Nixon's Resignation Letter is an example of a formal letter. Image by Wikipedia.

Nixon’s Resignation Letter is an example of a formal letter. Image by Wikipedia.

ZIMSEC Notes: Writing Formal Letters

One of the possible questions that candidates will be asked to tackle as part of their Ordinary Level English examination is to write a formal letter; called Business Letters in the syllabus. Questions on formal letters are found in Section B of English Paper 1 and are worth 20 marks.

Students are given a scenario or background information that they can use to write the formal letter. It is important to first read the information and understand what it entails. For example if a questions says, “You are an officer with the ministry of Environment and Tourism”, you will have to imagine yourself as one and try and get into the likely mindset of such an officer. Bearing your title in mind will also affect the way you will write such a letter for example you cannot use your school’s address when writing such a letter because in all certainty a person who bears the title of “Office in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism” must have graduated from school.

So bear in mind who you are supposed to be according to the question when composing the letter. Are you a disgruntled customer who was on the receiving end of bad service at a local hotel and are writing to complain about this to the hotel’s manager? Are you a High School graduate who is part of a class that graduated 20 years ago writing a letter to the school detailing your last visit to the school.

The second thing that you need to be aware of when writing a formal letter is the intent of the letter. What is the question really asking you to do? For example if you are an Environmental Officer and being asked to detail your visit on the environmental degradation in an area your recently visited stick to the detailing bit. Do not for example try to suggest possible way to combat this degradation unless the examination question asks you to. Do not complain when you are asked to compliment the service you received at a hotel unless perhaps it is offered as some form of afterthought. Do what the questions is asking you to do, no more and no less.

Usually the questions will ask you to expand on given points and to add some of your own. You are supposed to use all the points given but expand by adding “flesh” to the skeletal points based on your own experiences and intentions. You are also free to add points of your own to complement these points. Each point should constitute a paragraph, a goal which can be achieved by making it the topic sentence in the paragraph.

The syllabus provides the possibility that some or all the points will be presented to the candidate in the form of a graph, picture or graph. Although this rarely happens, do not bank on the chance that you will not have to face such a question where the information is given in such form. Take time therefore to familiarize yourself with basic charts and diagrams particularly: Bar Graphs, statistical data and pie charts.

You should remember this is a formal letter so make use of formal registers and tone. For example be careful to address people using the proper salutations, titles and work titles. For example Mr. for men, Mrs for married women, Miss for women yet to be married, Ms when you are unsure and for divorcees, Dr. for Doctors and sir/madam when addressing them. You must avoid the use of colloquialisms, cliches and the use of an over familiar tone for example addressing the reception or calling them “my friend”.

Do not make assumptions for example do not use sweeping generalizations such as: “As you well know…” , “It is obvious…” etc.

You do not necessary have to present the given points in their given order. Adopt them and present them in a way that is more natural to your letter and make more logical sense to you.

Shakespeare said;”Brevity is the soul of wit”, considering how hard pressed for time people in the business world are, it is always important to be as brief as possible without sacrificing clarity and meaning while not writing long winded letters that are likely to test the patience of readers. Be succinct.

Also you should always include your standing in the letter after your signature. That is who you are with regards to the subject matter of the letter. For example are you a customer, are you an executive at a rival firm, a lawyer, an Officer in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. In the first paragraph you must also include an appropriate introduction stating for example why you are writing to the letter and if applicable references to other previous correspondences or attached documents.

Finally you should know that both addresses go to the left hand side of the page. While your address used to go to the right hand side of the page this practice has since fallen out of use. This might have been brought about by the extensive use of typed letters which make use of letterheads which tend to be either centered or left-aligned. Also you should not that in actual business correspondence, the addresses are often now omitted due to the rise in use of emails. ZIMSEC still requires you to include the addresses however, so take care to do so.

The address you use depends in no small part to the question. If the question somehow changes who you are as has already been touched on above, you should take care to create an appropriate address for yourself instead of using your school address. The title of the recipient may also have to be made up; be sure to create a title that is both believable and appropriate in the circumstances. The same applies for the address of the recipient: it does not have to be accurate; just believable and appropriate.

Typical format of a formal letter(Business Letter)

Below is the format of a typical business letter:

[Your Address] For example

The Ministry of Tourism and Environment

35 Samora Machel Avenue


[Blank Line] [Date] e.g. 17 March 2015

[Blank Line] [Job Title/Name of Person Receiving the Letter] For example:

The Operations Manager/Mr Moyo

[Address of Recipient] For example.

The District Administrator Chihota Communal Area

P.O. Box 87


Dear Sir/Madam [Just pick one if the gender was made clear in the question or if you are supposed to know the gender of the person based on the nature of the question. For example if you are supposed to write a letter providing feedback to a District Administrator after you visited their home area it would not make much sense for you to not know the gender of the administrator!] [Blank Line]

Ref: [ A condensed version of the purpose of the letter. This can either be in capital letters or just underlined to set it apart from the rest of the letter.] [Blank Line.] [Introduction. State why you have written the letter and include any references to relevant material or previous correspondence. Often enough the introduction is all that is needed in real life business letters for example the letter pictured above was written by Richard Nixon, when he resigned from the position of President of the United States and its perhaps the most famous business letter.] [Blank Line] [The body of the letter. Made up of multiple paragraphs and each demarcated by blank lines on both ends.] [Blank Line] [An expression of what you hope to achieve or what you hope will be a satisfactory resolution for you concerning the matter in the letter.] For example:

I hope to receive a favorable reply from you soon.

[Blank Line.] [ Yours faithfully, when you do not know the recipient and Yours sincerely when you know the recipient. Please note use is made of a comma and not full-stop.] [Blank Line] [Signature] You should actually put a signature here.

[Blank Line] [Print full name usually in capitals.] [Where applicable put your standing in here.] For example:

( Project Coordinator.)