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No matter what you do for a living, you’ll probably need to write four different types of letters at least once (or maybe 10,000 times) during the course of your professional career: a business letter, a personal letter, a cover letter, and an offer letter. The letter format you use will change as our culture evolves, but there are a few straightforward letter format guidelines that can help you send a message that meets generally accepted business standards.
Take a close look at the letter samples and formatting tips present here, and keep them in mind as you shape your thoughts into written words.
How to Write a Business Letter
The most common business letter format is called a “block format,” and as you start to type this message, you’ll make sure that your lines of text are justified to the left of the page. Start by typing in your address, then drop down a few lines and type the date. A few lines below that (again, flush to the left side), you’ll type in your recipient’s name and address.
Below this heading, you’ll provide a greeting (such as, “Dear President Thompson”) then you’ll break your thoughts into three key sections, starting with a polite introduction in which you state your purpose. Follow the introductory statement with a few paragraphs in which you round out whatever you’d like to say. Then close your message with a polite sign off and a clear description of whatever you’d action you’d like your reader to take following your statement. Conclude with a professional sign-off (“Sincerely” and“Respectfully” are both good options) and include your contact information.
How to Write a Personal Letter
Much like a business letter, your personal letter will include a greeting, introduction, body, conclusion, and sign-off. As you choose a layout for your personal note, however, you’ll be free to make more relaxed formatting decisions. For example, in a standard block-style business letter, each line begins flush to the left side. But in a personal letter, you can feel free to indent the first line of each paragraph if you choose. You can also skip the formal inclusion of your recipient’s address at the top of the page.
As with any other form of written communication, you can say whatever you choose, but you’ll send a more successful and more memorable message if you keep your words brief, clear, and relevant.
How to Write a Cover Letter
Your cover letter will resemble a business letter in some ways, but your formatting will vary a bit since your letter will be submitted as an email message with files attached (that include your resume and supporting application materials). In this case, you’ll get right to the point. Skip the formal addition of your recipient’s mailing address, and begin with your greeting (such as, “Dear Dr. Waxberg”). Follow with an introduction that includes your intention to apply for a job; state the specific job title and name the company.
In the body of your letter, you’ll launch directly into a convincing case as to why you should be hired. Keep this argument limited to three paragraphs or fewer, then move into your final paragraph: a smooth, professional, polished conclusion. Sign off, and you’re ready to click send.
If you decide to submit your cover letter by mail instead of email, use the business letter formatting tips described above.
How to Write an Offer Letter
If you’re writing a letter to offer a job to a potential employee, or if you’re presenting someone with a valuable opportunity on behalf of your organization, you can expect a receptive audience. Everyone likes to hear the word “yes” and everyone enjoys receiving a bit of welcome news. But you’ll still need to think carefully. Even the most positive letter in the world will still have to be clear and professional, and you’ll still need to include all the necessary details.
Make sure you state the name of your organization, the nature of the opportunity, the exact terms, the start date (if relevant), and all of your expectations of the recipient. Provide him or her with a course of action and clear instructions for the next step.
Common Letter Writing Mistakes
As you review these varied letter samples and create your own, watch out for these common mistakes.
Skipping essential facts, dates, and names: Don’t assume that your recipient is as versed in the content of your letter as you are. Your recipient and the nature of your message are very important to you, but your reader may not remember who you are or what your ongoing dialogue pertains to. Make sure you directly state your purpose, and provide all necessary backstory even if it feels redundant.
Compromising clarity for the sake of politeness: Of course your letter must be positive and professional from beginning to end. Every word should be as respectful and diplomatic as clarity allows. This is not an excuse to avoid stating specific facts.
Rambling: Don’t wander off the subject. After you’ve made your key points, wrap it up. Brevity is the soul of effective written communication. No matter what your issue pertains to, try to keep your letter limited to a single page (if you can).
Entitlement: It’s never a good idea to let your sentences sound rude or curt. But there’s a specific type of rudeness which is rarely tolerated, especially from novice employees: entitlement. Ask, don’t demand. Invite, suggest, and encourage, but don’t give orders. And never expect your issues or your desires to immediately become your reader’s top priority. These simple moves can put your letter on the fast track to the back burner.
You’ve Written Your Letter. Now What?
After you submit your letter in a way that meets the needs or instructions of your recipient, obtain confirmation that your details have been received and understood. Follow up as necessary. If any disagreement or misalignment exists between you and your recipient, get these things sorted out in your next round of communication.