Business Letter Format, Types, and Strategies

Grace Pinegar
Grace Pinegar  |  November 27, 2018

Business communication is not the same as regular communication.

You probably don’t text your CEO with a bunch of emojis, if you text them at all. You don’t write a resignation letter the same way you write an Instagram caption.

Communicating within the office is formal and professional, or so it should be. Even if you have a relaxed office environment, you should still deliver certain work communications according to standard best practices.

What am I talking about?

I’m not referring to the company-wide invitation to your annual barbecue or announcing to your team that you’re engaged. Those are casual, personal matters that can be communicated any way you see fit.

I’m referring to reference letters, thank you letters, cover letters, and any other type of communication that needs to be written in the formal format we learned about in middle school.

Below is a list of important business communications as well as definitions and resources to view and utilize helpful examples.

Find this guide helpful? Get more tips for various professional writing: 

Business letter format 

First, let's talk about how you should format a business letter. The specifics of each letter will look different, but if you need to send a generic business letter, you can follow the following format. 

Much like any letter, you should have a heading that consists of your address and the date. 

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Next, you should be sure to address the recipient of the letter. Standard format is the recipient's name followed by their title, company, and company address. 

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Then comes the body of the letter. You'll need to refer to the recipient by name. If you don't know their name, you can address the letter to "To whom it may concern." 

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Once you have finished writing your (very important) business letter, you'll sign off with a polite signature. 

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Let's piece it all together. 

business-letter-example

Business letter best practices

One way to make sure your message is received as intended is to abide by the following best practices no matter the letter's unique purpose. 

  • Proofread: Be sure to go over your letter two or three times checking for grammar and spelling mistakes. This will make sure you seem more astute in your communications. 
  • Peer edits: If you have a friend, colleague, or mentor you know would be willing to edit the document for you, don't be afraid to ask. Having a fresh mind look over the letter will catch mistakes your brain has glossed over. 
  • File format: Make sure your letter is in line with the requested file format. For example, send cover letters as PDFs, but send sales letters per your company's preference. 
  • Check name spelling: I know I already mentioned proofreading, but checking to see that you spelled names correctly should be a step all its own. This is especially true for cover letters and letters of intent. It's a sign of respect to get the name of an individual or organization right. 

Types of business letters

Business letters are split up according to their purpose. Not every piece of communication is aiming to send the same message. Some letters end your time at a company, others get you noticed by a new hiring manager.

In this way, no two types of letters will be written exactly the same. To maintain a professional rapport within the workplace, familiarize yourself with the following types of business letters and when you should use them.

Cover letter

What is a cover letter? A cover letter is a letter that you send to a company when you wish to be considered for a job opportunity. Cover letters are typically submitted alongside your job application and resume.

Cover letters offer hiring managers additional information about who you are. This is information they typically wouldn’t be able to glean from your other professional materials.

For more information on how to write cover letters, read everything you need to know about cover letters

When should you write a cover letter? You should write a cover letter any time you are trying to get hired for a job in the corporate world. Many job applications will say a cover letter is optional, however,I encourage you to write one anyway.

Thank you letter

What is a thank you letter? A thank you letter in the professional world is a little different from letters you’d write after a graduation or wedding celebration. Typically, professional thank you letters are written to hiring manager or interviewers from a candidate who has been interviewed and considered for a job.

Thank you letters are a way of signaling gratitude to your potential new organization, as well as showing managers you’re not afraid to take initiative. For more information, read How to Write a Thank You Letter After a Job Interview.

thank you letter format

 

When should you write a thank you letter? Technically you could write a professional thank you letter for a number of reasons, but in this scenario, we’re referring to letters written by interviewees. Candidates should write and send thank you letters or emails immediately following an in-person or video interview.

Letter of resignation

What is a letter of resignation? A letter of resignation formally informs your current employer that you will no longer be working there after a brief period of time. In more extreme or urgent cases, a letter of resignation informs your employer that you will be quitting, effective immediately.

In most scenarios, employees will turn in this letter with two or three weeks’ notice. This means you’ve informed your employer that you’re leaving, but will continue working for a predetermined amount of time to help out with the transition of either hiring a replacement or losing an employee altogether. 

resignation letter format

 

When should you write a letter of resignation? You should write a letter of resignation when you are ready to quit your job. The amount of notice you give will depend entirely on your situation. Do not, however, turn in a letter of resignation unless you are ready to quit within the next two or three weeks.

For more information as well as best practices, read How to Write a Resignation Letter (and stay respectful).

Reference letter

What is a reference letter? A reference letter is a letter written by a professional or personal connection that vouches for a candidate’s skills and experience in the hopes of helping them get a new job offer. Reference letters are often written by former managers or other executives, or by teachers, professors and mentors. Reference letters will sometimes, but not often, be written by friends or neighbors.

No matter who writes them, they should be positive recountings of a professional’s experience working with or overseeing the candidate in question. They should mention specific anecdotes and describe aspects of the candidate’s character.

reference letter format

 

When should you write a reference letter? You should write a reference letter if you have been asked to write a reference letter. You should only say yes if you can honestly and positively speak to a person’s character and work experience. If someone you don’t know well or don’t think highly of asks you to write a reference letter, it might be best to politely decline.

For more information, including the do’s and don’ts, check out my article on How to Write a Letter of Recommendation. (Coming soon!)

Letter of recommendation

What is a letter of recommendation? A letter of recommendation is another way of referring to a reference letter. It is exactly as described above.

When should you write a letter of recommendation? You would write a letter of recommendation for the same scenario in which you would write a reference letter.

Letter of interest

What is a letter of interest? A letter of interest is a document sent to an organization by a candidate who is interested in fulfilling a role that is currently not listed. Prospective candidates can write a letter of intent when contacting a company to discuss possible job opportunities and ways they might be a good fit for the organization.

When should you write a letter of interest? You should write a letter of interest when you are interested in working for a company, but notice it does not have any current job listings that apply to you.

Inquiry letter

What is an inquiry letter? Inquiry letters ask a question or request a certain type of information from the recipient. A letter of interest is just one example of an inquiry letter, as it asks an organization about their current job opportunities.

When should you write an inquiry letter? You can write an inquiry letter any time you want to present a question to someone within your professional network.

Letter of intent

What is a letter of intent? A letter of intent is exactly as it sounds: it is a letter that declares your intentions. Letters of intent are used to form an agreement between various parties. They can be used when drafting a proposal, applying or accepting a job, or when agreeing to a particular deal.

When should you write a letter of intent? You should write a letter of intent when you want a written agreement between yourself and other parties. You can use a letter of intent to communicate future negotiations, as well as to announce or make public a negotiation.

A letter of intent protects both parties involved as the agreement is in writing as opposed to just word of mouth.

Sales letter

What is a sales letter? A sales letter, perhaps more prominently understood as a sales email, is a form of communication that exists to engage and interest the reader in learning more about a product or service.

There are many different strategies regarding how one should write a sales letter. Ultimately, you should pursue the strategy your company lays out in their playbook. All sales letters, however, should include a call-to-action, as well as a method of contacting you should the reader be interested.

When should you write a sales letter? You should write a sales letter when you are seeking to gain a professional or an organization’s attention. In other words, when you’re hoping to interest someone in a deal or sale.

Follow-up letter

What is a follow-up letter? A follow-up letter is a letter you write following a prior communication. Follow-up letters can be regarding a sale or a company’s decision to partner with you. Follow-up letters reiterate your interest and remind the receiving party to get back to you with a response.

Follow-up letters could also be simple thank yous or recountings of everything discussed in a meeting. In other words, some follow-up letters are not always soliciting a response.

When should you write a follow-up letter? This answer is obvious: you should write a follow-up letter when you wish to follow up with someone. Whether you’re seeking a response or simply wishing to further your communication, a follow-up letter is a good choice.

Complaint letter

What is a complaint letter? A complaint letter is a letter you write when you have a bone to pick with an organization or individual. Say you received horrendous customer service, or you found an ad to be targeting you inappropriately.

You’d write a complaint letter to inform an organization of the situation and allow them to decide next steps.

Although it has the word “complaint” in the title, not all complaint letters have to be rage documents wherein you ream out a company for some wrongdoing. They could just be a simple description of your dissatisfaction with a few suggested expectations for recourse.

If you are angry though, by all means, have at it.

When should you write a complaint letter? You should write a complaint letter when you have a complaint. Granted, we have many other methods of complaining these days (lucky customer service reps).

It’s more common to see someone calling a company’s customer service hotline, or even chatting with a representative online. A letter is a more formal way of communicating, but it does get the message across that you’re serious enough about this issue to write in.

Adjustment letter

What is an adjustment letter? Adjustment letters are a company or individual’s way of responding to a complaint letter. The letter should clearly state the company’s stance in the case.

If you’re siding with the customer, state that immediately. If you’re not siding with the customer, be sure to communicate that clearly while still offering exceptional customer service.

When should you write an adjustment letter? You should write an adjustment letter after your company has received a complaint letter from a customer. It’s important to respond to support queries to save face and keep customers loyal.

Order letter

What is an order letter? An order letter is a document wherein business managers or owners communicate to their manufacturers the specifics of what they are going to buy. Order letters contain information such as quantities, sizes, colors, product names and order numbers, and the anticipated price.

Order letters are often formatted as a form rather than an official business letter. This is because forms and spreadsheets make it easier to understand the bigger picture of what all a person wants.

When should you write an order letter? You should write an order letter when you’re ready to purchase wholesale goods for retail sales. Some business managers and owners will include payment for goods in the order letter, so it’s imperative you don't’ send in an order letter until you are ready and able to make the purchase.

Acknowledgment letters

What is an acknowledgment letter? Acknowledgment letters are like an order confirmation. Businesses send them out to let a customer or relation know they have received prior phone calls, emails, letters, etc.

Acknowledgment letters do not guarantee anything. They also do not communicate that a business has taken any steps to improve a situation. Rather, they tell a customer they have been heard.

When should you write an acknowledgment letter? Businesses should write a letter of acknowledgment when they feel it is necessary for an individual or organization to know they have received their correspondence. This is especially necessary if the original communication regarded something serious, such as an in-store injury.

A letter of acknowledgment does not imply that you have taken any action. Rather, it is the business equivalent of a read receipt – offering reassurance.

To the letter

Hopefully I’ve helped your understanding of the different kinds of business letters and how to go about professional communication. You don’t have to follow my instructions to the letter, but they’re good best practices should you be in search of some guidance.

If you’re in search of additional guidance, we have no shortage of content for you to read and learn. Check out articles such as How to Create an Email Newsletter that Will Impress Your Boss and my piece entitled What is Project Management.

Grace Pinegar
Author

Grace Pinegar

Grace Pinegar is a lifelong storyteller with an extensive background in various forms such as acting, journalism, improv, research, and now content marketing. She was raised in Texas, educated in Missouri, and has come to tolerate, if not enjoy, the opposition of Chicago's seasons.