reasons to write a professional letter and how to do it

Who the heck writes letters anymore?

In the modern era, email and texts rule the day, with Twitter and other social media coming up hot on their heels. Letters are simply passé.

Or are they?

Believe it or not, old-fashioned letter-writing skills aren’t dead. In fact, in some areas, they’re more important than ever before, because being able to write a formal professional letter sets you apart from the crowd who wouldn’t know a salutation if it bit them.

That’s because many industries still use formal written communications—either in print or electronic—to convey important information. Business writing still revolves around the formal letter, with its clear opening, subject matter, and closure, regardless of whether a memo is sent as an email, a snail-mail letter, or attached as part of a document package.

So if you want to be a professional writer, it’s important to be able to write a professional letter. Just having a clear, thoughtful query letter to a publisher or agent can make a big difference—and a professional-looking cover letter included with your ARC package to a reviewer can keep you from getting tossed aside into the junk pile. Plus, if you want to make money as a writer, your career options expand exponentially if you’re able to craft concise, targeted business memos and publications.

Here’s even more good reasons to write an old-fashioned letter:

13 Reasons to Write a Formal Letter

There’s a remarkable number of situations where a formal letter makes sense, whether you’re sending it through the postal service or by email.

1. Query letter

Frequently used by professional authors, the query letter briefly outlines the point of a book and is used to gauge an editor, agent, or publisher’s interest in the manuscript.

2. Cover sheet for a book review

When sending an upcoming book to be reviewed, it’s best to include a cover sheet as well as a “sell sheet” that details the specifics of the book so review staff can see at a glance what the book is about, when it will be on sale, etc.

3. Professional referral

Whether you’re referring someone to an editor you’ve worked with or suggesting the services of a lawyer, accountant, or other professional, formal introductions are often best done with a letter.

4. Introduction letter

Similar to a professional referral, an introduction letter makes a first impression—and you want to make a good one! Maybe you’re introducing yourself to a person you’d like to work with, or maybe you’re introducing two people you think would make great partners in some venture. The introduction letter quickly states the reason and outlines a person’s relevant background.

5. Thank you letter

Your mom was right—a good thank you letter makes you look like a champ! You can often send a brief note on a nice card, but for really important things, a formal thank you letter can make a huge impression. If someone has helped boost your career or made a difference in your life, thank them!

6. Recommendation letter

Maybe your intern is looking for a job; maybe you’re helping a colleague get into grad school. Regardless of the reason you’re writing it, a professional-looking recommendation letter makes a difference. Be sure to keep the comments you make professional and relevant—just because Susy is an amazing cricket player doesn’t mean you need to mention it when she’s applying for a job as a CPA.

7. Letter of resignation

Are you finally making a full-time author income? Maybe it’s time to quit your day job! Don’t burn any bridges, even if your boss was a jerk and you wanted to reenact Office Space every day you were there. Instead, write a polite letter of resignation outlining your schedule for leaving and what you’ll do to wrap up your work in that time. Don’t feel obligated to explain why you’re resigning if you don’t want to.

8. Business memo

Business memos take a huge variety of forms, depending on your industry and the purpose behind the document, but they can often be formatted as letters. Whether you need those TPS reports or you’re requesting meeting space for a board event on Friday, a formal letter can get the job done.

9. Appreciation letter

Take a minute to send some love to someone who has made a difference in your life. Let them know that their podcast inspired you, their book moved you, or their kindness in buying you a coffee on a terrible Monday turned your day around. If someone made you smile, let them know how much you appreciated it with a letter! It’s so unusual these days that they’ll remember you for a long time.

10. Congratulations letter

There’s a lot of negativity around these days. Take a stand against it by reaching out to congratulate someone on their latest success, like a book launch or a new job.

11. Cover letter

Cover letters are most often paired with resumes for job applications. Knowing how to write a clear, professional cover letter can get you to the top of the pile.

12. Complaint letter

Did the airline lose your luggage? Cable company doubled your bill and added the Pro Fishing Channel without your permission? Writing a clear, calm, polite complaint letter can help you document the problem and get results.

13. Information inquiry

Inquiry letters can be anything from asking about a company’s policies and rates to a Freedom of Information Act request by a journalist and every level in between. Keeping it professional increases your chances of getting the response you’re looking for.

building blocks of a professional letter

Now let’s break down a professional letter into its parts.

Building Blocks of a Professional Letter

The format of a professional letter is basically the same whether you’re sending it in print or as the cover letter in an email (such as when you’re emailing your resume or a query letter).

Most formal letters are written in block style, using blank lines between paragraphs and lining everything up along the left margin.

Address Block

Your formal letter opens with your own address, but not your name, at the very top of the page. Skip a line, then type the date. Skip another line, then enter the name, title, company, and address of the person to whom you’re writing.

So that looks like:

12 Main Street
Anywhere, CO 80011

June 5, 2017

Ms. Andrea Fermi
CEO
Top Books
55 Fifth Avenue
Suite 947
New York, NY 10020

Salutation

The salutation is the greeting to the person you’re writing to. Whenever possible, you should research an actual person and name to address your letter to—whether you’re applying for a job or writing to a book reviewer, it shows you’ve done your research and put some effort into the process.

If you can’t find a name, then it’s appropriate to use “Dear Sir or Madam” as your salutation.

A typical salutation would look like one of these, depending on the person’s title:

Dear Mr. Higgins,

Dear Ms. Fermi,

Dear Dr. McCoy,

Body

This is where it gets good—the body is the content of your letter. You’ll want to keep it as short and simple as you can; a professional letter should usually be only a page long, unless there’s a really good reason for it to run longer (such as if you’re writing a legal notice that has a lot of involved points).

Use short paragraphs and break up the paragraphs with a blank line in between them. Don’t indent the first line.

The body should open with a brief introduction, then carry on into the point of the letter—why are you writing it? Make your main point in the second paragraph, then justify that point in the third paragraph. In the next few paragraphs, add any supporting information or evidence for your point. Your last paragraph should sum up your points in a few brief sentences. In most letter, this is also where you request some type of action, like asking an editor to review your manuscript sample or asking a company to call you to follow up.

Closing

To sign off your letter, choose a simple closing like “Sincerely,” “Thank you,” or “Best regards.” Capitalize the first word only, then add a comma.

If you’re printing and mailing your letter, leave 4-5 blank lines, then type your name. Sign your name in the empty space after printing.

If you’re sending by email, there’s no need to include the blank lines. Just type your name on the line after the closing.

Enclosures/Attachments

Are you sending anything else along with your letter? Note that after your signature by typing “Enclosed” or “Attached” (or “Encl.” or “Att.” if you want to abbreviate) on a line after your signature and briefly describing the type of document you’ve added. This might be a resume, a manuscript sample, or other additional document.

Sample

Here’s how all those pieces come together in a formal block-style letter:

12 Main Street
Anywhere, CO 80011

June 5, 2017

Ms. Andrea Fermi
CEO
Top Books
55 Fifth Avenue
Suite 947
New York, NY 10020

Dear Ms. Fermi,

I was delighted to see that you recently began accepting independently published books for review at Top Books. My upcoming book, How To Dig Holes, is sure to captivate you and your audience and I’m pleased to send the manuscript for your review.

How To Dig Holes is the first comprehensive look at the history, construction, and use of holes. I’m an expert on the subject, having dug more than 5 million holes so far in my career, and I’m widely considered the top expert on holes in the world. I have a very active following on Twitter and Instagram, where I post pictures of my new excavations daily and give tips on how to include more holes in your own life.

The book will be released on November 1 in ebook and print forms, with a full marketing campaign that involves digging holes in 21 cities across North America.

Please let me know if you have any questions or if I can be of any assistance.

Thank you for your consideration,

A. Dogg

Encl. Advance reading copy (2)

 

When’s the last time you wrote a formal letter? What was the result?

Read on for more about how to present yourself professionally as a writer:

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