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Back in the old days when secretaries efficiently typed business letters from dictation or shorthand, they got it right – to the letter. These days, we often need to type our own correspondence.

Setting out a letter sounds easy enough. But is it? Does the address have commas and full stops, or no punctuation at all? How many line spaces should there be after the address? Must the subject heading be introduced with ‘Re:’? How far down the page should the address come? And where on earth does the date go?

A professional and consistent presentation will enhance your organisation’s image and brand. Australia Post reads envelopes electronically. So, it’s also important to set out the address in the correct way.

The letter

On your letterhead, set out your letter in the following way.

Date. On the top left-hand side, type the date. Always present the date in full (no abbreviations) in the order day, month, year (for example, 23 December 2013). Note there is no comma or ‘th’ superscript after the day.

Recipient’s details. Leave a line space after the date then type the name of the person to whom you are writing, followed by their position title (if you know it) on the next line. Directly underneath the title, type the company name. On the next line, type the recipient’s address.

Set the address on separate lines: the street or post office box address on one line and the suburb or town and the state or territory (all in capitals) and postcode on the next line. For example:

Dr A Tibia
Medical Officer
Department of Eternal Life
12 Healthcare Street 

For international mail, include the name of the country (in capitals)

Mr S Claus
Chief Executive Officer
Clause Enterprises
1 Reindeer Lane
Elfenland 29000

(Note: These addresses are fictitious)

The greeting. Formal business letters still usually begin with the greeting ‘Dear’ (not ‘Hi’ common in much email writing). Make sure you use the correct title (for example, Dear Dr Tibia or Dear Ms Smart). If you think using surname only sounds too formal but you don’t wish to use first name only, you can use the recipient’s full name (for example, Dear Verity Smart). For a less formal greeting, use first name only (for example, Dear Verity). If you don’t know the name of the person to whom you are writing, you can use their title (for example, Dear Doctor, or Dear Manager). As a last resort, you can use ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’.

The subject heading. You don’t have to include a subject heading but it can help attract the reader’s attention. The subject heading comes after the greeting and is set in bold type, blocked to the left. For example:

Dear Santa

Outsourcing elf services

Note that you don’t need to introduce the subject line with the abbreviation ‘Re:’.

The content. After the subject line, leave a line space and begin typing your letter, leaving a line space between each paragraph. Keep paragraphs short (approximately two to five lines).

The closing. ‘Kind regards’ has become a popular closing in Australia. ‘Yours sincerely’ (used when you know the name of the recipient) and ‘Yours faithfully’ (used when you don’t know the name of the recipient) are still sometimes used for formal letters. After your closing, leave a few line spaces for your signature, then type your name followed by your title under your name.

Spacing. Single space your letter and leave a space between the last line of the address, the greeting, the subject heading, each paragraph, the closing and your signature.

Justification. Block all the information to the left (known as left justification) including contact information, date, the paragraphs of your letter and your name.

The address

Australia Post sorts letters electronically, so it’s important to follow their specifications when addressing envelopes.

  • Don’t indent or stagger lines of the address
  • Don’t underline any words
  • Do print clearly, preferably with black ink on white paper
  • Do use the correct postcode.

All these ‘rules’ might sound pedantic and unimportant in the scheme of your business. Always remember, it’s the attention to detail that presents you as a rigorous, focused organisation. A well set-out letter is also more likely to be read and acted upon.

If you have a letter-writing question not answered in this blog, call Patricia Hoyle at Concise Writing Consultancy on 02 9238 6638 (Sydney) or email her from our contact page