While memos are internal communications within an organization, letters are external messages sent to recipients outside of the organization. They are usually printed on letterhead paper that represents the business or organization, and are generally limited to one or two pages. While email, text messages, and other forms of electronic communication have replaced letter use to a great extent, the business letter still remains a common and useful form of written communication.

Occasions for Letters

There are many types of letters. Letters may serve to introduce your skills and qualifications to prospective employers (cover letter), deliver or request important or specific information, announce a product or service, provide documentation of an event or decision, formalize a complaint or offer a thank you, or introduce an attached report or long document (letter of transmittal). Letters within a professional context may take on many other purposes, such as communicating with suppliers, contractors, partner organizations, clients, government agencies, and so on. Letters may also be used to acknowledge the receipt of a job offer and accept or decline it, and acknowledge receipt of information or a delivery. The most common kinds of letters include the following:

Letters of Transmittal

When you send a report or some other lengthier document to your supervisor or an audience of other professionals, send it with a cover letter that briefly explains the purpose of the report and your major findings. Although your supervisor may have authorized the project and received periodic updates from you, s/he probably has many other employees and projects going and would benefit from a reminder about your work.

Letters of Inquiry

You may want to request information about a company or organization such as whether they anticipate job openings in the near future or whether they fund grant proposals from non-profit groups. In this case, you would send a letter of inquiry, asking for additional information. As with most business letters, keep your request brief, introducing yourself in the opening paragraph and then clearly stating your purpose and/or request in the second paragraph. If you need very specific information, consider placing your requests in list form for clarity. Conclude in a friendly way that shows appreciation for the help you will receive.

Job Application Letters

Whether responding to job announcements online or on paper, you are likely to write a job application letter introducing yourself and your skills to a potential employer. This letter often sets a first impression of you, so demonstrate professionalism in your format, language use, and proofreading of your work. Depending on the type of job you are seeking, application letters will vary in length and content. In business, letters are typically no more than one page and simply highlight skills and qualifications that are emphasized in the job announcement and that appear in an accompanying resume. In education, letters are typically more fully developed and contain a more detailed discussion of the applicant’s experience and how that experience can benefit the institution. These letters provide information that is not necessarily evident in an enclosed resume or curriculum vitae.

Follow-up Letters

Any time you have made a request of someone, write a follow-up letter expressing your appreciation for the time your letter-recipient has taken to respond to your needs or consider your job application. If you have had a job interview, the follow-up letter thanking the interviewer for his/her time is especially important for demonstrating your professionalism and attention to detail.

Letter Format

A typical business letter has the following main parts, which you can see illustrated in this sample letter.

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LANDOVER, MA 55555-5555
(555) 555-5555

May 13, 20XX

Mr. Salvador Fuller
Shady Pine Construction Company
555 Shady Pine Lane
Richfield, Virginia 55555-5555

Dear Mr. Fuller:

Thank you for your recent order, dated May 9, 20XX3, for 100 boxes of business cards. Although you attached company information to be printed on the cards, we need additional information for each employee in order fill your order.

Please send us the following information for each employee:

  • full name
  • position with the company
  • business telephone number
  • e-mail address

We would appreciate your sending this information by May 21, 20XX. We will print your business cards as soon as we receive this information. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact me. Thank you.


Elisa Fox

Elisa D. Fox
Director of Purchasing


Return Address

The return address may be taken care of with your organization’s letterhead, if the letterhead includes your address. If there is no letterhead, then include your name and full address, in block format, single spaced. Make sure to spell out all words except directions that are part of an address (such as NE – northeast) and states, which should be abbreviated.

James Carolius, Manager
XYZ Corporation
224 Pine Avenue, NE
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866


Write the date, spelling out the month: September 12, 20XX

Recipient’s Address

Include the recipient’s address, in block format, single spaced, with words spelled out just as in your return address.  If the recipient has a title that you know of, include that after the name.

Karen Weinman, Director
1585 Orangeblossom Drive, Suite 4
Orlando, FL 32809


Include Dear and the recipient’s name, with a colon after the name.  Use a title if appropriate (e.g., Mr., Ms. Dr.).  If you don’t know the recipient’s title, use the recipient’s full name.  If you don’t know the name at all – if the recipient is a group, of if you only know the recipient’s role and not the name – you may use an “attention” line instead of “dear,” and name the recipient. Note that with an attention line, the placement of the colon changes.

Dear Jeannne Cullen:
Dear Dr. Franco:
Attention: Review Committee
Attention: Marketing Director


The body of a business letter generally has the same three parts as an email or memo:

  1. introduction, with the main idea to establish the purpose of the letter
  2. explanation, with one or more paragraphs that detail that purpose
  3. closing, which restates the main point and may include a call to action or an expression of appreciation


Use a polite, standard closing with a comma after the closing. Sincerely and Yours Truly are appropriate for all letters.  For a slightly more personal closing, you may use Regards, Cordially, or any other closing appropriate to your role, audience, purpose, and context.

Signature & Signature Block

Sign the letter and type your name under your signature.  Add a signature block if you need to include additional information such as your title and/or direct contact information that’s not included in the letterhead.

James Truro, M.S.
875-479-0022 (direct)

Additional Information

There are many websites that offer information about business letter format.  Two useful sites are from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab:

Letter Content

Letter content depends on your purpose, audience, and context.  In general, most letters use the direct approach noted in the Body section above.  If your purpose is to persuade or send negative information, then an indirect approach may be more appropriate, with a lead-in to the main idea.

In all professional letters, content needs to be clear, focused, and concise. The tone of the letter should be formal and professional. Grammar should be correct, and sentence style should be direct, concise, and clear. It’s preferable to use personal singular pronouns such as “I” and “you,” instead of “we,” which may be interpreted as “you” or “the company.”  Most importantly, always remember that letters represent you and your group or organization, so be as clear, correct, and accurate as possible in your content.


The following video summarizes letter parts, format, and content, including tips on how to develop content.