Chelsea, a reader of my monthly e-newsletter, Better Writing at Work, asked me to write about indenting paragraphs in business letters. She wrote, "When writing letters, what is the 'proper' protocol on indenting?"
There are several proper ways to format a traditional business letter. Only one of them indents paragraphs, and it is not popular these days. I have described three ways below.
Modern and sleek: the full-block style. These days most business letters follow the full-block style, with nothing indented. In this style, everything (the date, inside address, salutation, body, close, and signature block) begins at the left margin. The only content that might be indented in the full-block style is bullet points or long quotes. Both of those would be indented as a block, though, not just the first line, like this:
This is an example of a paragraph that is block indented. The whole paragraph is indented, not just the first line.
Most businesses use the full-block style because it is easy to type–no indenting! Also, it looks modern and sleek on the page.
Less modern and sleek: the modified-block style. Paragraphs are not indented in the modified-block style. However, the date, closing, and signature block are indented–to begin at the center of the line. It requires the business writer or typist to create a template with the correct indention of the date, closing, and signature block. Some organizations use this style, which looks neat but not sleek.
Fussy and dated looking: the modified-block style with indented paragraphs. The only style with indented paragraphs is known as "the modified-block style with indented paragraphs." In it, the date, closing, and signature block begin at the center, as in the modified-block style. However, each paragraph is indented a half-inch (1.27 cm). This is the fussiest looking letter, with no sleek lines. It is not popular these days but was common decades ago.
If your organization wants to come across as up to date and elegant, choose the full-block style. If you want to appear up to date yet a bit traditional, consider the modified-block style. If you want to appear traditional and old-fashioned, the modified-block style with indented paragraphs might work, but remember that it doesn't look elegant.
Some letterhead is already very left-heavy. If your company's letter is designed with a very strong left line, you might want to use the modified-block style for a more balanced look. Check with your communications department.
Before anyone asks, the answer is no–paragraphs are NOT indented in email. On the screen, people focus on the left margin, so it makes no sense to indent paragraphs in email.
Chelsea, I hope this post answers your question. To indent or not to indent paragraphs? It's up to you.