Regardless of your home language, it is truly one of life’s great skills to be able to write a formal letter in the international language of English! In fact, you can be absolutely sure that there will come a time in life, whether it is for business or personal reasons, that you will need to know how to write a formal letter.

How is your English?

If you are a resident of South Africa, the chances are high that English is not necessarily your first language, but when it comes to interviews and job applications, it the language medium that is most used in all the major economic centres like Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban. Not only that but the universal language of English, is, without doubt, one of the tools most easily able to connect nations from all around the globe to each other.

English may even be regarded as the international language of the world. When it comes to travel, studying at overseas universities, internship placements, or conducting business through international organisations, English is the language that is probably going to be the common ground that makes it all a little easier.

Often when people decide to learn a new language they make the mistake of simply opting for the conversational version. Of course this can be hugely beneficial but it’s important to know that at some point, especially in a professional capacity, you will need to know how to write a formal letter.

Formal Letter Writing Exercises

There’s no doubt that knowing how to speak and write in English is something that will further your career and personal life. But the ability to write, even write a formal letter, will always be a sought-after skill in the workplace. Being confident in your spoken English can give you the edge in terms of your career, but imagine writing a formal letter in English when you register your interest with an international organisation?

Another reason to focus on your written English is that you may be asked to actually submit a formal letter example as part of a job application. If a high level of English is required for the career path that you have chosen, one of the most important things you could master in the process is the formal letter format! So what are you waiting for? Have you found the perfect formal letter example in English to try and emulate?

notebook and pencil on desk
Plan your letter and pay attention to the structure and format. | Source: Unsplash

Writing, and especially letter writing, can be very intimidating for most people, even those who are writing a formal letter in their first language. But learning anything new is daunting at first, so don’t panic, here is a step by step formula to help you write an excellent and well-worded cover letter.

  1. Note your experience.
  2. Explain your relevance.
  3. Reiterate your career highlights.
  4. Arrange facts in a logical order.
  5. Add a unique fact to the letter that makes you memorable to the reader.

The formal letter format should include several, purposeful paragraphs. For example an introduction; a paragraph about your skills and a paragraph about your experience.

In this first draft, simply write everything down, that’s not to say that it’s the final formal letter by any means, but you are simply creating the tools to craft something impressive.

Note Your Experience

In this paragraph mention the time you have spent working in the field that is being advertised. Also mention where you have gained experience doing similar jobs. As this is a formal letter, keep it succinct, but do mention the total length of time you have spent in the industry that is relevant to your application.

Explain Your Relevance

Be sure to mention why your particular experience and qualifications are relevant to the job that is being advertised. To do this, read the job description requirements very carefully and even try to use similar language if it truly applies to you. For example, if the prospective employer has used words like ‘knowledgeable’ or ‘diligence’, include these in your formal letter.

Reiterate Your Career Highlights

When it comes to writing a powerful covering letter, it is always helpful to look at a formal letter example or two. This will help you to make sure that you are on the right track.

When it comes to the paragraph about your career highlights, it is very useful to have both the job description and your own curriculum vitae in front of you. Follow the job description as a structure from which to write the career highlights from your own CV.

women and man sitting around boardroom table
It is likely that you will need to submit a formal cover letter as part of a job application. | Source: Unsplash

If you follow a formal letter example, you’ll probably find that it contains a moderate amount of power words. Examples of these could be ‘strategic’, or ‘skillset’ – apart from those, you may want to include a few industry-relevant words that also appeared in the job description. Examples of these terms could be ‘fully certified’ or ‘NQF Level 7’ or ‘up-to-date fidelity fund certificate’.

Arrange Facts in Logical Order

Apart from being succinct and business-like, the formal letter format should always be organised, logical, and easy to read. To do this, make sure that the key facts are the ones that jump out and are not hidden amongst an over-use of words and unnecessary lengthy descriptions! Writing too much, especially in business, will ensure that you quickly lose the attention of your reader.

If you follow a formal letter example you will notice the introduction is always quite punchy. It immediately notes both your education and your experience.

It goes without saying that all letter writing, especially the formal letter format, should be devoid of any punctuation, spelling or grammar errors. This is so important that even people who are advanced in their careers have been known to engage with private English tutors, much like those found on Superprof to help them to perfect the formal letter for business.

Your second and third paragraphs are where you list the reasons why you are not only interested in the position, but why you believe you have the skills to match!

This is where you can beat your chest a little about some of your own career highlights. Keep it short and modest, your reference letters should do the job of telling your prospective employer just how fantastic you are and not your own letter writing!

Finally, when it comes to your formal letter structure, make sure that your closing paragraph delivers a little oomph (in a business-like tone of course). This is where you could remind the reader of your interest in the job. Be specific without writing a verbose or separate essay about it. You could, for instance, say something along these lines:

  • I am very excited by the possibility of this position as it is would provide the perfect landscape for me to apply my training in x,y,z
  • I am excited by the possibility of this position as it aligns with my personal views in terms of x,y,z …

In this paragraph, you could also mention your availability and willingness to discuss the position either formally in an interview or informally on the phone or via Skype or Zoom.

student writing with pencil in red notebook
Write a draft and edit it as many times as necessary. | Source: Unsplash

Thank them for taking the time to consider your application and conclude with a salutation befitting of a formal letter format. An example of this could be, ‘Yours faithfully’, ‘Yours sincerely’ or ‘Kind Regards’.  Save salutations like ‘Best or ‘Regards’ for colleagues that you know well, or with whom you are already working.

5 Further Tips for Formal Letter Writing

  1. Make sure that your letter is well-formatted. Use a formal letter example to guide you.
  2. Do a spell check and make sure that your English grammar is absolutely perfect.
  3. Don’t repeat yourself, stick to the highlights within the recommended structure.
  4. Ask someone else, preferably an English speaking person, to review your formal letter and don’t feel embarrassed to do so – letter writing can be a nerve-wracking business for most people.
  5. If you feel you don’t know how to write a formal letter, either produce a draft that a copywriter or English tutor can work with, or sign up for advanced English lessons so that you can add this ability to your other important life skills. Of course, it goes without saying that should you decide to use the skills of a professional, English-speaking writer, you should disclose this in the interview especially if writing, or formal letter writing is a key part of the job.

Enrolling for English lessons, especially if English is not your first language is an excellent investment of both your time and money. Being able to speak, understand, and write the universal language of English, will boost your confidence in the workplace and increase your chances for career advancement.

Whichever way you choose to learn English, or however far you decide to go with your lessons, make sure that knowing how to write a formal letter, is one of your goals!

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Niki is a content writer from Cape Town, South Africa, who is passionate about words, strategic communication and using words to help create and maintain brand personas. Niki has a PR and marketing background, but her happiest place is when she is bringing a story to life on a page.