How to Write an Effective Email

How frustrating is it to receive an email that seems to have no purpose, is just one long paragraph, or uses fancy words you have to grab your dictionary for?  Do you ever receive an email and ask yourself “why was this sent to me” or “what should I do with this?”  I bet with all these circumstance you delete them, or better yet mark them “read later” just in case someone comes back and asks you about it.

An even better question is, do you send email which fits any of these descriptions? 

Email is one of those “necessary evils” which everyone uses.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine how we communicated before email.  Email is fast, reliable, and lets you reach out to a lot of people all at once. However, email can be time consuming, vague, or in some cases put strain on a relationship.  This can cause stress, lost productivity, and the inability to get things done.

Thought I’d share a few tips I have picked up from various sources on writing effective emails.

 

  1. Know your purpose.  Ask yourself, why am I writing this email?  What do I hope the reader will do with this email?  Do I expect the reader to take any action?  Finally, most importantly, ask yourself if you need to send an email or is there a different way to communicate the message such as IM, phone, or <gasp> going to talk directly with the person. 
  2. Email is not instant messaging.  We have created a culture which uses email as chat.  We send one sentence emails back and forth constantly, jump from subject to subject using one email thread, and use internet lingo in the body of the email.  Did you know LOL can mean “laugh out loud” to one person and “lots of love” to another.  Nothing like sending lots of love to the director of HR.  Also, don’t assume people are always waiting at their computer with nothing else to do but respond to your email.  Give them time!  Finally, you are not a rude, cold-blooded, heartless person if you do not send an email which only says “thanks.”  In fact, you are a caring person who doesn’t want to waste their reader’s time to read a single word email.
  3. Don’t get fancy, be specific.  How do you feel when you open an email which requires you to keep scrolling until you see the end?  What about someone who writes in all caps or uses a 48 point font?  Well, they think they same thing when you send an email like this.  Don’t get fancy or write emails 20 paragraphs long.  Remember, clear, concise, and direct.  Much beyond 4 or so paragraphs and I guarantee you will loose your reader.  If they need more detail, they will ask you for it.  Also, never indirectly ask a group of people to do something in email.  If you send a message, “will someone follow up on this” to 10 people, I bet you will send another email a week later asking, “did anyone do this?”
  4. How to form an engaging message.  First, you should address the person(s) you are writing to by name or group, perhaps a short salutation, and then a defining sentence or two on the subject and desired outcome.  The next section should support the message you wish to convey with facts and conclusions. Finally, include a wrap up which either circles back to the subject or asks the reader for feedback.  Don’t wait until the end to include action steps.  If you loose your reader early on, they will never get to the action steps!
  5. One subject, and one subject only!  Do you like receiving an email which has four different subjects which are completely unrelated to each other?  Do you send emails like this and get frustrated when you only get a response to one item?  One way to quickly frustrate your reader is to put a lot of different topics into a single email.  Discipline yourself to keep email focused to a single subject.
  6. The subject field…use it! How often do you decide when/if/how to read an email based on the subject?  Do you get excited to read an email with a subject field of “FYI,” or “Fwd:, fwd:, fwd:.” Well, your readers don’t find it exciting either.  Clearly state the purpose of your email in the subject field which will draw your reader into the content.
  7. Use the right words.  It’s in our nature to write the way we speak.  We like to hear ourselves say big words like exacerbate, pontificate, or ameliorate.  Who wants to read an email with big words like those!  Use the right words when composing the body of your email.  Use words which are concrete, concise, and are familiar to you and your reader.  Put yourself in the reader’s shoes by using words meaningful to them, not you.  This is especially important when writing anything technical in nature to a non-technical speaking person.
  8. Use proper sentences.  There are 3 types of sentences: simple, compound, and complex.  Sentences have these things called “nouns, verbs, and prepositions.”  They also use those funny symbols called commas, periods, and semi-colons.  Use these things.  How frustrating is it to read a jumble of 50 words strewn together, which have no discernible meaning?  Also, one “!”, “?”, or “.” at the end of a sentence is enough.
  9. Think about what your reader may already know.  Try this on for size.  Whats wrong with the sentence  “In accordance with your request, I distributed the proper forms to all this involved by the designated date.”  Well, the reader should already know what they asked you to do, who needed the information, and when they needed it by.  Why waste their time re-addressing those facts?  How about “I completed distributing the forms.”  Simple, concise, and to the point.
  10. Assume IT and your boss have nothing better to do but read your email all day.  Ask yourself, if someone sent this to my boss, would I be in trouble?  Once you hit send, you have no control on where an email could wind up.  Email is not secure and once it leaves your email client, cannot be tracked.  Assume once the reader receives your email, they print it out, make 100 copies of it, and gives it to everyone they know.  Finally, be sure you know your organization’s policy on forwarding email outside of the corporate email system.  Most organizations have policy against this in order to prevent sensitive information from escaping the corporate network.
  11. You are how you write.  Communication is 70% non-verbal including voice tone, fascial expression, and body language.  This means when you send an email, 70% of your ability to communicate is  effectively out the door!  So just be aware that the reader will not see when you are “making a joke” or when you don’t understand something they asked.  If you come off like a jerk when you write, you will be viewed as a jerk when you are face to face with your reader.  If your blood is boiling when writing an email, step away and come back to it later.  I made the mistake of not doing this a few weeks ago, and still have a lot of fence mending to do.
  12. Do you really need to CC: everyone?  I’m sure you love it when you are cc’d on a message you have absolutely no interest in.  You look forward to reading everyone else’s business, because you have so much time to devote to reading stuff you don’t care about.  Stop cc’ing people just because you think there is the off chance they might be interested.  Worse yet, don’t cc somebody to cover your…well, you know.  You assume by cc’ing someone, they will care about your email or you have covered your rear if something goes wrong. In truth, the recipient will probably ignore it and your boss will not accept the excuse, “well, I cc’d you, you should have known.”
  13. Proofread.  This doesn’t mean just look for the red and green squiggly lines.  It means review your content, grammar, and format.  If it is a really important email, which is not confidential, ask someone else to take 30 seconds and tell you if your email makes sense.  Also, know the difference between words like there and their.  Finally, review your email and replace/delete every instance of the word “that.”  It’s easily the most misused word in writing and should not be used as a verb (it’s primarily used as a pronoun.  Look it up!)

 

I think if you apply these ideas, you’ll get better results from email.  By no means do I consider myself perfect, but I work on these 12 skills frequently in an effort to save my time, as well as my reader’s.  And oh yes,  please don’t correct my grammar.  There were no green squiggles so I am sure it is right!

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4 Responses to “How to Write an Effective Email”


  1. 1 Jim Brochowski December 4, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    You know Lorne. He doesn’t read beyond the first line because he gets so much email. Working with him on MJB stuff I’ve had to learn to convey my core message in that one line so if he has to read beyond he knows why.

    I still don’t know that I’m all that good at brief, but I do try.

    My one pet peeve as a sender of email to a group or individual is not getting an answer to a question. I’ve even taken to giving choices for answers. A for yes, B for No, C for I don’t care, Well not that extreme, but along those lines. I try to be direct with those questions so they aren’t just random “Can you take care of this etc..?” Still, sometimes I get no answers and sadly, I can usually predict ahead of time who it is that won’t respond.

    Good talking points. Interesting post.

  2. 2 Eric Hamm December 5, 2008 at 8:53 am

    Hey Greg, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject. It’s always good to be reminded of proper email etiquette.

    “3: Don’t get fancy, be specific.” How true is that! I think we sometimes feel the need to try and ‘wow’ the recipient with our words, when all they want is a clear email that get’s to the point.

    Great stuff! Eric.

  3. 3 Greg Syferd December 6, 2008 at 7:14 am

    Thanks for the replies and kind words.

    Email is one of this longs that can become very stressful for you and your reader if not properly managed. People know we are smart, they really do. I think sometimes we just try too hard to overly impress everyone via email, an easy thing to do.

    Simple, simple, simple is the bottom line.

    @Eric, thanks for stopping by. Big fan of your site!

    Greg.


  1. 1 9 Tips to Keep Your Sanity at the Office « Geek In the Stacks Trackback on January 23, 2009 at 7:50 am

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Welcome

My name is Greg Syferd. Here I share my thoughts, ideas, and random stuff I come across. For work, I am a Systems Manager at the Columbus Metropolitan Library. When unplugged I'm a husband/father, read books, and aspire to be a photographer.
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