How to Write a Cover Letter

By Mark Nichol

Does anyone write business letters anymore? Whether or not you still employ this declining form of communication, you should be aware of the customary procedure, because the necessity may come up.

This model is only one of several variations, but whichever version you employ, veer from the template only if you have a good reason to do so. (Word-processing programs generally have a business-letter template, but it’s simple enough to create a letter on your own.)

Start the letter with your own address on one line, followed by the city and state (using the US Postal Service’s two-letter state symbols) and the ZIP code on the next. (It’s not necessary to include your name here.) Enter a line space, and then type the date in full — for example, “November 1, 2012” (or, if you’re writing to someone outside the United States, “1 “November 2012”).

A few lines below that, write the recipient’s name (preceded, if known and applicable, by a title such as Professor or Doctor or by a social title like Mr. or Ms., or a variation you know the person prefers). If you don’t know the name of the person you wish to contact, research it online or phone or e-mail the company and obtain a name. On subsequent lines, add the address and then the city and state and the ZIP code.

Several lines below that, enter the salutation, which should consist of the word dear and the full name as it appears in the address section — for example, “Dear Mr. Mark Nichol,” followed by a colon. If you know the recipient on a first-name basis, write simply, “Dear Mark,” followed by a colon. (If you can’t easily determine whether a person with a name used by men and women alike is male or female, or if you prefer, omit the social title or use another applicable title.)

The body of the letter should be concise, beginning with a friendly introduction and a statement of the purpose of your letter. In one or more subsequent paragraphs, expand on your main point and supporting details, then close with a summary of your intent in writing and a request for action from the recipient or a reference to action you or another party will undertake that the recipient should expect or be aware of.

Separate each pair of paragraphs by a line space (or a double space), and use single-space lines and left-aligned, or ragged-right, justification. (A left-aligned block of type has a straight left margin and a right margin that varies depending on the length of the words in each line, hence the alternative name.) Margins should be set about one inch from the left edge of the paper and should be no wider than six or six and a half inches. Also, because you’re inserting line spaces between paragraphs, it’s not necessary to indent the first lines.

The closing (“thank you,” or, as informal alternative, “thanks” — in either case, the first letter should be capitalized) should be followed by a comma, then leave several line spaces between that and your typed name (which is optional) to allow you to handwrite your signature.

If you are including one or more enclosures, type the initial-capped singular or plural form of that word (or the abbreviation Encl.) so that the recipient knows that he or she should find additional materials in the envelope with the letter. You might also want to list the specific enclosures so that the recipient will be certain that he or she has received all of them.

Times New Roman in 12-point type is the standard font, though other easy-to-read fonts are acceptable.

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7 Responses to “How to Write a Cover Letter”

  • Mary Hodges

    Very useful. I notice you use a colon after the salutation. We were taught to use a comma. Is this perhaps one of the many variations between British and American English?

  • Bruce Burson

    I’ve never seen a salutation using the full name as you have done above. I think it should be “Dear Mr. Nichol” or “Dear Mark,” depending on familiarity with the recipient.

  • Roberta B.

    @Mary Hodges – Not sure how Mark will reply or what current writing guides say, but in American schools (my era) we were taught that the colon was for business correspondence and the comma was for personal.

    Whenever, I use “Thanks” or “Thank you” as the closing, I always use a period rather than a comma. That way if it’s followed by my name, then it doesn’t look like I’m thanking myself.

  • Dean Bush

    Yes, Mary, the colon is used in formal communications in American English and the comma is used in informal communications. I’ve also noticed that in some British (or actually most) communications, that the greeting has no punctuation at all; for example, “Mr James Hall” without a period after “Mr” and without a comma or colon after “Hall.” In American English, we also place the period at the end of a sentence inside quotations marks which end a sentence, whereas in British English I believe you place the period outside the end quotation mark. Is that the British standard?

  • Nelson Carter

    What do mean, “margins should be . . . no wider than six or six and a half inches”? Do you mean 6 inches or 6.5 inches? How can a range be a limit? Also, if you make the margins that wide, you will leave less than zero room for any text between the margins.

  • marlene Adams

    I disagree about the closing of a letter using “thank you” with a comma before the signature.

    “Thank you” can be the last paragraph of the letter itself, but follow it with a period and a blank space before the closing, which should be “Yours truly,” “Sincerely,” “Cordially,” or something equivalent.

    Your use of “Dear” in the salutation pretty much demands a conventional, traditional closing.

    Marlene Adams

  • Graeme Creed

    What ever happened to “Yours faithfully”……………. Yours sincerely?

    Did these go out with button up boots?

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