Marion Field was Head of English in a large Comprehensive School, and an examiner for GCSE English. She is also the author of a range of other books on English language and usage. She is based in Working, Surrey.
In spite of telephones, faxes, e-mails and the Internet, it is unlikely that letters will ever become redundant. A personal letter shows that you are thinking of someone; a business letter is a permanent record that can be produced, if necessary, as evidence at a later date. Unless it is recorded, there is no record of what was said on the telephone and a business letter can be more detailed than fax messages or even e-mail. Longer letters can be transmitted by a facsimile machine (fax) but the quality of the reproduction is not as good as the original. Of course, you can print out e-mail letters and keep them.
Open punctuation is usually used now for letters. This means that, apart from the main body of the letter, punctuation is kept to a minimum. There are no commas after lines of the address and no full stops after abbreviations. Your address should be placed at the top right-hand corner of the page. Each line of the address should be aligned. Don’t slope them. The date is set underneath it with a line space above it. Use only the figure of the date:
24 May 200X
24th May 200X
Leave a line under the date and on the left-hand side of the page against an imaginary margin start your letter:
There is no need for a comma after ‘Mary’. If the letter is handwritten, indent your paragraphs starting with the first one under ‘Dear Mary’ which is not indented.
Your ending is up to you. The semi-formal ending is ‘Yours sincerely’ which is usually centred underneath the completed letter. You can also use ‘With kind regards’, ‘With best wishes’ or even ‘With love’. Sign your name directly underneath the ending. See Figure 15 for an example of a handwritten personal letter.
The typed letter
If your letter is typed, do not indent. Use single spacing and leave a double space under each paragraph to separate it from the next one. This is called blocking. Do not justify (align) the right-hand margin.
The ending, ‘Yours sincerely’ or whatever you choose, is placed against the left ‘margin’ and you will, of course, sign your name underneath it. You may type your name underneath your signature if your letter has been typed. Do not print your name underneath a handwritten letter.
The same rules apply as in a personal letter but this one will, if possible, be typed and there are other rules to observe (see Figure 16). Opposite your own address, put the reference number of the company to whom you are writing – if you have one. There should be one if you have already been corresponding with the firm.
Leave a line underneath the date and against the left-hand ‘margin’ write the name of the person to whom you are writing and underneath that, put his or her position. Then write the address in the usual way.
If you know the name, use it. If not, start with ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’. It is better not to use ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ as it suggests you have not done your homework. Your letter stands a better chance of reaching the right person if it is addressed personally. Make a phone call to the company to ask the name of the Director, Sales Manager or whoever it is you wish to contact.
The ending for a formal letter is either ‘Yours sincerely’ or ‘Yours faithfully’. ‘Yours truly’, which is the same as ‘Yours faithfully’, is rarely used today.
‘Yours sincerely’ is always used if you have written to someone by name. If you have started with ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’, you must end with ‘Yours faithfully’. Underneath ‘Yours sincerely’ or ‘Yours faithfully’ leave five line spaces and type in your name. If you are female, you can put your title after this in brackets:
June Brown (Mrs)
Susan Coombs (Miss)
Above your typed name sign your usual signature.
If you have enclosed something with your letter, put ‘enc.’ at the bottom left-hand corner of your letter and follow this with the name of the document you have enclosed. If you are asking for information, do remember to enclose a stamped addressed envelope (SAE). You stand a much better chance of receiving a reply if you do so.
As when writing an essay or short story, it is necessary to plan your formal letter so that the end product is the best you can produce. Think carefully about what you want to say and for whom it is intended. Note down the points you wish to make, put them in order and write your first draft avoiding any unnecessary words or ‘flowery’ language.
The first draft
- Don’t use technical facts and figures unless you are sure your reader will understand them.
- Keep your paragraphs short.
- Don’t use slang or jargon.
- Don’t ‘embroider’ your facts. Keep them simple.
- Make sure you have a beginning, a middle and an end.
The continuation sheet
If your letter is longer than a page, use a plain sheet of paper of the same size and colour as the first. It should be plain and not headed notepaper. Under no circumstances write or type on the back of the first sheet.
Leave three spaces at the top of the new page. Then against the left-hand ‘margin’ type in ‘2’. Leaving a line space, write the date and after another line space put the name of the addressee. Leave three line spaces before continuing the letter.
Set out the address on the envelope about half way down and about a third of the way across. It should be written exactly as it appears on your letter. The name of the town should always be written in capital letters. Don’t forget to include the post code. (See Figure 17.)
DIFFERENT TYPES OF LETTERS
There are a number of different types of letters you may need to write and it is important that you find the right tone for each of them. You won’t use the same tone when writing a letter of sympathy as you will when you are complaining about a faulty product or poor service. Always keep the following in mind:
- Who is to read your letter?
- Why are you writing it?
- What result do you expect from it?
The letter of sympathy
This could be a personal letter to someone you know well or it could be that someone you know only slightly has been bereaved. (See Figure 18.)
- Be sympathetic but not sentimental.
- Don’t patronise.
- Don’t overdo flattery of the deceased.
Requests for information
Whether you are asking for information about a place, a person or transport times, keep to the point. Don’t include unnecessary details. List your requirements and do remember to enclose an SAE. (See Figure 19.)
Letters to newspapers and magazines
These should be addressed to the editor. Unless it is a very small publication or a local one, you can find out the name of the editor by looking in the latest edition of The Writers’ & Artists’ Year Book in your local library. If you wish to write to your local paper, phone to find out the name of the editor.
Don’t make your letter too long as editors have little space and a short letter is more likely to be published. (See Figure 20.)
Letters of complaint
These are the most difficult letters to write. You must make sure you get your facts right. It is a good idea not to write the letter when you are angry. You may say things you will regret later. You should draft and redraft your letter until you are sure it conveys the facts and your feelings without being impolite or overbearing. (See Figure 21.)
Application for a job
This will be covered in Chapter 12.
- Use open punctuation for letters.
- If typing, block your letter.
- Use ‘Yours sincerely’ if the name is used.
- Use ‘Yours faithfully’ if starting with ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’.
- Plan your letter carefully and then draft it.
- Don’t include unnecessary detail.
- Don’t use slang or jargon.
- Don’t patronise your reader.
- Keep to the point.
- Don’t write a letter of complaint when angry.
- Don’t forget to enclose an SAE if writing for information.
- 1.Write a letter to a hotel asking for details of their facilities.
- 2.Write a letter of sympathy to a widow you know only slightly.
- 3.Write a letter of complaint to a shoe firm complaining about the poor quality of some expensive shoes you have just bought.
- 4.Write a letter to a woman’s magazine telling a short anecdote about a small child.