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Writing Letters: The Letter Format

Sample Letters

Whether you're writing a thank-you letter or an apology letter (or even a Dear John letter), here are a few do's and don'ts, tips, and samples to help you along the way.

Live and Learn

If you thanked the giver at the time the gift was presented to you, it may not be necessary to write a thank-you note. For example, when your sister who lives a block away gives you a gift in person, you need not send a note (although it's nice to do so). When your Aunt Tillie, visiting from across the country, presents you with a hand-knit sweater, you should acknowledge all her efforts with some extra effort of your own.

Thank-You Letters

These notes can be boring—boring to write, boring to read: “Thank you for the present. It was nice of you to think of me.” To avoid this sort of letter, you can follow my foolproof, three-step formula:

  1. Be sure to thank the person for the specific gift and mention the gift by name.
  2. Acknowledge the effort and energy the giver put into selecting, purchasing, or making the gift.
  3. Let the giver know how you have used or will use the gift.

When thanking someone for a gift of money, don't mention the amount in your letter of thanks. A reference to “your generous gift” will suffice.

When you refuse a gift, a letter, or at least a note, is required. It should say that you don't feel you can accept the gift (perhaps in the case of a woman receiving expensive jewelry from a male acquaintance) but that you appreciate the thought.

Dear Helen:

Tom and I and the two girls want to thank you very much for the handsome Deluxe Edition Monopoly game you gave the family. I happen to know that you can't get this beautifully produced version of the game at most stores, and you must have had to do some shopping around to find it. The four of us spent last night playing the game. (Tammy won.) Your gift has made this familiar game very special for us.


Condolence Letters

A letter of condolence should do three things:

  1. Acknowledge what a terrible loss the death is for the bereaved and that you sympathize with his or her suffering to some degree
  2. Convey a sincere desire to help in some way during this time of grief
  3. Praise the accomplishments, character, and devotion of the deceased

Remember that many people may read this letter, and it may be saved as part of the family archives. Therefore, although it will be personal, the style should be at least somewhat formal.

In a condolence letter, avoid stressing how much you feel bereaved. The purpose of the letter is to comfort others, not to have them feel sorry for you.

Dear Mrs. Thompson:

Please accept my deepest sympathy on the terrible loss of your fine husband, George, even though I know no words of mine can ease your grief.

I met George on my first day of work at MicroTech, and I will never forget his kindness to me, a confused newcomer. He helped me to get settled and to understand how things worked there—all out of the goodness of his heart. George had that rare combination of kindness, good humor, and competence.

I think you know that we live just a few blocks away, and if there is anything I or my family can do to help during the days ahead, we would consider it a privilege if you would call upon us.


Writing after you have heard some bad news about a friend or acquaintance is a different matter. In this letter, you want to convey not only support but also a bit of optimism.

Dear Margaret:

We just heard that Tom was among those laid off at MicroTech. I know it must be a shock for you and your family. Joe and I will be home all weekend in case you and Tom want to stop by for a drink or dinner or just to chat.


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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