"Bad Language"

A column about writing in business

Ten Laws for Better Email

Most emails are badly written. No surprise, perhaps, since we write more emails than anything else. By 2010, the business world will have produced 27,000 billion gigabytes of email. So what goes wrong?

  • Not written with the reader in mind
  • Not written to be scanned or read quickly
  • Too many topics in one email
  • Important information or requests buried in verbiage
  • Reply in haste, repent at leisure
  • Poor grammar, spelling and punctuation
  • Using email when some other communication would have been better

So I have drafted ten laws for better email:

  1. Email is about the reader, not the writer. Don't think about what you have to say. Think about what the reader needs to hear. There's nothing more tedious than an email that starts out with 200 words of self-justification when all it needs is a single sentence containing a question.
  2. Email exists to solve problems, not create them. Don't fire people by email. Unlike Radio Shack (see my post). I try to avoid dealing with money matters by email. Don't drunk-mail. Don't email when angry. Don't argue by email.
  3. The headline is the email. The subject line should be clear, factual and specific. It should also encourage the reader to open and read the email. Think about the subject lines used by chain emails (see my post: The evil power of chain emails) and spammers -- made you look! Don't be afraid to change the title of a long-running discussion thread if the subject matter has moved on. Put the old subject in brackets afterwards for continuity.
  4. Fewer words, greater understanding. I like this email from Cambridge Consultants which I blogged two years ago. With email, shorter is better. Also short words are best.
  5. Emoticons rule!! :) Seriously, shading an email with some emotional color can make it more personal and reduce the risk of misinterpretation. See Email Etiquette Revisited for more on this.
  6. Think before you forward. Forwarding, CC'ing (and especially BCC'ing) and, in some cases, sending brief thank you emails can spam up people's inboxes and make emails political. In fact, most of the email-related work crises I've seen have involved inappropriate forwarding, CC'ing and -- in the two worst cases -- BCC'ing.
  7. Respect privacy in group emails. Ever received a round-robin email addressed to hundreds of people where all their addresses were included. This is a gross breach of privacy and it is also pretty much the only circumstances where a BCC is appropriate.
  8. Be succinct. Imagine your email was a telegram and that you were paying by the word. Avoid long paragraphs. Consider using one-sentence paragraphs. Keep sentences short. Use bullets for lists. Use subtitles to break up long emails. Use strong active verbs. Let the passive and subjunctive be avoided. Avoid jargon and acronyms.
  9. Highlight actions and key points. It's fine to use underlining, highlighting or bold to help people concentrate on the key points. I have colleagues who highlight action items and important dates.
  10. Wait a minute. Re-read your emails before you send them. Out loud. Rewrite it if you can make it shorter.

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Columnist Matthew Stibbe is Writer-in-chief for Articulate Marketing, a specialist copywriting agency. His clients include Microsoft, the British Government and leading magazines like Wired and Popular Science. Matthew also writes a blog called Bad Language. Click here to read more articles by Matthew Stibbe.

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