How To Write Email. Seriously.

BreakingModern — What the heck do I mean by “How to write email?”

Email has been around for decades. Everyone knows how to write email, right?

Not right at all.

how-to-write-emailAmericans send each other hundreds of millions of emails a day, a countless number of which miss the mark. They fail to communicate the intention of the writer. They are incomprehensible. They could sound or be rude. Some of them are so spectacularly inept that they ruin friendships and cost important work relationships.

Here are some basic email musts and must-nots everyone should know:

1. Understand what an email is. Again.

When email first became popular in the 1990s, the best analogy to an email was a telegram: short, sweet, informative, clipped. In the age of the smartphone, however, text messages and instant messaging have become the format of choice for minimal communiqués. Emails have evolved into something longer form, like an old-fashioned letter.

Whether it’s newsy personal communications or business writing, email is the preferred electronic format where thoughts are conveyed in some detail. This allows for the expression of nuance.

That’s right: an email is a letter. Experts say an email should contain, within the body of the text, traditional greetings and honorifics, such as “Dear Mr. Smith,” and ought to close with formalities like “Very Truly Yours.”

2. Make intelligent use of the subject line.

Avoid inane content-free lines like “hi” or “miscellaneous.” As the email mavens at the bulk emailing service MailChimp have found, straightforward descriptions of the content get emails opened at a higher rate. Also, headers like “Marriott Corporation loan offer – deal points” are a hell of a lot more useful than “our discussion” when you are trolling six months worth of Outlook archives in search of that one important email.

3. Avoid derpy email addresses.

Avoid inappropriate or embarrassing email addresses. Simplicity is best. Short is best. I’m amazed at all the emails I get from people who have ridiculously long email addresses like robertjedwardselectronics@ …

The most effective email addresses are those that make perfect sense once you hear them. Even better are those that can be memorized.

4. When replying to emails, make sure to include the quoted content you are addressing.

My mom likes to copy me on her replies to her friends’ emails. The problem is, she doesn’t include a quote from the thing that she is referring to. So it’s impossible to get the gist of the conversation. Trying to guess what was originally said so that I can understand why she wants me to read it is an exercise in frustration.

If you are going back and forth on a topic, such as while negotiating business points, cite quotations from the received email throughout and place them appropriately next to your replies so that anyone can follow the paper trail.

Workers with the original IBM Electronic Data Processing Machine, in the era before people started sending dumb emails. Image: NASA

5. Remember, email is ridiculously tone-deaf.

Linguistic subtleties like irony and sarcasm are easily lost when people read our emails, and so are our friendships. (Dave, if you’re reading this, I really was joking.) It’s a little extra work, but the best safeguard against misunderstandings, so that the recipient knows that you are not being disrespectful, curt, or just a jerk, is to be effusive and long-winded in your explanations.

For example: “I greatly appreciate this opportunity and understand that budgetary limitations are necessarily an issue, but if you could see your way clear to considering an increase in my fee,” is going to go over better than, “Fee is too low, can you do better?”

One way that I work around the urge to minimize my screen time by writing too short is to use dictation software like Siri.

When in doubt, write long.

6. One rookie mistake I see often is mixing apples, oranges and pomegranates in the same email.

If you have three different topics, send three different emails. This is where my advice above about subject headers becomes especially important.

7. Don’t abuse cc and bcc.

If you aren’t sure that someone needs/wants to be part of a group email, leave them out of your list. Few things are more annoying than finding yourself part of a group discussion that won’t die when you have no interest in it. Always use bcc to protect the privacy of your email recipients who, for whatever reason, might not want their information shared with the rest of the group.

8. In an office, don’t use email for piddling messages that could more easily be executed with a simple one liner or two liner over the cubicle wall.

I used to work at a newspaper syndicate where the editor next door would email me to ask me whether she could ask me a question. My door was open. All she had to do was walk in and ask. Aside from being irritating, these trivial little emails clog up your archives, making it harder to find important stuff when you need it.

9. Don’t automatically erase your emails.

This is another sin my mom commits. She erases every email after she reads it, convinced that she is cleverly stymieing evil NSA and Moldovan hackers. I wouldn’t have a problem with this security measure if it were effective i.e. she was performing 7-pass erasure of the empty space on her hard drive, but she isn’t. All she’s accomplishing with simple erasing is to deny herself access to information she might need again – because her “erased” files are still there on her hard drive, easily recoverable to anyone but her.

10. Minimize file attachments.

Just because your email service allows you to send a 7MB photograph doesn’t mean that you should. People on a slow LTE connection for checking their email from, say, Afghanistan (cough cough) shouldn’t have to wait 15 minutes for your Grumpy Cat meme to download. From a smartphone, use the “small file” setting to send photos. From a laptop or desktop computer, use a photo-processing program like Apple’s Preview or Photoshop to reduce the resolution to 72 dpi and a reasonable width of, say, 5 inches. In Photoshop, when available, use LZW compression.

You wouldn’t believe how many professional graphic artists don’t know how to compress a file. Compression also comes in handy when you are storing lots of files for archival purposes.

If you have something truly monstrous (over 10MBS, let’s say) to send, like a video, send a link, not the actual file itself.

Finally, take an extra moment to reread everything, including double checking the names and email addresses of your recipients – AutoCorrect can lead you astray – before hitting “Send.” You may want to consider buying one of the apps that allow you to schedule the sending of an email for later. (They’re especially useful for writing in sick on days that you are planning to sleep in late.)

Many a heartbreak could have been avoided by taking an extra moment to ask oneself: Am I really really really sure I want to send this?

If you have to ask …

For BMod, I’m Ted Rall.


Cover image: IBM Electronic Data Processing Machine - GPN-2000-001881 by NASA - Great Images in NASA 

Ted Rall

Author: Ted Rall

Based in New York, Ted Rall is an award-winning political cartoonist, essayist and Pulitzer Prize finalist. He covers news, justice, music and privacy for BreakingModern. Follow him @TedRall.

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  1. “Experts say an email should contain, within the body of the text, traditional greetings and honorifics, such as “Dear Mr. Smith,” and ought to close with formalities like “Very Truly Yours.””

    Who are these experts? I was using e-mail in the 80s and early 90s, and it was never the culture to treat it like a formal letter.

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  2. *…her “erased” files are still there on her hard drive, easily recoverable to anyone but her.*

    Can you substantiate this claim? To the best of my knowledge, emails are not preserved on the subscriber’s personal computer but on the server’s computers (yahoo, gmail, hotmail, etc.) Once a subscriber erases an email, it can no longer be accessed — certainly not by an outside party hacking into an individual’s computer. Maybe I’m wrong, but you have to prove it to me.

    N.B. - I once asked a server’s Customer Service if there were any way to retrieve an email accidentally erased — and the answer was “No.” (?)

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