Writing for a business audience is not the same as writing a letter to a friend. The purpose of the letter is different – generally, you'll be conveying specific information or asking someone to perform a specific action – and there are certain expectations regarding formatting and style. Often, a business letter will be the first impression that you make on someone, so it's important to get it right.
What Is a Business Letter?
A business letter is any letter that an organization sends to another organization, or correspondence between an organization and its customers, suppliers and other parties. A letter you write as part of your job will qualify as a business letter, but any letter that you send to a business, organization, community group or individual in a professional context will also fall into this category. The primary test is one of content: will your recipient have an interest in what you write insofar as it affects their working life? If so, then your letter will qualify as a business letter.
Why You'd Need to Write a Business Letter
Businesses write to customers, clients, suppliers and stakeholders to convey important information. For example, they might order goods from a manufacturer, update a customer about the status of their order, describe significant changes to the company's terms and conditions, identify a problem that has arisen, or convey goodwill. Many business letters will include a call to action, that is, the letter will request specific information or a response from the recipient.
Individuals choose the business letter format when there is a need to write in a clear and professional manner. Examples include a job application, resume cover letter, letter of complaint, letter of resignation, reference letter, accepting or declining a formal engagement or requesting information from a business. What these letters have in common is an expectation that you'll be succinct and specific, rather than creative or evocative in your writing style.
Formats for a Business Letter
Businesses in the United States use one of four common letter formats, which are listed below. Of these, the block style is the most popular.
Block letter format: With a block letter style, all of the text is flush with the left margin. You'll structure the letter so that line text is single spaced and paragraphs are double-spaced. Margins typically have a standard one-inch setting although some businesses vary this to accommodate their house style.
Semi-block letter format: Semi-block is identical to the block format, save that the first line of each paragraph is indented.
Alternative block letter format: This format closely follows the block format save that the date, complimentary closing ("sincerely") and the writer's name, title and signature appear on the right side of the page. Unless you are using letterhead, the writer's return address will also appear on the right.
Simplified letter format: Another variation on the block format, the simplified style omits the opening salutation ("Dear Mr. Smith:"). Choose this format when you don't have the recipient's name.
How to Address Recipients in a Business Letter
Addressing a business letter to a single recipient is relatively straightforward. Simply write the recipient's name and address on the inside address block on the left side of the page. Open your letter with the salutation: "Dear Mr. /Mrs. /Ms. [surname]:" or "Dear Sir/ Madam:" Note the colon at the end of the salutation – only a personal letter uses a comma here; a business letter always uses a colon.
It is acceptable to write the person's first name if you are on first-name terms with the recipient, for example, you have met several times and know the person well. In this case, your salutation would read, "Dear Joseph:" Don't immediately reach for a first name, however; it is considered rude.
To address multiple recipients in the same letter, choose one of the following options:
Where the recipients work in the same location: Write the title, name and (optionally) the job title of each recipient followed by the single company address in the inside address block. For the salutation, list each recipient's name in the same order as they appear in the address.
Ms. Sophia Proctor, CEO Mr. Martyn Byrne, Director of Sales Dr. Regan Coulson, Marketing Manager ABC Limited Town Street Townsville, Kentucky 395494
Dear Ms. Proctor, Mr. Byrne and Dr. Coulson:
Where the recipients work at different addresses: Each recipient should receive her own letter so you'll need to prepare multiple copies of the same communication. Use the carbon copy annotation after the closing – "cc:" – to list the names of the other recipients. The annotation lets each recipient know who the other recipients are.
Ms. Sophia Proctor, CEO ABC Limited Town Street Townsville, Kentucky 395494 Dear Ms. Proctor: Body of letter Sincerely, Jane Doe Cc: Mr. Martyn Byrne, Director of Sales, Dr. Regan Coulson, Marketing Manager
When there are many recipients: When you are writing to many recipients, such as the members of a board of directors, it is appropriate to write one letter and address it to the group as a whole. The salutation should also reference the body of people, for example, "Dear Sales Department" or "Dear Community Liaison Team." Use a distribution block at the end of the letter to list the individual group members who should read the letter.
The Board of Directors ABC Limited Town Street Townsville, Kentucky 395494 Dear Members of the Board: Body of letter Sincerely, Jane Doe Distribution: Ms. Sophia Proctor Mr. Martyn Byrne Dr. Regan Coulson Mrs. Elizabeth Mejia Prof. Zayne Vargas Mr. Cohen Andersen
The Different Parts of a Business Letter
Whether you are using block format or another style, your business letter should contain the following sections:
Letterhead or return address: Businesses usually use printed paper that includes a specially designed logo or letterhead at the top of the sheet. The letterhead bears the address and contact details of the organization. If you are not using letterhead, write your name and address in the top left-hand corner of the letter. It is acceptable, but not obligatory, to include your telephone number and email address if this would be helpful for the recipient.
Date: Write the date in a month-day-year format immediately below the return address. Since other countries use the day-month-year format, avoid confusion by transcribing the date in word rather than number form – "June 28, 2018."
Inside address: Write the recipient's name, company name, address and zip code. Include a job title if appropriate. Always align the inside address to the left margin when using standard business stationery. Doing so means the address will appear in the window of the envelope when folded into three sections.
Salutation: Remember to use a colon after the salutation as described above.
Subject line: Adding an optional subject line helps the recipient to understand what the letter is about quickly. Here's an example:
Dear Mr. Phillips:
Request for Job Application Pack
Body: This is where the rubber meets the road. Begin with a short statement that describes why you are writing followed by a series of paragraphs that outline the issue at hand. Keep the letter concise. For most business letters, two-to-five paragraphs are ideal.
Complimentary close: You have various options for rounding off a business letter. Here are some examples:
- Yours truly,
- Sincerely yours,
- Respectfully yours,
- Best wishes,
Signature: Print your name and job title, leaving a space between your typed name and the complimentary close. You'll sign your name in this space.
Enclosures and carbon copies: Include a cc: if you are sending copies of the letter to someone else. If any documents are enclosed with the letter, write "Enclosure" or "Encl." beneath the signature block.
How to Write the Body of a Business Letter
Whatever the purpose of your business letter, it's essential to keep the body of the letter clear and concise. Understand that your recipient is busy and is likely to skim through it. Structure your letter in logical paragraphs – one idea per paragraph – so the recipient can quickly get to the bottom line.
Concise does mean blunt, however; you must strive for a diplomatic and professional tone. Consider the two examples:
After careful consideration, I've decided to accept a position at another company. I'm going to work at Company ABC.
The second version is concise, but it is too direct and unnecessarily harsh in tone. It may offend the reader. The first example, while less succinct, is more respectful.
Once you have made your points in the body of the letter, finish up with a call-to-action, a short statement that describes what you would like to happen now. Remember, your reader is busy. Don't leave her guessing about what she should do next. Here are some examples:
If you agree to this proposal, kindly respond back by May 31. If you would like the contact information for people who have successfully used XYZ's services, please email me at Jane.Doe@xyz.com.
Options for Voice and Language
The language of business letters varies from a relaxed, conversational style to the hyper-formal, technical style found in legal correspondence. The most effective business letters strike a balance between these two extremes. Though business letters have become less formal over time, writing that is too casual may come across as unprofessional and insincere. Overly formal writing, on the other hand, can alienate readers who may not understand your industry-specific language, terminology and phrasing. As with all writing, you must match the tone to the audience. This gives you a lot of leeway concerning the style you choose.
Unless you work in an especially formal industry such as the banking sector, you should strive to use everyday words instead of their formal equivalent – "start" instead of "commence," "end" instead of "terminate" and "try" instead of "endeavor." Keeping it simple may seem contradictory as most people associate professional vocabulary with longer and more complex words. Clarity is key, however. It is much more important that your recipient understands your letter with the minimal effort on his part than for you to showcase your impressive vocabulary.
Avoid contractions like "I'm," "can't" and "didn't" unless they are a specific feature of your company's house style. Some companies prefer to use a more informal voice when writing to consumers to open up the conversation; others would instead strike a formal tone. Consistency is key. If you prefer one style of writing over another, be sure to communicate your style choices across the organization and make sure that everyone is following the same style guide.
Example of a Business Letter
Putting it all together, here's an example of a short business letter in block format:
Mr. Kurt O'Ryan ABC Limited Town Street Townsville, Kentucky 395494 January 11, 2018 Dear Mr. O'Ryan: I am writing to thank you once again for your active support in our Townsville "Grow Wild" community outreach program. Your feedback, your constructive criticism and your valuable experience contributed significantly to the successful implementation of this project. We have now received full funding for our follow-up project, which is provisionally entitled "Nature on Your Doorstep." We would be delighted if you could agree to continue your cooperation in this project. We certainly could use your insight and expertise. I enclose a short brochure that describes the proposal for your perusal. I would like to meet with you to discuss our next steps and will call your office next week to schedule an appointment. Thank you in advance for your consideration. Sincerely yours, Jane Doe Encl:
Jayne Thompson earned an LL.B. in Law and Business Administration from the University of Birmingham and an LL.M. in International Law from the University of East London. She practiced in various “Big Law” firms before launching a career as a business writer. Her articles have appeared on numerous business sites including Typefinder, Women in Business, Startwire and Indeed.com.