Letter Writing 101

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People have been writing letters for centuries. Before the telephone and the Internet, sending a letter (by messenger, and later by post) was the only way to communicate with someone who was geographically distant.

Even with all our modern technology, letters haven’t become obsolete. Most of us will write many letters during our business life: perhaps including a covering letter to accompany our resume, a letter to be sent to clients, or a thank you letter after an interview or other opportunity.

In this article, I’ll take you through the common types of letters that you’re likely to need to write at some point. I’ll offer general and specific advice which should help you if you’re at a loss for words or unsure how to structure a letter. You might want to bookmark this page so that you can refer back to it when you need it!

I’ll cover business letters first, then mention some tips for personal letters too.

Business Letters

The standard format of a business letter varies from country to country, and standards often aren’t set in stone. If you’re not sure how your letter should be laid out, check Daily Writing Tips’ guidelines on How to Format a US Business Letter and How to Format a UK Business Letter.

A quick tip if you’re still struggling about layout: look through your correspondence, find a business letter (ideally one from the company that you’re writing to), and use their format as a model. Here are four more points to take into consideration:

1. You should use a simple, standard font such as Arial or Times New Roman for business letters, and a font size of 10-12 pt (depending on the font). Even if your letter is short, don’t use a large font size to increase the space it takes up on the page – this will look unprofessional. This goes especially for writers, who are often tempted to use fancy fonts and layout.

2. You should never handwrite a business letter. However, you may send a very brief handwritten note on a printed compliments slip, in lieu of a letter.

3. For all business letters, you should keep your audience in mind. Don’t use business jargon when you’re writing to customers, for instance. Keep your letters as short as possible – if you need more than a page, consider whether the information might be better delivered in a leaflet or brochure.

4. Always check your spelling and proof-read your letters; if possible, ask someone else in your company to go through them. It’s surprising how mistakes can slip past your eyes: errors can alter your meaning and may confuse or even offend the recipient.

Job Applications

When writing a letter as part of a job application, remember that it will give the employer their first impression of you. Always:

  • Ensure that you have provided all the information requested.
  • Mention any enclosures (usually your resume and perhaps an application form).
  • Address the letter to “Mr Smith” or “Mrs Jones”, rather than using their first name. If you are unsure of the gender of the recipient, use their first name and surname (such as “Sam Jones”).

Here’s an example of the start of an application letter:

Dear Mr Smith:

Application for the Junior Manager Role, ref: 123A

I am writing to apply for the position of Junior Manager, as advertised on your website. Please find my resume enclosed.

I believe that I would be an ideal fit for this role, as I meet all of the requirements on the job specification. In particular, my spoken communication skills are outstanding (as you can see from my resume, I captained the debating team at my college).

Business Thank You Letters

In a business context, thank you letters are often appropriate and expected. When you have attended an interview, it is considered polite to send a thank you note – and it could harm your chances of getting the job if you don’t do this. You might also send a thank you letter when someone has given you their time and advice.

In general, you should:

  • Make it very clear that you’re writing to thank the recipient.
  • Mention a specific detail of how they helped you.
  • Express your gratitude for the time or effort they spent.
  • Avoid using the letter just as an excuse to promote yourself (though if you are following up an interview, it’s appropriate to highlight your suitability for the job).

An example paragraph from a thank you letter is:

Thank you for giving me your time on Friday 18th, when you kindly showed me around the factory. It was fascinating to see how the widgets are manufactured, and I now feel confident that I want to pursue a career in the widget manufacturing field. I’ve attached my resume and wonder if you’d be kind enough to keep it on file, in case any future positions arise that I might be suitable for?

Letters of Complaint

If you have received poor service or have been dissatisfied with a product, you can write to the company involved to make a complaint. To get the result you want, such as a refund, follow these tips:

  • Explain clearly who you are in relation to the company (eg. “I am an XYZ customer”).
  • Let them know exactly what you’re complaining about, without using emotional or abusive language.
  • Give specific location, time and date if appropriate.
  • Make it clear what you would like them to do in response.

You might also want to include a warning, such as “If this is not resolved, I will be forced to take my business elsewhere.”

Throughout your letter of complaint, your tone should be polite but assertive. Don’t make ridiculous threats or demand an unreasonable compensation – but also don’t be afraid to tell them about the inconvenience or financial loss that you’ve suffered. You can practice writing a letter of complaint here, or use the example below as a model:

I recently ordered several party platters of food from your store in Littletown, including one platter of seafood. The food was delivered two hours late, and the seafood platter was missing. I had to spend $40 to purchase extra food at short notice for my party. This was very inconvenient, as I had to drive to the store when I had planned to be with my guests.

I have never used your party platter service in the past, and regret to say that I very much doubt I will be doing so again unless you can assure me that this was an isolated incident. Although I was not charged for the seafood platter, I would be grateful for compensation in view of the inconvenience – and cost – of buying replacement food at such short notice.

Personal Letters

A thoughtful letter from a friend can brighten anyone’s day. Most of us send emails rather than letters nowadays – which means that a letter will really stand out.

Even if you’d never normally sit down to write a letter except in a business context, there are a couple of types of personal letter that you’ll want to familiarize yourself with:

Letter of Condolence

A letter of condolence or letter of sympathy is one which you send to someone who has been bereaved. It can be very difficult to find the right words to say, but taking the time to write a letter or note rather than just sending a “With Sympathy” card will mean a lot to the recipient.

Some tips to bear in mind are:

  • Acknowledge the loss – don’t gloss over it.
  • Express your sympathy.
  • Offer a brief anecdote or recollection of the deceased, mentioning the role s/he played in your life.
  • Mention that your thoughts (and, if appropriate for you and the recipient, your prayers) are with the bereaved and their family.

Note that if you’re writing to someone elderly, it’s particularly important to send a handwritten letter. A typed letter will often come across as cold or even rude.

All letters of condolence will be unique, but you might like to use this example as a general guide:

I was so sorry to hear that John had passed away. My sympathies are with you at this time: I know it must be very difficult for you.

John was so good to me when I first came to Littletown – I remember how he welcomed me into your church and made me feel completely at home. I’ll miss him very much.

My thoughts and prayers are with you, and with Johnny and Becca.

Personal Thank You Letters

When someone has given you a gift or done you a particular favor, it’s polite to send them a thank you note or letter. You might do this by email – but you still need to send a separate note to each person, rather than emailing a group of people.

Thank you letters are required is in response to wedding gifts. You should send these through the post, and in many cases, you may want to handwrite them. As well as saying “thank you” for the gift, it’s often nice to acknowledge the particular role that a person played in your wedding – even if that’s just saying “We were so pleased that you could come and be with us on the day.”

Other times when you could send a thank you letter include:

  • For birthday and Christmas gifts.
  • When you’ve stayed as a house guest somewhere (this is sometimes called a “bread-and-butter letter”).
  • After someone has treated you to a meal, a theater trip, a vacation or similar.
  • To your parents, grandparents or other relatives who have helped you out with a big purchase or a college degree.

Your thank you letter doesn’t need to be long. In many cases, a few lines is plenty:

Thank you for the gorgeous sweater – just the thing for the cold Canadian winter! I’ll be thinking of you every time I wrap myself up in it. We’re going to be travelling over Christmas, but hope to pop down and see everyone during the new year. Thanks again!

If you’re not very confident about your letter writing skills, sending some personal thank you notes is a great way to get started. People are always delighted and touched by being thanked in this way – they’ll overlook any small slips of grammar, and you don’t need to worry too much about lay out and formatting in personal letters.

Check Out Other Articles from The “Writing 101” Series:

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7 thoughts on “Letter Writing 101”

  1. On letters of complaint:

    A couple years ago consumerist.com posted on an extreme complaint tactic-often effective in the event that phone calls, letters, etc have been unsuccessful.

    Their advice was to research the corporation’s e-mail format and the names of as many corporate big wigs as possible.

    Then using that e-mail template send a “concise, polite, and professional” letter to everyone on the list.

    Following an extreme instance of bad service at a hotel and enraged at having received no response from initial complaints I resorted to this. As you suggest above, I documented each of my attempts to address the issue with other employees: dates, names, etc. In the interest of clarity, I used bullet points. I received an immediate response.

    I tend not to complain about service often and my primary concern when revising my letter was to avoid sounding like a crazy person. After writing a second draft I let it sit over a weekend and came back to it with a colder eye. That was helpful for my third and final draft.

    Thanks for the post!

    The Consumerist article can be found here:

  2. “Thank you letters are required is in response to wedding gifts.”

    Is that right? Should it be (eliding the “is”):

    “Thank you letters are required in response to wedding gifts.”

    Would Thank-you-letters be an option (either better or worse)?

  3. This is all very solid and well-thought-out advice. If only I had received it 25 years ago! Unfortunately, now that I’ve stopped writing letters it’s of little use. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a letter. Everything’s done by email these days.

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