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The Basics About Writing Letters: Formal or Informal?

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

Writing letters – and writing them well – is a mainstay in daily communication, both in your professional life and your personal life.

Copywriters and content writers write dozens of letters (here are 7 of the most common kinds of letters that copywriters write) -- but what kind of letter will work best for a specific situation? You can figure out whether your letter should be formal or informal when you look at why you're writing it in the first place.

But first, is there any benefit to writing letters in the first place?

Advantages to Writing Letters 

  • Clarity. Writing a letter requires you to think carefully about what you wish to communicate and then put it down clearly.
  • Documentation. When it comes to comparing communicating by print or by telephone, a letter (and its electronic cousin, the email) provide a permanent record of communication. Unless a phone call is tape recorded, you have no physical record of its content. Further, the printed record of a letter gives you the opportunity to review your content and also provides legal documentation when necessary.
  • Gravity. A letter communicates more serious intent over other mediums. 
  • Universality. You needn’t have special devices to send a letter (other than paper and pen) or receive one (other than an address.)

Formal or Informal: Which Should You Choose for Your Letter?

A letter is written correspondence from one person or organization to another. It can take a formal approach or an informal approach. To decide which style is appropriate for your letter, identify your audience and the point of your letter.

Writing letters: formal or informal? With Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter #WritingTips #BusinessWriting #FreelanceWriting


Write a formal letter if you’re writing to …

  • a government official
  • a prospective employer
  • an academic institution or official
  • a client

Write a semi-formal letter or an informal letter if you’re writing to …

  • your current employer
  • a co-worker
  • a colleague
  • a friend
  • a relative

Point of your letter

Write a formal letter if you’re …

  • conducting business outside your firm
  • applying for a job
  • applying for a grant
  • asking for a sale or gift
  • resigning from a job
  • lodging a complaint
  • making an official request

Write a semi-formal letter or an informal letter if you’re …

  • conducting business within your firm
  • expressing thanks

Medium: How to Send Your Letter

You have three options:  you can send a printed letter, an email, or a handwritten note. The medium you choose for your letter follows the degree of formality.

Send a printed letter when you are …

  • conducting business outside your firm
  • applying for a job
  • applying for a grant
  • asking for a sale or gift
  • resigning from a job
  • lodging a complaint
  • making an official request

Send an email when …

  • your business is time-sensitive
  • your recipient has chosen to communicate primarily by email

Send a handwritten letter when …

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