The ABC’s of Exceptional Emails

From contributing editor Tricia Yacovone-Biagi

There’s a time and place for long and involved writing (say, your PhD dissertation on the meaning of life, or America’s next greatest novel). But most of us, who live in this 24/7 news cycle of a world where an answer to most questions is just a Google search away, don’t have time to write or read something long and involved. We’re accustomed to quick synopses and summaries of information, and to-do lists and tasks set out clearly and succinctly.

This is especially true with email. How many of us have multiple accounts so that all the junk mail goes to one and the important stuff goes to the other? If you are on a quest to “go get the world,” you need to know how to make sure the emails you send don’t end up unread, or worse yet, in the junk mail folder. So, here are some simple ABC’s (well, A-E) you can follow to keep your reader’s attention and get the requisite response to your emails:

#Audience. This is the most important thing to consider when writing an email. You wouldn’t write to your mother or your BFF the same way as you would write to your boss, co-worker or teacher. For work emails, be respectful and professional in your tone. If you’re not sure about a phrase, find a different way to say it, or omit it altogether. If a beleaguered and email-inundated colleague tells you to include “Requires Response” in the subject line so she’ll know the email is not just informational in nature, then do so.

#Brevity. Avoid the dreaded “TL;DR” (too long; didn’t read) response to your emails by being brief and to the point. Obviously, you don’t want to be so brief that your email is confusing, but you don’t need to provide every detail either. Stick to the “need to know” items and eliminate any information that is “nice to know.”

Image of Joe Friday with "Just the facts, Ma'am".
If you stick to the facts and the need-to-know info, you’ll make your email recipient (and Joe Friday) happy.

#Clarity. This is another critical characteristic of a great email. Your reader should understand exactly what you mean after reading your email one time. To help with clarity:

  • Use simple words. You will not impress your readers if they have to click on “define” for every tenth word of your email.
  • Use correct grammar and punctuation. Sentences need a subject and a verb, followed by a period or question mark. (Generally, avoid the use of exclamation points in professional emails.) And remember that a single comma can be worth millions.
  • Use bulleted lists. Let’s be honest. Most people scan their emails. Recognize that and use lists so your readers can easily capture your meaning. Use a numbered list if the reader needs to refer to individual items in the response or should complete tasks in a certain order.
  • Label attachments appropriately. Use obvious and meaningful names such as ‘Coast-before-hurricane’ and ‘Coast-after-hurricane’ instead of ‘IMG_0068.jpg’ and ‘IMG_0147.jpg’, and refer to the file names in the body of your email.
  • Eliminate jargon and initialisms or acronyms. Jargon is the fastest way to lose clarity, and initialisms and acronyms don’t mean the same thing to all people, especially with today’s multicultural workforce. Unless an acronym or initialism is common and accepted in your industry, don’t use it.
  • Images of AC current, an AC unit, The DC Capitol, DC batteries and the band AC/DC.
    Although this is a simple example, be aware that the terms you use may not mean the same thing to everyone. Don’t assume your reader knows what you mean.
  • Make your call to action obvious. This avoids multiple back-and-forth emails and unnecessary frustration. I learned this lesson the hard way when a colleague of mine would invariably respond “yes” when I would ask him if he wanted us to proceed on this option or that option. (Don’t be that guy.) Once I rephrased my emails to ask, “Please choose one of the following three options…,” he never answered with just yes, and I never had to send follow-up emails, either. That is a win-win.

#Death to Comic Sans. Your font matters. Don’t use a font that includes “comic” in its name if you want to be taken seriously. Use a professional and standard font such as Arial, Helvetica, Times New Roman, or Verdana.

Two emails side-by-side. One uses Times font and looks professional, while the other uses Comic Sans font and looks immature.
Use a serious font if you want to be taken seriously.

#Evaluate. Proofread everything before clicking the “Send” button. Consider the implications of sending something with an egregious error before you decide that you don’t have the time to proofread. Try these three things:

  • Read your email out loud to find any errors in syntax and flow. Then read it backwards to identify spelling errors.
  • Double-check for common spellcheck mistakes that occur with homonyms. The spellchecking program will accept them as there their correct spellings, but only you will know if its it’s the correct usage for each word.
  • Ask a trusted colleague to review the email for spelling, tone, and clarity before you send it to the intended recipient. Often times, someone who is not close to the subject will easily identify nebulous terms and ambiguities not readily apparent to

There are literally billions of articles on the internet about email writing, and who has time to read them all? So, if you have specific questions about email writing, send them along to us here and we will give you our best advice (and some GGTW swag). And, if you have some of your own tried and true tips, share them with our community in the comments section below. #ggtw

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