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Writing Effective Email

By Stacie Heaps
Professional Writer and Editor

Because businesspeople are extremely busy, it is easy to simply ignore (or even delete) messages that don’t seem urgent or as important as the many other things that fight for our attention each day. To help prevent your e-mail message from being ignored or deleted without even having been read, follow the steps outlined below.

Choose your subject carefully

The subject line of your e-mail is of utmost importance, as it is what will determine whether the person reads, files, forwards, ignores, or deletes your e-mail message. Therefore, be specific enough to convey the main purpose of your message in the subject line. For example, don’t just write “Meeting,” but rather “Schedule Meeting to Discuss Upcoming Marketing Seminar.” Also, consider including essential information (such as a response date) in the subject line if you can do so briefly.

Be careful when crafting the subject of your e-mail, however, that you do not unintentionally imply more or less than you intend to. Recipients may read only the subject of your e-mail if they feel that all of the information they need is contained within it, so be careful in wording your subject that you do not mislead readers to believe that they have all of the necessary information if they don’t.

Especially with the threat of viruses and other malware, people are less likely to open e-mail messages from people they don’t immediately recognize. Consequently, if the recipient might not immediately recognize your name, you need to choose a subject that is specific, clear, and relevant enough that they will feel that your e-mail is worth the time (and potential risk) of opening.

Examples: 

Reminder: 9 a.m. XML training meeting tomorrow

John Doe Firm: Important Project Update

XYZ Corporation Handbook Revision: Please Provide Feedback by 2/17

Identify yourself, if necessary

If you are e-mailing someone who does not know you (or e-mailing someone whom you met only briefly), introduce yourself. Keep your introduction short and to the point, but do include any relevant information that will help the person remember who you are, for example.

Include necessary information

In addition to stating your purpose in the subject line of your e-mail, you should also summarize your purpose in the first paragraph of the body of the message, particularly if your message is more than a paragraph or two long. Tell readers the information they need to know and what you want or need them to do based on the information you are sending them. In particular, make sure to include information such as important contact people or relevant deadlines. If the e-mail is more than a couple of paragraphs long, reiterate what you need done and by when in the last paragraph of the e-mail.

Examples: 

Don’t forget that the mandatory HR meeting is this Wednesday at 3 p.m.

In order to stay on track with our schedule, you will need to e-mail electronic versions of the updated documents by March 3.

Please provide the requested feedback no later than Friday, October 16.

Also, if several days (or more) have passed since an initial e-mail or event, remind the reader of the context of your message with a brief introduction such as “Last week you asked if I could . . .” Such reminders will save the recipient having to spend time trying to remember what you are referring to in your message.

Leave out unnecessary information

Keep your message short and concise. Rarely should e-mail messages be longer than a few paragraphs. Readers who have to wade through lengthy messages are more likely to give up before reaching the end, or in their skimming, they might miss important information. To keep your messages concise, leave out information that is not relevant to the matter at hand. In particular, it is generally best to send personal information in a separate e-mail from work-related content.

If different people working on a project are involved at different levels, you probably don’t need to tell everyone everything. Send specific information to specific individuals based on what they need to know and do.

Keep your message focused

How many times have you received responses to an e-mail that you sent that do not include all of the information you were requesting? Readers often read until they reach the first question or request, hit reply, and never look back to your original message. For this reason, it is often helpful to use separate paragraphs—with paragraph breaks in between—for your questions, requests, or other important points if you have more than one. Then, after you have written your message, go back to the initial paragraph and add a sentence indicating how many points you have covered. Even better, numbering your paragraphs lets readers know at a glance how many points they need to respond to. If your e-mail is very long or the questions or ideas are more complex, consider writing separate e-mails for each one so that they will be read and responded to individually.

Maintain a professional tone

It is amazing how many businesspeople who would spend hours making a presentation or project polished and professional will dash off an e-mail that is so informal and unbusinesslike to clients, colleagues, and hired professionals. Though e-mail is admittedly more relaxed than a ten-page business proposal, you should still keep the tone of your message professional by using standard capitalization and punctuation, checking your spelling, and generally avoiding shortened or cutesy words, phrases, and symbols. Use standard fonts and font sizes, and don’t use all caps anywhere in your message. If you need to emphasize a word or phrase, use italics or bold (or rarely, bold italics).

Not:  im trying to get a final count for the workshop tomorrow. p.m. if you plan to attend plz let me no. Thnx

But: I’m trying to get a final count for the workshop tomorrow afternoon. If you plan to attend, please let me know. Thanks.

Determine who needs to receive the information

You don’t want to leave anyone out who truly needs to receive the information you are sending. One effective way to get information to those who need it is to use carbon copy and blind carbon copy to inform those involved in a project who don’t need to actually do anything other than simply read the information that you send. However, save room in cyberspace; don’t send the e-mail to everyone, only those who actually need the information you are sending. As mentioned above, though you don’t want to leave anyone in the dark, you can often give each person or team only the information they needs to accomplish the work required of them.

Proofread your message

When sending e-mails to professionals, take the time to check your message for spelling errors and to proofread your text. If your e-mail is long or contains complex subject matter, you may want to have someone proofread your e-mail for you to make sure that it is clear and adequately conveys your intended meaning.

If you are sending an important e-mail message, treat it that way by putting the same kind of care into it that you would for a letter or similar correspondence.

Keep in mind that e-mail is not private

Many companies can and do periodically or systematically read employee e-mails. Furthermore, anything you send through e-mail can be forwarded to countless recipients, can be posted on any number of Web sites, or can be printed and publicly displayed or distributed for untold numbers of people to see both in- and outside of the workplace. Consequently, before hitting the send button, make sure you are writing something that you don’t mind if other people know that you wrote.

On the other hand, if you want to forward a message that someone has sent to you, determine if you should first ask the person’s approval or permission before doing so.

Consider entering recipients’ names into the BCC field rather than the To field

If you want to send an e-mail message to several people without disclosing the names of the other recipients to each other, use BCC (blind carbon copy) rather than CC (unlike CC, the names in the BCC list can not be seen by other recipients in the list). This is a good idea, for example, when sending an e-mail to several applicants who were not hired for a position, or when forwarding information to large groups of people (in order to reduce the risk of spreading viruses and the like).

Follow up

For information that is time sensitive or urgent, follow your e-mail message with a phone call. You never know when someone might be in an all-day meeting, unexpectedly out of the office for a day (or longer), or swamped with other work. You don’t want your e-mail to get buried with all the others.

When responding to e-mail messages:

Respond in a timely manner.

Be professional and courteous by responding promptly to e-mail messages you receive. Even if you only have time to dash off a quick “Received your e-mail; swamped right now; will respond to your requests ASAP,” this lets the original sender know that you received his or her e-mail and that you will get back to him or her as soon as possible.

Respond using the original text

It is often helpful (and it frequently saves time and effort) to include the text of the original e-mail (or to copy and paste portions of text from the original message into your reply e-mail) and then follow the original text with your response in a different color so that your added text is easily recognizable. Doing so allows the original writer to immediately identify what part of the original e-mail you are responding to and it helps ensure that you as the original recipient respond to all of the main points of the original e-mail.


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