In these days of instant communication via social media and texts, written communication, formal letters and “snail mail” seems a bit quaint… You know, a bit 20th Century… And as for the price of stamps these days – jeez! However, sometimes it’s still necessary to write or type out an old skool missive and if you’re new to letter writing or out of practice it’s easy to get the conventions wrong.
Have you ever needed to send an email or letter to a colleague? A potential client? Or perhaps another business? If so, written communication is needed in your workplace. This blog post will introduce you to the basics of formal letter writing (this includes both printed and electronic). Unfortunately, this blog will not be able to help you with those little post-it notes around the office, requesting that people don’t use your milk when making tea or eat your cake. You’ll have to tackle that problem without me. Different kind of business communication. Sorry.
Below, you’ll find my top 5 tips for writing formal letters and written communication in general. At the bottom, there’s also a basic letter template to give you a hand and get you started in the right way.
1) Written communication format:
How do you want your reader to respond? This is an easier task with email when the reader can simply click ‘Reply’, but even then you may still want them to respond using another method. It’s useless writing to someone if they’re unable to reply. I received a letter when I was around 14 years old from a girl in France. As much as I wanted to send her a letter in return, I couldn’t. Why? She hadn’t included her home address. No email. No telephone number. Nothing. Obvious to say, Giselle did not become my penpal. Be sure to use the correct format for formal letters when providing your contact information.
Want them to pick up the phone? Include a telephone number. Want them to reply via snail mail? Give your address. Your address should be at the top left of the page, underneath your full name (with the correct title, e.g. Mr, Miss, Mrs). Follow this by the date, leaving one line blank.
Where do you want the letter to go? Leave another blank line after your address and date, and write your reader’s full name and address on the right.
Start off the letter itself with ‘Dear’ or ‘To.’ ‘Dear’ is typically used in formal communication but ‘To’ works as well. If you’re writing an email and you know that your reader is currently online, you could start your message with ‘Good morning/afternoon’ instead. Follow this by who the reader is, using their full name if you know it. If not, ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ works OK but this is pretty impersonal. The more specific the greeting is, the better. Maybe do a bit of research and find out the job title of whoever the message is addressed to. Whenever possible, avoid using ‘To whom it may concern.’ If you don’t know anything about your reader, why should they want to read what you have to say? In fact, do this and your message may just be considered spam and end up in the reader’s literal/cyber waste-paper basket.
Also, no offence intended here… but who exactly are you? If the reader doesn’t know who you are, give a brief introduction.
3) Making your point clear:
Why are you contacting them? What do you want them to do? Fail to answer these questions in your correspondence, and you may as well join Giselle and never receive a reply. Explain the reason of your communication and what you hope to happen next. Clear calls to action (CTAs) are good.
4) What to be:
Writing a complaint letter? Be polite but firm. Asking someone to do something? Be polite and respectful. Trying to persuade them to buy what you have to offer? Be polite but don’t overdo the hard selling techniques. This is a good lesson for life in general, really.
Consistency is important too. You may have been taught old skool grammar at school, such as it’s the done thing to separate paragraphs by indenting them or leaving a blank line. Generally speaking, if you’re typing your message, leave a blank line. If you’re writing your message by hand, you may want to indent each paragraph. Whatever you do, be consistent throughout.
Attention to detail is key as well. I’m pretty sure we’ve all done it, but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don’t say ‘Please find documents attached…’ and forget to attach these in the email. It’s infuriating for you when you realise, and it also looks unprofessional on your part.
Note: If it’s an email, you attach documents. If it’s a letter, you enclose them, [and put ‘Enc.’ underneath your signature and printed name at the bottom, GM].
5) Signing off at the end:
Did you use their name in their address and the greeting? If so, use ‘Yours sincerely.’ If not (e.g. ‘Dear Manager’ or ‘Dear Finance Department’), end the letter with ‘Yours faithfully.’ Think you might get those mixed up? No problem; ‘Kind regards’ will work instead whatever the case. Leave one line blank and then give your name. You may want to include room for your signature if this is snail mail. Brief contact details would be handy here too.
Follow this advice, and your letter/written communication should look something like this (disregard the addresses and date if it’s an email):
Miss Heather Lomax
Giles Metcalfe Digital
62 Baddeley Green Lane
31st August 2015
Mr Joe Bloggs
Dear Joe Bloggs,
My name is Heather Lomax and I am contacting you on behalf of Giles Metcalfe Digital.
Information goes here. Information goes here. Information goes here. Information goes here. Information goes here. Information goes here. Information goes here. Information goes here. Information goes here. Information goes here. Information goes here. Isn’t copy and paste an amazing function? Information goes here. Information goes here.
More information might go here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And here. Is anyone actually reading this part? More information goes here too. And here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And don’t forget here. Copy and paste really is fantastic. More information goes here! How exciting!
I hope to hear from you soon. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions for requests for further information.
Signature (if traditional letter)
Enc. (if traditional letter and a document is enclosed)
Giles Metcalfe Digital
Has this blog post been helpful? Please give your feedback and share any letter writing stories via Twitter – @wordnerds_lomax & @GilesMDigital – or Facebook – Giles Metcalfe Digital & We Are Word Nerds.