Write effective e-mails!
By Mark Graham
Electronic communication, due to its speed and broadcasting ability, is
fundamentally different from paper-based communication such as letters
and memos. Because the other person’s response time capability is so
fast, e-mail is more “conversational” than traditional methods of
In a paper document, it is absolutely essential to make everything
completely clear and unambiguous because your audience may not have a
chance to ask for clarification. With e-mail documents, your recipient
can ask questions immediately. E-mail, therefore, like conversational
speech, tends to be much sloppier and more ambiguous.
This is not always bad. It might not be a worthwhile expenditure of
energy to slave over a message, making sure that your spelling is
faultless, your words eloquent, your grammar and punctuation are beyond
reproach, if the point of the message is simply to inform the recipient
that you are ready to go to lunch.
Granted, you should put some effort into ensuring that your subjects
agree with your verbs, words are spelled correctly, avoid the mixing of
metaphors, and so on. However, if “The Rules” laid down in your
ninth-grade English class get in the way of effective communication,
throw them out.
Due to the lack of vocal inflection, gestures, and a shared environment,
e-mail is not as rich a communication method as a face-to-face or even a
telephone conversation. Your recipient may have difficulty telling if
you are being serious or kidding, happy or sad, frustrated or euphoric.
Thus, your e-mail compositions should be different from both your speech
and paper compositions. There are a number of documents on electronic
e-mail commercially available, but they mostly address the “nuts and
bolts” of how to get text from your fingers to your correspondent’s
screen. Those that do discuss e-mail content tend to be really brief on
the subject of e-mail style, and provide little motivation for why its
so important that the style be different.
With e-mail, you cannot assume anything about your correspondent’s
location, time, frame of mind, mood, health, marital status, affluence,
age, or gender. This means, among other things, that you need to be
very, very careful in phrasing your communications in order to prevent
The first important point to remember is that spelling counts, grammar
counts, pretty counts, in fact, everything counts. An e-mail represents
you, your message, your point of view, your ethics and your very
integrity in your physical absence. What the recipient receives says a
lot about you. The question you need to ask yourself is is this how I
would want the reader to perceive me if we were meeting face-to-face?
If the image is wrong, change your e-mail. Also, remember that, while
some mailer programs have spelling checkers, they detect only misspelled
words. They are of no value if you use the wrong word.
Never forget that there is a real person on the other end reading and
reacting to what you have written. Just as in a face-to-face meeting,
first impressions are important.
Useful Subject Lines
A subject line that directly relates to the e-mail body is the fastest
way to let people know what your e-mail message is about. The subject
line should be brief because many mailers will truncate long subject
lines. It does not need to be a complete sentence, but should obviously
pertain to the information in your e-mail.
If you are responding to an -mail, your mailer program should preface
the subject line with “Re:” or “RE:” (for Regarding). If your mailer
program does not automatically do this, it is considered good form to
insert “RE:” into the subject line.
If you are sending non-urgent information that requires no response from
the other person, prefacing the subject line with “FYI:” (For Your
Information) will immediately inform the recipient that no action is
For time-critical messages, starting the subject line with “URGENT:” is
probably the best way to get the recipient’s attention — especially if
you know that person receives a lot of e-mail.
When you are requesting information or anything else, starting the
subject line with “REQ:” (Request) will inform the recipient that some
action is probably required on his or her part.
If you are referring to a previously received e-mail, you should
explicitly quote that document to provide context. For example, instead
of sending an e-mail that says:
Are you available to meet with the auditors next Friday?
Displays on a computer screen will very often look different than on
paper, and people generally find it harder to read anything on a screen
than on when printed on paper. In fact, many people actually print out
their e-mail so they can read it. The screen’s resolution is not as good
as paper, oftentimes there is a flicker, the screen’s font may be
smaller (or ugly) or the color combinations may be absolutely atrocious.
Your recipient’s mail reader may also impose certain constraints on the
formatting of received e-mail messages. All of these items lead to the
conclusion that a “good” e-mail page layout is different from a good
paper document page layout.
Write Shorter Paragraphs
In addition to the above-mentioned problems, frequently the e-mail
message will be read in a document window using scrollbars. While
scrollbars are great, it makes it harder to visually track long
paragraphs. Consider breaking up your paragraphs to include only two or
three sentences in each. It will make reading much easier for the
Trim Line Length
Several of the software packages currently used to read e-mail do not
automatically wrap words (i.e., adjust line and word spacing). This
means that if the software you use to send e-mail wraps your words for
you and your recipient’s does not, your recipient may end up with a
message that is highly fragmented and extremely difficult to read – even
when printed out. It is even worse with some e-mail readers in that they
truncate everything past the 80th character. This is certainly not the
way to win friends and influence people.
A good “rule of thumb” is to keep your lines under 75 characters long.
Why 75 and not 80? Because you should leave some room for indentation or
quote marks for your correspondent in case he or she is going to quote a
piece of your original e-mail in a reply.
Be Terse With Your Prose
We spend anywhere from 12 to 20 years being rewarded for being verbose
in our written communications. Unfortunately, this is not appropriate
for e-mail. While your message should be as clear as possible, remember
that if they want more information, they can always ask for it. Also,
remember that in some places, users are charged by the byte and/or have
limits on how much disk space their e-mail can use. If you become
verbose, you are quite possibly costing your recipient money – and that
is never appreciated.
One Page, Please
It’s also a good “rule of thumb” to try to keep everything on one “page”
whenever possible. In most cases, this means about twenty-five lines of
“Attach” Longer Messages
Some mailer programs support “attachments,” where you can specify a
document or even a file to send along with your e-mail. If the recipient
has a e-mail reader that can handle attachments, this is an excellent
tool as a long attachment can be looked at later off-line. However, if
the recipient’s e-mail reader cannot handle attachments, and you send a
non-ASCII file (e.g., a Word document, a binary file, a picture,
compressed text, etc.), be advised that it will be displayed as garbage.
While you cannot make your voice higher or lower, louder or softer to
denote emphasis, there are techniques used by many people to convey
vocal inflection. For example, you can indicate:
Light Emphasis – If you want to give something mild emphasis, you can
enclose it in asterisks. This is the moral equivalent of italics in a
paper document. (Example: I will finish by this *Friday*.)
Another techniques is to capitalize the first letter only of words to
give light emphasis. (Example: While we try to avoid that scenario, it
is not Cast In Stone.)
Strong Emphasis – If you want to indicate stronger emphasis, use all
capital letters and toss in some extra exclamation marks. (Example: Be
sure to disconnect the battery or it might EXPLODE!!!)
Note that you should use capital letters sparingly as the world e-mail
community has come to understand such usage indicates that you are
shouting. It is totally inappropriate, and considered to be quite rude,
to use all capital letters in a situation when you are calm. (Example:
WHEN YOU GET TO JACKSON BE SURE TO GIVE ME A CALL OR DROP BY AS I AM
ALWAYS AT HOME.)
Gestures – While you are unable to accompany your words with hand or
facial gestures, there are several ASCII stand-ins for gestures.
A facial gestures can be represented with “smiley”: an ASCII drawing of
a facial expression. The three most commonly used are:
🙂 😉 and 🙁
To understand these symbols, turn your head counter-clockwise and look
at them sideways. After a while, they actually begin to make sense.
There are a wide range of ASCII gestures available to you, from ill %^P
to angry & gt;:- & lt; to astonished :-o, and limited only by your imagination.
In fact, some budding entrepreneur has created an entire “Smiley
Dictionary” just in case you feel uncreative.
Instead of writing: I am very confused and a little upset. Why did you
give my report to Jack instead of Jill?
You could write: ???!??! Why did you give my report to Jack instead of
The question mark is shorthand for a furrowed brow or a “huh?”. The
exclamation mark is shorthand for amazement and possibly a scowl. The
two together are taken to mean astonishment.
There is also a long and proud tradition of using punctuation as a
placeholder for “venting steam,” e.g., #%