How to Write a Formal Email

Need to write a message to your professor? Or to a boss or formal acquaintance? Follow this guide and you can be sure your letter is phrased appropriately and politely. As with many formal communications, there are just a few customary rules to follow…

A Simple Subject

Aside from the “To” address, the first thing you will need to write is the subject for your email. Be sure to make this very clear and to the point. Especially in formal situations, you want the purpose of your message to be clear from the first glance, which requires a concise subject line. Simply write the name of the topic or even the specific question you want to ask. If you are one person among many who will probably send an email on this same topic, include your name (I’ve named my example student Ann Academic).

Meeting on Wednesday, 3pm
 Office Hours Question
 Can we discuss business writing more?
 Ann Academic: Midterm Report (Dec. 2nd Deadline)

Any of these subject lines would be acceptable. Note that if you have a deadline to meet, it is best to include this also in the subject. That way, the recipient will be less likely to forget, since it will be visible from their inbox.

Start at the Beginning

As with cover letters, you must first write a greeting to the person you are addressing. In English, there are several titles that may be applied to a person’s name depending on their gender, marital status, and educational background.

• If the person is a man, simply use Mr. ___.

• If the person is a married woman, Mrs. ___ is appropriate.

• If you do not know whether the individual is married or know they are not, use Ms. ___.

• If you cannot determine the gender of the person you are writing to, simply write their full name without a title.

• Additionally, if you happen to know a person of either gender has a doctorate degree, use Dr. ___ in preference to any of the above (more relevant to academic writing than business).

• If you are writing to a teacher, you may also avoid the prefix puzzle by writing Professor ___ regardless of their gender or education. (Technically “professor” also implies a certain job status, but it can be casually used to refer to any teacher without risk of offense.)

Once you’ve decided on your title, begin by writing

Dear ___,

Technically, a formal greeting should be followed by a colon, but in email the use of a comma has become conventional. Emails, even to formal acquaintances, are simply more casual than a paper letter.

You may write the title followed by the person’s full name or by only their last name. If this is not the first time you are writing to this person, it would be most natural to use only their last name.

Dear Dr. Lee,

After skipping a line, begin your message, starting with a capital letter. Write in full sentences. Again, because emails are by nature less formal than paper communication, the use of contractions is fine. You do want to write clearly and get straight to the point, however.

Dear Dr. Lee,

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me after class the other day. I didn’t realize business writing was so complicated.

You should write in block format (skipping a line between paragraphs without indentation) and keep your message as short and efficient as possible.

Dear Dr. Lee,

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me after class the other day. I didn’t realize business writing was so complicated.

If you have time, could I drop by your office to ask a few more questions? I would like to know more about the details of outlining and planning formal reports.

I saw on the syllabus that your office hours are 2–5pm Wednesdays — would it be ok for me to drop by this week?

Once you have your message written, include a final salutation followed by a comma, just as in a proper letter. Type your name on the line below the salutation and include any necessary identifying information (like a student number or contact information) on the lines below that.

Dear Dr. Lee,

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me after class the other day. I didn’t realize business writing was so complicated.

If you have time, could I drop by your office to ask a few more questions? I would like to know more about the details of outlining and planning formal reports.

I saw on the syllabus that your office hours are 2–5pm Wednesdays — would it be ok for me to drop by this week?

Best Regards,
 Ann Academic
 ID #20031224
 010–555–0000

Wrap it All Up

At this point, your formal email is finished. Double check to make sure you have included any attachments you may have referenced in your message, and verify that you have typed everyone’s names accurately. If this is a reply, make sure you have included only the people intended (people often forget they have clicked “Reply All”, sending their message to a whole group when they shouldn’t, or fail to do so when they should).

You may also choose at this point to turn on the “Read Receipt”, if your email client offers it. Doing so will invite the recipient to send a quick confirmation that they got your message whenever they open it. For personal messages, this option is a bit too exacting (it puts pressure on the recipient to respond), but for formal situations it can be reasonable to request some notification that your message has been seen. In general, only use the “Read Receipt” if you have a firm deadline and distinctly need to know when your message is opened.

Answering Responses

After the person you have contacted replies, if you need to send a follow-up message, follow the same formula as above. You may wish to begin the body of your message by thanking them for their prompt response before continuing with the conversation. Other than that, the format should be the same.

Some sources say the greeting and closing can be dropped for replies, so that you type only the body of your message going forward. However, I would recommend that you keep these formalities. You wouldn’t walk into someone’s formal office without knocking, and your greeting is an analogous courtesy.


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