Formal and Informal Letters

by By Alice Feathers, M.A. TESOL, Professional Editor and Writer

Good letter writing is a lost art in our society today. With the onslaught of electronic mail, voice mail, and faxes, good letter writing has gone the way of the dinosaurs. And yet, a well-written, personalized business letter can do wonders for your business relationships.

Business correspondence does not have to be dry and tedious. In fact, the most effective business letters often touch on very personal matters, not just on money or the bottom line. In this day of information overload it is still important to be short and to the point in most of your correspondence. However, this does not preclude the fact that a personal reference and warm tone can open doors that otherwise would have remained closed.

Along these same lines, it is important to note that a well-prepared letter can exert tremendous influence over its reader. Good writers are like good speakers. They are able to build strong relationships using words. Therefore, it is in your best interest to spend time developing your business writing skills.

There are basically two types of business letters: formal business letters and informal business letters. Often times, there is a fine line between the two.

Formal business letters

Formal business letters do not have to be all business. They may include one or two personal sentences or touch on a personal subject. However, they would still fall under the umbrella of the formal business letter. According to Letitia Baldridge's New Complete Guide to Executive Manners, there are several rules of etiquette that you should follow whenever you write a formal business letter.

  • Use company letterhead when appropriate. Make sure that you only use company letterhead for business, not for personal matters.
  • Use the proper salutation to open your letter. If you have just met someone who is more or less your peer, then the proper salutation would be "Dear Jane". If you have just met an executive level person and do not feel comfortable using their first name, use both names to show that you do not want to be too stiff or formal (i.e., "Dear Jane Doe"). If you are a young executive who has just been introduced to a senior executive, do not use their first name in correspondence since it may come across as too aggressive and lacking in respect. Instead use the more formal introduction, "Dear Ms. Doe."
  • Use a complimentary closing. For any formal business correspondence, using either "Sincerely" or "Sincerely yours" to close your letter is an appropriate way to close your letter.
  • Always sign your letter. Many letters include a typed signature block followed by a handwritten signature. The primary reason for this is that many people's handwriting is illegible. However, it is a serious error in judgment to only include the typed signature. Make sure you include your written signature underneath the typed signature block.

Informal business letters

Informal letters are exchanged by business executives on a regular basis these days. They are most commonly used to please the recipient in some manner. Examples of informal letters include congratulatory letters, complimentary letters, requests for favors, thank you letters, and letters of encouragement.

Letitia Baldridge outlines the basic characteristics of an effective informal business letter in her book the Letitia Baldrige's New Complete Guide to Executive Manners. According to Baldridge, a good informal business letter:

  • Should be brief
  • Is thoughtful, honest, simple and prompt
  • Includes an informal and personal statement immediately following the opening salutation
  • Has a trace of humor as well as a trace of praise in it in regard to the recipient of the letter
  • Refrains from foul or offensive language
  • States the purpose of the letter in the first paragraph
  • Includes everything that you feel it is important for the recipient to know
  • Does not include any exaggerations
  • Is interesting in style
  • Is carefully edited

Overall, both formal and informal letters are professional letters of the heart meant to build bridges and grow relationships. By practicing your letter writing skills, you will find what is most effective for you. In the meantime, consider taking classes in business writing to improve your ability to communicate effectively with others. By doing so, you will not only enhance your business relationships, but you will also improve your bottom line.

(Online Women's Business Center, Dallas, TX)