As a writing rule, formal letters must include a return address (sender’s name and address or letterhead), date, an inside address (receiver’s name and address), a salutation, body paragraphs, and a closing. However, there are several ways to format and lay out this information. For example, return addresses can be centered or begin at the left margin or begin at the horizontal center of the page.
In this article, you’ll learn the various stipulated layouts for formal letters and how to use them.
Types of Formal Letter Layouts / Formats
There are six major business letter formats or layouts:
- Full Block Format
- Modified Block Format
- Open Format
- Standard Format
- Semi-block Format
- Modified Semi-block Format
In the nomenclature above, “Semi-” means that the first lines of paragraphs are indented; “Modified” means that the sender’s address, date, and closing are significantly indented.
While writing a formal letter, one must follow any of the set formats. Though there are slight differences in the way they are used in the UK and the US, there is no restriction in using one style over others. It is entirely up to you to decide which should be the best to bring the desired results for you. Let your sense of business judgment rule.
Full Block Format
Full block format is considered the most formal and popular of all the styles, and given the option, it is the one most people prefer to use. In fact, all letter examples on this website will be illustrated using the full block format (UK).
In full block format or style, every line is left justified. The date is placed two to six line spaces below the last line of the heading or letterhead (if a letterhead is used). Or two lines below the sender’s address. The inside address placement varies depending upon the length of the letter. A common spacing is two line spaces below the date line. The salutation is placed two lines below the attention line (if an attention line is provided). The first line of the body is placed two lines below an attention line or two to four lines below the inside address line. When using full block, paragraphs are single spaced, with a double space between paragraphs.
Full block style business letters have a formal look, however they can be used in any business situation. If you are looking for a single format that will work well in every situation, this is a good one to use.
The UK full block format is similar to the US full block format, with these key differences for UK letters:
- The return address and date are right-aligned
- A comma, not a colon, follows the recipients’ name
- The subject (if included) is centered
Modified Block Format
The modified block style business letter is the second most popular layout. It has a clean, traditional look, with your personal or company’s return address, the date, the closing, and the signature line being started at the center point of the page.
All other elements including inside address, greeting, body, and enclosures notation are left justified, and paragraphs are followed by either double or triple spacing.
Like the margins on a full block style business letter, the margins of the modified block style business letter layout are set to 1 to 1 ¼ inches.
Modified block style business letters are less formal than full block style letters. If you are corresponding with someone you already have a good working relationship with, the modified block style letter is a good one to use.
The open format business letter looks almost exactly like the block format business letter. There are two basic differences between the two layouts:
- There is no punctuation after the greeting or salutation
- There is no punctuation after the closing
The open format business letter has a clean, formal look just as the block format letter does. It is suitable for all business communications.
The standard formal letter has the same look as the full block style formal letter, meaning that all lines are flushed with the left margin. All margins should be set at 1 ½ inches.
The greeting or salutation in a standard format business letter is always followed by a colon.
An optional subject line follows the salutation or greeting. This is written in all caps, and should read “SUBJECT” or “RE:” (an abbreviation for ‘reference’). This should be followed by a brief description of the letter’s subject, an account number, or other applicable information. The subject line is often underlined.
A standard format business letter has some additional, optional elements added to the closing and signature area. The letter’s closing is followed by a comma.
If a third person, such as an assistant or secretary, typed the letter, a blank line should follow the sender’s information located below the signature. The typist’s initials should follow the sender’s initials on a line located just below the blank line, with the sender’s initials in uppercase and the typists in lowercase. For example: “KS:pj” or “MJ:ak”
On the next line, you should indicate whether a copy of the letter is being sent to anyone else with the notation “cc:” in lowercase letters. For example: “cc: John King”
On the line below that, you should indicate the presence of enclosures, if appropriate. Note that the abbreviation “Encl:” beginning with a capital ‘E’ is used with standard business letter format. For example: “Encl: copy of invoice”.
Standard format business letters are quite formal. Because they include an optional subject line, they are ideal for situations in which you need to create a formal response or communicate about an account number or case number.
In the semi-block format business letter, all text is aligned to the left margin. The Semi-block format is similar to the Modified block format, except that the first line of each paragraph is indented. As in other business letter templates, each paragraph is separated by double or triple spacing.
The semi-block format business letter is a little less formal than the block format letter and slightly more formal than the modified block format letter. It works well in almost all situations and is a good choice if you find yourself on the fence about which format to use.
Modified Semi-Block Format
In a modified semi-block format letter, all text is left aligned, paragraphs are indented, and the writer’s address, date, and closing are usually indented in same position.
The modified semi-block business letter is the least formal-looking of all business letters and is best used when you know the recipient very well.
Additional Letter Formatting Tips
Do not use extremely fanciful fonts for your letter. Stick with simple and professional fonts like Arial, Calibri, Verdana, Times New Roman etc. Font size of 10 – 12 points is recommended.
The alignment of margin should be uniform throughout your document. You can use “1- 1.5” margins, they are always safe. Using the proper margin prevents you from having a cramped up content.
Good spacing is really essential for readability. Ensure to add at least a single space between each section of your letter.
- File Name
Avoid saving your files with names such as sexybaby_cv.doc or miketheman_coverletter.pdf. Instead, use formats like firstname-lastname-cover-letter.doc (e.g. John–Smith–Cover–Letter.doc) to make it easily recognizable for the person viewing it.
- File Format
Save in compatible file formats (either Microsoft Word or PDF format).