Every means of communication has its own strengths, and sometimes the medium is part of the message. Email is particularly tricky to get right, because unlike a face-to-face meeting or a phone call, you don’t have the aid of gestures or tone of voice. Unlike online chat, it’s more formal and often referenced later. Yet, if you work closely with colleagues or clients in remote offices, email often is the default mode of communication.
So here are 20 tips on how to craft your message.
1. Words are powerful, so use them well.
Use the right word (hint: use a dictionary or a thesaurus when you aren’t sure) and not merely an approximate one. Use simple and direct language, and get straight to the point.
2. Include a clear subject line.
For busy recipients, your subject line will decide whether the email is read immediately or shelved to be looked at later (or forgotten). Make sure your subject line accurately represents what’s in the message (e.g., “Newsletter Draft: Please Review” instead of “Urgent” or worse, “Hello”).
If you’re sending a document or picture from within the application, remember to edit the automatically-inserted subject.
Never put the entire email content in the subject line.
3. Don’t leave errors in.
Spelling errors and typos are the easiest (and unfortunately a very common) way to look unprofessional.
4. Use proper grammar and punctuation.
Just as if you were writing a regular business letter. (Which you are.)
5. Be polite.
If your colleague in another department sends you a deliverable that doesn’t have everything you need, start out by thanking them and then mention what was missing. Frame orders as requests, adding “please” and “will you?” Always remember to express gratitude, but never thank them “in advance”—that is a roundabout and arrogant way of making a request, implying that you won’t bother thanking them later.
6. But be yourself.
“Official” doesn’t mean “boring” or “pompous”. Don’t write like a legal document. Write like you would talk in a professional setting (or, for people who aren’t great talkers, like me—write like you would like to talk). t’s okay to let your personality shine through.
7. Omit unnecessary words.
I have borrowed this injunction from a celebrated style guide for writing in English, the Elements of Style by Strunk and White.*
Avoid filler phrases such as “you know”, “actually”, or worse, “to be honest”, which makes the reader wonder how insincere the rest of your correspondence is!
8. But don’t abbreviate unnecessarily.
If you do use a short form, be sure your audience knows what it means (and if you aren’t sure, spell it out). Only use widely accepted abbreviations and acronyms. Do NOT abbreviate common words such as thanks (“thnx” or “tx”) or regards (“rgds”). Avoid “text speak” (e.g., LOL, TTYL, IDK, etc.)
9. And don't use buzzwords.
We all know those words in corporate speak: words which may have meant something at one time but are now so over-used that they just make you look boring or insincere if you use them (and hey, I’ve done this too): “bandwidth,” “brainstorm,” “fast track,” “results-driven,” “team player,” “win-win situation.” If you do use such a word, make sure it really means what you want it to mean.
10. Use the first person.
“I think we should…” comes across much better than instead of “It is more appropriate to…” Using the third person usually makes for awkward writing.
11. Use personal pronouns correctly.
If you are unaware of someone’s gender or are talking about a hypothetical person (“our next customer,” “the user of this new system”), be gender-neutral by either using the plural form of the noun and “they” or by avoiding personal pronouns altogether (e.g., “the client,” “the manager”, etc.)
12. Don’t qualify yourself often.
Be direct. Don’t cloak your sentence behind a qualifier such as “I don’t want to be rude but…” If you think what you’re saying might come across as rude, rephrase it. Saying you don’t want to be rude doesn’t make you any less so; it only conveys that you are aware of your rudeness.
13. Watch out for local linguistic peculiarities.
This is especially important if you are a non-native English speaker. I’ll occasionally slip up and write a term that I realize later is peculiarly Indian usage. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re sure your audience understands you. If you’re writing to a global audience, watch out for these.
14. Remember to sign off.
A simple “thanks” at the end with your name under it is sufficient, and you should include this even if you’re using an automated signature. Don't use your closing words as part of your automated signature—the recipient can tell, believe me, and you’d be better off not using those words at all rather than using them insincerely. (I worked with someone once who would send extremely rude emails that always ended with "Thanks and regards." It was a little disconcerting.)
If a generic sign-off doesn’t do it for you, say something specific. (e.g., "Thanks again for taking the time to look into this," "Let’s talk more at the meeting tomorrow morning" or "See you next week!")
15. Avoid fancy typefaces.
Stick to a basic, readable sans serif font such as Verdana or Ariel. (I like Calibri too.)
16. Avoid backgrounds.
Don't use patterns and images to jazz up your email. Express your personality through your writing and do your recipients a favor.
17. Avoid unnecessary emphasis.
Unless you absolutely need to emphasize a point, don’t use bold or italics or capitals (especially capitals). These are the online equivalent of shouting: use them sparingly, and not for more than a few words at a time.
18. Use a professional signature.
Make sure your signature follows the corporate template (if you have one). Don't add any funny messages or pieces of advice (in particular, don't tell me not to print your email: it only makes me wonder if you're writing from 2003.)
19. Never send "forwards".
Those funny photos of cats your classmate from middle school sent you? That "shocking but true" piece of political gossip from your colleague? That poignant story that moved you to tears? Do not hit Forward.
I'm not saying "work email is only for work". Tell your co-worker who's interested in music about this great concert you attended on the weekend, by all means. But mass-emailing a tasteless joke or incorrect information that isn't even relevant to your job won't do your reputation any favors.
However, if it's information you think someone would benefit from and you are sure it will be welcome, send it on after: a) checking it up online and making sure it's not a hoax and b) adding a few words about why you are sending it.
20. Tailor your style to the audience.
If the client you are writing to behaves informally (starts out his email with "Yo, dude!" for example), it's okay to be a little informal yourself. If my correspondent starts out "Dear Ms. Datta," no way should I write in return, "You know what, Luke?" If the email I got is all business, I don't start my reply with a joke. You get the idea. If you're not sure, go formal.
I'll put up the last of this series next week: some handy tips to keep in mind just before you send your email. Now tell me: what should the 21st tip be?
* Strunk and White tell us: "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."