Business letter format
Macros and standardized letters
The modern business letter uses a standardized format for its contents.
The preference is for a simple format which is easy to create and use. Most standardized letters in regular use are created on macros, often with built-in text, depending on their function.
(Macros are very easy to set up for hard copy letters, just remember to make allowances for the letter head or other stationery margins.)
The usual macro format, reading from the top, is:
Margins (both sides)
Margin sizes standard Word or Wordperfect margins, 1.5 inches or 2.5 cm
Full postal address
Date of letter
Dear Sir or Madam:
(Bold type) Subject of letter, sometimes with references
Text of letter
- Introductory paragraph outlining subject matter
- Subsequent paragraphs
- Closing paragraph
Notes on basic letter content:
The preference is for a specific person as the addressee. In some cases it's advisable to obtain a contact person as a more efficient reference.
Addressees are the administrative identities of people.
It's always important to make sure that the name of the addressee is correct.
(Leave plenty of space in the macro for addressees)
Use of professional and official titles:
If addressing a letter to a person with a title like Doctor, Professor, etc, that title is necessary, both in the addressee section, and when addressing the recipient:
Dear Doctor Smith, etc.
If the addressee holds an executive or official title, whether CEO or some other office, the formal title is used when addressing the person in their business or official capacity:
Mr. John Smith,
Chief Executive Officer
The Hon. John Smith MP,
Minister for Public Works
The Hon. John Smith MP,
Member for Little Woods
All of these could be the same person, but acting in different capacities, and different organizations. Hence the need to make sure the title given is correct. A letter for Smith, addressed to his business title and address, but intended to go to him as Minister for Public Works, would probably get lost.
You can see how the administrative function of addressees works, with this example.
Honors in titles:
It is strongly advised to always check all titles of letter recipients who are holders of civil titles or honors.
If an addressee who has some award like a knighthood or other social honor, the custom is to address your correspondence making proper use of titles.
So Sir John Smith, KBE, OBE, is given his full title in the address, and addressed in the greeting as 'Dear Sir John', which is the customary address to holders of knighthoods in English correspondence.
Some titles take precedence: If Sir John was a doctor, you'd include the Doctor in the title, but refer to Sir John as the addressee in the greeting. He'd be 'Doctor Sir John Smith', but 'Sir John' otherwise.
If you're doing business globally, it's advisable to double check your addressee's formal title.
All business correspondence must contain references. This is for your benefit and the recipient's. Because ongoing correspondence can produce mountains of documents, the more specific your references, the better.
You would refer in your reply, for example, to
Your letter dated 14th January 2009, (your ref: 09114:ABCD: JD)
References are also essential for proper record keeping of correspondence in paper based systems. You'll notice that electronic records work on very much the same principle.
Date and signature
The date of a letter is its time frame where any legal or statutory action is involved. The date of signature is also important in terms of time frames related to business or other obligations.
Any documents enclosed with a letter should be referred to directly in the text Anything enclosed with a business letter should be listed at the bottom of the letter:
Copy of letter of 21st December 2007 from XYZ Inc.
Photocopy of Agreement with XYZ Inc.
Photocopy of our letter of 23rd December 2007.
- This text is intended for advisory and guideline purposes only.
- Any business letter can become a legal document, so check your content properly before issuing.
- Any executable or statutorily defined document should be checked for compliance with legal requirements, and you should seek legal advice regarding its contents.