Format of a Formal Letter

Help with formatting formal and business letters. A summary of writing rules including outlines for cover letters and letters of enquiry, and abbreviations used in letters.

There are times in life when you will probably want to write a formal letter instead of an informal letter or email. These include cover letters for job applications, letters of enquiry, letters of resignation, legal correspondence and many more. In these situations it's important that you follow the expected letter format.

How to Write a Formal Letter

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Use a formal letter format

The example letter writing format shown below shows you a general outline for a formal or business letter. Further information about each part of a formal letter can be found after the image.

Formal Letter Template

Follow a formal letter format when writing formal letters

In English there are a number of official letter format conventions that should be used when formatting a formal or business letter. Furthermore, you try to write as simply and as clearly as possible, and not to make the letter longer than necessary. Remember not to use informal language like contractions.

1) Include your name and contact information

The return address should be written in the top right-hand corner of a formal letter. This will usually your address, but could be any other address to which a reply should be sent.

2) Include the recipient's name and address

Add the address of the person you are writing to. The recipient's address should be written on the left, often starting below your address. If you are going to print and post the letter using a windowed envelope, make sure you align this address with the clear plastic window.

3) Include the date

Different people put the date on different sides of the page. You can write this on the right or the left on the line after the address you are writing to. Write the month as a word.

4) Use the right salutation

The tip to starting a formal English letter is to greet the person you're writing to in the correct way. This is known as the Salutation. If you know the name of the person you're writing to then use 'Sir' or 'Madam' here, otherwise write their full name, including their title. Remember, try not to be too informal or casual.


a) If you do not know the name of the person you are writing to, use the following form (it is always advisable to try to find out a name):

Dear Madam,
Dear Sir,
Dear Sir or Madam,

b) If you know the name, use the title (Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms, Dr, etc.) and the family name only. If you are writing to a woman and do not know if she uses Mrs or Miss, you can use Ms, which is for both married and single women.

Dear Mr Jenkins,
Dear Ms Hamers,
Dear Mrs Hutchins,
Dear Miss Davis,
Dear Dr Green,

5) Create the body of your formal letter

Write the body of your letter in formal language. Be direct and try to keep it as brief as possible, often between three or four paragraphs in total.

The first paragraph should be kept short and is designed to introduce you and to state the purpose of the letter- to make an enquiry, complain, request something, etc.

The paragraph or paragraphs in the middle of the letter should contain the relevant information behind the writing of the letter. Most letters in English are not very long, so keep the information to the essentials and concentrate on organising it in a clear and logical manner rather than expanding too much.

The last paragraph of a formal letter should state what action you expect the recipient to take- to refund, send you information, etc.

6) Close the letter with a formal sign-off

Just as there are conventions about creating the salutation for your letter, there are also rules about how you close or sign-off your letter. If you do not know the name of the person, end the letter using 'Yours faithfully'. If you know the recipient's name, use 'Yours sincerely'.

7) Add your signature

Sign your name, then print it underneath your signature using capital letters (or type it). If you think the person you are writing to might not know whether you are male of female, put your title in brackets after your name. Optionally, it can also be helpful to include your phone number and email address.

8) Proofread your letter

Now that you've completed the first draft of your letter, read if over from start to finish and check for any errors in grammar and spelling. Make sure it reads well and that the recipient will understand what the letter is about.

If you want more help with how to write formal or informal letters please feel free to ask us in our Letter Writing forum. Our teachers will be able to help answer any questions you might have. Ask us a Question

Download our free formal letter template:


Abbreviations Used in Letter Writing

The following abbreviations are widely used in formal letters:

  • asap = as soon as possible
  • cc = carbon copy (when you send a copy of a letter to more than one person, you use this abbreviation to let them know)
  • enc. = enclosure (when you include other papers with your letter)
  • pp = per procurationem (A Latin phrase meaning that you are signing the letter on somebody else's behalf; if they are not there to sign it themselves, etc)
  • ps = postscript (when you want to add something after you've finished and signed it)
  • pto (informal) = please turn over (to make sure that the other person knows the letter continues on the other side of the page)
  • RSVP = please reply

Outline: A Covering Letter

A covering letter is the one that accompanies your CV when you are applying for a job. Here is a fairly conventional plan for the layout of the paragraphs.

Opening Paragraph
Briefly identify yourself and the position you are applying for. Add how you found out about the vacancy.

Paragraph 2
Give the reasons why you are interested in working for the company and why you wish to be considered for that particular post. State your relevant qualifications and experience, as well as your personal qualities that make you a suitable candidate.

Paragraph 3
Inform them that you have enclosed your current CV and add any further information that you think could help your case.

Closing Paragraph
Give your availability for interview, thank them for their consideration, restate your interest and close the letter.

Outline: A Letter of Enquiry

A letter of enquiry is when you are approaching a company speculatively, that is you are making an approach without their having advertised or announced a vacancy.

Opening Paragraph
Introduce yourself briefly and give your reason for writing. Let them know of the kind of position you are seeking, why you are interested and how you heard about them.

Paragraph 2
Show why their company in particular interests you, mention your qualifications and experience along with any further details that might make them interested in seeing you.

Paragraph 3
Refer to your enclosed CV and draw their attention to any particularly important points you would like them to focus on in it.

Closing Paragraph
Thank them, explain your availability for interview and restate your enthusiasm for their company and desire to be considered for posts that might as yet be unavailable.