Tips for Writing Effective E-Mail

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Tips for Writing Effective E-Mail

By: Janis Fisher Chan & Natasha Terk
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In the not-so-distant past, "business writing" meant interoffice memos, letters, reports, proposals and other such documents – things that were printed out (or even hand-written) on paper. Business writing had rules: It should be carefully worded, focused on the reader's needs, written in appropriate language, and should use correct grammar, punctuation and spelling. And then there was e-mail, which could be dashed off quickly, without much regard for the rules of correct writing.

That distinction no longer holds. For many of us, "business writing" now means e-mail. It's the medium we use most often to communicate ideas and information to colleagues, managers, clients and the world at large. We used to pick up the phone when we wanted to discuss an issue, ask questions or provide information. Now we send e-mail. We depend on e-mail to get our business done, day in and day out. And if we want the e-mail we send to help us meet our goals, we need to stop thinking of it as something we can just "dash off." We need some rules. Here are a few of the most important ones:

Respect your reader's time
How many messages arrive in your inbox each day? According to an article in last year's Communication World, "'Too much e-mail' is one of the most frequent complaints heard in organizations today." The fact is that many e-mail messages do not need to be sent. Too often, we shoot back e-mail responses rather than consider whether a response is needed, and this can keep online conversations going without serving a useful purpose. We also tend to forward e-mail without thinking about whether the reader actually needs the information. Respect your reader's time – and your own – by asking whether the e-mail really needs to be sent.

Make sure the topic is appropriate for e-mail, and watch your tone
The results of a survey by the American Management Association and The ePolicy Institute revealed that one in five companies had e-mail messages subpoenaed in the course of a lawsuit or a regulatory investigation. Another 13 percent have battled lawsuits triggered by e-mail.

Many topics are just too confidential or sensitive to write in an e-mail; in addition, carelessly written e-mail can convey an abrupt, offensive tone. Some good questions to ask yourself when writing e-mail include:

  • Would I want this information published in a newspaper?
  • If I were face-to-face with this person, would I say this, and in this way?
  • What if my recipient forwards this e-mail to other people?

If it's confidential or sensitive information, consider using the phone or sending a hard copy through the mail. If it's difficult and important, save the e-mail as a draft and re-read it the next day before you send it.

Plan what you write.
We use e-mail because it's quick and easy, forgetting that it's a form of written communication, requiring the same attention as a letter or a report. Before your fingers start flying over those keys, take a few moments to consider why you're writing, what information your reader needs and what you want your reader to do.

Use "inverted pyramid" structure to get to the point right away.
The first paragraph of a newspaper article contains the most important information, with the rest of the article providing details to support, explain, expand on or illustrate that information. That's how an effective e-mail should be structured. The few lines that appear in a preview window should convey the most important point.

Here's an easy way to figure out your main point: Imagine that your reader is about to go through airport security on her way to an important meeting. You have 15 seconds to shout out your message before she disappears into the crowd. What would you say?

Make your subject line a "headline."
An informative, compelling subject line catches the reader's attention and says what the e-mail is about – giving the reader a reason to open the message. Including a key word or words makes it easy for readers to search for messages they need to see again. And occasionally, the entire message can be put into the subject line: "Meeting time changed from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., same place."

For subject lines to be useful, however, they must relate accurately to the message. When replying to an e-mail, be sure to change the subject line if you’re changing the subject.

Use language that communicates clearly.
"Sometimes you come across corporate gibberish so tortured, so triumphantly incomprehensible, you can only shake your head in admiration," wrote David Lazarus in a San Francisco Chronicle article titled "Gobbledygook Boils Down to Loss of Grace." Language is the medium by which we communicate – or fail to communicate. Passive constructions, jargon, inflated language and unnecessary words only get in the way of your message. Get your point across as clearly as possible by using active language and plain English, and by getting rid of "clutter" that makes your writing boring and shifts the focus away from the important message.

Keep e-mail professional.
The e-mail you write says a lot about you. It tells readers that you are thorough, accurate and attentive – or not. It indicates that your message is to be taken seriously – or not. It implies that you know what you are talking about – or not. People sometimes think that attention to details such as spelling and grammar matter only when writing to clients or senior people in their organization. But appearance always counts. Even if the person receiving the e-mail knows you well, keep in mind that your e-mail can easily be forwarded to others. Ask, "What if a company director or a client happens to see this e-mail? What image of me – and my organization – does it convey?"

This article originally appeared in Communication World Bulletin. It is reproduced here with permission from the authors and the International Association of Business Communications.

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Posted on February 09, 2011