Over the last decade and a half, email has evolved into the modern organization’s primary medium of communication. One survey estimated that professionals tend to spend one to three hours per day reading and writing emails, and waste half of this time reading trying to interpret ineffectively written emails. Poorly written emails are a result of weaknesses in style and structure.
Poor style is characterized by improper spelling and grammar, meandering and complex sentences and abstract, technical or indirect language. Style is a function of formal education, developed primarily through practice.
In contrast, poor structure refers to disparity between logical sentence order and the reader’s comprehension of those sentences. Often, the central argument does not develop over the course of the email. Consequently, the email’s goal is unclear. Though poor structure is more pervasive, it is also easier to correct.
In this take-away from my “Write Right Emails” workshop, I provide a few guidelines to improve your the style and structure of your emails.
Write for Impact
- Before you compose an email, address two key questions: (1) “Why am I writing this email?” and (2) “What do I expect the reader to do and when?”
- Compose your email from the reader’s point of view. Make it easy for him/her to understand immediately why you have sent that message what response or action you expect.
- Be brief. It saves everyone time and drives action. Summarize information such that your readers are more likely to read the email and actually respond. Attach all supporting material or offer to provide details if the reader is interested.
- Make each paragraph’s first sentence as clear and persuasive as possible. Assume that the reader will read only the first sentence before deciding if he/she is interested in the second sentence and beyond.
- In each paragraph, make your most important point first before providing details. The reader will better understand the major (abstract/summary) ideas first before he/she is presented with the minor (constituent) details.
- Make your emails count the first time. Anticipate any missing details that could cause an extended back-and-forth. Anticipate any supplementary information the reader may need.
- Do not rush to send emails. Dedicate time to proofread each message. You can usually improve the wording, make a point more concisely, or generally improve. Do not give your readers an excuse to misread you.
Use Great Subject Lines
- State your email’s objective in a meaningful subject line. Give readers a clue as to what your email is about and, more importantly, your expected response.
- Include two components in each subject line: [Context/Project] + [Message summary/Action required] E.g., “Need MATLAB help: how can I calculate variance,” “Competitive pricing problem: recommended solution.”
- Avoid indistinct and elusive subject lines: “Hi,” “One more thing …,” “FYI,” “Can you do this,” or, “Help, please???”
- Prefix the subject with ‘URGENT’ if the matter is pressing.
- Try composing all-in-the-subject-line emails. E.g., “Friday’s lunch: rescheduled to 1:00 PM [eom]” or “Reminder: budget reports due today at noon [eom].” Within your team, adopt a few standard practices and abbreviations (e.g., EOM for end of message) in your team.
- When replying to emails, change the subject if the thread’s topic has changed or if the original subject was too vague.
- Do not discuss multiple subjects in a single message. Send multiple emails, each with its own meaningful subject line.
Improve your Writing Style
- Keep sentences short. Use fifteen or fewer words per sentence. Use simple vocabulary. Avoid jargon and buzz words.
- Limit paragraphs to four sentences. Each paragraph should not be more than one inch tall on a computer screen’s display.
- Limit your entire email to one screen size; the reader should not have to scroll vertically or horizontally to read your entire email.
- Break longer messages into bulleted or numbered form.
- Use the active voice (e.g., “I appreciate your thoughtfulness and assistance”) and avoid passive voice (“Your thoughtfulness and assistance are greatly appreciated”). Active voice is direct, simple, and more concise.
- Personalize your emails: Use “I,” “you,” “we,” or “Mike from Quality Assurance” as subjects of sentences instead of “our company,” or “the Quality Assurance team.”
- Compose emails in Microsoft Word while writing, editing and proofing text. Then copy your messages to your email software.
- In Microsoft Word’s “Options” dialog box, activate all the “Spelling & Grammar” settings. Enable the ‘Check grammar as you type’ and ‘Check grammar with spelling’ options. Select ‘Grammar & Style’ from the ‘Writing style’ drop down and click on the ‘Settings’ button. When proofing text, use “Tools”-“Spelling and Grammar” or the keyboard shortcut F7 to check spelling and grammar.
- In Microsoft Word, turn on “Readability Statistics” in the “Spelling and Grammar” options dialog box. After the spelling and grammar check (see above tip), Word displays the Readability Statistics dialog box. For better readability in technical writing, target a Flesch Reading Ease score of 60 to 70 and a Flesch—Kincaid Grade Level of 8 to 9.
- Do not write in ALL CAPS. This is the digital equivalent of shouting. In addition, ALL CAPS are harder to read.
- Avoid SMS/texting language and acronyms such as ‘u,’ ‘afk,’ ‘ty,’ ‘jk,’ etc. Use normal capitalization. Use correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Avoid unnecessary exclamation points.
Observe Proper Email Etiquette
- Keep language professional and courteous. Email tends to be a relaxed medium. Still, avoid humor, criticism, sarcasm and informal language. Be mindful of your tone. Email tends to transmit anger more easily than other emotions. Do not reply in anger.
- Avoid emails that simply say “thanks,” “got it,” “see you at the meeting,” “you’re welcome,” “glad you got it,” or “Great, I’ll see you too.”
- Be selective in your choice of recipients. Have a purpose for every addressee. Use “TO” and “CC” to differentiate between readers who have action items in the email and readers for whom the email is merely informative. Never use the “BCC” field. Do not overuse “reply to all” – include just the appropriate readers.
- When forwarding or replying to a thread, trim everything irrelevant to keep the conversation going.
- Keep attachments small. Use alternative means of exchanging large files.
- Avoid prolonged conversations over email. Problems are often easier to defuse using a more personal means of interaction. If you have difficulty saying something via email, pick up the phone or if possible, talk to your recipient in person.
- Have a face-to-face meeting or telephone call if a topic (discovery and problem solving, especially) involves a lot of discussion, debate, or data exchange.
- When requesting a routine action from an employee, copy his/her boss as a courtesy. When requesting a special (time-consuming) action from an employee, first write to his/her boss and request for the employee’s time. It is not wise to circumvent the boss.
- Do not “copy up” (copy someone’s boss) as a means of coercion. If you have not gotten a response to an earlier email, call the person.
- Email is a public and permanent record and could be used in legal proceedings against people and organizations. Do not state anything that may be potentially hurtful or damaging.
- Do not use your company’s email account to send private messages. Your company owns the content of your company email account.