Concise letters and emails tell a recipient what they need to know. Use the right level of formality for the recipient and purpose. Be mindful of people’s privacy.
Identify the user and purpose
The user (recipient) and the purpose determine whether you use an email or a letter.
The level of formality in the writing depends on the recipient and the purpose.
When you write emails or letters for work, use the right format and tone for the purpose.
Users vary. They include:
- people outside government
- colleagues in the department or agency
- colleagues in other departments or agencies.
Consider the kind of relationship that you have with the recipient.
Emails and letters have many purposes. These include:
- providing or seeking information
- giving advice or requiring action to enforce a law or regulation
- taking part in a discussion or negotiation about a topic or issue.
Assess the formality based on context and policy
Letters are more formal than emails, but the differences are becoming blurred. Emails are now used for some formal official correspondence.
The more formal the purpose, the more likely it is that you will use a letter instead of an email. But the choice is not clear-cut and depends on your organisation’s preferences. Make sure you know what they are.
- In formal correspondence requiring a person to comply with a law, you would be more likely to write a letter.
- In informal correspondence between colleagues working together, you would be more likely to use an email.
Write in clear language with appropriate tone
Always write in plain language.
Consider the needs of the person who will get the email or letter and choose the right tone.
Access to information requirements
The Freedom of Information Act 1982 gives people the right to request access to government-held information. This includes emails and letters.
If you write in government, the email or letter you write could become public. Emails and letters can be subject to freedom of information requests. They could also be used as evidence during legal proceedings.
Confirm privacy rules before you write to someone
Take steps to confirm details are up-to-date before sending letters containing personal information.
Privacy requirements and permissions
Your organisation has obligations under the Privacy Act 1988.
When you handle personal information, you must comply with the Australian Privacy Principles. Personal information is any information that could identify an individual, in any format.
You must prevent unintended transmission of personal information via email. Emails need to be sent securely and to the correct recipient. Check your organisation’s processes and procedures for the secure transmission of personal information.
For letters sent by post, consider using registered post. This requires signature on delivery to ensure the letter is delivered to the correct recipient.
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has more guidance in its Guide to securing personal information.
You must have someone’s explicit permission to add them to a mailing list and you must give them the option to unsubscribe.
Your organisation might also have obligations under the Spam Act 2003. The Australian Communications and Media Authority can provide guidance about emailing promotional content via a distribution list.
Include the recipient’s name and postal address at the top of the letter. Make sure the recipient’s details are correct.
If you’re sending a letter to someone in an organisation, include:
- the recipient’s position
- the branch or division they work in
- the name of the organisation.
Use information only if it is accurate, up to date, complete and relevant. If necessary, contact a recipient to confirm their address.
For letters you send electronically:
- Consider using secure messaging services like myGov rather than email.
- With emails, explain in the covering text that the email has a letter attached.
Electronic letters are more accessible for some people than paper letters. For example, a person who is blind or has low vision can access electronic documents by using screen-reading software.
CC and BCC fields
Send emails to people only if they need the information.
Copy people into an email if they need the email for information only.
- Include recipients in the ‘To’ field only if you need them to act on something in the email.
- Use the ‘CC’ field if people all know each other or can look up an email address with ease.
- Use the ‘BCC’ field to send an email to a group of people who don’t know each other. Use of BCC protects people’s privacy by not disclosing their name or email address.
Use your organisation’s letter templates
Use the organisation’s template for letters. The template will include any branding you need to use, including letterhead.
Using a template helps the recipient know that the letter is official and that they can trust it. It is also part of the organisation’s brand and shows consistency.
- I can understand any information contained in an image.
- I can read and understand text, even if there are unusual words and shortened words, or languages other than English.
- I can change the content's presentation without losing information or structure.
- To enable mobile device screen readers to access the file, use an accessible file format.
- For images in emails and digital letters, use alt text.
- Consider accessibility when sending attachments. For example, don’t send PDF attachments if the recipient could be using a mobile device to read the email.
- Don't send images unless they're referred to and described in the text.
- Make sure any links are easily found and work properly.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines success criteria:
Include dates in letters
Include the date you are sending the letter so that the recipient knows when you wrote it. This is especially important if they need to do something or if you are notifying them of a decision.
Write a clear and concise subject line
Be clear and concise with the subject line. It should sum up the purpose of the email.
Write the subject line as a heading that helps people know what is in the email and why they should read it. As for all headings, it is good practice to put the main idea first. This is especially helpful when people read emails on smaller screens. A long subject line might not be displayed in full on smaller screens.
People are more likely to open an email if the subject is clear. It is also easier to find the email later.
Avoid using expressions and words that make the email look like spam or like a suspicious email.
A subject in a letter is like a subject line in an email. It’s what the recipient will read first and must make the purpose of the letter very clear.
Keep it short but informative.
Items of interest for possible discussion by the Working Group on Safety in Melbourne next month
Use a salutation and sign-off to match the formality
The salutation and sign off should match the level of formality.
The most formal salutations are rarely useful. It is best to address a person by their name and preferred title.
The first email in a conversation should include the recipient’s name and an appropriate salutation. Use ‘Dear’ in a more formal context and ‘Hi’ in a more informal context, such as emailing a colleague.
If you don’t know the recipient for an email or letter, use ‘dear’, the recipient’s title (Ms, Mr, Mrs, Mx, Dr) and their last name.
Use the correct and preferred title for people of different gender identities. ‘Mx’ refers to non-binary people and those who do not wish to be referred to by their gender. Use ‘Mx’ when a person indicates this is what they prefer, but not otherwise.
If you do not know the recipient’s preferred title, you can simply use a person’s given name with their family name.
Follow specific conventions when addressing ministers, royalty, diplomats and other officials.
Be careful of using a shortened name if you aren’t sure the recipient uses it.
At the end of the letter or email, include a sign-off that matches the salutation. Use ‘Yours sincerely’ if you know the person’s name. Use ‘Yours faithfully’ if you do not.
Hi there Luca
See you soon
Let's catch up
|Dear Ms/Mr/Mx Chan||Yours sincerely|
|To whom it may concern
Structure the body to help the user
Plan what you are going to write. Think about:
- who the email or letter is for (the recipient)
- why you’re sending it.
Stay on topic and write only what the recipient needs to know. For emails, send separate emails about separate topics. It helps keep the conversation clear. It also helps the recipient find the information later.
Structure emails and letters so that the recipient knows what’s most important as soon as they open it. Keep the email or letter as short as possible. People will be able to read and understand it quickly if you omit unnecessary detail.
The body of an email should reflect the subject line. It should tell the recipient:
- why you’re sending the email
- what they need to do or understand.
The body of a letter is where you give more details about the subject. Include:
- an introduction stating why you’re sending the letter
- what the recipient needs to do or understand
- any information the recipient needs to know so they can do what you have asked them to
- a list of extra pages, such as a form
- a concluding sentence or paragraph.
Attach only documents that are relevant to the email or letter.
If you include links in emails or electronic letters, make sure they’re accessible and check they work. Do not use URLs in emails or letters. Link a word or phrase so the reader is clear about where the link will take them.
Check your organisation’s policy about links in emails and electronic letters. They can look suspicious to people receiving them.
Spell out the full URL of any links you use in a letter. This makes it easier for the recipient to type the URL into their web browser.
If a letter is longer than one page, insert the page breaks in appropriate places so the recipient doesn't miss information.
Never use an emoji in formal correspondence. Use emojis only when you’re sure they are appropriate, and don’t rely on them for meaning.
Include your signature block
Every email should include a signature block with information about the sender and their organisation. This could be you or the person or team responsible for the email.
Follow your agency’s requirements, which may include your:
- position or role
- branch and division
- work phone number
- work email address.
In a letter, when appropriate, add the details of a contact person if there is one. Never include someone’s contact details if you haven’t asked first.
Check for style and writing errors
Use the organisation’s style guide or template.
Check the letter or email before sending it, even if it’s a quick email to a colleague. A typographical error (‘typo’) can mean the recipient has to reply with questions instead of knowing what to do.
Follow your organisation’s rules for archiving
Follow your workplace’s guidelines for record keeping and managing security.
Information management requirements
You must use the Protective Security Policy Framework (PSPF) when preparing government information. The PSPF covers how information is classified and marked, and what this means for its storage, handling, access and disposal. Consult the PSPF’s guide to sensitive and classified information or consult your organisation’s protective security policy.
Information (including emails and letters) that you create become records. Records provide evidence of what your organisation has done and why.
Managing and disposing of records properly is a requirement under the Archives Act 1983. You must follow your organisation’s information management requirements. Visit the National Archives of Australia website for information management standards.
The digital edition has mostly new content on email and letters. It includes how to write a government letter or email, the components and requirements.
- Apart from ‘Forms of address’, the sixth edition had little on letters and emails.
- Apart from some information in ‘Terms and phrases’, the Content Guide did not have information on emails or letters.
About this page
Ethos CRS (2018) Business writing: letters and emails [unpublished training materials], Ethos CRS, Canberra.
GOV.UK (2017) ‘Planning and writing text messages and emails’, Service manual, GOV.UK, accessed 20 May 2020.
GOV.UK (2019) ‘Writing effective letters’, Service manual, GOV.UK, accessed 20 May 2020.
Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edn, Lacuna, Westgate.
Oxford University Press (2016) New Oxford style manual, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
United States Government (n.d.) ‘Writing effective letters’, Plain language guidelines, plainlanguage.gov, accessed 20 May 2020.
University of Chicago (2017) Chicago manual of style, 17th edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
This page was updated Wednesday 3 March 2021.