How to Write a Letter
Our grandparents and great-grandparents wrote letters all the time: to their friends and families, to the bank manager, to express condolences, to complain, to invite someone to visit, to accept an invitation and to thank people for hospitality or gifts.
Nowadays, we don’t need to write letters very often and it’s become a dying art. Emails, Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging mean that we can stay in touch all the time. There are still, however, times when writing a letter is appropriate, and it’s good to know when, and how to write one.
This page explains different types of letters, from informal to formal, and how to write each one. On this page, we are talking about writing letters that will be sent by post - snail mail - not by email. Most of the letters described on this page should never be sent by email. The only exception is for a job application, where you should attach a formal letter to a covering email.
The General Structure of a Letter
A formal letter has a standard structure, which is:
Your full address
Date of the letter
|Name of the person to whom you are writing
Their full postal address
|Dear [Name of recipient],
The subject of the letter
The text of the letter
[Sign in this space]
[Your full name] ([your title: Mr, Mrs, Ms])
If you are writing an informal letter, you may omit the recipient’s name and address, and you may also sign it off more informally: ‘With love’, or ‘With best wishes’, rather than ‘Yours sincerely’, and sign with just your first name, omitting your surname and title.
Forms for signing off a letter vary depending on how you addressed it. The rule is that if you addressed it ‘Dear Sir’, then you sign off ‘Yours faithfully’, and if you addressed the person by name, then you sign off ‘Yours sincerely’.
What if you don’t know the name of the person to whom you are writing?
This might arise, for example, if you want to send a letter or a complaint to a company, and you have been told to “just send it to the Customer Service Department”.
Your options are:
Start the letter with ‘To Whom it may Concern’. This does not feel very personal, but it fits with what you’ve been told to do.
Address the letter to ‘Head of Customer Service’ at the company address, then use ‘Dear Sir’. ‘Dear Sir’ is technically the correct form when you do not know the name of the person, but many people prefer ‘Dear Sir or Madam’.
Google the name of the person who heads that department, and use their name. If you are writing to a big company, this information should be publicly available, and there is no excuse for not finding and using it. If the company conceals the name of the person responsible for customer service, then it seems entirely reasonable to send your complaint direct to the CEO.
Why does this matter? Because letters that are personally addressed are likely to get through quicker, and also get more personal attention.
The only exception is if you are writing to the editor of a newspaper, in which case you always write ‘Dear Sir’. The form to use on the envelope is ‘The Editor’, then the name and address of the newspaper.
A word of warning about unusual titles
The titles ‘Sir’ and ‘Dame’ go with the first name. You therefore address letters to knights and dames ‘Dear Sir John/Dame Nellie’ and not ‘Dear Sir Smith/Dame Melba’.
Peers, however, are addressed by title and surname: ‘Dear Lord Jenkins’.
If in doubt, check the website, or phone the office of the person to whom you are writing, and ask how they should be addressed.
As a general rule, you should type and print business letters, and hand-write personal ones. If you hand-write, use blue or black ink.
If you believe you can send an email instead of a letter, then don’t use the full formal structure. Just start your email ‘Dear Mr [Name]’, followed by the text you wish to send, then ‘Yours sincerely, [your full name]’.
Particular Types of Letter: Special Cases
Wedding invitations, or invitations to very formal events such as a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace or the White House, are written in the third person:
Mr and Mrs John Smith
request the pleasure of the company of
Ms Delilah Green + guest
at the wedding of their daughter Maria to Mr George Jones
on Saturday 25th July at 12 noon at Jacoby House, Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
RSVP stands for ‘Respondez, s’il vous plait’, which is French for ‘Please reply’. It is outrageously rude not to do so, even if you are not able to attend. The correct way to reply is with a handwritten letter, in the same third person form:
Ms Delilah Green thanks Mr and Mrs John Smith for their kind invitation to the wedding of their daughter Maria to Mr George Jones on Saturday 25th July at 12 noon, at Jacoby House, Tunbridge Wells, Kent. She will be delighted to attend. Ms Green will be accompanied by Mr James White.
Copy the form of the invitation, so that your hosts know that you have correctly understood where you are to be and when. If your invitation says ‘+ guest’, it is helpful to your hosts if you end your reply by telling them the name of your guest, so that they can include it on the table plan if they wish.
If you can’t attend, you should say something like:
‘She regrets that she will be unable to attend as she has a prior engagement’.
Thanking Someone for their Hospitality or for a Gift
It doesn’t really matter whether you and your friends ‘go in’ for formal thank you's. Nobody has ever been known to be offended by a letter thanking them for hosting you for the weekend, or at a wedding, or for a gift.
Plenty of people are offended by the lack of a formal thank you and it may affect your chances of receiving further invitations. Just send one, even if it’s only a card. And don’t email or text either it’s not the same and your host may be offended.
Never type a personal thank you letter. It has to be hand-written, however appalling your hand-writing. Conventionally, thanks for hospitality were always addressed to the hostess. However, nowadays the host is likely to have taken as great a part in the organisation, so many people prefer to write to both.
The form of the letter is:
Thank you so much for having us to stay last weekend/inviting us to Jemima’s wedding/your generous gift.
Include a personal sentence or two explaining how much the occasion or gift meant to you. For an occasion such as a wedding or party, you can also express a hope that your hosts also enjoyed themselves, and that they have recovered from the stress of organising it.
|[Yours sincerely/With love]
If you do not know the people well, and have written to ‘Mr and Mrs [name]’, as may well be the case for a friend’s wedding, you should end ‘Yours sincerely, [your full name]’, or, if you wish be less formal, with something like ‘With renewed thanks and best wishes, [your name]’.
However, if you are writing to a close friend, you can sign off as you wish: ‘With much love’, or ‘Love to all of you’, for example, followed by just your first name.
You do not need to reply to a letter expressing thanks.
Thanking Someone at Work
You may, on occasion, need to thank people for something at work.
For example, if you have organised a conference or seminar, you should always write to thank the speakers for giving up their time. If you have spent some time shadowing someone, it would be a nice gesture to write to thank them for their time rather than just sending an email.
On such occasions, a typed letter is perfectly acceptable, although you should always sign it by hand. If you are fairly junior in the organisation, it is conventional to get the letter signed by the senior person responsible for the conference: the director, or CEO if necessary.
Why do you send a postal letter? It shows that you’re prepared to spend time and money thanking someone, so it’s much more of a gesture than an email.
The way in which you address the person depends on whether you have addressed them formally or informally when you have previously got in touch, and when you met them on the day. If you have addressed them by first name, you should do the same.
The form of such letters is:
Full business address of your organisation
or use headed paper
|Date Full name of your contact
Full business address of your contact
Dear Mr Jones/Alan,
Thank you so much for giving up your time to speak at our event ‘Developing a great speaking style’ last Friday. The audience very much enjoyed your session and we hope that we’ll have the pleasure of seeing you again soon.
You may choose to insert a handwritten comment here, particularly if the session was especially good, or if you know the recipient personally, and also to handwrite ‘Yours sincerely’. The personal attention will be appreciated.
[Sign Your Name]
A covering letter for a job application is a special case which is covered on our page Writing a Covering Letter.
A Letter Writing Rule of Thumb
If you are in doubt about whether you need to write a letter to thank someone, or to reply for an invitation, then there are two things to ask:
- Do I need to send some kind of message? If the answer is yes, for example, to an invitation, then you need to decide between a letter or email.
- Will the (non-)recipient be offended if I don’t send a letter?
Remember that nobody was ever offended by a polite thank-you letter. Plenty of people have cut off all contact with former friends because of the lack of a thank-you letter following hospitality.
You may think that’s stupid, but so is not taking the time to send a short note!