People don’t write letters as often as they used to–emails, yes; text messages, yes; the occasional hand-written note, even, yes … but actual letters? Not so much. Especially outside of normal business hours.
So, let’s review the essential elements of a basic letter, shall we?
- Return Address: On both personal and business letters, the very top of the page should be the address of the letter’s sender. It can be on the left or the right margin, it just needs to be at the top. Naturally, if you’re using some kind of letterhead paper, this is already covered (even if it’s just a logo at the top, with the address in the footer).
- Recipient’s Address: This is more for business letters, but in formal letters, it’s usually a good idea to put the address of where the letter is going, as well. This is particularly important if you’re using a window-envelope to mail it in (grin), but also helpful for future reference. You can skim through your old letters and see exactly where they went, without consulting your address book.
- Date: The date of the letter–definitely important. My personal feeling is that this is essential, even on personal notes where I might skip the addresses at the top. The bare minimum for the header, is the date.
- Salutation: “Dear _____,” This is where the real action of the letter starts–addressing the recipient by name. The word “Dear” is almost always included, but for personal notes, can be left out and just the name be used (“Dave,”). I honestly can’t think of a substitute for “Dear,” although there certainly might be one, but it IS the standard. As to the punctuation, personal letters usually end the salutation with a comma; business letters with a colon. At least, that’s the traditional format, though those rules have gotten “squishy” and these days it seems like either is acceptible.
- Body: The actual text of the letter.
- Closing: This is your chance to say, “Sincerely,” “With love,” “Cordially,” “Yours truly,” “Waiting with bells on,” or any other phrase you choose, but the one thing to remember is that only the first word of the Closing should be capitalized. Never write “With Love,” it should always be “With love,”. And, of course, the closing’s closing punctuation is the comma.
- Signature: In a handwritten letter, this literally is just your signature, but in a formal, or typed letter, there is space left (traditionally 3 carriage returns) for the actual signature, followed by the written name, and titles if any. (“John Smith, Lead Adventurer”)
That’s essentially it. Granted, there can be other pieces–things like “cc” annotations for carbon copies, or whatever–but this is just about everything you need.
Again, a personal note to a friend isn’t going to be as formal as a business letter, and so might not need all these pieces. You can scrawl a note with just three pieces: “Dave, Got your note. Looking forward to seeing you on the 12th. John.” It certainly gets the job done, but then, it’s a note, not an actual letter. What’s the difference? Length, maybe? Structure, perhaps? Something like that (grin).
Incidentally, I did this post out of my memory of “Writing Classes Past”–did I miss anything??