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Writing Letters: The Letter Format

Some people have trouble starting a letter but, once started, can continue comfortably. It's a good idea to mentally go over the main things you want to say before starting. You can begin with a bit of good news: “You will be glad to hear that ….” You can describe what you have been doing that day or depict the room in which you are writing. You can also refer to the most recent correspondence or the last time you met the person to whom you are writing.

Mind Your P's and Q's

Start your letters by addressing them to the person you're writing to. Indeed, you is a much better word than I for beginning a letter.

Don't open a letter by apologizing for not writing sooner. You can say something like “You may have thought I'd forgotten all about you, but really, you have been in my thoughts often lately. It's just that there's been a lot going on. For instance ….”

Letters, by their nature, convey news. Therefore, in the body of the letter, talk about what has been happening to you and to those you both know. Talk about shared interests. Keep the tone conversational and let it flow.

End formal letters with a sincerely and progress toward familiarity with yours truly, regards, best wishes, affectionately, love, and so on. The most informal and affectionate letters may end with miss you or write soon or more later.

Letter Do's and Don'ts

Over the years certain customs dealing with how the elements of a letter should be organized on the page have evolved and have been pretty much universally accepted. Knowing how the skeleton of a letter should look allows you to concentrate on the essential message you want to convey. Accordingly, here are some general rules for writing business or social letters:

Mind Your P's and Q's

Bag the ballpoint pens. Ballpoint does not suggest performance. Fountain pens make letters look so much better. Colored inks are okay for casual notes and letters to friends but use black ink for a condolence letter or when replying to a formal invitation.

  • If your address is not printed at the top of the page, write it in the upper-right corner. (Don't bother if the person you're writing to knows perfectly well where you live.)
  • The date goes under the address at the upper-right or at the bottom-left corner. Write out the month in more formal letters or if you think the letter might be preserved for posterity.
  • The salutation goes flush left.
  • Leave a space, indent, and begin the body of the letter.

The complimentary close goes to the right, and it can take many forms:

  • Love is a wonderful thing and you can use it to close a letter if you're writing to a family member or close friend. You can also use fondly and affectionately.
  • If you don't know the person very well, try closing with as ever or as always or all best wishes. A stalwart standby is sincerely, and you can soften it by putting very or yours in front.
  • Cordially is considered to be out-of-date, but I like it and still use it because it is correct and, I think, warm.
  • Gratefully is great for letters of thanks.
  • Respectfully and respectfully yours are reserved for the clergy.

123 Margo St.
Hartford, CT 93433
Nov. 8, 1996

Dear Mr. Petersen:

Thank you so much for your letter of September 9. It certainly brought good news. We have had no difficulty organizing the workers according to your instructions, and I am certain you will be pleased with operations when you arrive for your inspection tour in January.

Horace Grant

  • Fold letter sheets vertically with the fold on the left, somewhat like a handwritten brochure. Start writing on page 1 and go to page 3 if the letter runs to a second page. Go with the usual sequence (1,2,3,4) if the letter requires all four pages. Number the pages as you write.
  • Dear Madam and Dear Sirs are outdated if you are writing to a store, for example. It is better to use To whom it may concern if you are writing to an unknown person.
  • If you fold a letter twice, fold the bottom third first and then the top third. The letter should be inserted into the envelope so that when it is removed and unfolded, it is ready to be read—right side up and facing the reader. A letter that is folded only once doesn't require special treatment.

Leave letters unsealed if they are to be hand delivered unless they are of a highly personal nature.

Postcards are useful for sending out notices of meetings or confirming appointments. They can be used as thank-you notes for casual parties, but never for dinner, gifts, or for being a houseguest.

More on: Manners


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette © 2004 by Mary Mitchell. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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