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A Practical Guide to Writing Good English


Writing a Formal Letter

In an age of emails and phone calls, letter writing may seem out-of-date. Nevertheless, there are times when only formal written correspondence will do. Apart from anything else, emails can be deleted, but a letter especially one that is signed for on delivery is a permanent record.

Writing formal letters is something which causes many people great difficulty, mainly because they are usually writing about something important, and have not had a lot of practice at doing it. Formal letters are usually requests, reminders, complaints or applications. In all of these cases there is a basic format that should be followed.

The first thing to do is get organized before you start the actual writing of the letter. Here are some preliminary steps.

1. Know what you want to say
You will probably be writing to someone who deals with large numbers of these letters every day. This person will pay more attention to a letter that is clear and to the point. Organize what you want to say as a series of bullet points, make sure that they are in the write order, and that they say what you want to say and no more or less.

2. Research where the letter is going
In this example, you are writing to the council about a problem with refuse collection.

These days it is easy to use the internet to research the name and role of the intended target of your letter. A letter addressed to 'Rhymington City Council' and which begins 'Dear Sir or Madam' has a much lower chance of success than one addressed to 'L.W. Davies, Public Health Officer, Rhymington City Council'.

You may wish to send a duplicate of the letter to K.L. Clarke, Refuse and Waste management Department. Let each person know they have a copy of the letter with the initials cc. (Carbon Copy) under the adressee's address followed by the name of the other recipient.

3. Prepare supporting documentation
Have the names and reference numbers of previous correspondence to hand. Rather than writing, 'in your letter last month, you said ', it is better to put 'Your correspondence of 28 July this year (ref. X0/fep) stated '.

This makes it easier for the person concerned to locate the document (and warns him that you are an organized individual who is capable of taking matters further if not satisfied). Do not send original documents along with your letter unless you really have to. It is better to send copies with the note that 'If required, originals are available on request.'

4. Research your points
General statements are never as good as specifics. Staying with the refuse collection example, do not say, 'Collection was missed several times last month, and the refuse collectors were rude when I complained about this.'

Instead, say 'Collections were missed on the 3rd, 8th and 20th. On the 30th at 8am I spoke to the driver of the refuse collection vehicle, who not only failed to give an explanation, but was also unacceptably rude and abusive.'

5. Decide on your 'call to action'
Unless you are writing a complaint simply to blow off steam, it is a good idea to say exactly what you want from the person you are writing to. You may also at this point say what will happen if you need to take the matter further. Do not issue threats, but clearly outline further steps.

For example, here, you would obviously want the refuse collection to take place. Your 'further steps' might say something like 'Since you are in violation of your own city bye-law Section 4 37c, legal action remains a possibility which I hope will not be necessary.'

6. Decide how you would prefer to be contacted in reply
If you want a record of your conversation, it is best not to give a phone number, and to ask for a reply in writing. If, on the other hand you feel that an informal talk might clear things up, then something like 'feel free to contact me at xxx-360-1034' is a good way to finish your last paragraph.

6. Get a matching envelope
It's a small thing, but a letter is you presenting yourself. Paper that is the same colour as the envelope and which folds neatly into it makes a good, business-like impression.

A. What NOT to do

[no contact details]
[no recipient address]

[no date]
Dear Sirs or Madam [generic salutation]

I have always admired your company, and considered a career with you. [Which company? This looks like a form letter sent to dozens of companies] I'm looking for an internship for the summer after I finish school this year. Having had a position with your company will help with my university studies when I start in the autumn. [All about the applicant. What's in it for the company?] I have a very adaptable personailty [spelling error] and get on well with people, so I hope that you might have a place to offer me.

I do a lot of volunteer work in my neighbourhood, and I am also the lead guitarist in our school band. [Why is this relevant?] Because my univ. [abbreviations are a bad idea] work will be about computers i'm [capitalization] hoping you have a position available that's to do with them, but I'll take anything! Lol.[Never use txtspk]

If you want to get in touch with me, you can call my home phone on 222-444-666 or even leave a note on my FB page. My email is tony@socool.com but I don't check that so often. [Too casual]

Hoping to hear from you soon! [too informal use exclamations with care and seldom]
best [wrong farewell]
Tony Nochance

B. Getting it right

22 Fairbank Road
Rhymington RH22 5YO
tel no. 222-444-666
email: tony@socool.com

Ms Karen Dogsbody
Human Resources
BlueScreen Computer Company
Fairwood Avenue

28 July 2016

Dear Ms Dogsbody,

Re: Possible Internship for this summer

Your company website says that you offer summer internships for qualified students. I would like to apply for one of these posts.

I am currently finishing my studies at Rhymington Secondary School, and will be going to Cargill University in autumn, where I will study Cybernetic information Systems. My GCSE exams this year were in English and Computer Studies, so I hope your company might have a role for me in the Computer Services division.

References are available from the Rev S. Elliot of the local Anglican church where I do volunteer work, and from Mr Kevin Dearly, the music teacher at Rhymington Secondary School, who can confirm that I have an outgoing and creative nature.

You can get in touch with me at any time through the contact details above, and I would be delighted to attend an interview at any time which is convenient for you.

Yours sincerely,
[insert signature here]
Tony Hasjob

(Note that with other letters, formal qualifications and titles usually go after the printed name.)

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