Email Tips: Top 10 Strategies for Writing Effective Email

JerzWritingE-text > Email Tips

Some professionals get scores of emails a day. Follow these email etiquette tips in order to give your recipients the information they need, so they can act on your message.

Jessica Bauer and Dennis G. Jerz

Writing Effective Email: Top 10 Tips

  1. Write a meaningful subject line.
  2. Keep the message focused.
  3. Avoid attachments.
  4. Identify yourself clearly.
  5. Be kind — don’t flame.
  6. Proofread.
  7. Don’t assume privacy.
  8. Distinguish between formal and informal situations.
  9. Respond Promptly.
  10. Show Respect and Restraint.

1. Write a meaningful subject line.

Before you hit “send,” take a moment to write a subject line that accurately describes the content, giving your reader a concrete reason to open your message.

Email is different from text messaging. In a text message conversation, two parties expect to engage in multiple, rapid back-and-forth exchanges, asking for clarification and providing corrections when necessary. Generally, you are texting somebody you already know well, about a shared interest, and the subject of the conversation will change as your time together progresses.

But email is part of most people’s work routine. Most professionals who get 20 or 50 or 200 emails a day do not want to engage in a leisurely back-and-forth; they want to clear out their inbox and move on to their next task.

If your subject line is vague — or even worse, if it’s blank — you have missed your first opportunity to inform or persuade your reader.

Remember — your message is not the only one in your recipient’s mailbox. A clear subject line will help a busy professional to decide that your email is worthwhile.

No Subject: [Blank]
If you don’t put a subject line on your email, you are sending the message that your name in the “From” line is all your recipient should need in order to make it a top priority. That could come across as arrogant, or at the very least, thoughtless. Take advantage of the opportunity to get your recipient thinking about your message even before opening it.
No Subject: “Important! Read Immediately!!
What is important to you may not be important to your reader. Rather than brashly announcing that the secret contents of your message are important, write an informative headline that actually communicates at least the core of what you feel is so important: “Emergency: All Cars in the Lower Lot Will Be Towed in 1 Hour.”
No Subject: “Quick question.
If the question is quick, why not just ask it in the subject line? This subject line is hardly useful.
Maybe Subject: “Follow-up about Friday
Fractionally better — provided that the recipient remembers why a follow-up was necessary.
Maybe Subject: “That file you requested.
If you’re confident your recipient will recognize your email address, and really is expecting a file from you, then this would be fine. But keep in mind that many email users get scads of virus-laden spam with vague titles like this. The more specific you are, the more likely your recipient’s spam-blocker will let your message through.
Yes Subject: “10 confirmed for Friday… will we need a larger room?
Upon reading this revised, informative subject line, the recipient immediately starts thinking about the size of the room, not about whether it will be worth it to open the email.

2. Keep the message focused.

Often recipients only read partway through a long message, hit “reply” as soon as they have something to contribute, and forget to keep reading. This is part of human nature.

If your email contains multiple messages that are only loosely related, in order to avoid the risk that your reader will reply only to the first item that grabs his or her fancy, you could number your points to ensure they are all read (adding an introductory line that states how many parts there are to the message). If the points are substantial enough, split them up into separate messages so your recipient can delete, answer, file, or forward each item individually.

Help your reader focus on your message: keep your text readable.

  • Proofread, especially when your message asks your recipient to do work for you. All-caps comes across as shouting, and no-caps makes you look like a lazy teenager. Regardless of your intention, people will respond accordingly.
    • If you are in middle school, a gushing statement “thx 4 ur help 2day ur gr8!″ may make a busy professional smile — or shudder.
    • Often, the sweetness of the gesture won’t be enough. u want ur prof r ur boss 2 think u cant spl? LOL ;-)
  • Write short paragraphs, separated by blank lines. Most people find unbroken blocks of text boring, or even intimidating. Take the time to format your message for the ease of your reader.
  • Avoid fancy typefaces. Don’t depend upon bold font or large size to add nuances. Your recipient’s email reader may not have all the features that yours does. In a pinch, use asterisks to show *emphasis*.

3. Avoid attachments.

Rather than attaching a file that your reader will have to download and open in a separate program, you will probably get faster results if you just copy-paste the most important part of the document into the body of your message.

No To: All 1000 Employees
From: Eager Edgar
Subject: A helpful book everyone should read
——–
Hello, everyone. I’ve attached a PDF that I think you’ll all find very useful. This is the third time I sent it the file — the version I sent yesterday had a typo on page 207, so I’ve sent the whole thing again. Since some of you noted that the large file size makes it a bit awkward, I’ve also attached each chapter as a separate document. Let me know what you think!Attachments:

  • Big Honking File.pdf (356MB)
  • BHF Cover.pdf (25MB)
  • BHF Chapter 1.pdf (35MB)
  • BHF Chapter 2.pdf (27MB)
  • [... ]

(Okay, raise your hands… how many of us would delete the above message immediately, without looking at *any* of those attachments?)

Yes To: Bessie Professional
From: Morris Ponsybil
Subject: Email tips — a subject for an office workshop?
—-
Bessie, I came across a book that has lots of tips on streamlining professional communications. Has anyone volunteered to present at the office workshop next month? Let me know if you’d like me to run a little seminar (2o minutes?) on using email effectively.Below, I’ll paste the table of contents from the book. Let me know if you want me send you the whole thing as a PDF.

Table of Contents

  1. Write a meaningful subject line.
  2. Keep the message focused and readable.
  3. Avoid attachments.
  4. [...]

Email works best when you just copy and paste the most relevant text into the body of the email. Try to reduce the number of steps your recipient will need to take in order to act on your message.

If your recipient actually needs to view the full file in order to edit or archive it, then of course sending an attachment is appropriate.

If you create a flyer in Microsoft Publisher or Apple’s Pages, export it to a PDF before you send it out to the 500 people on your mailing list. People who don’t have that particular program installed on their computers, or people who are reading your message on their smartphone, won’t be able to read your message.

Recognize that attachments

  • consume bandwidth (do you want your recipient to ignore your request so as to avoid paying for a mobile download?)
  • can carry viruses
  • don’t always translate correctly for people who read their email on portable devices.

4. Identify yourself clearly.

If you telephoned someone outside your closest circle, someone who probably wouldn’t recognize your voice, you would probably say something like “Hello, Ms. Wordsworth, this is Sally Griffin.” A formal “Dear Ms. Wordsworth” salutation is not necessary for routine workplace communication.

When we send text messages to our friends, we expect a lot of back-and-forth. But professionals who use email don’t enjoy getting a cryptic message from an email address they don’t recognize.

While a routine email does not require a formal salutation such as “Dear Ms. Wordsworth,” ask yourself whether the person you are writing knows you well enough to recognize your email address.

No To: Professor Blinderson
From: FuZzYkItTy2000@hotmail.com
Subject: [Blank]Yo goin 2 miss class whats the homework
(Professor Blinderson will probably reply, “Please let me know your name and which class you’re in, so that I can respond meaningfully. I don’t recognize the address FuZzYkItTy2000@hotmail.com.”)
Yes To: Professor Blinderson
From: m.ponsybil@gmail.com
Subject: EL227 Absence, Oct 10

Hello, Prof. Blinderson. This is Morris Ponsybil, from EL227 section 2.

This morning, I just found out that the curling team has advanced to the playoffs, so I’m going to be out of town on the 10th.According to the syllabus, it looks like I will miss a paper workshop and the discussion of Chapter 10. May I email you my Chapter 10 discussion questions before I leave town? And could I come to your office hour at 2pm on the 12th, in order to discuss the paper? I’ve asked Cheryl Jones to take notes for me.

Thank you very much. I’ll see you in class tomorrow.

(If you are asking the other person to do you a favor, providing the right information will give him or her a good reason to decide in your favor. In this case, Morris Ponsybil shows his professor he cares enough about the class to propose a solution to the problem his absence will cause.)

When contacting someone cold, always include your name, occupation, and any other important identification information in the first few sentences.

If you are following up on a face-to-face contact, you might appear too timid if you assume your recipient doesn’t remember you; but you can drop casual hints to jog their memory: “I enjoyed talking with you about PDAs in the elevator the other day.”

Every fall, I get emails from “bad_boy2315@yahoo.com” or “FuZzYkItTy2000@hotmail.com” who ask a question about “class” and don’t sign their real names.

While formal phrases such as “Dear Professor Sneedlewood” and “Sincerely Yours,” are unnecessary in email, when contacting someone outside your own organization, you should write a signature line that includes your full name and at least a link to a blog or online profile page (something that does not require your recipient to log in first).

5. Be kind. Don’t flame.

Think before you click “Send.”

If you find yourself writing in anger, save a draft, go get a cup of coffee, and imagine that tomorrow morning someone has taped your email outside your door. Would your associates and friends be shocked by your language or attitude?

Or would they be impressed by how you kept your cool, how you ignored the bait when your correspondent stooped to personal attacks, and how you carefully explained your position (or admitted your error, or asked for a reconsideration, etc.).

Don’t pour gasoline on a fire without carefully weighing the consequences. Will you have to work with this person for the rest of the semester? Do you want a copy of your bitter screed to surface years from now, when you want a letter of recommendation or you’re up for promotion?

No @!$% &*@!! &(*!
Go ahead… write it, revise it, liven it up with traditional Lebanese curses, print it out, throw darts on it, and scribble on it with crayon. Do whatever you need in order to get it out of your system. Just don’t hit “Send” while you’re still angry.
Maybe From: Clair Haddad
To: Ann O. Ying
Subject: Re: Ongoing Problems with Project

I’m not sure how to respond, since last week you told Sue that you didn’t need any extra training, so I cancelled Wednesday’s workshop. I can CC Sue in on this thread if you like, since she’s the one who will have to approve the budget if we reschedule it.

Meanwhile, I can loan you my copies of the manual, or we can look into shifting the work to someone else. Let me know what you’d like me to do next.

—Original Message –
From: Ann O. Ying
I tried all morning to get in touch with you. Couldn’t you find a few minutes in between meetings to check your messages? I’m having a rough time on this project, and I’m sorry if this is last-minute, but I’ve never done this before and I think the least you could do is take some time to explain it again.

If your recipient has just lambasted you with an angry message, rather than reply with a point-by-point rebuttal, you can always respond with a brief note like this, which

  1. casually invokes the name of someone the angry correspondent is likely to respect (in order to diffuse any personal antagonism that may otherwise have developed) and
  2. refocuses the conversation on solutions (in this conversation, Ann has already dug herself into a hole, and Clair has nothing to gain by joining her there)

6. Proofread.

If you are asking someone else to do work for you, take the time to make your message look professional.

While your spell checker won’t catch every mistake, at the very least it will catch a few typos. If you are sending a message that will be read by someone higher up on the chain of command (a superior or professor, for instance), or if you’re about to mass-mail dozens or thousands of people, take an extra minute or two before you hit “send”. Show a draft to a close associate, in order to see whether it actually makes sense.

7. Don’t assume privacy.

Unless you are Donald Trump, praise in public, and criticize in private. Don’t send anything over email that you wouldn’t want posted — with your name attached — in the break room.

Email is not secure. Just as random pedestrians could easily reach into your mailbox and intercept the envelopes that you send and receive through the post office, a curious hacker, a malicious criminal, or the FBI can easily intercept your email. Your IT department has the ability to read any and all email messages in your work account (and your company can legally may fire you if you write anything inappropriate).

If you stretch the truth in an email (downplaying a problem, leaving out an important detail, etc.), you’re creating a written record that your recipient can (and will) use to determine whether

  • you are uninformed about the truth
  • you are informed but deliberately misrepresenting the truth
  • your confusing emails mean you aren’t a reliable source for determining the truth

8. Distinguish between formal and informal situations.

When you are writing to a friend or a close colleague, it is OK to use “smilies” :-) , abbreviations (IIRC for “if I recall correctly”, LOL for “laughing out loud,” etc.) and nonstandard punctuation and spelling (like that found in instant messaging or chat rooms). These linguistic shortcuts are generally signs of friendly intimacy, like sharing cold pizza with a family friend. If you tried to share that same cold pizza with a first date, or a visiting dignitary, you would give off the impression that you did not really care about the meeting. By the same token, don’t use informal language when your reader expects a more formal approach. Always know the situation, and write accordingly.

9. Respond Promptly.

If you want to appear professional and courteous, make yourself available to your online correspondents. Even if your reply is, “Sorry, I’m too busy to help you now,” at least your correspondent won’t be waiting in vain for your reply.

10. Show Respect and Restraint

Many a flame war has been started by someone who hit “reply all” instead of “reply.”

While most people know that email is not private, it is good form to ask the sender before forwarding a personal message. If someone emails you a request, it is perfectly acceptable to forward the request to a person who can help — but forwarding a message in order to ridicule the sender is tacky.

Use BCC instead of CC when sending sensitive information to large groups. (For example, a professor sending a bulk message to students who are in danger of failing, or an employer telling unsuccessful applicants that a position is no longer open.) The name of everyone in the CC list goes out with the message, but the names of people on the BCC list (“blind carbon copy”) are hidden. Put your own name in the “To” box if your mail editor doesn’t like the blank space.

Be tolerant of other people’s etiquette blunders. If you think you’ve been insulted, quote the line back to your sender and add a neutral comment such as, “I’m not sure how to interpret this… could you elaborate?”


References & Further Reading

  • Alsop, Stewart. “My Rules of Polite Digital Communication.” Fortune. 142.2 (10 July 2000): p 76. Online. Academic Search Elite. 9 October 2000.
  • Cronin, Jennifer. “Netiquette, schmetiquette.” Des Moines Business Record 16.24 (12 June 2000): p 11. Online. MasterFILE Premier. 9 October 2000.
  • “Email Etiquette.” I Will Follow Services. 1997. <http://www.iwillfollow.com/emailetiquette.html>. 9 October 2000.
  • Nucifora, Alf. “Use etiquette when messaging via email.” Memphis Business Journal 21.51 (14 April 2000): p23. Online. MasterFILE Premier. 9 October 2000.
  • Thorton, Sam. “Rules and Regulations: Email Etiquette.” 29 April 1998. <http://www.lse.ac.uk/Depts/ITS/rules/email.htm>. 9 October
    2000.

12 Dec 2000 — first submitted by Bauer
23 Jan 2001 — posted by Jerz

16 Feb 2001 — updated by Jerz
25 Oct 2001 — minor updates by Jerz
16 Apr 2003 — further updates & changes by Jerz
10 Jun 2004 — strengthened advice against attachments
28 Aug 2004 — trimmed a few minor redundancies
19 May 2008 — updated items 1-3
20 May 2008 — updated items 2-4
23 Jun 2008 — corrected typos identified by Bob Folline
04 Mar 2010 — adding considerations for mobile email users
08 Mar 2011 — formatting changes
20 Dec 2011 — changed “e-mail” to “email” throughout
03 May 2012 — very minor tweaks
22 May 2013 — updated info on attachments; minor tweaks to layout and phrasing

Loading Facebook Comments ...

236 thoughts on “Email Tips: Top 10 Strategies for Writing Effective Email

  1. I can’t tell you how much it bothers me that communications from people I do business with are so often completely devoid of any type of etiquette. In fact, I can always tell what level of services my clients will require based upon the spelling and grammar in their emails and the general way they handle communications. I know that in IT100 classes most universities are teaching internet and email etiqeutte, but it seems that is being lost prior to graduation, by the looks of things…

  2. I completely agree with your article. I would have like to seen more about signatures, and how they play into email etiquette. Every email client seems to be different and I always wonder what the best format is for signatures. What do you think?

  3. I have a simple signature for everyday use, a more informative one for first-contact situations (that includes links to my websites and social networking profiles) , and one full of legalese (that I would use if I’m discussing a sensitive topic).

    In the old days of Usenet, it was considered bad form to post a message that had a .sig longer than the message itself.

    • i wadnt to know more about office mail. I am totally new in mail writing . please informed me how a is compited

  4. Hello.

    I can't tell you how much I enjoyed reading this article. It is one of my weaknesses that I have to start improving and I am glad someone like you can shed a light on the do's and don'ts of the email world. I would have loved to see more examples of how to start an email which requires you to negate someone's request "a NO"-email such as I am sorry to tell you… or I regret to tell you… and also "a YES"-email such as I am happy to let you know… etc. or an email where you would want to ask someone to do something for you as in Could you tell me the… or could you let me know… but I would most of all like to know how I would reply to colleagues that have done something helpful. For example, once my colleague has helped me to search for the information I asked him for and I would like to ask him of more information (bear in mind that we could sit in two different offices in two different countries and even parts of the world, I could be in Europe and he in USA). How would I start the email with a thankful yet humble way yet still showing that it is important that he can retrieve the next load of information as soon as possible. And I do not want to sound to formal or professional since it is a colleague that I have had close contact with but still not too friendly.

    I am looking forward to seeing more tips &amp; tricks of the corporate email world!

    Thank you for an interesting eye-opener.
    Maria

    • Thanks for your note, Maria. When it comes to the standard business letters (good news, bad news, request for adjustment, etc.) I am not sure email is different enough that it requires separate examples. But perhaps the next time I update this page I can add some links to good examples.

  5. I’m thinking about the training of email writing to my colleagues. So I googled this subject then I found your article which’s is one of best I ever read. Thanks a lot.

  6. This was very helpful, but I want to know more about subject lines. It has been a huge topic of discussion in my workplace, because our boss always uses what should be the first line of the E-Mail Body as the subject, then leaves it out of the E-Mail. When we tell her not to do that, because the subject tends to be so long that it gets cut off with … at the end, she says it is informative and tells what the E-Mail is about. The problem is that because it cuts it off with … we tend to miss an important fact that was after the … or the body of the E-Mail makes no sense because we either didn’t read the subject or didn’t see what was after the … What are your comments on this?

    • You might ask a senior colleague or someone not in the exact chain of command to show your boss a screenshot of what her mails look like with the subject line cut off. I agree that’s not what the subject line is for.

  7. It was really good article for the students like us.Keep it up.i really enjoyed alot reading this article.

  8. There is a colleague here at work that she is used to right ALL CAPS when she does not like something, and that is really bothering me, she even does that with everybody in the office. I think is rude and out of place.
    Thanks for the tips!

  9. Dear Dennis: This is a very thought-provoking and interesting article. It is very helpful, indeed. I just have a question for you, if you don’t mind–Does one have to respond to a response email? For example, I had emailed a friend (both personal and professional)a friendly follow-up email,in regard to if he has gotten a chance to read my story. About 3 weeks had passed by when I had sent it to him. After I sent my follow-up email,he had sent me a response to my email barely 10 minutes later to let me know that he has been meaning to write to me, and that he hasn’t forgotten about my story. He will read it a.s.a.p/soon and then connect with/call me soon about it. I assume I can leave it at that, or is it proper ettiquitte to acknowledge/respond to his response to my inquiries? Thank you for writing such a great article, and for your time in answering my question–Best Wishes–Sumona

    • If an email goes two working days without acknowledgment, I should think a polite follow-up is appropriate.

      Responding seriously to other people’s writing takes time; if your friend does that sort of thing for a living, but you’ve asked him to give you free advice, I’m not sure I can think of any gracious way to get him to hurry up already.

      On the other hand, he may have read your work and thinks it would need a lot of work in order to be publishable, but he values your friendship too much to risk hurting your feelings.

      In any case, after this much time has passed, I’d give him a gracious way to back out entirely, while keeping your friendship intact.

      • Sorry, but that wasn't really his question. His question was whether or not it is proper etiquette to respond to a response email. I have the same question. I emailed a prospective job about if a decision has been made yet. She said that it has not been made and they should know by the end of the month. Should I email her back and say thanks for answering and that I would contact her again by the end of the month? Or do I just leave it at that and wait until next week to email her again?

        Thanks :)

  10. Jessica and Dennis,

    This is just a quick comment to tell you how helpful I found this article. Having just searched "how to compose an informal e-mail" this article was one of the first that came up on the results page.

    I now have a lovely message composed and ready to send. I'll revise it one last time for spelling and grammatical errors before pressing the magic button that will set it free into cyberspace.

    Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed article.

  11. It is a very useful article and Thank you so much for sharing.

    I am a non-English native speaker and I will join Deloitte(a UK company) soon. But I am not confidence with my writing in formal English. Do you have any suggestion for improving “professional email writing” skills? Thanks!

  12. Hi,
    I am working in bpo company in mailing process, I want to know that if I get mail from customer then how can I reply that customer very nicely

    • Pooja, you might try a business communication textbook, which would have examples of how to respond to a customer complaint, how to give bad news, etc. The basics would apply whether you are communicating in person, over the phone, or by email.

  13. This article on writing proper E-mails and netiquette was helpfull. So many times people have not considered a number of things in this article that made their E-mail confusing, pointless , or frustrating. I hope people take the time to learn the right way to E-mail, and save us all some time.

  14. I'm doing email at my work and this article was very much helpful.I hope you can post other scenarios that may be of great help.

    regards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>