Business Letters and Formal Emails

Note: This post is based on a handout I use in my “Professional Writing” course. Download this post as a .pdf for classroom use here.

For hundreds of years, business communication depended on letters and memos. Today, these hard copy print genres have been substantially replaced in the business world by email. Although texting and other electronic platforms do play a role in internal communication between employees, email remains an important medium for business correspondence. However, emails that perform the same functions as old-fashioned letters and memos tend to mimic the characteristics of these older forms. The rhetorical principles do not change.

A formal business letter is a powerful tool. It shows the reader that you know how to get things done, that you can’t be pushed around, and that you are probably the kind of person who knows how to hire a lawyer if you need one. Sometimes you need a real letter. In addition, the rhetorical skills you learn in writing business letters translate easily into electronic genres.

The style and arrangement of a business letter are closely tied to audience and purpose. Before you begin to write, think about why you are writing and to whom. Who will read your letter? Are there multiple audiences? What are they likely to believe or value? What do you want your readers to do?

The following structure will work for nearly any situation. If you are writing an email you should omit the addresses and the signature, but you may want to type your name at the end.


Your letter should be typed with no spelling or grammatical errors. You should try to be clear and concise. Initial letters about a problem should be polite in tone. Follow-up letters may be more blunt, but you should never insult your reader or make threats.

Going a Little Deeper

The simple format above will work in many situations. For an even more effective letter, in addition to your audience and purpose, consider the following:

What is my theme?—A theme is a general concept or focus for the letter. A theme is especially effective in persuasive and sales letters, although the theme of a complaint letter might be “bad customer service” or “deceptive advertising.” The theme of a sales letter might be “our products are fun to use,” or “reach your potential with our product.” The theme helps you decide what points to include and what you want to emphasize.

How direct should I be?—If the news is good or the message is one that the reader is likely to accept or approve of, the general rule is “Bottom Line Up Front” (sometimes abbreviated as “BLUF”). In such cases, you get right to the point first and provide supporting arguments and details later in the letter. However, if your reader is likely to be unhappy with the conclusion you will need to write a “convincer,” a letter that lays out the arguments and evidence for the conclusion before reaching the main point or recommendation. That way the reader can see why you reached your conclusions and won’t reject them right at the beginning.

What are my key points?—It may help to make a list of the key points you want to make in your letter. You may have more points that you can cover effectively. Your “theme” will help you select the most important ones.

What action do I want the reader to take?—This is very important and often neglected. Letter writers often assume that after the case has been presented, the required action is obvious, but there are often multiple possible responses. Some writers of complaint letters describe their unhappiness in excruciating detail, but leave the question of “What are you going to do about it?” unasked. In a complaint letter, do you want the reader to refund money? Replace the product? Change a policy? In other letters, do you want the reader to buy something? Call or email you? Offer you a job? Whatever the action is, be specific.

Summing Up

Remember these six basic questions for each letter, memo, or email:

  1. To whom am I writing?
  2. What is my purpose?
  3. What is my theme?
  4. How direct should I be? (Should my letter be up-front or a convincer?)
  5. What are my key points?
  6. What action do I want the reader to take? (Franco 51))

Writing Emails

Emails are easy to forward and distribute. They are also stored on servers, so they are not secure, and can be accessed by law enforcement and by hackers. That means that you never know where they might end up. There are a number of rules about emails, but the two most important ones are:

  • Never write anything in an email that you would be uncomfortable seeing on the front page of the local newspaper.
  • Think before you send.

Email is an evolving genre. It may, in fact include multiple genres serving different purposes and levels of formality. SEND: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, published in 2007 by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, was one of the first comprehensive guides to writing email. The main title is an acronym for what they think email should be: Simple, Effective, Necessary, and Done. The last word, “Done” is there to make you think about what is getting done. Is the problem solved? Or did it just get passed on to another person?

Shipley and Schwalbe outline eight deadly sins of email, but most of their sins involve not thinking clearly about why you are writing and who your audience will be (13). Emails tend to be written quickly so sometimes they are vague, unintentionally insulting (or intentionally so), or too informal. It is usually a bad idea, perhaps even cowardly, to say things in emails that we would be uncomfortable saying directly face-to-face. If you write an email in anger, wait to calm down before you send it.

Shipley and Schwalbe note that

The subject line is the most important, most neglected line in your email. . . . Always use them. Make sure they say something informative. Make sure they don’t sound like spam. Make sure they reflect not only the first item in your message (‘your lunch order”) but it entire content (“your lunch order and your court date”). (80-81)

Although email is often more informal than a letter, Shipley and Schwalbe recommend being more formal unless you know it is ok to be less formal. A good rule might be, “When in doubt, be formal.” “Dear” is always an appropriate opening and everyone is either Mr. or Ms. unless they are already using first names with you. There are situations in which it is ok to go without a salutation entirely, such as when you are responding to many people.

The body of the email should state the topic in the first sentence. If you have a request or a recommendation, it should go there as well. Highlight the main points, using short paragraphs to make for easy reading. In business situations, it is usually best to keep an email to one topic. If you have another topic, write another email with a different subject line.

Closings: Phrases that are appropriate in letters, such as “Yours truly,” and “Sincerely,” will work in formal emails as well. Sometimes a simple “Thanks,” works well too.

Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation: You should take care not to make mistakes in emails to professors, officials, employers, customers, etc. In somewhat less formal emails, exclamation points (Hooray!!!) and emoticons 🙂 can be used to lighten the tone.
Be careful about the chain! One of the most common mistakes that new employees make is sending an email to a customer that has a chain of internal emails attached to it off screen. The recipient may scroll down and read messages that are inappropriate for that audience, causing embarrassment, loss of business, or even lawsuits.

Works Cited

Franco, Leonard and Paul M. Zall. Practical Writing in Business and Industry. North Scituate, Massachusetts: Duxbury Press, 1978.

Shipley, David and Will Schwalbe. SEND: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, New York: Knopf, 2007.

Download this post as a .pdf for classroom use here.