Writing Effective Emails
1. Don’t Overcommunicate by Email
As part of this, you should use the phone or IM to deal with questions that are likely to need some back-and-forth discussion. Use our Communications Planning Tool to identify the channels that are best for different types of message.
Also, email is not as secure as you might want it to be, particularly as people may forward emails without thinking to delete the conversation history. So avoid sharing sensitive or personal information in an email, and don’t write about anything that you, or the subject of your email, wouldn’t like to see plastered on a billboard by your office.
2. Make Good Use of Subject Lines
A newspaper headline has two functions: it grabs your attention, and it summarizes the article, so that you can decide whether to read it or not. The subject line of your email message should do the same thing.
You may want to include the date in the subject line if your message is one of a regular series of emails, such as a weekly project report. For a message that needs a response, you might also want to include a call to action, such as “Please reply by November 7.”
A well-written subject line like the one below delivers the most important information, without the recipient even having to open the email. This serves as a prompt that reminds recipients about your meeting every time they glance at their inbox.
If you have a very short message to convey, and you can fit the whole thing into the subject line, use “EOM” (End of Message) to let recipients know that they don’t need to open the email to get all the information that they need.
3. Keep Messages Clear and Brief
Emails, like traditional business letters, need to be clear and concise. Keep your sentences short and to the point. The body of the email should be direct and informative, and it should contain all pertinent information. See our article on writing skills for guidance on communicating clearly in writing.
Unlike traditional letters, however, it costs no more to send several emails than it does to send just one. So, if you need to communicate with someone about a number of different topics, consider writing a separate email for each one. This makes your message clearer, and it allows your correspondent to reply to one topic at a time.
Thanks for sending that report last week. I read it yesterday, and I feel that Chapter 2 needs more specific information about our sales figures. I also felt that the tone could be more formal.
Also, I wanted to let you know that I’ve scheduled a meeting with the PR department for this Friday regarding the new ad campaign. It’s at 11:00 a.m. and will be in the small conference room.
It’s important to find balance here. You don’t want to bombard someone with emails, and it makes sense to combine several, related, points into one email. When this happens, keep things simple with numbered paragraphs or bullet points, and consider “chunking” information into small, well-organized units to make it easier to digest.
Notice, too, that in the good example above, Monica specified what she wanted Jackie to do (in this case, amend the report). If you make it easy for people to see what you want, there’s a better chance that they will give you this.
4. Be Polite
People often think that emails can be less formal than traditional letters. But the messages you send are a reflection of your own professionalism , values, and attention to detail, so a certain level of formality is needed.
Unless you’re on good terms with someone, avoid informal language, slang, jargon , and inappropriate abbreviations. Emoticons can be useful for clarifying your intent, but it’s best to use them only with people you know well.
5. Check the Tone
When we meet people face-to-face, we use the other person’s body language , vocal tone, and facial expressions to assess how they feel. Email robs us of this information, and this means that we can’t tell when people have misunderstood our messages.
Your choice of words, sentence length, punctuation, and capitalization can easily be misinterpreted without visual and auditory cues. In the first example below, Emma might think that Harry is frustrated or angry, but, in reality, he feels fine.
Finally, before you hit “send,” take a moment to review your email for spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes. Your email messages are as much a part of your professional image as the clothes you wear, so it looks bad to send out a message that contains typos.
As you proofread, pay careful attention to the length of your email. People are more likely to read short, concise emails than long, rambling ones, so make sure that your emails are as short as possible, without excluding necessary information.
Remember that your emails are a reflection of your professionalism, values, and attention to detail. Try to imagine how others might interpret the tone of your message. Be polite, and always proofread what you have written before you click “send.”
Six steps for writing professional emails
1. Identify your goal
Before you write an email, ask yourself what you want the recipient to do after they’ve read it. Once you’ve determined the purpose of your email, you can ensure everything you include in your message supports this action. For example, if you want the recipient to review a report you’ve attached, let them know what the report is, why you need them to review it, what sort of feedback you need and when you need the task completed.
2. Consider your audience
When you compose an email message, make sure your tone matches your audience. For example, if you’re emailing a business executive you’ve never met, keep the email polished and free of any jokes or informalities. On the other hand, if you’re emailing a colleague with whom you have a good relationship, you might use a less formal, more friendly approach.
3. Keep it concise
Your audience might have little time to read through your email, so make it as brief as possible without leaving out key information. Try not to address too many subjects at once as this can make your message lengthy, challenging to read and difficult to take action on. When editing your email, take out any information that’s irrelevant to the topic you’re addressing. Use short, simple sentences by removing filler words and extraneous information. This will make your note shorter and easier to read.
4. Proofread your email
An error-free email demonstrates diligence and professionalism. Before you send an email, take a moment to check for any spelling, grammar or syntax errors. Also, double-check to ensure you’ve included any attachments you may have referenced in your message. If it is an important email to critical stakeholders, you might ask your direct supervisor or a trusted colleague to read over it before you send it.
5. Use proper etiquette
Include a courteous greeting and closing to sound friendly and polite. Additionally, be considerate of the recipient and their time. For example, unless it’s an emergency, avoid emailing a contact asking for something after-hours or while they’re on leave.
6. Remember to follow up
Most people receive several emails per day, so they might miss or forget to respond to your message. If the recipient hasn’t replied within two working days, consider reaching back out with a friendly follow-up email.
Next-level email writing moves
Once you’ve got the proper email format and you know what mistakes to avoid, it’s time to focus on making your drafts stand out from the myriad emails most people get every day. Here are four strategies to take yours to the next level:
“In the absence of other information, our interpretation often defaults to the negative,” explains communication-etiquette expert Post Senning. “When you’re talking about negative communication, you’re [missing] the information that is tone of voice, the twinkle in your eye, the good humor that you intend something with or even the genuine care or concern with which you’re offering critique. So be really careful. When something reads as negative to you, it probably comes across as even more negative to someone else.”
Strike the right tone
You wouldn’t want to get an email that reads, “Dear [client],” or which references your work in public relations when you’re actually in sales, because it would immediately show that the sender is either mass emailing you, or they didn’t do the proper research and find the right contact. Similarly, you’ll want to make sure that every email you send has a tone that’s crafted specifically for the recipient, and that you’re sending it to the right person.
So even though it may be tempting to use templates, it’s important to personalize it and keep in mind the communication style of the recipient before hitting send. To accomplish this, a quick Google search or a peek at the recipient’s LinkedIn or Twitter feed can do wonders.
Before sending, try putting yourself in the recipient’s shoes for a gut-check on tone and content. And if you have a hard time reading your own tone in email, Grammarly’s tone detector can help you determine how you sound to your recipient.
Follow up—in good time
If you’re sending an email, you’re likely looking for a timely response. But with the large amounts of emails most people sort through each day, things can end up getting lost. As a general rule, a follow-up message should never come less than twenty-four hours after sending the initial email.
In other words: Don’t be the person who sends a follow-up request two hours after sending. In extreme cases, that kind of behavior can even get you blocked. “When you’re taking more time and actually caring about the person on the other side of the email, you’re immediately going to see a much higher response rate. I had to learn that the hard way,” says copy chief Schafer.
Make it easy on the eyes
Most of the messages you send will likely be on the shorter side, which is great for rapid responses and getting things done. But for longer emails, scannability is the name of the game. That’s when things like bolded font, bullet points, underlined sentences, and a TL;DR (too long, didn’t read) section come in handy.
There are a lot of factors to keep in mind when composing an email, and there’s a wide margin of error. But after all is said and done, it isn’t about perfection. It’s about effective communication.
“I think people feel this pressure that you need to be this perfect communicator with this huge vocabulary and these perfectly structured sentences. And I don’t know that that’s always the case because you’re just two people, communicating,” says freelance writer Boogaard.