How to Write Better Email

Efail = When You Send a Poorly Written Email

“Your e-mail messages are often the primary means people use to form their opinions about you.”
Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl

Good communication is my work, but you wouldn’t know it based on my email blunders this past month. I was trying to be quick and efficient, but I goofed. Inserted wrong dates, misspelled words, skewed the text font, placed two periods in a sentence — errors I noticed after I hit “send.” Oops. In one message. the punctuation and grammar were correct, but the message was muddled. The recipient wasn’t going to understand it. Only a phone call will resolve the confusion. Know how hard it is to reach a busy person by phone?

Is an email useful if no one opens and reads it? Or if a person opens the email, reads it, but doesn’t understand it? Then we begin a chain of email volleyball in clarifying the original thought – culminating in time wasted – frustration ensued – and energy consumed in resolving the miscommunication.

I call poorly written emails efails. I’ve done it.

I’ve also received some efails.

Have you committed some efails?

If you want to do better, this post is for you. I dug in and did the research. I started using these tips last week. Let me share what I’ve learned that will help you write better email.

Email best?

Is Email Best?

Email is a great way to obtain information without getting involved in a lengthy, off-topic human conversation. Love how one can instantly review a past email conversation with a simple search.

Time-waster and frustration-inducer also describes email communication.

You need to share a message with a co-worker. First ask yourself, “Is email the best way to communicate?” Does the topic need to be addressed face-to-face or during a phone conversation?

Yes, before you even ponder what to write on the subject line, ask, “Will writing an email to the person be the best way to communicate this topic?”

Some scenarios when NOT to use email:

  • Sharing negative feedback to an employee
  • Working on a conflict. If the matter is not resolved within two email exchanges, try talking with the person instead.
  • Trying to avoid a confrontation that needs to be addressed in person.
  • Sending an email when you’re angry. It’s best to wait at least an hour before sending a reply.
  • Need to brainstorm? Have long documents written in 1,000-plus words to discuss? Choose another way to talk because email is a poor medium for discussion.
screenshot-1
Don’t Reply All by Hassan Osman, a project management professional.

Write a Meaningful and Short Subject Line

The subject line is important in an email. And many of us are writing them poorly.

Think of the subject line as the headline of your message, like a quick overview, according to Hassan Osman, in his book, Don’t Reply All.

Make the subject line meaningful and short. Actionable subject lines tend to attract the reader to click open. It needs to be fewer than 50 characters because 40% of emails are being opened on mobile devices first, according to HubSpot.

Keep in mind your audience: the person you are sending the message to. Include only the necessary words so the person will know the email is written for them exclusively, and they will open and read it.

  • Don’t — Subject Line: Issues on Home Remodeling
  • Do — Subject Line: Need Your Input for Bathroom Remodel by 1/15

Make your meaningful subject line match the message content. Changing the subject line of back-and-forth replies may be necessary. Grammar Girl’s Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Use attention-getting words sparingly. When you decide to use them, put the words such as urgent, respond today, change or important in the beginning (instead of the end) of the subject line.

  • Subject Line: Change of January Event Plans

Sometimes, writing the entire email in the subject line  and using the acronym EOM (End of Message) are helpful.

  • Subject Line: Coffee at Black River Roasters today at 2pm EOM

For more tips, visit Don’t Reply All.

“Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Dale Carnegie

Salutation

This may seem obvious, but spell the recipient’s name correctly. Be aware even common names may be uniquely spelled — do not assume a traditional spelling is correct. (Examples: Jon for John, Maryse for Marissa, and Timm for Tim).

For openers, “Dear” is always acceptable and always correct, wrote David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, in their book, Send, touted as an essential guide for email at office and home. Caution using “Hi” or “Hey” for people you do not know. David Shipley is a New York Times editor and Will Schwalbe is Hyperion Books editor in chief.

For addressing multiple recipients, they said the greeting is important because you’re offering the first clue of why the people have been grouped together. They suggested “Dear Colleagues” or “Dear Coworkers” or “Dear Customers” as acceptable ways to address groups in an email. If no succinct way to address the group, a casual “Greetings” will work.

send

Message

In Send, Shipley and Schwalbe said the essence of writing better emails is summarized in two rules: “Think before you send” and “Send e-mail you would like to receive.”

Remember two rules: “Think before you send” and “Send e-mail you would like to receive.” David Shipley and Will Schwalbe

Writing email is tricky because the verbal and nonverbal cues of communication such as body language and voice inflection are missing. It’s harder to convey the meaning you would like to impart. The message’s tone is important. Write your words with the intention of being professional, positive and friendly.  

Think before you write the message. Answering this question may be helpful: What do you want your recipient to know or do?

Give your reader context in the actual message, even if you include the text in every previous message that led to the current one. Do not make assumptions or require them to figure out what you mean. State the facts plainly. For example, “Here is the website analytics report update you requested” instead of “Here it is.”

When you need feedback from your reader, make the question easy to answer so they don’t have to work too hard. Present options instead of open-ended questions. Instead of “What do you think should be done next?” you can state, “Do you think we should do A, B, or C?”

three-questionsAssign tasks using the 3W’s – WHO, WHAT, WHEN

For project management, ensure the three key questions are addressed: Who? What? and When? Use the “3Ws” in every email when the purpose is to assign tasks.

  1. WHO Name of specific person (not anonymous group).
  2. WHAT Explicit description.
  3. WHEN Clear deadline of exact date and time.
  • Example: “Josephine, please send me the Go For the Gold client’s completed artwork by Mon., Dec. 5, at 4pm.”

Consider the time-saving benefits of using a template for repetitive emails to clients or topic. Save a draft of weekly status updates to clients and use it every time. Clients prefer a consistent format and dislike trying to decipher the message. They will know what to expect and this will improve understanding. Of course, ensure you have new information to share. Don’t send a status update with information already given. It’s sure to annoy recipients and discourage them to read future emails.

Make Emails Scannable

Understand that for you and everyone else, reading on a computer screen is different than reading on paper. People scan emails more often than reading word for word. A long, text-dense email message is as hard to read as a long, text-dense web page. Be brief in one or two short paragraphs. Grammar Girl’s Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing

To increase the probability of your email being addressed, write emails that are five sentences or less.

“Assume that the person you’re corresponding with has fifty email conversations going at once.”
Guy Kawasaki

State the essentials. Your reader will thank you.

Use the same techniques applied for website copy:

  • Use bulleted lists, primarily for your actions and questions
  • Use subheadings in bold text to break apart the dense prose
  • Use white space
  • Use regular capitalization and punctuation

Break long emails into two parts. The first part, provide a quick summary and keep the message under five sentences. The second part, give the details the recipient needs to know.

Provide visuals like screenshots to make your emails understandable. Press “PrtSc” on a personal computer or “Command+Shift+3” on a Mac.

What do experts say is the best font for email?

According to Rebecca Greenfield, workplace culture reporter for Bloomberg Business, email clients (Gmail, Outlook, etc.) tend to default to san serif fonts (i.e. Helvetica, Arial, and Calibri) which are hard to read for long blocks of text. Now that higher resolution screens are the norm, better legibility is gained with serif fonts (i.e., Georgia and Verdana). These fonts make reading on screens easier due to having wide, consistent spacing.

Signature

The word choice for closings such as “Best” or “Best regards” is a matter of personal style. Still in doubt? Try the mirroring technique to build rapport: echoing the closing your correspondent wrote.

Good to Know Email Etiquette

Reply immediately to time-sensitive email. Make sure your response gives the information the person requested. You may need to include more information than “ok” for an acknowledgement.

Reminders of all reminders: Don’t use “reply all” unless it’s absolutely necessary. Don’t use “reply all” when only the original sender needs to read your message.

Curb “reply all” abuse when you send a message to a group. State in the message what you would like the reader to do: please reply only to you or reply all.

Before You Hit Send

Proofread your email.

Prevent problems by rereading the email completely twice. Pretend you are the recipient. Reread for content. Then reread a second time for correct grammar, spelling and punctuation.

But why take the time to proofread your email before you send it? Remember Shipley and Schwalbe’s advice: Think before you send. Correct spelling and punctuation create a positive impression. It’s more likely the reader will engage in your message instead of remembering only the errors.

Still resisting the time investment? Think how many problems you will avoid by pausing to reread before you send. About 40 percent of people find bad grammar to be their #1 email pet peeve. And our goal is to attract our readers, not annoy them, right?

Public

Be mindful that email is not a private conversation. Know that it’s public once you hit send – it may be forwarded to others or when people press “reply all” button instead of “reply.” Assume anything your write could be forwarded. If you wouldn’t post it on the refrigerator in the break room, then edit.

Send it later

Use delay delivery to send emails when they’re most likely to be read. Schedule messages to go out anytime from a few minutes to a few weeks later. I use Boomerang for Gmail app. Boomerang for Outlook is also available.

Now I’m using these suggestions every day.  My first habit I’m establishing is rereading my emails two times before I hit “send.”

What have you found useful to write better emails?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s