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Ten tips for effective email writing

April 24, 2008

Those of us who have been working somewhere in I/T might have felt the effects of e-mailing and would have coined their own effective emailing! Nowadays emails are the basic mode of communication in many a sectors. Often we don’t realize how we react to emails that we receive versus the reaction of others to our emails that we carelessly send, funny though.

Sometimes emails could cause not only confusion, misunderstanding etc, but also would cause more harm such as financial loss, strain in relationship etc. The very set of words we might directly say to a person without any trouble, might sound different in an email…! So, when to write an email? how to write an email? what are the don’ts? Here goes the useful tips…

1. To Email or not to…

Emails are all only substitutes to direct face-to-face communication. So if its possible to directly talk to a person, better to do that first. If that is not possible, talk to them over phone. Emails should be written when these two are not possible. Yes, there are quite a few scenarios where only emails can be used, such as

  • You are geographically away – you can’t meet the person or call them
  • You want to make a point in writing
  • You want the other person to listen to your version entirely without interfering 🙂
  • You can’t face the person 🙂

While the first two are unavoidable, the last two are purely situational.

2. Don’t write an email emotionally

This should be kept in mind always. Don’t write an email when feeling highly emotional due to happiness or sorrow. Email is not the best mode of communication at these times. The receipient may not feel the same way. An email sent now, may be read a few minutes later or few days later – we would never know. Don’t use strong words in emails – unless really really really sure about it – remember we are writing it down – we can never take it back at all!

3. Subject and Signature are important

A subject is as important as the name. I have seen a person sending mails with subject as a single word. He used send email to his friends with just “Hi…” as the subject, to his collegues something like “Urgent”, “important”, “ready” etc. Few months later, he himself couldn’t refer any of his mails for a particular. Treat subjects as a telegraph message. The objective or the crux of the email should be in the subject.

Similarly signature is also important. Some people use very big signatures with their address, phone, email, blog url etc.. Funny, sometimes the signature is bigger than the body itself… With mail clients such as outlook, we can set up two three varieties of signatures… such as “Thanks, <name>” to elaborate signatures with all the frills such as your address, phone number etc…

Signatures carry good number of profile information to recipients. A simple “With luv, Srikanth” would be suffice to a friend, but “Warm Regards, Srikanthan Krishnamachari, Senior Surgeon, Amar hospitals…” would carry an esteem with itself! Rather than your mail id, it is in fact, the signature that tells the recipients about you and your attitude. So give importance to email signatures.

4. Order of recipients

So if we are sending mails to several people, in what order should be the email ids? Can I use CC, BCC fields? When to use them? Good questions. While addressing a group of people like a Public Address speaker which really doesn’t cares about the response, we can use multiple mail IDs in the To field.

If you are sending the email for business communication, use one email id in the To field – meaning address one person at a time. The rule is – send email to a single person with specific message. If you want to propagate a message, notify and optionally involve somebody else too – then put that somebody in CC field. CC field is meant for notification, where optional or voluntary involvement is required, “want to let you also know, by the way” kind of people.

Some people send funny emails with tens of email ids in the to field. One of the good souls in the bunch of recipients will use the “Reply to all” option and thereafter chaos reigns. Everybody in that list would start using “Reply to all”… Then we have to impolitely offend the group by asking “please, leave me alone, my mailbox is getting flooded!”. So if you are sending funny spam emails to bunch of friends, use the BCC field for all the email ids.

5. Don’t use “You” – use “We” or “I”

This is for the body part. When writing email to our subordinates or superiors etc. use more of the word “I”, “me” or if possible within the context, use “We”. Instead of “You are not clear”, write as “I don’t understand”…! The word “You” is taken as accusative in several scenarios.

Avoid offending sentence formations – which would result in ego clashes and thereby destroy the outcome. If at all you have to use the word “You”, instead use the recipient’s name – that would sound differently than being accusative.

6. Be specific with details

This is also for the body part of the email. Don’t ask two questions in a email – you would be answered for only one of them mostly. If you happen to have more than one question, bullet them with numbers. Or else prepare a document with the questions and send to the person. While answering questions, try to answer below the question itself -that way, you won’t accidentally miss any question, yourself.

Come to crux or important part of the email immediately in the first few lines of the body part. Be specific on the day, time, numbers, money etc. Be very specific. Don’t use arbitrary words such as “some”, “few”, “many”, “later”, “soon” etc. Don’t use subjective words such as “okay”, “normal”, “looks”, “seems” etc. If at all you want to express something, use a screenshot. There are free tools such as MWSnap.

7. The rule of Responsibility

Always the responsibility of the content is on the sender. If an email causes some misunderstanding it is not the fault of the recipient for not understanding it correctly; rather it is the fault of the sender for not expressing it correctly. Make emails dumb-friendly; it should be easy to comprehend for the recipient.

8. Attachments

Some people might have size/software/hardware restrictions. While attaching documents consider whether the format of the attachment can be used by the receiver. For example, sending a document in MS Word 2007 .docx format may not be opened by some people who only have a MS Word 2000. Similarly, the size of the attachment should not exceed a reasonable limit – say 1 MB. Anything more than this would cause trouble.

Email is the major source for virus attacks. Scan your incoming mail attachments before opening. You may have virus scan along with your mail client itself. If not, save the attachment in a folder and then verify by running a virus scan on the file. Consider avoiding zip files in the attachment.

9. Spell check!

This is an important practice in emailing. Even if you are a vocabulary-buff, its good that you don’t make an occasional spelling mistake and avoid portraiting yourself as someone who makes spelling mistake often. I know at times, the spell checker barks at every bits and pieces in the content but overall it would be useful and make the email more professional.

There is a hidden benefit in this. By avoiding spelling mistakes, we could easily find and open emails by searching with few words. If we make spelling mistakes, while searching we would be using correct spelling which won’t match with the email. Therefore avoid spelling mistakes and use a spell checker for correcting mistakes.

10. Responding to emails

Finally as a recipient of the email, there are certain things to consider. Always promptly respond to emails. Sometimes we might procrastinate responding emails and that would cause miscommunication to the sender.

For querying about status of some activity, we can use non-obtrusive sentenses such as “I was wondering whether you managed to get that…” etc. Instead of asking “what is happening now?” we can write as “Please let me know the latest”. A similar approach could be taken for regular keep-in-touch kind of emails.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Lakshmanan permalink
    May 8, 2008 4:15 pm

    Useful article. Thanks

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