How to lay out a personal letter

The first thing is not to get hung about it. No one is judging your handwriting or your written English. It’s not a test. There are some conventions, which actually make the communication easier, but you don’t have to follow them slavishly.

The point of presenting a letter in a particular way is to make it easy to read – that’s all. The letter police aren’t going to pounce if you write your address in the ‘wrong’ place or write the date in the ‘wrong’ way. Just try to make sure that everything is clear and looks nice on the page.

The address

It’s usual to write your address at the top right-hand side of the page. In the olden days, back when there were just two television channels and even they were black and white, people got very hung up about things such as putting commas between your house number and the name of the road, as well as at the end of every line of your address. It was also a strict convention that the address should be indented, so that it slopes. You can write your address like this if you want to – or not. If you are writing to someone you know well, an abbreviated form of your address is fine.

The date

The date of a letter can be very significant. This record of precisely when you were thinking of and engaging with the recipient can strengthen the message and also put it in context. A letter written on the day someone receives bad news may be different from one written a week after the event. You can imagine circumstances in which you would like to check if a letter you get was written before or after a certain event, or how long before or after. As time goes by the date on which a particular letter was written can assume poignancy and added meaning.

Write the date under your address. You can use numbers for the day, month and year. An alternative is to write the day in numbers, the month in letters, and the year in numbers. This style is more formal than the numbers-only option.

The greeting

A simple Dear followed by the person’s name always works. It is appropriate for close friends and distant acquaintances, and is a sound opener for any kind of letter on any occasion.

You can show a bit of extra warmth with Dearest, or My Dear – it all depends on the context and your relationship with the recipient.

In very informal communication you could begin with Hi, Hello, Hello Again or similar.

Next comes the person’s name. For friends and people you know well, just use their first name. For more distant or formal relationships, you need a title such as Mr or Mrs. Things become slightly less straightforward when it comes to addressing women to whom Mrs does not apply. If you know the person well enough to be familiar with her preference, which would most usually be Miss or Ms, then use the term she uses, no matter what your own views on the matter are. If in doubt, it’s probably safer go with Ms.

The body of the letter

A letter can be as long or as short as you want. It could be two sentences or two pages. The length is determined by the purpose of the letter. Whatever the length, make it clear and easy to read. Write in paragraphs of a couple or a few sentences. Show where a paragraph starts by indenting the first line or by leaving a gap between groups of sentences.

Signing off

Again, it depends on the nature and context of the letter and your relationship with the recipient. Choose a phrase which reflects the tone of the letter. Words commonly used to sign off vary in their degree of warmth and their degree of formality.

Yours sincerely: Safe, unobjectionable. A little formal. You get a slightly warmer effect if you invert the words to Sincerely yours or just put Sincerely.

Love: Warm, informal. Probably most appropriate for people you are close to. Much love is a little stronger.

Yours: Warm, between formal and informal.

Regards: Polite, slightly formal

Best wishes: Safe, slightly distant. With best wishes, or My very best wishes strengthens the feeling.

Warm wishes: Informal, friendly. Warmest wishes is a stronger expression of affection.

As always and As ever: These phrases affirm your affection for the recipient

All for now: Casual, friendly, cheery