39 Writing Business Letters
At Canadian businesses, internal communication is usually accomplished through email and memos. Letters are considered a more formal mode of communication used to give information to external stakeholders.
After completing this chapter, you will be able to
- understand when to use a business letter format
- understand the formatting of business letters
- different letter formats
- essential elements
- optional elements
- evaluate the components of a standard request letter
- address an envelope for mailing (Canada Post, n.d.)
Purpose of a Business Letter
Business letters are often used to communicate with clients or other external stakeholders or for more personal reasons; you may need write a letter as part of an application package for a scholarship or a job or to support a colleague’s immigration application, to nominate someone for an award or scholarship, or to recommend someone for a job. Letters offer the advantage of formality, confidentiality (it’s illegal to open someone else’s mail), and provide a written record of evidence. In the past, letters were always mailed, but if a letter contains information that is time sensitive, sometimes the letter is sent as an email attachment or even faxed.
As one of the most formal documents you can send, a letter conveys a high degree of respect to its recipient. Sending a letter is your way of saying that the recipient matters. Letters are usually one- to two-page documents sent to people or organizations outside of the organization from which they’re sent, whereas memos are equivalent documents for communications within an organization. Though we use email for many of the occasions that we used to send letters for before the twenty-first century, letters are still sent rather than emails for several purposes:
- Cover letters to employers in job applications
- Thank-you letters and other goodwill expressions
- Letters of recommendation (a.k.a. reference letters)
- Letters of transmittal to introduce reports or proposals
- Campaign initiatives, such as for fundraising or political advocacy
- Official announcements of products, services, and promotions to customers
- Claims and other complaints sent to companies to lay down a formal paper-trail record as evidence in case matters escalate into the court system
- Formal rejection notices to job or program applicants
- Collection notices to people with overdue payments
Formatting a Business Letter
There are two main types of letters: full block-style letters and modified-block style. The block style used by organizations has a company letterhead at the top, whereas modified-block letters are typically written independently by individuals.
Image from Communication for Results: A Canadian student’s guide, 4th ed. (2017), p. 237
Tips for Formatting Letters
- Start the date 5 cm from the top or 1 blank line below the letterhead.
- For block style, begin all lines at the left margin.
- Leave side margins of 2.5 to 4 cm depending on the length of the letter and the font size.
- Single-space the body and double-space between paragraphs.
- Use left, not right, justification.
- Place the title of the receiver wherever it best balances the inside address.
- Place the title of the author wherever it best balances the closing line.
Standard Elements of a Business Letter
All professional business letters should include
- Letterhead and Return Address
- Recipient Address
- Subject Line
- Message Opening
- Message Body
- Message Closing
- Complimentary Close and Signature
- Enclosure Notice
Each of these elements is discussed in more detail, below.
1. Letterhead/Return Address
A company features the following information: company, name, full address, telephone number, and, if applicable, a website address, fax number, and company logo. When a letter extends beyond one page, use letterhead for the first page and plain sheets for the subsequent pages.
Because modified-block-style letters are sent by individuals unaffiliated with a company, they typically include only the sender’s two-line address at the top, which divides the above address style in half so that the street number, name, and type go on the first line (with no comma at the end), and the city/town, provincial abbreviation, and postal code go on the second, as shown below:
1385 Woodroffe Avenue
Ottawa, ON K2G 1V8
In both styles of address, strike a formal tone by fully spelling out the street type rather than abbreviating it (e.g., Street, not St.; Avenue, not Ave.; Road, not Rd.; Crescent, not Cres.; Boulevard, not Blvd.; Court, not Crt.; etc.). Using the abbreviations is fine in informal, personal letters, however.
A distinguishing feature of the modified-block style is that the sender address is justified (flush) to the vertical middle of the page (i.e., the left edge of its text lines up with it) rather than the left margin. Do this by highlighting the two address lines, then clicking and dragging the base of the left-margin tab in your word processor’s ruler right to the vertical midpoint of the page. If your page has 2.5 cm margins, that would be at around the 8.25 cm mark. Note that modified-block-style letters place the sender’s address on the first line below the header (i.e., about an inch or 2.5 cm from the top edge of the page) and don’t include the sender’s name at the top of this address block. The reader can find the sender’s name by darting their eyes down to the signature block at the bottom.
In some circumstances, you may want to use block-style letters with a letterhead when writing on your own behalf rather than for a company. When writing a cover letter, for instance, you can stylize your name prominently as if it were the name of a company so that it stands out in a larger font in bold typeface, possibly in an eye-catching colour. Because this appears in the header margin, adopting the block style has the additional advantage of placing your name and contact information automatically on every page so that consistent personal branding extends to the one- to two-page résumé that follows, including the references page that would be separated out for confidentiality reasons.
In a formal letter, the date must follow the unambiguous style that fully spells out the month, gives the calendar date, a comma, and the full year (e.g., April 25, 2020). In block-style letters, this appears left-justified (its left edge lines up with the left margin) often with 2-3 lines of space between it and the company letterhead above it and, for symmetry, as much between it and the recipient address below.
In modified-block-style letters, however, the date often appears as the third line of the sender address block. Its left edge therefore lines up with the vertical middle of the page. Only one line of space should separate the date line from the recipient address below. After this, block-style and modified-block letters are formatted in the same way until you get to the signature block at the bottom.
3. Recipient Address
No matter what style of letter you use, the recipient address is left-justified, begins with the recipient’s full name on the top line, and follows with their mailing address on the lines below in the format options given below.
The first line begins with the person’s courtesy title: Mr., Ms. (applies to women unless a preference for Mrs. or Miss is known), Dr., etc. Omit the courtesy title if the addressee’s gender is unclear or unknown. A business or professional title–for example, Chair, Treasurer – may follow the surname on the same line or on the next line if the title is long. Abbreviate the names of provinces and territories (AB, BC, YT, etc.). Leave two spaces, then type the postal code.
Michelle Masterton, MBA
Freelance Marketing Consultant
3489 Cook Street
Victoria, BC V9G 4B2
Notice that commas follow only (1) the recipient’s name if followed by a professional role (capitalized) or credentials abbreviation and (2) the city or town. Two spaces separate the provincial abbreviation (PA) from the postal code, which has a single space in the middle dividing the six alpha-numeric characters into two groups of three for readability. Though you sometimes see addresses that fully spell out the province, rather than abbreviate it, and have only one space between the province and postal code, the style given above is dominant and has the advantage of being more concise and clearly distinguishing the province from the postal code without crowding the line with commas. Keep the end of each line free of any punctuation.
4. Subject Line
Like a subject line in an email, letters can have subject lines that indicate the topic or purpose. The same titling principles as email apply, only the letter’s subject reference begins with “Re:” or “RE:” or “Subject:” and is entirely in either bold typeface or all-caps, but not both. You might also see it positioned above or below the opening salutation, but usually above. Like all the text blocks besides the date line, a blank line of space separates this from the other parts above and below.
The salutation is a greeting that is necessary in letters and emails. It is typed flush with the left margin two lines below the inside address or attention line.
Dear Ms. Françoise Hardy:
Dear Mr. Serge Gainsbourg:
Dear IT Professionals:
Dear Dr. Landy:
Dear Ms. Vartan:
Dear Dana ,
The Dear, title, full name, and colon all signal formality. Variations in formal letters include omitting the title or the first name, but not both at once. Omit the title if you’re at all concerned about its accuracy. For instance, if the recipient’s first name is a unisex name and you’re not sure if they’re male or female, skip the gender title to avoid offending the recipient by mixing up their gender. the courtesy title Ms. is standard for women regardless of marital status. If you’re addressing someone who identifies as non-binary, then Mx. might be best if you must use a title, or just no title at all. Other considerations in the opening salutation include the following:
- Using the recipient’s first name only is appropriate only if you know them well on a friendly, first-name basis.
- Using a comma instead of a colon is appropriate only for very informal letters.
- To whom it may concern: is an appropriate opening salutation only if you really intend for the letter to be read by whomever it is given to, as in the case of a reference letter that an applicant gives copies of to potential employers. Otherwise, every effort should be made to direct the letter to a particular person, especially cover letters. If an employer has deliberately omitted any mention of who is responsible for hiring an applied-for position, addressing the person by professional role (e.g., Dear Hiring Manager:) is acceptable.
6. Message Opening
Letters are ideal for both direct- and indirect-approach messages depending on the occasion for writing them. Direct-approach letters get right to the point by stating their main point or request in a paragraph of no more than a sentence or two. Letters organized with openings like this lend themselves to positive or neutral messages. Ideal for formally delivering bad-news or persuasive messages, indirect-approach letters begin with a buffer paragraph—again, this may only be a sentence or two—just to say some nice things before getting to the bad news or difficult request in the body of the message.
7. Message Body
Whether the opening takes the direct or indirect approach, the body supports this with explanatory detail. Ensure that your message is concise and, if appropriate for the content, use effective document design features such as numbered or bulleted lists to improve readability. For instance, if your letter contains a series of questions, use a numbered list so that the reader can respond to each with a corresponding numbered list of their own.
Message body paragraphs should be proper three-part paragraphs. Like all other text blocks throughout (except for the return address above and signature block below in a modified-block letter), every line in the message body must be flush to the left margin, including the first. In other words, rather than indent a paragraph’s first line as novels do to mark where one paragraph ends and another begins, separate them with a blank line. Brevity in formal letters limits the number of paragraphs to what you can fit in a page or two.
8. Message Closing
The closing mirrors the opening with a sentence or two that wraps up the letter with something relevant to the topic at hand. Because of their formality, letters almost always end with a goodwill statement, such as an expression of gratitude thanking the reader for their attention or consideration. For instance, a cover letter thanks the reader for their consideration, invites them to read the enclosed résumé, and expresses interest in meeting to discuss the applicant’s fit with the company in person since getting an interview is the entire point of an application. A thank-you letter will thank the recipient again, and a recommendation letter will emphatically endorse the applicant. Even letters delivering bad news or addressing contentious situations should end with pleasantries rather than hostile or passive-aggressive jabs. If an action is required, be sure to indicate when you would expect follow through.
9. Complimentary Close and Signature Block
The complimentary close is also know as a “closing salutation”. A simple Sincerely or Cordially are standard business letter closing salutations that signal the formal end of the message much like the opening salutation did before the beginning of the message proper. A more personal letter sent to someone you know well may end with Yours truly (with the second word all lowercase), but don’t use this with someone you’ve never met or with anyone you want to maintain a strictly professional relationship with. Always place a “hanging comma” at the end of the line:
You may add pronouns after your name or include a courtesy title in the parentheses before your name to help your reader know if you prefer to be identified as male or female: (Ms.) Sam Jones.
You can create a signature by handwriting it on a piece of paper and then scanning it to make a digital copy that you can use in your typed correspondence; however, many people simply use an italicized font, like “Brush Script” or “Lucinda Handwriting”.
The signature block appear immediately underneath the signature. It clarifies the sender’s name in full since handwritten signatures are rarely legible enough to do so themselves. The sender’s professional role follows their name either on the same line (with a comma in between) if both the name and role are short enough, and on the second line if they are too long together. On the line below the sender’s name and role can appear the name of the company they work for and their work email address on the third line; all three lines are single-spaced. If you are writing independently, putting your email address and phone number on the line(s) after your printed name depends on if you used a simple modified-block style address at the top, in which case you should add your contact info in the signature block. If you used a personal letterhead, perhaps for a job application cover letter, then you need not include anything more than your full printed name in your signature block.
Sometimes letters are written on someone else’s behalf, perhaps by an administrative assistant. In such cases, the signature and typed-out name of the person responsible for the letter is given at the bottom, then the initials of the person who typed it appear after a line of space below the last line of the signature block.
10. Enclosure Notice
Just as emails can include attachments, letters are often sent along with other documents. Cover letters introduce résumés, for instance, and letters of transmittal introduce reports to their intended recipients. In such cases, an enclosure notice on the very last line of the page (above the footer margin) tells the reader that another document or other documents are included with the letter. This would look like the following:
Enclosures (2): Résumé, Portfolio
For other documents included with the letter, simple, brief titles such as Brochure or Thank-you Card would suffice. Separate each with a comma if you have more than one.
Standard “Request for Information” Letters
Image from Communication for results: A Canadian student’s guide, 5th ed. (2020), p. 239.
Sample 1: Ineffective Letter
Sample 2: Revised Letter
Canada Post has specific instructions for how to address envelopes: Canada Post Guidelines
A printed heading on a company stationary, containing the company's name, address, telephone number, and, if applicable, website, fax, number, and logo.