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

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

  1. I m very poor in written communication due to lack of vocabulary pl guide me to improve myself by giving me all related much vocabulary material pl……

  2. I really enjoyed reading your article. I am in the military are we are very formal when emailing someone that is in a higher rank than the sender. We always start with their rank and name and end with v/r (very respectfully) I have seen lots of flaming and folks getting blasted on “reply all.” I will pass this along to other military professionals! Thanks again.

  3. Dear Dennis,
    I really enjoyed this article, it helped me to articulate my writing skill. Thanks a lot

  4. Thank you very much. I learned very important things on writing e-mails. Hopefully I will get better and learn how to communicate more better.

  5. These above tips are useful for me in writing emails
    Kindly advise me some more techniques in using and answering letter to clients in hotel management as well as sample of fomal letter
    Thanks for your sharing

  6. I’m curious of anyone else has encountered the following situation: One person in my company consistently adds his reply to an email to the subject line. Sometimes, that reply is repeated in the body of the email; other times that constitutes the entire response. Not only does this make for very long email subjects, it can make the thread more difficult to follow.

    In more than fifteen years of using email for personal and business communications, I have never previously seen anyone do this. I have searched for etiquette rules on this subject but find nothing that directly addresses it. This person is of a personality type such that he has, to date, ignored polite suggestions he change this practice.

    Any comments or suggestions?

    • I’m assuming this person is above you in the pecking order, or else polite suggestions wouldn’t be so important. I knew of one senior colleague who would put his whole response in the subject line, but I never thought it was worth bringing to his attention.

      If your colleague still doesn’t change his ways after you casually show him how his long subject lines get truncated on your smartphone, or demonstrate how your email reader sorts incoming messages by thread, or show him this website, maybe he’s a more of a phone person, or a face-to-face person, and his lack of email finesse hasn’t impacted his career. Responding to incoming email just may not be a big part of the way he does his job, so the few seconds he might save each of his potential readers is just not weighing on his mind.

      I had a colleague, an education professor, who always typed in all caps. As a new hire, I was mortified that I had offended her, and every time I opened a message from her, I felt like I was being slapped. But it was easier for me to learn to read her messages differently, than it would have been for me to get her to change.

      I used to grit my teeth whenever somebody would send a 2MB attachment to 1000 people to advertise an event, without putting the time and location of the event in the body of the email. I still don’t like having to open attachments, but I don’t want to be THAT GUY who always complains.

  7. I know that typing in all caps is considered shouting when it is part of your text, but does that also apply to the subject line ?

    I always thought the subject line was exempt from this rule. Am I wrong? Some one please tell me—

  8. Our company is opening new branch & Im getting shifted which i dont like, as it will be very far to travel. How can I mail my boss not to shift me to tat new branch & i would like to continue in same branch. Plz reply ASAP.

    • Sounds to me like this is serious enough for a printed letter. This handout is more for routine office communications. Your boss may not intend to give anyone a choice in the matter; and indeed, your boss may simply be passing along news that was decided upon elsewhere. Any business-writing textbook will probably have a section on the “letter of adjustment.” In your letter, don’t use any txtspk shortcuts, and rather than giving your personal reasons for not wanting to move, try to give your boss professional reasons for why the company should keep you where you are.

  9. Dear Dennis,
    I need help writing an email to possible employer. A month ago, I had an interview with Director of the company & he wanted me to start working for him in couple of months (he is unsure exactly when). I did write “thank you email” immediately after interview, and he responded very kindly that he would like to stay in touch.
    Since he is a very busy person, I would like to remind him of me with an email message. How can I do that without being pushy?
    Thank you for writing such a great article, and for your time in answering my question.
    Lina

    • I would reply to the last message your potential employer sent you, preferably the one that contained the invitation to stay in touch. If you can say, “Here is an updated resume” that would also be a good reason for a follow-up. Keep your message short.

  10. Hi There
    i need to know how i can delete from THE ATTACHMENT that is including in an e-mail
    some words.
    thank you in advance

    • Evelyn, that answer completely depends on the email client you are using. Try the “help” menu, or search online for a user group devoted to your email software.

  11. Would you mind providing some examples of how to diplomatically solicit input/responses from associates/clients who repeatedly do not supply requested information from the initial request sent to them? Have to follow up week after week on the same email. Their required input is the dependent domino that falls on the next actions to be taken. Cannot move forward until they respond. I never want to come across as nagging, pushy or demanding or embarrass them.

    So very much appreciate your help.

    • Meredith, you might want to check out a general textbook on business communication.

      Once a few years ago when I found an online student project had plagiarized my work, I sent an email to the professor, then when I heard nothing, two weeks later I forwarded my original email to the professor and the professor’s chair, and then two weeks after that, after having heard still nothing, I contacted the professor, the chair, the dean, a vice-president for PR, and also posted about the whole thing on my blog. (Within a few hours I got an immediate response, and I posted an update saying I was satisfied with the resolution. But I don’t recommend that you take your internal problem into the public arena like that.)

      You might document your efforts to get compliance, along with a quote from whatever spec or regulation that you’re following; spell out what you see as the consequences, and ask your supervisor to talk to their supervisor, to make sure that you’re making the right request to the right people, for the right reasons.

      They may not have the info you want, they may have been told by their supervisor to put your request on the back burner, they may feel this is your problem and not theirs, they may not agree with your definition of “moving forward,” etc. etc.

      If you can make your request a multiple choice question, rather than an essay question, you’ll probably get faster compliance. If you can at least get them to commit to saying “We have no feedback for you,” and the project fails, they can’t come back later and complain that you didn’t listen to their advice. If you have to go on without their suggestions, and the project succeeds, then you can take all the credit.

  12. Great information – thank you. How would you apply that to external clients where the outcome is dependent on their input and is necessary?

  13. Hi Dennis,

    Do you have any suggestions for dealing with external clients/partnerships where the project must succeed and there is difficulty getting the necessary information from the client to be able to move forward with the project and meet deadlines? Specifically looking for diplomatic wording to achieve responses and maintain great rapport with the client.

    Thank you.

    • Only somebody who already knows the relationship — or someone willing to put in the hours necessary to learn about the whole situation — would be able to give any specific advice.

      One problem I see is the phrasing “the project must succeed.” Who says it must succeed? You, obviously; do your outside clients (potential customers? potential donors?) see the same necessity? Might they instead see something optional, or even an annoyance?

      If you are trying to raise funds to fix a leak in the local dam upstream of the city, then you’ve got everyone’s self-interest on your side; if you are knocking on doors during dinner time selling encyclopedias, then the compliance you consider “necessary” (so you can feed your family on encyclopedia commissions, or so you can do whatever noble work your foundations supports) may conflict directly with other people’s plans to keep their money and their time for their own families.

      From what I can see, general email etiquette (the subject of this web page) is not likely to solve the problem you describe. You may instead need a PR professional skilled at appealing to people’s better nature.

  14. Hello Mr. Dennis,

    I am really thankful for what info you have given here. It would be really great if you put up an example of an email asking for a week leave to your senior manager.

    Cheers,
    Vijeth J K

  15. i have joined one new company four months back , and i have not yet recieved my SAP authorisation . the first request mail for asking SAP , was just 4 months before ,i had sent almost 15 mail for the same but still they have not done it.
    Can any one please help me in wrting a mail to the IT department for asking for the same … as i have tried 15 times ..

    • They are either choosing to ignore your emails, you aren’t emailing the right person, or your address has been trapped by a spam filter. Try a phone call, physical letter, or personal visit. Or, consider that maybe someone is trying to give you a hint.

  16. HI? Your e-mail 10 tips are not good, just seems to be waste . All of them very elementary tips. May be my son who knows very well about it than you. Now he is just 7 years old but can do that.

    Don’t be pround of yourself. Your education must be considered just secondary – junior grades.

    Yours
    Beke, G

  17. Just started job that requires /expccts proper email etiquette. This is the best and simple advise i have found . Thanks

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