How to Format a Letter
Even in today's world of casual emails, knowing how to format a professional letter is necessary. You may need to write a formal letter to apply to -- or resign from -- a job, convince someone to see things from your point of view or even just to express an opinion, such as in a letter to an editor. Formatting a letter that gets the right kind of attention will help convey the message you want to send.
Formats of Professional Letters
Which format you use to write your letter is not as important as following the format once it’s established. A typical business letter should be written in block format, meaning that all text is left-justified, thereby creating a “blocked” appearance. A block format ensures a clean look and is the best choice when you want your missive to look professional. Alternatively, the indented format reads more like prose, as paragraphs are indented, and the closing is centered at the bottom of the page.
Whether you use block or indented format, the first element of a professional letter is the sender’s address, which belongs at the top of the letter, omitting the sender's name -- this will go in the closing. Make the sender's address flush left in a block-letter format and flush right in an indented letter. For both formats, skip a line following the sender’s address and type the date directly under it. Skip another line and type the name and address of the recipient.
Addressing the Recipient
Both indented and block styles call for the name and address of the recipient to be left-justified. Use a courtesy title such as Mr., Ms., Mrs. or Dr. in front of the recipient’s name, followed by her title, if she has one, for example:
Ms. Oprah Winfrey President Oprah.com 300 West 57th St. New York, NY 10019
Skip another line and type a salutation, also using a courtesy title -- "Dear Ms. Winfrey" -- followed by a colon, prior to skipping another space. Use the full name in a salutation if you cannot determine gender, such as if the recipient's name is Chris or Pat, according to the Purdue University Online Writing Lab.
The Body of the Letter
Start typing the body of the letter, indenting the first line of each paragraph five spaces if you’re using the indented format; omit the indent for a block-style letter. Skip one space between each subsequent paragraph. The first body paragraph should briefly mention your purpose for writing. Each subsequent paragraph provides support for your subject. If you're writing a business letter, keep the contents concise, so the reader stays interested in what you have to say. Summarize the points of your letter in the concluding paragraph, and include a call to action or a request for the recipient.
Concluding the Letter
End your letter with an appropriate closing, such as "Sincerely" followed by a comma. Indented letters require a centered closing, while a block-letter format closing should remain left-justified. Skip four lines for your handwritten signature, then type your name and title, if you have one.
If you’re enclosing additional items with the letter, note so by skipping two spaces after your signature and typing either "Enclosures" or "Encl." If the included item isn’t mentioned in the letter, follow the enclosure tag with the name of the document(s). Indicate if you’re sending the letter to more than one person. If that is the case, type "cc:" -- for carbon copy -- followed by the other recipient(s) name(s) at the bottom of the letter.
Michelle Detwiler is an educator and writer who has written professionally for 20 years. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Media - Communication: News, and a Master of Science in Secondary Education. She has been published on Yahoo!, Matador Network, Prefix and numerous print publications.