How to Write Good Letters and Emails: a Guide for Those Who are New to the English Language
But one aspect of English you possibly haven’t thought about yet is how to communicate appropriately in formal written situations, such as letters. This is a skill you’ll almost certainly need if you’re in the process of applying to UK schools or universities, so we thought we’d give you a handy guide on how to write formal letters and emails in English.
Even if you’re a native speaker, this is still an essential skill to acquire if you haven’t already, both for university applications and in life beyond your student years, when you’ll almost certainly need to write covering letters for job applications, letters to the bank, emails to customer service departments of companies, and so on. So, if you’re not quite sure how to go about writing a formal letter or email, take heed of the advice in this article and you’ll soon be writing professional-sounding communications.
The right way to write a letter
When it comes to writing a formal letter, there are very clear right and wrong ways of going about it. To show you the right way of doing it, let’s make up a situation and pretend that you’re writing a letter to a university you’ve applied to, enquiring about the possibility of deferring your course for a year.
We’ve written out the letter in full below, so that you can refer to it as you read through the following points.
– Your address: the first thing to write is your own address. This goes at the top right-hand side of the letter.
– Date: Beneath your address, you write the date of the letter. Note how we’ve formatted the date here, and left a space between the bottom of the address and the date.
– Their address: Next, you write the recipient’s address. This is left-aligned and placed below the text of your own address and the date.
– Salutation: we’ve written about these in more detail beneath our example letter, but for the purposes of this example we are addressing the recipient using “Mr” and his surname.
– Subject line: a bit like an email, a formal letter has a one-line summary after the salutation, which summarises what the letter is about.
– Body text: the main content of the letter. Use spaces to indicate a new paragraph and keep sentences clear and to the point. Make sure it’s clear exactly what you want the person to do as an outcome of your letter. In this example, we’ve put the direct question on its own separate line to make sure it stands out.
– Sign-off: again, we’ll give you more guidance on how to sign off your letter later in this article. In this example we’ve used “Yours sincerely”, for reasons that will become clear later.
– Signature: we’ve left a gap here, where you would handwrite your signature once you’ve printed off your letter ready to send.
– Print name: beneath your signature is your name printed in full.
Salutations in more detail
Always begin a formal letter with “Dear”, rather than “hi” or any other more informal greeting. First names are best avoided if you want to be very formal, but may be acceptable in some situations, such as when you’re writing to someone you’ve met in person and who has encouraged you to address them by their first name. In terms of more formal greetings, you have the following options:
– Sir/Madam – you start your letter with “Dear Sir or Madam” when you don’t know to whom your letter should be addressed; for example, if you’re writing to the general university admissions department and don’t know exactly who would be responsible for the handling of your enquiry.
– Mr/Mrs/Dr etc – when you know the name of the person to whom you are writing, address them using their surname and title. For men, this should be Mr Smith (unless you know that he has another title, e.g. Dr Smith or Captain Smith) and for women, this should be Ms Smith unless you know for sure that she has another title or prefers to use Mrs or Miss.
Signing off a letter
There are several ways of signing off a formal letter. These are:
– Yours faithfully, – this is used when you’ve started your letter with “Dear Sir or Madam”.
– Yours sincerely, – this is used when you’ve addressed a named individual in your letter.
– Yours truly, – this can be used when you’re writing to someone you know slightly. This is more common in America.
These should all have a comma at the end, as in the examples above.
Email is generally considered less formal than a letter, but that’s not to say that you can descend into over-familiarity or slang when you’re writing to someone important, such as a university admissions tutor (who will not be impressed if you’re not able to communicate professionally). You must remain respectful and professional at all times, even in this more informal medium.
You don’t need to lay out your email in the style of the letter in the example above, but there are a few special considerations and things that are done differently in emails as opposed to letters.
The email address you use
For the purposes of emailing important people – such as university tutors or potential employers – it’s best to have a professional-looking email address. Low-quality free email providers such as Hotmail and Yahoo are best avoided (Gmail is still considered acceptable), and although we probably all have childish email addresses with silly handles like “shopgirl1990” that we set up years ago, they won’t give a very good impression to the person you’re emailing. As a general rule, [email protected] is a good format for your email address.
The email equivalent of putting your address and your recipient’s address is the To/From field of your email. This may not seem important, but there are a few things to bear in mind:
– Ensure that the “From” field is properly configured. It should simply be your first and last names, appropriately capitalised and spelt correctly, with no extra bits like hearts or exclamation marks.
– Put your recipient’s email address in the “To” field if you’re emailing one person.
– If there’s someone else you think should see the email for their information, but you’re not directly addressing it to them, put their email in the “CC” field. This stands for “Carbon Copy”, and it means that they will see the email but will also see that it’s not directly addressed to them. Don’t use it unless there is a real need for this person to see the communication.
– If you’re emailing several people, it’s bad form to include all their email addresses in the “To” field. In this instance, you should put your own email address in the “To” field and put those of your recipients into the “BCC” field. This stands for “Blind Carbon Copy”, and it means they’ll all see the email but won’t see who else you’ve sent it to.
Write something descriptive in the subject line that summarises what the email is about. Don’t make it too long. If you were emailing about the query covered in our example letter earlier, for instance, the subject line could simply be “Deferring course entry”. A descriptive subject line makes it easier for people to find an email among a mass of others, and will also ensure that they do bother to read it. Don’t forget, people receive dozens of emails every day, so yours could easily get lost in their inbox if you put a generic subject line such as “Enquiry”.
Another word of caution: avoid words like “Urgent” unless it’s a genuine emergency (for instance, you could miss a deadline if they don’t respond quickly). Marking something as urgent when it isn’t will only annoy the recipient, who has many other demands on their time. For the same reason, avoid marking the email as “important” if your email provider has a dedicated button for this.
Email greetings are generally more relaxed than letters, though if you want to be formal then it’s still fine to start your email with “Dear Mr Smith” if you’re emailing a named individual or “Dear Sir or Madam” if you’re emailing a generic email address such as [email protected] If you’ve met the person before, or they’ve emailed you before, first names are acceptable if this is how they have signed their emails to you previously. In such a situation, it’s also acceptable to use a slightly less formal greeting, such as “Hello” or even “Hi”.
However, go by how they address you; if their emails to you start “Dear”, you reply with “Dear”; if they start “Hi”, you can reply with “Hi”. An alternative email greeting that lies somewhere between formal and informal is “Good morning” or “Good afternoon”. This is perhaps a little friendlier and more personal than “Dear”, so if your style is not naturally very formal then this is an acceptable form of email greeting.
Signing off an email
Again, with email being more informal than a letter, a very formal sign-off such as “Yours sincerely” can sound a little odd in an email. If you have started your email in the formal style of a letter then it makes sense to finish it in this way, but if you’ve adopted one of the less formal salutations outlined just now, you have a few different options for how you could sign off. These common conventions include:
– Best wishes,
– Kind regards,
– Best regards,
– All the best,
– Thanks in advance,
– Many thanks,
The latter three can be used when you’ve asked for something or asked a question. With all of these, make sure you have a comma at the end of the line, as in the examples above.
If you have a standard email signature that’s included automatically in all your emails, make sure that its contents are completely appropriate for the person to whom you are sending the email. Jokes, funny images and such like are not appropriate for a formal email.
Other tips for writing formally
There are a few more general pointers for writing formally to ensure that you maintain that professional image with which to impress your recipient.
– Never use slang – avoid slang and colloquialisms when you’re writing formally. It goes without saying that you should never swear, either.
– Don’t waffle – explain what you’re trying to say as clearly and concisely as possible if you expect them to read it in full. Keep your communication short and to the point.
– Always proofread – good spelling and grammar are absolutely essential, so check your communication thoroughly before it gets sent off (the spell check will do for an initial check, but you’ll still need to read through it to correct anything that it might not have picked up on). Any errors will completely shatter your professional image! – In emails, avoid unnecessary attachments, emoticons and so on.
You will undoubtedly have occasion to write a formal letter at some point, and sending emails has become a daily occurrence for most of us. Taking on board the tips in this article will ensure that you convey a professional demeanour in your written communications, and this will stand you in good stead in any number of situations in which you find yourself in the future.