Business Letter Format
Most students admit to having learned in junior high school or in high school about
writing business letters and about conventional formats for them. When it comes down to
writing them, however, all too many students seem not to know how and to be unwilling to
look up the forms (or perhaps they don't have a reference about using English). This web
page was prepared so that you would have an easily obtained description of what to do.
When a business that has letterhead stationery writes a business letter, the
first page of the letter uses paper with the printed letterhead and succeeding pages, if
any, use matching quality and color sheets without the letterhead. A business with very
good quality printing might generate the letterhead graphic with an
image embedded in a word processor document. An individual normally won't use letterhead
stationery and won't attempt to fake it. An attempt at letterhead that produces a tacky
result or that conveys pompousness produces effects that you want to avoid.
In a business letter, everything that you "type" should be in the same
typeface and in the same font size. You should use "formal English" and you
should very carefully check your grammar and spelling. You should arrange things neatly.
You should consider the appearance of the letter "at arm's length" as well as
close up -- use white space to produce an attractive sheet.
In a conventional business letter you should see these parts, in order top to bottom:
- A return address
This item is the postal address of the author of the letter. Each line of it is left
justified -- either at a tab stop that puts the information toward the right side of the
page or at the left margin. Normally the return address is at the top of the page, but you
can move it down a little to improve over-all appearance. Do not put email addresses here
-- if you need to convey an email address, do it in the body of the letter.
- The date
This item is the date of the letter. It is aligned with the return address. Formerly there
was never whitespace (blank lines) between the return address and the date, but some
current styles allow blank lines.
- An inside address
This item duplicates what goes on the envelope. It has the formal name of the intended
recipient of the letter and that person's postal address. Each line of the inside addres
is left justified at the left margin. No email addresses appear here. You can put blank
lines between the date and the inside address to fill the page better and to improve the
"arm's length" appearance.
- A salutation
This item formally addresses the recipient. If the addressee is not a friend, you should
write "Dear Mr. Brown:" or "Dear Mrs. Smith:" or "Dear Ms.
Jones:" or "Dear Dr. Greene:" or the like. A letter to a close associate
might say "Dear Mike:" or "Dear Sally:".
There is at least one line of white space between the inside address and the salutation.
You can put a little more to improve the over-all appearance.
Before the days of political correctness a letter to an organization would begin
"Dear Sir:" or "Dear Sirs:" or "Gentlemen:" -- for example,
if the envelope were addressed "Personnel Director, XYZ Company, City, State"
you might do this. These days you should probably make an effort to get a name, but...
- The body of the letter.
The body is single spaced.
Ordinarily the body contains more than one paragraph. Avoid both extremely short and very
You can use either indented paragraphs (in which the first line is indented more
than the rest) or block paragraphs (in which all lines begin at the left margin).
With block paragraphs you must leave extra white space between paragraphs -- one blank
line or one "empty paragraph" is often used, but you can also use Word's extra
space before or after paragraph option (Format --> Paragraph...); the extra space
should probably not exceed the size of an empty paragraph. With indented paragraphs, extra
space between paragraphs is common, but optional. Indented paragraphs should be avoided if
the return address was aligned at the left margin.
Special effects like bulletted lists and paragraphs whose left and right edges are both
indented should beused very sparingly -- avoid them as much as you can. Likewise,
consider whether having your paragraphs fully justified (both left and right edges squared
off) will make the letter look too much like a form letter or piece of junk mail.
- A closing
This item is something like "Yours truly," or "Sincerely,". It is
normally vertically aligned with the return address. (See the examples.)
- Space for a handwritten signature.
- Typed name of letter author
This item is aligned with the return address, date, and closing. Leave enough white space
above it for a (handwritten) signature. If you have a job title and this letter is being
written as part of that job, it is common to type the job title directly below the typed
name (single spaced). An individual writing a letter normally doesn't include a job-title
An individual writing a letter usually omits these items.
It is assumed that you will keep a copy of the letter. If you are supplying copies to
people other that the addressee, it is common ti put a "cc:" list at the bottoom
left of the last page ("cc" originally stood for "carbon copy" to).
When the letter is prepared by a professional typist, it is common for the initials of the
typist to be supplied at her bottom. If there are enclosures, that fact is often noted
Your instructor may have told you not to use a template. Do what your instructor told
you. Many of MS-Word's templates appear to have been created more to show off wierd or
fancy effects that Word can do than to produce a well-done product useful to the ordinary
user. Some of Word's templates encourage you to produce a tacky document -- resist the
temptation. If you're using Word '97, our friend "Office Bob" may pop up when
you type the letter's salutation. If your instructor told you not to use templates,
decline "Office Bob"'s offer of "help."
A business letter with the return address to the right and using indented paragraphs.
A business letter with the return address at the left margin and using block