how to write a halfway-decent email

Did you know that more than 62 billion emails are sent daily, on the Internet and elsewhere. Approximately 15 of the emails were not selling prescription drugs or offering genital enhancements. So if 62 billion (or more) email message are being sent every day, you have to ask yourself whether your email is effective or not. Here are 7 tips to write an effective email.

1. Write a clear, concise subject without re’s and fw’s. Which one of these is more effective?

a. Thu, Apr 15 update on TPS report
b. Re: re: re: fw: re: re: where are we with the TPS report?

Many times people write emails without giving much thought to the subject. If you are keeping up an email chain with a friend, the subject “re: re: re: re: re: hey” may be fine, but if you are trying to differentiate your email from the hundreds that show up in most people’s mailboxes you should make sure that the subject covers the topic to be discussed, as well as any identifying information. A subject matter of “Important – read” is far less likely to be read quickly than “You forgot to pay the cable bill.”

2. Keep it short, stupid. Unfortunately that has to be the easiest tip to an effective email to give, and the hardest to follow. Most people offer unnecessary information in their emails. I am just as guilty as anyone. This fact may sound terrible, but many people will get bored with your email if it requires scrolling down even a little bit. Keep your emails short. Remember that it’s not a phone call, it’s a message. J. K. Rowling can write thousands of pages that people are dying to read. You probably can’t.

3. No ‘thanks in advance.’ Many people are unnecessarily grateful in emails. If you ever saw Office Space (and if you didn’t, do), you’ll recall the slimy boss Lumbergh’s way of intoning “greaaaaat. thaaaaaaaanks.” It was grating. Asking someone if they will get to work right away on something, thanks, is just annoying. Everyone understands that you are appreciate of their work, but there’s no need to tell them before they do it. That seems like a nag. If you ask someone to pass the salt, would you say “pass the salt, I appreciate it” or “could you give me a hand here, thanks and regards?” No. After the task is finished – you have the salt – then you can say thanks.

4. Learn what “reply all” does. We all make this mistake sometimes, but the pain and humiliation you feel the first time you do it should cure you in the future. I don’t think a week goes by when some client HR group sends out a “reply to Mary if you are coming to the XYZ event” and some poor schlub replies all to MASSIVE_CORP_EMPLOYEES_ALL.

5. Avoid return receipts. If the person you’re sending to is a friend, this is just sneaky. If it’s work-related, don’t do a return receipt – just keep following up with 1-line emails every day until they answer (these tips are effective, not nice)!

6. No cc’ing or bcc’ing unnecessarily. Let’s face it – if you have to bcc you’re either sending out an inappropriate joke or trying to stab someone in the back. As for cc’s, I remember one boss who told his assistant to delete every single email where he was cc’d – without even looking at it. He just didn’t have the time. I have a forwarding service set up with my work email to only forward messages to my personal email if my name is in there. If it’s a group distribution, I’ll get to it once a week when I bother to open up my work email.

7. Use IM. If you want to send a one-line response, send an IM. Sending an email is pointless if your message is “thanks” (see above). Don’t send emails to friends that are one line long if you all have access to IM. Use Meebo – it’s a great IM consolidator site that lets you use one web interface to access ALL of your IM accounts.

I’m sure there are many other tips on how to write an effective email, but if you stick to these you’ll be off to a good start.

Also from the Brip Blap archives, check out 10 suggestions for better writing for some writing tips and you are reading the work of the greatest writer in the world for writing productivity tips.

7 Replies to “how to write a halfway-decent email”

  1. Great post! I might be one of the super encouraging people…Thanks! I would appreciate…etc…Now I’m being compared to Lumberg!

  2. I think you should do a review of the movie “Office Space”. I’ve seen it about a half a dozen times but I’m suspecting that you could beat that number on a long weekend :).


  3. Yeah, I have that on my list for Brip Blap Movies one of these days. It’s tough jumping over to blogs 2, 3, and 4…!

  4. I hate all these emails I get at work with “(please read)” in the subject. If you have to tell people that, it probably means you’ve previously given them a reason not to read your emails!

    I hate “thanks in advance too,” but not so much for the reason you’ve given here. I just think “thanks” is enough because it’s obviously in advance if they haven’t done it yet. By saying “thanks in advance” it sounds like they’re bragging about how thankful they are while simultaneously making a threat. It’s like saying “I’m going to go out on a limb and thank you before you’ve done squat, because that’s how cool I am! Now you owe me, and you’d better deliver!”

  5. If I may I’d like to offer another point of view regarding thanks in advance. I understand that in real life conversation, the thanks can be laden with sarcasm as when someone says ‘your welcome’ because you forgot to say thank-you.

    But to me thanks or thanks in advance is just an acknowledgement that the person has taken the time to read my email. If I were to use a thanks in advance it is because I have a reasonable expectation that the person will be able to do what I requested.

  6. @rambkowalczyk: Oh, sure, I understand that point of view completely. I am sometimes a bit of a cynic, so my assumption is that 99% of the time people are trying to guilt me into doing something ASAP with “thanks in advance.” That may just be the cynic in me – in which case you’re right, it COULD be a nice gesture. It depends on your point of view, I suppose….

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