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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 9 Issue 11
November 2015
How to Write Better Emails, Making Them More Likely to Be Read

The problem
Have you ever wondered whether people actually read your emails? Why they don't reply? Why they might even tell you "Yes, I got your email but no, I didn't read it"?

Email is often viewed as a casual medium, especially compared to writing a letter. However, I think it has become such a big part of modern life, in many ways it has not only displaced letter-writing, it can sometimes have even more impact, especially given the speed of its arrival.

Should you spend more time on email in general, or write a perfect email every time? No, we all send and receive far too much email for that to be practical. Instead, I suggest putting a little more time and effort into making your most important emails as well-written as you can.

Here are a number of ideas that you might find useful to improve the emails you send, which in turn might improve the odds that your recipients will read and understand them better.

Before you send that important email:
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread.
  • Know your audience: Does this person like brevity or detail, social pleasantries or bottom-line recommendations, or something in-between?
  • Take a break: Don't send an email when you're angry, upset, tired, or rushed. If you don't have to send it right away, save it as a Draft and come back to it later with fresh eyes.
  • Feedback: If it's very important and you have time, have a friend review it.
  • Attachment: If you mention one, don't forget to attach it.
  • Prevention: Leave the "To" field blank so you don't accidentally send it prematurely. Fill that in only when you're finished and ready to send.
  • Proofread the "To" field as well. Should you use her business or personal address? If you typed only a portion of his name, did the auto-fill pick your accountant or your client or your cousin?
  • Postpone: If you can't send an appropriate and thorough response right away, consider an initial reply with something like "Thanks, I can't address this right now, and I want to give this the careful attention that it deserves. I will get back to you soon, thanks for your patience." This acknowledges their email, while letting you choose how specific you want to be regarding how soon you'll get back to them.
  • Ask yourself: Are you emailing a last-minute appointment cancellation, or trying to write about a very complicated issue? Would a phone call be better? Would an in-person meeting be even better? Sometimes emailing "This is too complicated to discuss by email, when could I call you?" or just calling (without emailing) is completely appropriate.
The subject
Your message, including its subject, will be listed in the other person's Inbox among tens or hundreds of other messages. It's worth your time to write an appropriate and brief subject.
  • The purpose of the Subject is to convey a short summary of your message. Sum up your message in 5 or 10 words or less. Keep it short.
  • Don't leave it blank. At best, "blank" says nothing about your message, at worst it looks odd or spam-like. Your message is competing with the rest of their incoming mail, so give them a reason to open yours!
  • Don't write "From [your name]." Your message will already show your name and email address in the "From" field, so don't repeat that in the Subject.
  • Don't write the entire message here. A sentence or a paragraph is too much, is more likely to be skipped over, and only the first few words will be visible in their Inbox list. Save the detail for the body of the message.
  • If this is an ongoing conversation that has evolved over time, change the subject to match the newer topic. For example, if the exchange started out as "Dinner next month?" and turned into a Red Sox vs. Yankees discussion, you could update the subject to "Baseball" in your next reply.
The body
This is the place for the substance of your message.
  • Opening: Most of the time I like to start with something friendly: "Hi Joe--" or "Hi Joe!" or "Hi Joe and Mary!" It sets the tone for the conversation. People seem to like that, and they respond in kind.
  • Purpose: Explain why you are writing at or near the beginning, don't "bury the lead." What's your goal? Do you want something? Are you offering something? Are you grateful about something?
  • Length: If your message is long, many people won't read all of it, and some won't even read any of it. Break long paragraphs up into smaller ones. Ask yourself: How can I make this shorter? Is everything relevant? What unnecessary words can I remove? Should I hold back some of the content for a later point in the conversation? Am I writing about separate topics that would be better as separate messages? If you want answers to multiple related questions, consider numbering them and including "I look forward to your answers to all of my questions."
  • Insertions: If you're replying to a previous message containing a number of issues, rather than retyping each issue, it's often easier to insert your responses into the previous message's text. Use ALL CAPS or bold or colored text to enable the other person to easily find your embedded responses, and also explain your technique at the start of your reply so they'll know what to look for.
  • Omissions: Look for words that you may have left out. One missing word can make a big.
  • Dates: When listing calendar dates, include the day of the week for clarity, and check them carefully. "Sunday November 30" will confuse your recipient if that date is actually a Monday.
  • Grammar: Use any spell-checking or grammar-checking tools you can, and try to avoid common mistakes: it's vs. its, your vs. you're, to vs. two vs. too, affect vs. effect, their vs. there vs. they're, peak vs. peek vs. pique, etc.
  • Bullets: Turn wordy comma-separated lists into bullet points. I use hyphens (-) or asterisks (*) to make simple bullets.
  • Emphasis: If you want to emphasize a word or phrase, by convention using ALL CAPS means that you're "shouting," so either keep it to a minimum, or consider softer methods like *asterisks* or underlining or bold.
  • Context: When replying, include some context so the other person can be reminded what you're talking about. This is why most email programs "quote" the previous message.
  • Positive: If you need to communicate something negative (disagreement, bad news, etc.) start with something positive, e.g., "I really appreciate your eagerness to get started, but in my experience doing some planning first really helps." Or, instead of "I don't want X," write "It's great that you like X, but I really prefer Y. Can we find a way to make this work for both of us?"
  • Connotations: Avoid potentially unwanted or inappropriate overtones, e.g., change "think long and hard" to "think carefully."
  • Tone: Humor is great, but avoid anything that might rely on tone of voice. For example, "You knucklehead!" might work in an email to a good buddy, but it might confuse or offend a client or vendor.
  • Repeat purpose: Consider repeating your purpose at the end, perhaps phrased a little differently than at the beginning.
  • Confirm: Emails don't always arrive, and people don't always reply right away, so including "Please send me a reply so I'll know that you received this" can help. However, if it's urgent or last-minute, I strongly recommend following up by phone.
Communicating well is not a new problem, and it's not easy, especially when writing email. If you can be respectful, clear, and direct, you'll go a long way toward achieving that goal.
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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