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5 tips for writing good email

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Halloween Pumpkins  by nexthttp - get lots of emails every day – customers, vendors, coworkers, and occasionally friends send me stuff.  I’m not overwhelmed by the volume of emails, but some days I wish that that everyone was a considerate email writer.

I’m not even worried about spam – between the filters on our mail server and the Bayesian filter on my client, things that are spammy disappear before I can see them, or end up a folder for junk suspects.  Of course, you shouldn’t make email that looks like spam, but I think most of the emails that bug me are well-intentioned.  Here are 5 rules for writing a clear, readable email.

  1. Just rehash.  Don’t introduce a new concept in an email.  It’s hard enough for me to read an email when I understand the point…but trying to teach me something new, sell me something, or proposing a new venture just doesn’t work well in email.  Email is best when it’s the follow-up to a live or phone conversation.
  2. Short & sweet.  There are probably 20-30 emails that I want to read and act on every day, but I don’t want to kill my whole day to do it.  I’m a pretty fast reader, but there’s a huge difference between spending 1-2 minutes on an email versus 5 minutes – in the worst case, that means almost 3 hours per day.  Just reading… and trying to understand.  Usually, if I see more than one long paragraph, I’ll just make a phone call.
  3. No emotion.  Nuance, sarcasm, anger, and sympathy are really hard to convey in an email.  Even if you think your smileys give the right emotional cues, they could easily be missed.  Controversial subjects can spiral out of control too easily, so it’s much better to leave the tough stuff to live conversations.
  4. Bullets won’t hurt you.  I love enumerated lists, and I think the world would be a better place if that’s the only way people communicated.  Having numbered bullet points in an email allows you to reference specific parts of a message, makes it a little more readable, and can convey priority without much effort.
  5. Contact info.  It surprises me how often I get emails without contact information.  “blah blah blah… from John”.  For work, most folks are somewhere in our customer database, and I can look it up with some effort based on context, but even that occasionally fails – for example, if someone’s sending an email from a hotmail account with an unrecognizable name.  It’s really easy to add a signature to your emails, so add a useful one.

Just following these 5 tips won’t make your emails great, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.  Personally, there’s  a much better chance that I will read an email and care if it’s short, concise, organized, and isn’t blindsiding me.


Written by Harry Hollander

August 18, 2009 at 5:57 am

Posted in Communication

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