It’s fair to say that most of us don’t write many letters these days. With the emphasis that governments and corporations place on internet accessibility and social media, it may take you by surprise to learn that the old-school letter still carries a lot of weight.
I’ve spent a lot of time recently writing letters. They are remarkably effective in conveying not only the content of your request or argument, but in expressing a sense of formality or gravitas. They’re harder to ignore.
A hastily scribbled note, however, is never going to say the same thing as a clean, professional business letter. Formalities that most of the world have let slip still reside in the conventions of a business letter, and I’ve used them to my advantage in writing to car insurance companies, district court judges and the President of the Russian Federation, amongst others.
How do you write a letter? I learned this in secondary school, but if you missed that lesson, start here:
Date [either here or below recipient’s address]
Date [either here or below your address]
Reference no. if applicable
Dear [Recipient’s name],
I would like to say…
… and that is all.
Use your recipient’s title in your salutation where appropriate – of course, we know about using Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr, or President, but what about the tangle of titles that comes with the judiciary? I’ve got you covered (or perhaps I should say, the UK government does).
Yours faithfully vs Yours sincerely
Conventions dictate that where you know the name of your recipient, “yours sincerely” is used. When you do not know the name of your recipient and are addressing someone as “Dear Sir/Madam”, “yours faithfully” is used.
I use “regards” in formal emails, because I like it. Anything else feels weird. What do you think?
Spelling & grammar
Let’s face it, you know what’s coming here. Take the time to check your spelling, and look up any phrases you were thinking of throwing in there to appear more erudite than you sound in person. Also, check for typos – you can’t imagine my horror at re-reading an email to my MP and realising that I’d swapped “flagrant” for “fragrant”. Sigh.
As for your content, remember: always be polite, and if you’re writing a letter of complaint, you can be firm without being rude. When writing to people in positions of authority, it pays to remain respectful and to make appeals rather than to bark orders. In fact, forget about barking orders to anyone, ever.
Does format matter?
The truth is, it rarely matters whether you get these conventions entirely right, as few will be as pedantic to make an observation or judgement against you for straying slightly from this format. Frankly, few will care about rigid rules, but most people will care that you have made the effort to write to them in a careful and deliberate way. Use the rules to your advantage.
Now, go forth and write. And don’t forget to put the correct amount of postage on your envelope!
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