Write emails, not e-fails

Before working at Write, my professional emails were basically a stream of consciousness. My co-workers, Ministers, my managers: no-one was safe from my tangential ramblings with the important information buried in the depths of the text like the Holy Grail. As you can probably imagine, my email style changed when I joined Write. I was taken swiftly in hand and coached in how to write emails that are clear and concise, and get results.

Image, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones relaxing on set.

If even Indiana Jones can’t find the main point in your email, you’ve got trouble. Image by yotambientengosuperpoderes /Flickr licence

Who is your reader?

The first thing I had to start thinking about when I was writing my emails was who I was writing for. Knowing my reader helped me set the tone and structure of the email. I could break out the information that was important for them and focus on delivering that, instead of what I thought was interesting, and vanishing down sidetracks without getting to the point quickly. (See my point?)

Remember your reader is probably pressed for time and has a mountain of other work to do.

Focus your subject line

Your subject line is the first thing the reader of your email sees. It’s the deciding factor for whether they’ll click on it and read your email immediately, or set it to Mark As Read and forget about it.

Subject lines need to be engaging and, above all, informative. The subject line lets the reader know what vital information is in the email.

A good subject line will look something like this:

Please bring this document to Monday’s meeting

Update: the funding application is on track

You need this link for your quarterly report

It won’t look like this:

Cheese! Now that I’ve got your attention

You should maybe use this for the thing on Friday

There’s some stuff that needs doing

Dear Reader,

How you greet your reader is one of the things that helps the reader decide (almost instantly) whether they want to do what you’re asking them to. Always use the person’s name if you have it. If you don’t have their name, something as simple as ‘Hi there’ or ‘Hello’ is a warm and friendly way to address them.

Never use ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’. Nothing sets up a barrier faster than someone misgendering you, even by accident.

A well-written email informs quickly

Business emails need a clear structure with the main points first. You can use the MADE structure for an email the same way you’d use it for any other business writing.

M   Main message
A    Actions
D    Details
E     Extra information

Make sure your paragraphs start with a topic sentence, and keep your sentences short. A good sentence onscreen is no more than 15 words long. If your reader is likely to be using smaller-screen device like a tablet or phone, keep your sentences to 9 or 10 words.

Each paragraph will follow the inverted pyramid structure: the most important information at the beginning, and the least important information at the end.

Image, an inverted pyramid with the words "Most important information" at the top and "least important information" at the bottom. Beside it is an arrow pointing down saying "From the reader's point of view".

Information hierarchy pyramid diagram. Image by Graphic Solutions for Write’s Business Writing Essentials workshop

Don’t be afraid to use headings and lists in your emails if appropriate. Headings and lists break up the text and make it far easier to see important information.

Say no to jargon and obscure words

Your writing time is wasted if nobody knows what you’re talking about. If your reader might have to look up a word to find out what it means, use a different word. Keep in mind that words like facilitate have different meanings depending on context. So be as clear as possible when you’re writing your emails.

Instead of
Blue sky thinking, reach out to, disseminate, or optic

Use
No limits, contact, share, or point of view

Trim extra words by using the active voice

The active voice is your best friend when it comes to writing concisely. The active voice is a way of writing that puts the verb (doing word) right after the subject (thing doing the verb) at the beginning of the sentence.

Find out more about the active and passive voice (and wild penguins)

Emojis

Emojis are excellent for setting a warm tone to an email. As long as they’re used sparingly and above all appropriately, they’ll make your writing seem more human. If you wouldn’t send the emoji to your Gran or to the Vicar, it’s safest to not use it at work 🙃

In closing

Your email sign-off might be the last thing your reader sees, but it’s still important. Everyone’s heard the urban legend about the person that signed off an email to their boss with ‘lots of love’, so it’s a good thing to be aware of. The way you sign off can make or break the tone of your email — make sure you match the tone of your sign-off to the rest of the email.

Formal
Yours sincerely

Formal yet friendly 
Kind regards, Best wishes, Warm regards

Friendly
Cheers, Thanks

Hopefully these ideas will keep you from falling into the same email traps that I did before working at Write. For more about how to write clear, concise emails that never get sent to the Mark As Read pile, join our Email Essentials workshop.

Read about our Email Essentials workshop here

Read more about emails that get results

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