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How to Write the Perfect Email


Last updated 6/20/2013

During the course of a typical workday each of us receives numerous emails. So the challenge for most writers is to capture and maintain their reader’s attention. Email is not radically different from traditional written correspondence. What distinguishes email from other business writing is the informal, conversational tone and fragmentary sentence structure and, from the reader’s perspective, the sheer bulk of incoming and outgoing messages generated during an average business day. Impatient readers are likely to trash any email that fails to get to the point quickly or to clarify technical information.

Guidelines to Writing Effective Email
1. Define your purpose.

2. Consider your reader’s needs.

3. Provide a precise subject line.

4. Limit each message to one subject.

5. Provide an opening sentence that orients the reader to your reason for writing.

6. Include all essential supporting details.

7. Organize your ideas into short paragraphs (3–5 sentences).

8. Do not use all capital or lower case letters in your sentences. All caps or lower case results in difficult reading and inhibits your ability to emphasize key ideas. Email etiquette regards all caps as “shouting” at the reader. Follow standard guidelines to capitalization.

9. Do not send messages composed in anger or in direct response to insulting messages. Maintain a professional businesslike tone.

10. Do not use humor that may be interpreted by the reader as inappropriate to the content and purpose for writing.

11. Always proofread and edit for correct spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage.

12. Use attachments for detailed background information.

General Email Rules
Eliminate wordiness
Instead of: Employee adherence to sick leave policy is mandatory and expected.
Write: All employees must adhere to sick leave policy.

Eliminate long phrases and expressions
Instead of: The Accounting Department is known for the preparation of documents that are characterized by their length.
Write: The Accounting Department is known for preparing lengthy documents.

Avoid smothered verbs
Instead of: Karen will take your solution under consideration in order to make a resolution of the problem.
Write: Karen will consider your solution to the problem.

Beware of unnecessary passive voice
Instead of: The sales representative was contacted by Fernando.
Write: Fernando contacted the sales representative.

Do:
1. Ask for permission before forwarding or posting someone else’s email message.

2. Be careful with blind carbon copies. They can imply you’re going behind someone’s back.

3. Make your subject line work for you. Put the important points in the first half of the line in case the ending gets cropped off. Create a subject line that:
—Attracts your reader’s attention.
—Provides an accurate description of your topic or reason for writing.

4. Present your ideas effectively in the first screen—keep the early message attractive and relevant to your reader.

5. Copy only those readers who need to see your message. People may stop reading if  they think it’s not relevant to them.

6. Add a greeting, either beginning with a person’s first name or using a generic opening like “Greetings.” Use a simple closing like “thanks” or “regards” (or even TTFN—ta ta for now).

Don’t:
1. Use all capital letters (known as SHOUTING). This is hard to read since we recognize shapes as well as letter groups. With caps, we have to read letter by letter. Don’t use all lower case, either.

2. Flame. This means sending messages that are considered inflammatory, contain insensitive language, or fire off a fast negative response. Read the message twice before sending it. Also, ask yourself if you would say the words to someone in person.

3. Read messages waiting to be picked up from a printer. They are considered confidential.

4. Overdo the word “urgent.” Save this for really important messages.

The Message
Email messages are usually quick exchanges. If you ask a question, phrase it so you can get a yes or no response.
Instead of: Let me know how you feel about George’s proposal for a new telephone system.
Try: Should we go with George’s proposal for a new telephone system?

Ask for a reply at the beginning of your message or even in your subject line. For long messages, include an executive summary paragraph in the first screen, highlighting the key points of your message.

Formatting Your Message
To emphasize text, instead of using white space you can use one of these techniques:

  • Place an asterisk on each side of a word that would ordinarily be italicized. Example: The key marked * enter * is for this purpose.
  • To indicate underlining, use the underscore character before and after the text. Example: The book _ The Naked Ape _ is fascinating.
  • Use boxes around a message to emphasize it.

Use Conversational Words
In general, email is known for its conversational style or manner of expression.

The following list of informal words and phrases will prove helpful:

Instead of: Try:
please find attached attached
utilize use
optimum most, best
should this necessitate if this needs
pursuant to regarding
as per request as requested
make mention of mention
found to be in agreement agree
remuneration payment

 

Note: Considering the amount of hacking and the possibility that someone may forward your email to an unintended reader, never send an email you want kept private.

Once you become an experienced and confident writer, people may see you as the “office writing expert,” a skill that can help advance your career.

© Copyright 2000 American Management Association. All rights reserved.

Adapted from AMA’s seminar Business Writing for Administrative Professionals.