The Modern Language Association has established standard writing guidelines that are widely used throughout the world by researchers, students and academics. MLA guidelines are the gold standard for academic writing, whether it is for a literary or professional journal or a term paper in the humanities. When you're communicating with a university, social sciences organization, think tank or other place that subscribes to the guidelines, following MLA formatting rules will give your letter a polished, familiar look. And since MLA guidelines were developed for clarity and simplicity, you'll find them useful in general correspondence too.
General MLA Guidelines
MLA style calls for a 12-point Times New Roman font, which is included on all word processing programs. Double space between lines; this, too, is a preset commonly found in "paragraph" and "indents and spacing" on your word processor's program menu. Use only one space after a period at the end of a sentence, and indent the beginnings of paragraphs using the tab key. This differs from standard business letter format, which recommends left-justified "block" style paragraphs and single line spacing, but if the person you're writing to is in an academic, literary or social sciences field, it will look familiar and acceptable.
About an inch from the top of the page, type your own address on the left-hand side. Don't bother with your name; you'll be signing it. A two-line mailing address is all you need here. Skip a line and then type the date, using the standard United States format of month, day and year. Skip another line and type the "inside address" -- the full name and address of the letter's recipient. For a business letter, include a courtesy title such as Ms., Mr. or Dr., and the recipient's full professional title. To save space, you can single space your addresses and then use MLA standard double line spacing in the body of the letter. The top of your page should look something like this:
101 Smith Street Anytown, NY 12561
January 12, 2016
Dr. Evan Goodman Chairman, Humanities Department Anytown State University 229 Mudhen Lane Bayville, MA 37019
Skip another line and type your salutation -- "Dear Dr. Goodman" in this example -- followed by a colon. If you don't know the exact name of the person you're writing to, substitute a title, such as "Dear Personnel Manager" or "Dear Director."
The Body of Your Letter
Indent the first line of your paragraph, and begin with a brief, friendly greeting. In your next sentence or two, get straight to the point. Tell the recipient why you are writing to him and what you are asking for or offering. The following paragraphs should include more detail and information that support what the recipient needs to know to be convinced your cause is worthy. Stay focused on those facts.
You may find that you want or need to quote an article or book to make your case. If so, the correct MLA style is to use double quotation marks and include the author's name or the page number of the quote in parentheses. Since you're writing a letter and not a research paper and thus won't have a "works cited" page, it makes sense to include the title of the work here as well, in italics. If you need to quote more than four lines of text or three lines of verse, indent another inch from the margin of the main body of your text and skip the quotation marks, making the quote a stand-alone paragraph, with the author's name, page number and title of the work in parentheses at the end.
Wrapping It Up
The closing paragraph of your letter should include a brief restatement of why you are writing and what you would like the recipient to do. You may want to include specific contact information here ("I can be reached by phone at XXX-XXX-XXXX during working hours or by email at email@example.com"). It's always a nice idea to thank the recipient for her time and attention.
Tab to the center of the page and type "Sincerely," followed by a comma. Skip two lines to leave room for your handwritten signature, and type your name below "Sincerely." If the letter includes other documents, type "Enc.:" or "Enclosures:" beneath your name and list what they are.
Personal Letters in MLA Style
If you're writing to a friend or family member, you are the one who knows best what level of formality is appropriate. You can skip the inside address and use whatever salutations (greeting and sign-off) you prefer.