gift” — show her that it means something to you: “My friends and I spent all night playing the game you sent me. Thank you!” Whatever the subject is, sharing information should be the focus of the letter.
- Know what not to write. A letter written in anger or to solicit pity is probably not a letter you should send. If you’ve already written such a letter and you’re unsure about sending it, let it sit for a few days before you pop it into the mailbox — you might change your mind.
End the letter. For informal letters, your close should reflect your relationship with the recipient. If you’re writing to a spouse, dear friend, or close family member, you could use “Affectionately,” “Fondly” or “Love.” For a semiformal letter, you might find a better match with “Sincerely,” “Regards,” or “Best.”
- A very old-fashioned close fits into the last sentence. This was originally a formal style, but you can have fun with it when writing a light-hearted letter to a friend. For example, the last paragraph of your letter could read “I remain, as ever, your devoted servant,” and then your name.
- If you want to add something after the letter’s written, use P.S, which means Post Script (“after the writing”).
Send the letter. Insert the letter in an envelope. Stamp it, address it to the other person, and send it on its way.
- Try to keep the letter focused on what would interest the recipient.
- “Dear” and other salutations are usually followed by a comma, but a formal letter can use a colon instead.
- Be as reasonable and polite as possible when you’re writing a complaint letter — if you do, you’re a lot more likely to get a favorable response.
- If you’re printing an extra-formal letter, use a paper that’s heavier than copy paper.
- If you’re sending a formal or semiformal email, make sure your email address sounds respectable. A letter from “sweetstar189” will be taken a lot less seriously than a letter from “jane.smith.”
- Write letters in blue or black ink.
- Make sure to write the address correctly.
- Start your paragraphs with indentations.
- Remember to crosscheck / read over your letter at least twice.
- Drawing or doodling on envelopes might interfere with delivery. If you do want to decorate your envelope or add stickers, do so on the back.
Dr. Michael Smith
123 ABC St.
New York City, NY 99999
April 17, 2016
Dr. Patricia Brown
University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center
777 Medical Dr.
Los Angeles, CA 11111
Dear Dr. Brown,
I am the chairman of the 2016 Metropolitan Medical Conference that is being held this year in Miami, Florida on July 5, 2016. I write to invite you to present your groundbreaking research on beta blockers with our conference participants and invited guests. A 30-minute discussion of your work along with a 20-minute question and answer session would add so much to the intellectual landscape of our annual medical conference.
The Metropolitan Medical Association would be pleased to cover your travel and lodging expenses while you visit the conference, in addition to providing a per diem budget during your stay.
Please reply with your answer as soon as you are able so that we may begin making arrangements. I encourage you to contact me with any questions or concerns.
Dr. Michael Smith
* Semi-formal letter
November 12, 2011
Dear Mr. Bigena,
Thank you so much for showing me around the city this past weekend. It was very beautiful. Your family is wonderful, and I couldn’t have felt more welcome. I also want to thank you for teaching me those useful phrases so I could speak a little Italian while I finished my business trip. My time in Venice was amazing, and it was just about the only time I could actually get a little rest. The remainder of my trip was busy, but I still enjoyed it immensely.
I would love to reciprocate by inviting you and your family to my home in London. (I’m sure you could use a break from your hard work!) I know the city very well and can show you all my favorite places. And of course you’d all be able to stay at my flat during your trip.
I do hope you are able to attend. Don’t worry about the cost; it will be my treat. It’s the least I can do to pay you back for your amazing hospitality. Please write back if you would like to visit.
May 8, 2012
How are you? I was really happy to see you and Grandpa at my graduation ceremony, and I hope you’re recovering from your cold.
Do you think it would be okay if I stopped by to visit you on Saturday? I’d really like to show you my new puppy. I think you’ll adore her. Her name is Sassy, and I got her last week. And she’s your favorite breed: a golden lab, just like Satchmo!
I’m excited to come see you soon. Let me know if Saturday will work for you.