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.


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.

Editor's Picks