Blog Post

How to Write Better Emails

I’m not a big fan of email. Actually, let me take that one step further: I hate spending time on email. But for those of us who do most of our work online, we can’t escape it. As a result, we have to make the best of it by being really good at it.

I’ve written a few posts recently about effectively processing email, so now let’s talk more about the other side. When was the last time you took a hard look at the emails you send to other people? Web workers must communicate very well over email if we want to get our work done efficiently, but are your emails helping or hindering your progress? Here are a few simple tips for sending better email messages.

Do I Need to Send this Email?

Most of us get too much email, and the people you communicate with are no exception. Before you send an email to some other busy person, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Would some other method be better? Maybe you should contact them via IM, social media, a phone call or some other channel instead.
  • Can you get your information online? If you are asking someone a question, make sure that you do your research  to see if you can find all or part of your answer elsewhere.
  • Do they really want the information you are sending? If you are sending information, does everyone you are sending it to really need it? Think about trimming your recipient list to the people who really want to see your email.
  • Can you post all or part of it online to reduce the size? If you are sending information, think about whether you can post that large attachment or lengthy explanation online. Sending a link instead of a multiple megabyte attachment or pages and pages of text might be appreciated.

Write Great Subject Lines

Yes, this is in every list of tips for sending great email, but that’s because the subject line is critical. It’s the first thing that someone sees, and it can make the difference between an email that gets opened right away and one that stays unread or gets dumped right into the trash. Here are some subject line tips:

  • Be precise and clear. Your subject line should accurately reflect the content of your message and be easy for people to understand. Example: Community metrics for October
  • Use keywords. I sometimes preface the subject line with a keyword so that people can see at a glance why it is important. Examples: Lightning talks: next steps or Project X: scheduling a post mortem
  • Include critical due dates. If you really need something done by Tuesday, include it in the subject line so that people understand when they need to respond. This should be used sparingly. Example: Need approval for project X by Tuesday at Noon
  • Use people’s names in subject lines for urgent requests. Again, this should be used sparingly, but it does help get people’s attention. Example: Joe – can you present in the 2pm staff meeting?
  • Keep it short. Most mail programs only show the first part of the subject line anyway, so anything at the end is unlikely to seen anyway.

Here are a few “wall of shame” subject lines taken right from my inbox as examples of what not to do:

  • There you go
  • Wiki
  • Next steps

Make Your Point Concisely

Now that you have a great subject line, you need to actually write the rest of the email. Long email messages are often mostly unread email messages, so you should try to make your point as quickly and concisely as possible. Any excessive rambling is likely to result in half-read or skimmed email messages, and people might miss your point entirely if they decide not to wade all the way to the bottom of your too-long email. You might even want to keep your email short and offer to send more information if they are interested.

Don’t Bury Critical Information

I always assume that people will only read my first paragraph or first few lines of my email messages, so I make sure that any important information can be found right at the top. Here are some important items that should be in the first few lines and never be buried:

  • Due dates. If you need something by a certain time, tell people what you need and when you need it very early in the email.
  • Any requests. This can sound counter-intuitive, but you need to tell people what you need from them before you explain it. Let them know that you need them to do x, y, z in the first part of the email, and include the details of what and why later. Trust me on this one, you don’t want to bury your request below a lengthy explanation. Even when they might not fully understand the request at the beginning, by making it early, you encourage them to continue reading to get to the explanation.
  • Your point. You want to make your point early even if people might not fully understand it until they read a little more. A simple one sentence summary of the point you are trying to make can help people understand the context and the importance of your email early in the process even if they don’t read all of your supporting detail. At least this way, they won’t miss your point entirely.

Ending Your Email

Here are a few things to think about as you close your email:

  • Summary. Include a short, concise summary at the end of your email to remind people about any due dates, requests or to point them to additional information.
  • Signatures. People have done whole blog posts on how to / how not to use email signatures (and even what our email sign-offs say about us). My advice is to omit them entirely if you don’t have a real need for one or to keep them very short (one or two lines) with only a few pieces of critical information. Keep in mind that one of those lines can be a link to a web page with full contact details.

What are your favorite email tips or horror stories?

Photo by Flickr user Alexandre Duret-Lutz used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike Generic 2.0 license.

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6 Responses to “How to Write Better Emails”

  1. My finest was an e-mail with a completely (to me) unitelligible subject line, which asked of me “per the detail below, can you let me have a response by Friday?” – the e-mail below ran to 13 pages.

    My response? “No”

  2. bluespapa

    M y Wall of Shame subject heading is FYI. Or blank, or Re: some topic which we haven’t ever discussed in the past.

    Even so, there’s also an art to the concise, but not brusque email. Tone is more important in emailing that anywhere I’ve written.

  3. bluespapa

    My Wall of Shame subject heading is FYI. Or blank, or Re: some topic which we haven’t ever discussed in the past.

    Even so, there’s also an art to the concise, but not brusque email. Tone is more important in emailing that anywhere I’ve written

  4. arcadiangal

    Interesting article. My preferences tend to be email, text, phone. If good/bad news – phone. Informative – emails. Quick notices to people who work – text. As an real estate agent, I try to send emails with links to any thing graphic – unless the photos are specifically requested.

    Something I heard this morning, not related to email, but it applies – who, what, where, why and when.