9 types of formal letters (plus when and how to write one)

Updated 10 November 2022

Formal letters still play a major role in business and personal correspondence today. Knowing when to write this type of letter is essential as it is a way of communicating precise information, and its layout and presentation creates an impression of you and your business. Following the conventions of writing a clear, professional letter is key in facilitating a smooth working relationship between businesses and clients. In this article, we consider different types of formal letters, outline when it is appropriate to write a formal letter and provide a guide on how to write and format a formal letter.

Related: 5 reasons why writing skills are essential for every job

Types of formal letters

There are various types of formal letters to suit different purposes. Besides business letters, there are several types of formal letters that are useful with written correspondence at work and in your personal life. Consider the examples below:

  1. Enquiry letter: You write an enquiry letter when you want to learn more about a product, service or event.

  2. Order letter: Order letters are for placing orders for new goods or services from a company.

  3. Acceptance letter: Acceptance letters are for confirming acceptance of a job, a resignation or an honour.

  4. Letter of complaint: This type of formal letter is to express dissatisfaction with goods or services.

  5. Apology letter: You write an apology letter to apologise for a mistake.

  6. Cover letter: You usually write a formal letter to accompany your CV when applying for a job. A cover letter outlines your qualifications and complements your application.

  7. Sales letter: A sales letter promotes a company's product or service and includes a call to action.

  8. Promotion letter: Similar to sales letters, these letters inform customers about new products and upgrades.

  9. Making a claim letter: If you are unhappy with a product or service, you might send a letter to the manufacturer to request a refund.

Related: Business letter format and example

When should I write a formal letter?

When writing business correspondence, use a formal letter format as a guide. The correct letter format sets a professional tone and is a good starting point for building a positive working relationship with the recipient of the letter. If you are writing to an authority or a professional contact, always use a formal letter format. For a job application, a formal letter or cover letter is a crucial part of your application and may be the first impression the company has of you. In this case, use appropriate, persuasive language that will convince the recipient to take your application further.

There are many instances when a formal letter is the best way to correspond with someone and writing a formal letter will often give your issue priority. If you are unsure whether to use a formal register in your letter, think about how you would interact with them in person, and also consider the context. For example, you might be on neighbourly terms with your child's headteacher, but if you are addressing issues about your child that have arisen at school, a formal letter in writing is probably the better option.

Do I send a formal letter by email or by post?

Once you have written and proofread your letter, you then decide how to send it. Although some companies insist that you send formal letters by mail, it is usually acceptable to send a formal letter via email. Check the company website for the recipient's email address and if you cannot find it, a quick phone call to the company is usually a good way of finding out staff email addresses.

Some companies may be reluctant to give out employee addresses in which case you might consider sending the formal letter to the company website, with the name of the addressee in the subject line like, 'ATTN: Peter Jenkins'. Sending the formal letter by email means it is easy to track when the recipient has received and read the letter and means you will have a clear record that you sent the letter.

Related: How to end an email

How to write a formal letter

The content of a formal letter is typically clear and concise, with no ambiguity. Clarity is key when writing a business letter, so select a font that is simple and easy to read. Avoid stylistic or individualised fonts and choose sizes between 10 and 12 points to present a reader-friendly and professional letter. Also, proofread your letter for errors before sending it. To ensure your formal letter is comprehensible, keep consistent formatting throughout and use single spacing.

Leave a blank line between each section and align the main body of the letter to the left and set your margins to one inch. Maintain a formal register and avoid slang and colloquial language. Formal letters follow a specific format and commonly include certain elements. Following the format below will show you how to write a formal letter that ensures clarity and an appropriate level of respect to the recipient. This will make the correspondence as effective as possible. The standard format of formal letters contains the elements below:

1. Name and contact details of the sender

Write your name, address with postcode, telephone number and email address in the top right-hand corner of the page. Including your relevant contact information means the reader may be able to identify who has sent the letter immediately, and this will make him or her more likely to respond to it. Making this information legible is also important for the receiver to see clearly who sent the letter.

2. The date

Next, date the letter with the appropriate information to create a record of the letter sent. Use the standard UK format without abbreviations, starting with the day, then the month and ending with the year. For example, you might send a letter on the 3rd day of November and date the letter like this 3rd November 2021.

3. Recipient's name and address

Include the recipient's name and contact details underneath the date on the left-hand side of the page. Be sure to include their name, job title, company and the company's address to ensure the letter gets to the right person. If the recipient has a title like Dr or Rev, use the title but avoid gender-specific pronouns like Mr or Ms in a formal letter.

Related: How To Address a Formal Letter

4. Subject line

Write a subject line to summarise the purpose of your letter. A subject line is not always necessary, but it is a helpful way of explaining why you have written the letter. A line like Resignation letter or Order number will get the reader's attention and make your letter stand out.

5. A greeting

If you wrote the recipient's name in the contact details, use the same name in the greeting. Include the recipient's full name and title if they have one, for example, Dear Dr Peter Jenkins or Dear Peter Jenkins. In a formal letter, only consider using their first name, such as Dear Peter, if you know them personally. If you don't know the recipient's name, try to look for it on the company website, or make a quick phone call to the company to find out, otherwise, you might use the phrase, To Whom It May Concern.

Related: Professional email greetings and salutations you can use

6. Body of the letter

The body of the letter should be clear, and two to three paragraphs long. In the first paragraph, introduce yourself and state the aim of the letter. Be concise and get to the point quickly so the reader knows what to expect. The next paragraph emphasises the point of your first paragraph and includes a few more relevant details on what you are offering or asking from the recipient.

The last paragraph typically summarises the content and purpose of your letter, provides a statement of how you wish to proceed and thanks the recipient for reading it. It might include a call to action like I look forward to hearing from you or a helpful suggestion such as Do not hesitate to contact me if you need further information. The final closing statement of the letter is usually right after the main body of the letter.

7. Sign off

End the formal letter with a statement like Yours Sincerely if you have used the recipient's name, otherwise use Yours Faithfully. Leave a space and include your signature and printed name. Add your title, phone number and email address. If you are sending other documents with the letter, consider adding, Please find enclosed, followed by the name of the document, like a CV.

Related: How to End a Letter

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