You’re writing a formal letter and want to make the right impression. Whether it’s a complaint letter, legal correspondence, a resignation letter, or a business letter, you must ensure your recipient takes you seriously.
Or – worse – use Comic Sans font. (If you don’t know what that is, consider yourself lucky).
You’ll make the strongest impression if you ensure that the presentation of your letter is just as strong as its content. Words matter, but so does a format that adheres to Australian protocols.
With that in mind, let me show you how to write formal letters that will enhance your personal brand.
How To Make Your Letter’s Typography Look Professional.
Good typography allows you to perceive words as images. When done badly, it detracts from your message and steals the attention of the reader.
Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographic Style, says:
But this doesn’t mean your text should be hot pink and use a turquoise background with a diagonal gradient. Rather, it must follow an established set of protocols:
- Font style. Use a single font throughout. Arial, Helvetica, Calbri, Garamond, and Proxima Nova are great choices (I find Times New Roman devoid of personality). Avoid Comic Sans as though your life depends on it. Don’t mix fonts to “jazz things up”.
- Font size. Unless your intended reader is visually impaired, a font size of 11 or 12 is the most appropriate. Anything bigger will look jumbo-sized.
- Weight. It’s OK to embolden headings but avoid bolding the body of a formal letter. Use italics when emphasising a specific word or phrase, but do so sparingly.
- Colour. For a formal letter, avoid using loud, garish colours. You may use brand colours in your letterhead or signature, but the main body of the text should always be black.
- Case. DON’T WRITE IN CAPS UNLESS YOU WANT TO COME ACROSS AS ILLITERATE OR AGGRESSIVE. Capitalising Every Word Is Fine For Headings Or Email Subject Lines. Write in sentence case for everything else.
- Proportion. Size text elements in a way that creates a balanced typographical hierarchy. For example, a subheading should be roughly 20-40% smaller than the heading, and so on.
Text on this page follows all of the rules above. Study it carefully and mimic its format in your formal letter.
How Should You Capitalise Headings?
The Australian Style Guide prefers sentence case to title case for headings – but both are acceptable in everyday practice.
Just ensure that capitalisation is consistent across the entire formal letter.
Above: Sentence case has a capital letter for the first word and any ‘proper nouns’ (e.g., Jedi Knights).
Here’s an excellent title capitalisation tool to help you correctly capitalise conjunctions and other connectives like the and of. It offers a number of style guides, including APA and The Chicago Manual of Style. Either is fine for a formal letter.
Should You Use Sans-Serif Or Serif Fonts In Your Letter?
Just in case you’re not a font geek:
|Have decorative lines, commonly referred to as tails or feet.
|Are made up of clean lines that are the same width throughout.
Above: Serif vs sans serif fonts.
So, which should you use for a formal letter? It depends on the tone you wish to communicate.
Serif fonts are generally considered classic or formal, whereas sans-serif fonts are more casual.
Printed publications like books and newspapers favour serif fonts, whereas digital publications favour sans-serif.
If you’re looking for recommendations for fonts, Typewolf is considered an authority in this space.
When sending formal emails, stick to the default (which is Calibri in Outlook and Sans Serif in Gmail). Changing it to a more “fancy” font makes you look too try-hard. Cringe.
What Is The Correct Tone For A Formal Letter?
There’s a time, a tone, and a place for every formal letter. I love a satirical rant letter – when someone gets so worked up that they feel the need to rage against some perceived evil in the world.
A fan of a football team in England went viral with his summary of his experience:
Funny as that was, I doubt the author would be so bold as to write his termination letter in the same tone – and I suspect he has the intelligence to know that.
You need to know who your intended reader is.
What tone you decide on will ultimately influence your word choice and how that message is received.
Here are just a few of the many dozens of tones you should consider when writing formal letters:
- A professional tone maintains a serious demeanour and avoids colloquial expressions.
- An objective tone presents information in an unbiased manner, without emotions or opinions.
- An authoritative tone uses strong and assertive language.
- A sympathetic tone expresses understanding of the reader’s position.
- An approachable tone avoids stiff and robotic language.
Before you start writing, think, “How do I want the recipient to feel when reading this?” Match that sentiment with your tone.
How to match the sentiment to the tone.
If you’re sending a cover letter for a managerial position at a stockbroker, you want the reader to feel confident in your ability to lead others and deal with the pressures of the job.
In such an instance, it would be wise to adopt an authoritative tone when discussing your background.
A hesitant tone might be more appropriate for a funding grant application for a non-profit project.
How to identify your tone.
Your word choice, known as diction, reflects your voice and tone. Formal words convey seriousness, whereas casual words come across as friendly and familiar.
Which seems more professional for a formal letter?
- It was wonderful meeting you, and the office is beautiful.
- It was a pleasure to meet you, and the office facilities are impressive.
You may argue that the former comes more naturally to you. You should be yourself, right? You’re not a robot. Well, let me put it to you another way.
It’s no secret that we Aussies love swearing so much, and that comes naturally to us. But would using foul language in a formal letter be appropriate for the sake of authenticity?
When it comes to writing formally, there is a certain expectation of the language we use. Deviate from that at your own peril.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of using big words when trying to impress, but if you’re not entirely sure of the meaning of a particular word (if you have to look it up or if you’re using a thesaurus to substitute synonyms), you should avoid including it.
Tones to avoid in a formal letter.
Some tones should be avoided at all costs when writing formal letters.
|When language is overly chatty. If you’re writing how you speak (for instance, “G’day, how you doing?”), then your message will likely fall on deaf ears. Ditch the slang – even if you know the person and believe them to be like-minded.
|When language is needlessly aggressive. You can be critical and challenging without being confrontational. Avoid personal attacks and base your challenges on facts and evidence rather than feelings and opinions.
|When language is regretful. Conceding too much ground weakens your message and inhibits the impact you’re trying to make. It also draws attention to your shortcomings. You only have a finite amount of page space, so reinforce your message with positive statements.
What To Include In An Australian Formal Letter.
You’ll have seen the formal letter-writing format on so many occasions, and you can be forgiven if you’ve never paid it a blind bit of notice.
Let’s just quickly run through the basic structure:
- Contact information. Include your name, address, phone number, and email address.
- Recipient’s contact information. Include the recipient’s name, address, phone number, and email address.
- Date of letter. This should be the date you intend to send it, rather than the date it’s written.
- Greeting. This is how you open your letter; for instance, “Dear Sir/Madam”.
- Main body of letter. The paragraphs that follow the greeting and precede the closing.
- Closing paragraph. This is how you close your letter; for instance, “Yours sincerely”.
- Signature. If handwritten, print your name and sign in blue or black ink; if typed, spell out your full name and use an e-signature.
How do you address a formal letter to a non-specific person?
There are two professional greetings you can use when you don’t know who to address.
“To whom it may concern” is more often the preferred choice, particularly these days if you don’t know a person’s gender.
You can use “Dear Sir/Madam” as a less formal or impersonal way of engaging with the unknown recipient.
Sir/Madam should be capitalised in this context because they serve as proper nouns (not common nouns) to address the person you’re writing to.
If you know the recipient’s full name, it’s better to write “Dear Peter Daniels” rather than “Dear Mr Daniels”. There might be multiple people who share the same salutation occupying the same address – Mr Daniels could be a father or one of his five sons.
Do you use sincerely or faithfully in a formal letter?
You should use “Yours faithfully” when you’ve greeted the reader with “Dear Sir/Madam” or “To whom it may concern”, that is, when you don’t know the person’s name.
Use “Yours sincerely” if you have already addressed the name of the person when greeting them at the beginning of the letter. That’s only the case for Australian English and British English, though. “Yours faithfully” isn’t a widely used salutation in US English.
Template For An Australian Formal Written Letter.
In the upper right-hand corner, include the following (with each on its own separate line):
- [Sender’s full name]
- [Sender’s address]
- [Sender’s phone number]
- [Sender’s email address]
On the next line below, aligned left on the page, you should include:
- [Recipient’s name]
- [Recipient’s address]
- [Recipient’s phone number]
- [Recipient’s email address]
On the next line, aligned right, type the date that the letter is being sent. Then, a couple of lines below, start your letter with the salutation followed by the remaining elements:
- Dear [recipient’s name],
- First paragraph: [describe the purpose of your formal letter]
- Main body paragraph: [the rationale of your formal letter]
- Closing: [Yours sincerely/faithfully]
- Signature: [e-signature/handwritten]
- Print name: [your full name]
Example Of Formal Letter.
Dear Terrence Powell,
I’m writing to resign from my position as Senior Marketing Director, effective 1st February 2024. The decision to leave this incredible company has not been taken lightly.
During my time, I’ve been lucky enough to partake in and oversee several high-profile product launches, as well as work in a team of compassionate individuals who are committed to slashing fashion waste and carbon emissions.
Aside from all the sales targets we beat, one of my highlights was being part of a team that removed over 70 tonnes of textile waste in the last calendar year.
It’s owing to my experiences at Økologi that I’ve been able to develop extraordinary skills that gained me further recognition in the wider marketplace, and I feel this new job role is ever so slightly more aligned with my personal growth ambitions.
I’m truly grateful for your support and encouragement over the last few years, and I will always look back fondly on my time at Økologi. Thank you for everything.
Example Of Formal Email.
Since we live in the Information Age, and almost all of our communication is done digitally, it’s worth sharing an example of a formal email template.
When sending formal emails, you can dispense with the addresses, names, contact details, and formal signatures. Your standard email signature will more than suffice.
As is common email etiquette, you only need to address the recipient by their first name. It’ll seem a little weird if you address their full name.
Subject line: Acceptance of position
I’m delighted to accept the position at Rushforth & Barker as the Head of Digital Marketing. As previously mentioned, due to my notice period, the earliest date I could start is at the beginning of February (the week commencing the 5th).
Once we have agreed on a specific start date, please could you kindly send me an employee contract and any other documentation that you require completing before commencing my new role?
As requested, I have attached a copy of my right to work here in Australia, a copy of my driver’s licence for the purposes of photo identification, and a copy of my MBA degree certificate from the University of Melbourne.
Please do, of course, reach out at any point if there is anything further you need. Thank you once again for this opportunity.
Make sure you draw attention to any attachments or additional documents included in the email, such as a resume, cover letter, or a copy of photo identification.
How To Proofread Your Formal Letters.
Bad grammar dilutes the impact of your formal letter. Now isn’t the time to cover a full syllabus on the English language, such as comma usage, homonyms, tense, capitalisation rules, and umpteen other nuances.
But you don’t need to be an expert to polish your formal letter. Here are some pro tips for proofreading:
- Download and install the free version of Grammarly, or paste the contents of your formal letter here.
- Print out a physical copy of your formal letter and mark any errors with a pen – don’t ask me why, but the physical act of doing so always reveals unseen errors (it’s almost as though you’re looking at your writing under a UV spotlight).
- Listen to your writing using a text-to-speech tool. Speed up, slow down, change the voice, and change the accent. Our ears often pick up errors that our eyes don’t.
- Read your formal letter out loud. We are slower at verbalising speech than when we process our thoughts. Slowing down gives us the opportunity to hone in on the details.
- Ask two or three close friends or family members to proofread your letter. It’s natural to be anxious about letting others read your work, but sending a formal letter riddled with errors is a greater thing to fear.
Just make sure that you’re writing in Australian English, not US English.
For instance, “colour” is the Australian variant, “color” is the US variant. Grammarly will highlight conflicts, providing you set the native language to Australian English.
Frequently Asked Questions About Formal Letter Writing.
Finally, let me clarify a few potential sources of confusion to ensure your formal letter writing game is on point.
Does a formal letter need a signature?
Most formal letters can dispense with a signature. Typing your name will more than suffice. If you choose to input your signature, it doesn’t need to be swirly or elegant like a sportperson’s or an actor’s autograph.
That said, if you’ve been using the same signature since you were 12 – a squiggly scribble of your name – omitting it might be a smart move (if it’s not legally required).
Letters that should be signed are those that contain contractual obligations or something that could be used as evidence in matters of conflict resolution.
Cover letters don’t need to be signed, but a letter instructing a solicitor should be.
If you need to generate an online e-signature, you can do so using a free tool like SIGN.PLUS.
What is the difference between a formal letter and an informal letter?
The tone and the purpose are the two main differences between a formal and informal letter. An informal letter is friendly and makes use of colloquial language, and a formal letter is professional and does not include filler or fluff.
A formal letter usually has a specific objective – the sender wants the recipient to hire them, vacate their property, or take some other action.
Informal letters are generally written to friends and relatives for casual communication – which is virtually redundant because the world is connected through instant messaging apps.
Final Word On Formal Letter Writing.
Since you’ve read this far, I’m willing to wager that a lot is hinging on this letter, and it’s good that you’re carrying out extra research to write a formal letter that hits the mark.
Not everyone goes to such extreme lengths when writing formal and business letters, and I salute you. But don’t let complacency sink in. Regardless of how good you think you’re written English is, please promise me that you’ll have someone cast a second pair of eyes over it.
He was the first editor of the first instalment of Harry Potter. You could argue, had it not been for his input, that the book may not have reached worldwide acclaim.
Don’t take any feedback personally – you need an honest evaluation more than an ego stroke.