Software

Nine guidelines for writing effective email messages

If you want people to pay more attention to your email, perhaps you should pay more attention to your email!

In elementary school, we learned how to compose a business letter by including the date, a return address, a greeting, and so on. Those rules still serve us well for letters. Unfortunately, there are no such guidelines for email.

We want recipients of our email to treat our message seriously, yet we often give little thought to the message we send, because it's quick and easy, at least from a technical perspective. It's up to us to apply common sense and good taste to the messages we send. Here are a few guidelines you might find helpful, whether you're using Outlook, Outlook Express, or a web client:

  • Keep it brief: I never make it through a long email. I find myself scanning, and I miss important details. You're not writing a book or a love letter, you're sharing information. Share the information and move on. If you write more than two or three paragraphs, a face-to-face meeting or conference call might be better.
  • Include a succinct subject: Long subject lines are as bad as no subject at all. Pinpoint a few keywords that convey the email's purpose.
  • Check your spelling and grammar: Your email client has tools for checking your spelling and grammar so use them. Many people are sensitive to misspelled words and poor grammar. They see it as a lack of concern. If you don't care, why should they?
  • Don't use emoticons and acronyms: Emoticons and acronyms are fine for personal email, but don't use them in your professional correspondence.
  • Don't use ALL CAPS: ALL CAPS is the email equivalent of angry shouting. You wouldn't use ALL CAPS in a professional letter, so don't use them in email.
  • Limit copies: Only copy those who absolutely need to be in the loop. Otherwise, colleagues will start ignoring your email.
  • Greet your recipients: Use a short greeting to acknowledge your reader; include their name if you can.
  • Include a closing: Let the reader know you're done by including a complimentary closing and signature.
  • Retain the thread: When responding to an email, include previous messages and add your response to the top. That way, the recipient is privy to all the information that you already have.

In short, show some courtesy and don't take your reader for granted.

About

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

48 comments
BBaldwin803
BBaldwin803

I agree with many of your point, but right off the bat I have to admit that I was taken aback a little bit by your first point, "Keep it brief". There are two things that just get to me about your comments: [ul][*]First, for many of us email has almost completely replaced the formal business letter and is the primary form of communication to coworkers and business contacts. It's important to realize that not all business communication can easily be broken down into a short summary. Additionally, some communications [b]shouldn't[/b] be cut down for the sake of keeping it brief. If there are valid points to be made and clarity is a primary concern then don't forsake deliberate and precise communication in the name of brevity.[/ul] [ul][*]The second thing that you said about keeping it brief was that you don't read long emails. Sadly that's not the first time I've heard someone say this in a business environment. I'm sorry to say this but personally I think that's inexcusable and terribly unprofessional. It may be a sad fact that the attention span of society today is very short but communication is a critical aspect of business and to skim or scan a business communication is simply lazy and a recipe for mistakes. While it's true that some people send emails that use too much verbiage in the content of their messages, that's no excuse for taking shortcuts and failing to be professional on our part (as the recipient).[/ul] And one other thing that you fail to mention that is an unbelievably common problem with business communication via email, is punctuation (and proper capitalization), or more precisely the lack there of. It's one thing to fail to place a coma here, or a semicolon there, but failing to use punctuation (at all) as a habit is just pathetic. Additionally, it can (and often does) lead to confusion and misunderstanding.

Debbi Cooke
Debbi Cooke

When emailing back and forth dont ask a new question or request something different that is not in the subject line.

ghreams
ghreams

I see that you covered many of my pet peeves. Thank you. I hope many, many people read this and heed your advice, including many of my friends and relatives. Are you listening and reading friends and family? Please do. Merci encore.

ghreams
ghreams

I don't like it when I get emails with no subject in the subject heading box. A good, clear statement of what the email is about is greatly appreciated. It helps you speed through the clutter of the excess amount of email you receive.

Tiger_Cane
Tiger_Cane

I have been looking over the last couple of years at better email guidance from a number of sources. One of my favorite sources is Tim Sanders whoose email web site is full of good guidance. So as others have said i concurr with the general consensus to place recipients on the appropriate line (to vs cc), and with the avoid Reply to ALL syndrome that plauges the business world and use it only when absolutely needed. As for the subject line - I think it needs to be used very wisely. Here is great guidance on this from Tim: http://blog.emailatoz.com/2008/08/20/master-your-subject-line/

L72
L72

Something else that really gets me is users that *always* send all email with a read receipt. It's one thing if it's needed - perhaps while they are having problems with their ISP - but for every little thing? It's just not necessary - and the recipients shouldn't be forced to acknowledge each email as well as replying separately.

lehnerus2000
lehnerus2000

I might have missed it. Always let people know that you have sent an attachment. I always include a note in the subject line, e.g. (includes Attachment). I mention it in the email including the name and approximate size. Don't send "naked" links. I always mention the web page title and then add the link. I find that spam (and malware links) don't follow those "rules" (not yet anyway).

menopaws
menopaws

I always make long drawn out emails. Like I can say in 10 sentences, what most people can manage with one. So, this was very helpful to me. I am definitely going to work on these things. Thank you very much

jmunoz66
jmunoz66

I translated your document into spanish and I published in my company Intranet site as well. You cannot imagine the impact this topic caused. The people started to ask how to achieve this tips into their day by day. Thanks a lot

morepork
morepork

You may think your message is the most important thing I should be dealing with - but you don't know what's in my Inbox.

WillfromSF
WillfromSF

I totally disagree with your position to "limit copies." I used to work in a government bureaucracy and it always amazed me that people didn't share information. I wasted countless hours working on something that had I known what others in my web of workers had known I could have saved the trouble and time or done a better job. Whenever I sent out an informational email, I tried to think of all the people who might find that info useful and cc:ed them. It amazed me that others didn't do the same, but then it was a govt bureaucracy.

j_eyon
j_eyon

maybe you said this in another article - but might have been suitable for this one too - don't send "thank you"s

elangomatt
elangomatt

Just don't do it. We recently moved to Outlook and almost immediately some of our users found that they could put backgrounds on their email messages. One user actually started using a background that made the email text itself difficult to read. I don't know if someone said something to the user about it, but she finally did drop the background. I don't know what it does to the message size, but I think that backgrounds on emails are just plain annoying. Back when I was doing helpdesk work, I would go out of my way to strip annoying backgrounds and text styles out of emails before replying to them.

schre009
schre009

I'm going to take exception to you "no acronyms" rule. They have their place, but make sure you expand the acronym the first time you use it. For example: ABC (Always Be Concise). Having worked for a large corporation where an acronym could have several different meanings, it decreases the possibility of misunderstanding.

n4aof
n4aof

In an age when email has moved from being a sort of quick note to being a replacement for regular business communications, several of the most accurate points made in this article simply highlight the catastrophic failure of the US educational system and the resulting abysmal lack of standards among too many "educated" "professionals." We have to keep email short because people are too lazy to read more than two or three paragraphs (actually, many executives are incapable of paying attention to more than two or three sentences). People need to be reminded to check spelling and grammar using the tools in their software because so many people have turned off those tools because they find all the corrections annoying. We have an education system that teaches students that spelling and grammar are obsolete concepts that no longer matter. In the business world, spelling and grammar often do matter, but the "spell check" built in to most software if woefully inadequate for the task today. How many emails and letters do each of us read every day that contain words which are spelled correctly - except that it is completely the wrong word. Most grammar checkers are incapable of handling anything much more complex than See Spot Run. Which may not be a bad idea considering how few people can write - or read - anything above that level. And one point that Ms. Harkins omitted, pay attention to the difference between TO and CC addressees.

SmartyParts
SmartyParts

Start your email by asking for what you want them to do or to know. Most people lose interest after about 15 seconds, so I always start the email by saying exactly what I need the recipient to know/do and then include the details about why beginning as a separate paragraph so that if they bail after the first sentence or two at least i've gotten my key point across. If they want the details then they are there later in the email.

kumarmukesh
kumarmukesh

Many thanks for this valuable information

promytius1
promytius1

NEVER ever mention more than one, and ONLY one thing, one point, or one question in an email. Have three questions - want 3 good answers? Send 3 emails; trust me on this one, it works every time.

pocjoc
pocjoc

Nice article, Susan. I must say that I agree with you especially for the grammar and spelling, but I disagree about the emoticons part. Sometimes is necessary to express an emotion regards a situation or something that might be so hard if you dont show to the reader that you are not angry, or sad Using : - ) or : - ( is sufficient, it is not necessary to put high-colored-icons. Sincerely, Josep Oncins

Trentski
Trentski

Anyone that works in IT, knows this stuff already, its like a standard thing

santeewelding
santeewelding

That [i]was[/i] a love letter. You wrote all nine points for your love of the language.

RickC998
RickC998

@Spitfire_Sysop - You nearly had me! Then I checked your profile and saw some of your other answers elsewhere... and realised what a mickey-take your comment in this thread is/was. Thanks for the smile; I'm glad that my knee-jerk reactions are slowing down. 8-)

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

IMHO, PPL TREATING ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION JUST LIKE WRITTEN COMMUNICATION THAT IT NOW REPLACES, YMMV. :D -LOL TTYL :-P

bboyd
bboyd

I would suggest compact and useful signatures. an 8 line signature with pictures repeated across innumerable emails and in depths of many layers is what I think is rude. Make your sig file in notepad. compare to identical file made in word, 1k or 25k. Using simple formatting and or eliminating HTML and rich text email goes a long way to securing email and eliminating waste space.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Do you have any other tips for writing effective emails?

ssharkins
ssharkins

Thank you -- I'm glad you're finding the topic helpful!

M in the beach
M in the beach

What "!"? I have a rule that sets the priority of all incoming emails to normal. That way, I can decide the priority for myself.

elangomatt
elangomatt

I agree that you shouldn't put high priority on every single message just because you are the president's secretary, but there are legitimate reasons to add a high priority flag to some emails. If I have data due to the state and I haven't been able to get in touch with you any other way, I'll throw the ! on an email because it IS important. The high priority ! should only be used for truly important things though or the ! will just get ignored. (like the boy who flagged high priority?)

ssharkins
ssharkins

If everyone you copy has a valid reason for getting the email, it doesn't matter whether you copy 0 or 1000 -- that's not what I'm talking about. On the other hand, once you get a reputation for sending unnecessary copies, people will stop reading your emails and that will lead to trouble, eventually.

ssharkins
ssharkins

I'm not sure what you mean by a thank you -- can you clarify? I send thank you messages when I think they're appropriate.

ssharkins
ssharkins

Some acronyms have their place in a business email. The technical industry is rife with them, so yes, you're right -- you can't apply that rule too aggressively. I was thinking in terms of the social acronyms, but I should've made that clear -- TTFN!

ssharkins
ssharkins

Thanks for a thoughtful response. You're right -- we shouldn't depend on spell checkers -- they're a grand tool, but not the end of the process!

Zlosk
Zlosk

I work in a technical field, and often have multiple questions that need answering. I've found that explicitly stating the number of questions you have, and then listing the questions in a numbered list will get all of them answered... at least when the questions are sent to other technical people.

j_eyon
j_eyon

jives with my past experience - good suggestion - same recipient / multiple questions / multiple emails

elangomatt
elangomatt

I have been discovering this rule as well recently after I changed job roles. I adopted your "only one" rule for one particular user after the 3rd time she responded to only the first question I emailed her about. I didn't think it would be very hard to answer both questions since the questions were only 2 sentences each. I guess I was just expecting too much.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

If it's an informal email to co-workers pointing out some tips for more efficient call response, sure, I'll use the emoticons. But I'm not expecting that email to go any further than fellow employees. If there's a possibility the email I'm sending may leave the company and be seen by one of our customers, there are no emoticons. Not a one.

ssharkins
ssharkins

I use them a lot too -- you'll even find my thoughts here peppered with them. :) I'm not sure I would one in a serious business message though. I'm sure I haven't done that before. I'm trying to imagine needing one. I guess, there are different levels of business/professional communications. :)

Cynyster
Cynyster

It is sad to say that the majority of all the e-mail users that I deal with (in house and out) haven't the vaguest idea about e-mail. Sure they use it every day. But they have no concept of how to use it effectively, nor how to manage it. A situation perpetuated by upper management that refuses to train employees in the basics.

olddognewtricks
olddognewtricks

Speaking of love of the language, though, in your first point, you find yourself "skimming", not "scanning". "Scan" means to scrutinize intently, "skim" means to glance over briefly.

ssharkins
ssharkins

What a nice thing to say! Thank you! I think what's missing with email communications is the writer's ability to change gears a bit. The change of voice was almost automatic when writing a business letter--it was (is) serious work. That change from normal voice to business voice just hasn't evolved in the email process. Some do it, but for many, the two worlds have collided. Perhaps I'm over-thinking it all a bit -- I'm for communicating and I care less about the rules than results. When receiving an email, I don't lament the sender's poor spelling or grammar, if I understand the message. Proper spelling and grammar make it easier of course. :) When discussing this subject, I can't help but remember the Mad Max movie with the Aussie kids living out in the desert and creating a new language for themselves. :)

ssharkins
ssharkins

I think the form is evolving and as long as we're all on the same page, I won't mind. :)

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

Be sure to answer the "5 W's" to be sure your email is clear and complete: Who - What - When - Where - Why How many times have we received an email like "Please come to our meeting on Tuesday" and then had to chase the sender for details

j_eyon
j_eyon

emails that merely say "thank you" may be welcome by some people - but to others - they just waste of time i suppose the world can be divided between those who feel "thank yous" are essential for the continuation of the world - and those who don't feel a tacit "thank you" works just as well - the problem occurs when the two types interface when appropriate - i'll add a "thanks in advance" in my email requesting something - and fight the urge to send an "thank you" email when the other person responds it may seem like a small amount of time to glance and delete these - but that ignores the cost of distraction - which people of my type suffer

EfremOsborne
EfremOsborne

There was a previous article that mentioned inbox filling thank you messages. You are correct that they are sometimes appropriate but I think I've had my fill of the "look how late I'm pretending to work thank you" from some person marginally involved in a project. I know the real interested and involved parties are appreciative of those involved.

pmurray
pmurray

If you want me to do anything based on your email you'd better put me in the TO. If I'm in the CC then I figure the email is just informational for me.

ssharkins
ssharkins

I run into this one myself: I forgot to thumb down to see if there's anything past what I see on screen. A silly mistake, but one I make more often than I care to admit.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

If it's somebody you correspond with on a regular basis, no, a thank you is not required, although the random "thanks" never hurt anybody's feelings. If it's a one-time correspondence, or if I've requested information or assistance from an outside source, I'd like that source to remember me in the future. A "Thanks for your quick response/help" email is more than appropriate in such situations.

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