Having to write a formal letter to an authority is a much more common occurrence than you might think.
You may need to write to an institution, an international organisation or an authority to report a problem, make a complaint, ask for information, bid for a tender or for many other reasons.
Even the most successful professionals may feel awkward and unsure how to start when faced with a blank page. There are, however, a number of easy guidelines that enable everyone to write a successful formal letter.
Here are three tips on how to write an appropriate letter to an authority:
- write legibly, clearly and coherently
- follow the conventions on formal letter writing
- in case of doubts over language, instead of improvising contact a professional reviser or proof-reader
A piece of writing should always be clear to the reader. Formal writing does not have to be complicated or verbose. To ensure it is legible, take care over the following:
- internal and external cohesion
Clarity depends on using the appropriate vocabulary and syntax: choose the right words to express the concept and write them in a logical sequence that reflects the underlying thought or action.
Cohesion refers to consistency both within a document and as regards its context: always use the same words to express the same concepts within a text, and be consistent with other similar texts.
Accuracy means writing in a style that avoids ambiguity and generalisations, adapting the text to the type of message being sent and the addressee.
This last point is particularly important when addressing the authorities, which often use specialist jargon and language with particular connotations, aspects you will need to take into account when writing.
Letter writing conventions
Follow the style guidelines below when writing a formal letter:
- Write your address in the top right-hand corner of the letter.
- Write the address of the person you are writing to in the top left-hand corner of the letter, starting below your address.
- Write the date in full to avoid misunderstandings. For example, “15 January 2021”. The date usually goes in the top right-hand corner of the letter, below your address.
- Times should also written clearly and unambiguously. It is better to use the 24-hour clock with a full stop or colon between hours and minutes. For example, “at 15:30”, alternatively write “3.30 am” or “3.30 pm”.
- Every formal letter should have a title, subject or reference, which should be written below the date. When writing for the first time, it is best to write the subject on the right, immediately below the date. When replying to a letter, always include the reference or file number in your reply to ensure that your correspondence can be traced.
- There are no fixed rules on capitalising the names of departments or job titles: every office will have its own rules. It is best to follow the style of the authority you are communicating with. For example, “The Office of the District Attorney”.
- If you do not know the name of the person you are writing to, begin the letter “Dear Sir/Madam” and end it with “Yours faithfully”. If you know the name of the addressee, begin the letter “Dear Mr./Ms./Dr.” etc. and end it with “Yours sincerely”.
- At the end of the letter, sign and print your full name (first name followed by surname).
- If you are including documents, list them in the bottom left-hand corner of the letter.
Professional revision and proof-reading
When writing a particularly important letter or dealing with specialist issues (legal matters), it is advisable to have it revised and corrected, if not drafted, by a professional.
Proof-reading is a profession. A professional proof-reader or reviser will have all the language skills and expertise needed to identify and resolve problems in a text.
To optimise the proof-reader or reviser’s time and work, it is best to:
- send them the complete text so they can decide what needs to be done;
- ensure you have covered every point before you send the letter, thereby avoiding having to add information once work is underway;
- inform the proof-reader or reviser of any deadlines and establish whether the work can be done in time;
- make any specific requests (such as adjusting the layout) before handing over the work to the proof-reader or reviser.
By following these brief guidelines, you can overcome the obstacle of a blank page and write a successful formal letter.