How to Write a Letter

Putting together a job application strong enough to gain you an interview can be hard work. Yet all too often, people let down their applications by hastily writing a letter that's filled with mistakes. If you can spend a bit more time learning how to make your letter sound polished and professional, you can greatly enhance your chances of being interviewed.

When you write to an employer, you are showing them just how interested you are in gaining work and how professional a candidate you are. The biggest sign that you're professional is the expert way you put the letter together. This means following some basic letter writing etiquette and formatting.

The Letter's Appearance

Whether you're sending an emailed application or a printed version of your letter in the post, you need to present it well. The overall appearance you decide to use should be the same as your CV, so that the documents look like they belong together.

The letter should have good wide margins and not have too much text cluttered onto one page. The font should be simple and regular, such as Ariel, Monaco, Helvetica or Verdana. Times New Roman is also good, although it's not as clear. Black 10 to 12-point is best, with 12 point or above line spacing. Extra space between paragraphs will help too.

Never use more than two sizes in one document. You can use some bold text to emphasise a couple of subheadings, but avoid using more, as it will make it harder to read rather than easier. Italics don't usually look good in a letter and underlining should only ever be used on a website or email address.

If you want to use bullet points, use no more than three and keep them to two or three lines each, so that the letter looks inviting and easy to read. Long sentences and heavy paragraphs are visually off-putting, as the reader will feel they have to plough through them.

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Where to Place Your Address

If you are sending this letter to an employer with your CV, either as part of a speculative enquiry or a formal job application, then you should present your address in the same way as on your CV. Usually, this will be centred at the top of the page in the Header.

If you are writing a letter without sending your CV, you can write your address at the top of the letter, aligning to either the right or left margin.

Whichever of these approaches you use, you next need to write the employer's address. You should always align this to the left, leaving at least a couple of line breaks between this address and your own.

Where to Put the Date

It is usual to place the date of writing high on the letter. You can place it: under your address (if the address is aligned to the right, align the date to the right also), above the employer's address (aligned to the left), or below the employer's address but above the salutation (aligned to the left).

If you have a letter written by the employer - for instance, one that came with the application pack - you can always see how they position the address and date elements of the letter. If you follow the same format, you will be on safe ground.

How to Address the Recipient

It's a small point, but if you get it wrong, the way in which you address someone can elicit a big negative reaction. There is a strong etiquette around titles and name formatting, so you need to get it right or you risk sounding ill-mannered.

If You Have a Name

When you know the name of the person you're writing to, it's still possible to make mistakes. Adverts will often give a person's name without using their title - i.e. Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss, Dr, Prof, etc. If you don't already know their title, you need to find out.

If you only use a first name, then you can sound over familiar without meaning to. Imagine writing to a woman whose name you know from the advertisement is Brenda Brown. She may hold a senior position in a company and addressing her as 'Dear Brenda'. You might try to play safe by writing 'Dear Ms Brown', but if she's traditionally minded, she may think this disrespectful or just plain wrong.

If you're not sure about her status or title, then it's a good idea to call the employer and ask how she prefers to be addressed. Sometimes the switchboard operator or receptionist will tell you, or they might put you through to the Human Resources department.

It is a little more straightforward when writing to men, as the title used is usually 'Mr'. If you're not sure, it's still best to ring up and find out the form of that person prefers. You will only ever gain points by taking time to find out and get it right, as it shows you are professional and pay attention to details.

If in doubt, err on the side of caution and write 'Mr Thompson' rather than 'Brian Thompson'. Even if someone might say to you ''call me Brian'' in person, they'll usually expect a respectful approach when it comes to written correspondence and job applications in particular.

When You Have a Name But No Gender

Occasionally, a job advertisement will invite you to send applications to a particular person, without specifying whether they're a man or a woman. This isn't helpful when you're aiming to write to them, so ring up and find out their gender and preferred title.

If You Don't Have a Name

Sometimes, advertisements simply tell you to write to a department or a PO Box number, especially when they want to conceal the employer's identity. In such cases, you're not going to be able to ring them, because you don't know who they are. The way you should address a letter in this case is to write 'Dear Sir or Madam' or 'Dear Sir / Madam'. It may sound old-fashioned, but it is the correct etiquette.

Stating What Your Letter is About

After addressing the person you're writing to, you need to enter a line that highlights the point of your letter. In the case of a job application, this is usually either the job title or the reference number given to it in the job details. Many employers are handling a large number of applications so may not immediately know which vacancy yours relates to when they open the envelope. By stating this detail at the beginning, you can ensure that your application is in the right person's hands. It is also the polite thing to do and will make them think well of you at the outset.

The convention is to use a subheading in bold type. Write the word 'reference' and a colon, followed by the job title or reference number - e.g. Ref: 321/1 Sales Executive. You can then start a new paragraph with your introduction.

Signing Off at the End of the Letter

There is a standard etiquette for ending your letter that you should always follow. If you have addressed the letter to a person by name, you should sign the letter 'Yours sincerely' - note that you don't use a capital letter on 'sincerely'. If you didn't have a name and addressed your letter 'Dear Sir or Madam', then you should end it with 'Yours faithfully' - again, there's no need to use a capital 'f'.

In a printed letter, you should leave a few free lines beneath the sign off and then type your name, before signing it by hand in the space you've allowed. In electronic documents, you can do this with a jpeg or bitmap image of your signature, which is paying lip service to convention. Or, you can just type your name beneath the sign off.

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