Use a professional tone: Save casual, chatty language for email - your printed business letter should be friendly but more professional. As Scott Ober suggests in.
In this section, you will find many instructional materials we’ve developed for our Writing Center teaching.
However, there are limitations to these materials. Assignments vary, and different instructors want different things from student writers. Therefore, the advice here may or may not apply to your writing situation.
Finally, handouts can give only a fraction of the customized guidance that an individual conference with a Writing Center instructor can provide. If you have questions about the information in our handouts, please make an appointment to see a Writing Center instructor.
5 Hill Street
Madison, Wisconsin 53700
March 15, 2005
Ms. Helen Jones
Jones, Jones & Jones
123 International Lane
Boston, Massachusetts 01234
Dear Ms. Jones:
Ah, business letter format-there are block formats, and indented formats, and modified block formats . . . and who knows what others. To simplify matters, we’re demonstrating the block format on this page, one of the two most common formats. For authoritative advice about all the variations, we highly recommend The Gregg Reference Manual, 9th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), a great reference tool for workplace communications. There seems to be no consensus about such fine points as whether to skip a line after your return address and before the date: some guidelines suggest that you do; others do not. Let’s hope that your business letter succeeds no matter which choice you make!
When you use the block form to write a business letter, all the information is typed flush left, with one-inch margins all around. First provide your own address, then skip a line and provide the date, then skip one more line and provide the inside address of the party to whom the letter is addressed. If you are using letterhead that already provides your address, do not retype that information; just begin with the date. For formal letters, avoid abbreviations where possible.
Skip another line before the salutation, which should be followed by a colon. Then write the body of your letter as illustrated here, with no indentation at the beginnings of paragraphs. Skip lines between paragraphs.
After writing the body of the letter, type the closing, followed by a comma, leave 3 blank lines, then type your name and title (if applicable), all flush left. Sign the letter in the blank space above your typed name. Now doesn’t that look professional?
5 Hill Street
Madison, Wisconsin 53700
15 March 2005
Ms. Helen Jones
Jones, Jones & Jones
123 International Lane
Boston, Massachusetts 01234
Dear Ms. Jones:
Ah, business letter format–there are block formats, and
indented formats, and modified block formats . . . and who
knows what others. To simplify matters, we’re demonstrating
the indented format on this page, one of the two most common
formats. For authoritative advice about all the variations,
we highly recommend The Gregg Reference Manual, 9th ed. (New
York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), a great reference tool for workplace
communications. There seems to be no consensus about such
fine points as whether to skip a line after your return
address and before the date: some guidelines suggest that you
do; others do not. Let’s hope that your business letter
succeeds no matter which choice you make!
If you are using the indented form, place your address at
the top, with the left edge of the address aligned with the
center of the page. Skip a line and type the date so that it
lines up underneath your address. Type the inside address and
salutation flush left; the salutation should be followed by a
colon. For formal letters, avoid abbreviations.
Indent the first line of each paragraph one-half inch.
Skip lines between paragraphs.
Instead of placing the closing and signature lines
flush left, type them in the center, even with the address
and date above, as illustrated here. Now doesn’t that look
Learn the correct layout to use when writing a business letter with these letter examples and writing tips and advice for each section.
Personal letters,also known as friendly letters, and social notes normally have five parts.
1. The Heading. This includes the address, line by line, with the last line being the date. Skip a line after the heading. The heading is indented to the middle of the page. If using preaddressed stationery, add just the date.
2. The Greeting. The greeting always ends with a comma. The greeting may be formal, beginning with the word "dear" and using the person's given name or relationship, or it may be informal if appropriate.
Formal: Dear Uncle Jim, Dear Mr. Wilkins,
Informal: Hi Joe, Greetings,
(Occasionally very personal greetings may end with an exclamation point for emphasis.)
3. The body. Also known as the main text. This includes the message you want to write. Normally in a friendly letter, the beginning of paragraphs is indented. If not indented, be sure to skip a space between paragraphs. Skip a line after the greeting and before the close.
4. The complimentary close. This short expression is always a few words on a single line. It ends in a comma. It should be indented to the same column as the heading. Skip one to three spaces (two is usual) for the signature line.
5. The signature line. Type or print your name. The handwritten signature goes above this line and below the close. The signature line and the handwritten signature are indented to the same column as the close. The signature should be written in blue or black ink. If the letter is quite informal, you may omit the signature line as long as you sign the letter.
Postscript. If your letter contains a postscript, begin it with P.S. and end it with your initials. Skip a line after the signature line to begin the postscript.
See also Layout of a friendly letter.
See also Commas in Letters and Capitalization in Letters
Handwritten letters are casual.
The key to using indentation in a letter is the purpose of the letter. Personal letters are more casual than business correspondence and allow for a different style. Most letters are written following the American Psychological Association (APA) Manual, a style sheet that governs three elements of writing style: page formats, text rules and documentation. Whether you are typing or writing a letter, begin each paragraph with the same indentation to maintain consistency throughout.
Business letters are almost always written in full block style and have no indenting. Full block style is easier to do for people typing on personal computers because it requires no tab key movements. Every line of the full block style is flush left, including the date, addresses, salutation, body and closing.
Modified block style is appropriate for business use and is similar to block style in that all lines are flush left with the exception of three lines: the return address, date and closing line. Placement for these three lines begins at the center of the page and flows to the right.
Casual and friendly letters include indenting, which helps to differentiate them from business letters. The return address and closing begin in the center of the page, while the greeting is flush left. Indenting each paragraph five spaces creates a letter that is warmer and more friendly than a business-style letter.
A short note that contains no more than a single paragraph may be written with a five-space indentation or flush left. The closing line, such as "Your friend, Mary," may be started in the center of the page, with the closing line placed above the name.
Here's how to write and format any business letter, whether it's a mоrе fоrmаl аnd ассurаtе ѕо thе business lеttеr уоu рrоduсе should rеflесt thiѕ idеоlоgу. .. Ah, buѕinеѕѕ letter fоrmаt-thеrе аrе blосk formats, and indented.
To Indent or Not to Indent: That Is the Question
I am in a writing workshop that is made up of smart, educated writers. We have a doctor, a couple of business people, a journalist, a radio producer, and an educator. Most of them are well traveled and all of them are well read. I would dare say this is a group who knows a few things.
In the first few weeks, when we started submitting our prose pieces, I began to notice something. Almost none of the other writers were using indentation in their work. First I thought it was a glitch, or an oversight, but then it became a trend that snowballed into an outbreak. In the feedbacks and forums, I started calling a couple of the students out about it in a slightly less than harsh manner.
I couldn’t help wonder though if I had missed some newsletter that announced the retirement of indentation. How could something so big have passed me by?
Initially, I tried to blame my computer. I haven’t updated to all the most recent software, so I thought perhaps it was a technical problem, and surely not the other writers’ conscious choice.
When I myself was still able to indent, I moved on to thinking it might be a regional thing. Most of the participants in the workshop live in Canada, so I thought maybe it was a Canadian habit. Only one other writing student in the workshop was brought up under the U.S. educational system, and we both took pains to use indentation in our submissions. I work as an EFL professor in Japan teaching writing courses to non-native university students, and the textbooks I use teach indentation as a basic rule of paragraph writing. These textbooks are from U.S publishing companies though, so I settled on it being a cultural issue.
However, then I noticed that our class instructor, who is certainly no slouch, was also writing her instructions, notes and feedback without using indentation…and she is American. Having no other source to blame it on, I had to bring it up with her.
She explained that the class website platform we use is not formatted to accommodate indentation. Even if you indented your writing, the format of the site would flush all of the writing to the left as soon as you posted your comments.
So, she and the others, including myself, had to adapt to the parameters by changing how we were writing.
Rather than beginning a new paragraph that was indented, which reflected a change in character, tone, or scene, instead we had to put in extra white space between sections.
Now, if the writing in our class website were the only time we didn’t see any indentation, that’d be one thing, but when we submit our manuscripts, we do it in the form of a Microsoft word file (.doc or .docx) and are not beholden to the format of the class website. Yet still, these were mostly appearing sans-indentation.
I thought about this, and tried researching new trends in indentation on the Internet. Of course, the Internet is about as helpful with regard to providing concrete information about new breakthroughs for indentation as it is with giving me reasons I have had a sore throat for the past week. I found a number of conflicting reports, unrelated to geography or schooling, age, or operating system.
When I finished my search, I had the nagging feeling that maybe simple laziness was the culprit, and I was also slightly paranoid that I had a rare form of grammar cancer.
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In the past, I have been accused of being a fuddy-duddy. New ways of doing things (such as people having face-to-face conversations with their cellphones in hand) sometimes rub me the wrong way, and I’m not shy about voicing my discontent.
There are many acceptable cases for not using the indent such as when writing a business letter, or if a particular publication expresses the rule of no indentation, or as mentioned, on particular web sites (the irony hasn’t escaped me that this very essay may likely not avoid appearing sans-indentation as soon as it is party to the programming whims of this particular website).
Indeed, the formats used in many contemporary and emerging common methods of communication are bypassing traditional norms of written communication. Perhaps it is tricky to program indentation, or perhaps programmers don’t consider it important, or maybe on computer screens indenting brings about odd physiological responses in the eye mapping of text, who knows.
The beauty of language is that it is a living thing that evolves. When it does not, it dies. (Latin has had the same grammar for centuries.) From time to time though, languages become extinct in order to make way for more useful forms of communication. We should be vigilant and pick apart our language in order to deliberate whether we should maintain certain norms, or whether it’s time to let them fade into the obscurity of that which is now deemed inefficient.
I personally believe it is best to use indentation for a few reasons: It looks as if care were put into the overall visual effect of the work.
I feel it provides the writer with more time for reflection, as to the message conveyed in the paragraph, and that it warrants the pinkie taxing press that creates the indentation. It also adds another tool to the writer’s box, which is being able to use an extra line of white space from time to time to separate a thought or flashback with even more clarity. If I add a few spaces at the beginning of a paragraph about my mother, the reader understands that this is a new theme or idea to be presented about her. If I add a full blank space, and an indent, it lets the reader know that the following is a shift in the flow of the main body of work. Perhaps we will learn of a story flashed back from my mother’s past, or a side note about her best recipe.
However, if we regularly use spaces to separate our paragraphs, our ability to use them for certain effect becomes watered down, like my mom’s lemonade (one of her lesser recipes), and we are simply spilling out a potent splash of ingredient to the flow of our writing.
After my slightly less than harsh calling out of my intelligent peers about their indentation habits, I got some feedback. Their remarks ranged from militant quill gripping fists in the air proclaiming how we as writers are the protectors of the sacred art form of the scribes and that we should not go lazily into the long electric dark ages; and some just e-shrugged and mentioned that we live in an age where presidential proclamations are regurgitated into 140 characters and emojis are becoming an actual lexicon.
Is a space as wide as a thumbprint really worth preservation, or will indentation fade into nostalgia-filled obscurity and be looked back upon like the illustrated drop cap?
For my money, I believe it is a part of our formatting worth upholding, though with the antagonism of formats created by programmers, as opposed to those created by linguists, and sheer laziness, sometimes by those same linguists, it might just be a losing battle. Time will tell. I’ll say this: if we as writers have the mental wherewithal to remember to charge our phones before they die, I feel confident that we can indent when we need to.
Originally from Memphis TN, Gregory Price has lived and taught in Europe, China, and now works as an adjunct professor at Tokyo University of Science in Japan. He holds an M.A. in ESL and a BFA for painting and sculpture. He is currently producing abstract photography based on radial symmetry of textures from various cities around the world and writing a novel.
A portfolio of some of his visual art can be found here:
Chelsea, a reader of my monthly e-newsletter, Better Writing at Work, asked me to write about indenting paragraphs in business letters.