• M. Christine Benner Dixon

Writing Email is Writing

Updated: Jul 13, 2020

You may not consider yourself a writer, but you write constantly. Most likely, you've written something today that has an impact on how your colleagues, your boss, or your partners see you. I'm talking about professional email. Perhaps you, like many people, harbor some distrust of email--without tone of voice, facial expressions, or other communication aids that come with being physically present during a conversation, intention can be misread, details can slip through the cracks. But we can't always blame the reader for that. As with any kind of writing, you are making choices about the tone, content, and structure of your emails--there's no reason not to make good choices. Here are some things you can do to make your professional emails clear and effective.

Let's start with greetings. Between colleagues, a simple "Hi, Leona" is probably your best bet. The trouble comes when you don't know your recipient well. Is "Dear Ms. Tao" too stodgy? Does no greeting at all sound too abrupt? To some extent, this is a matter of taste. Not every recipient will respond the same way, but here are some things to consider as you make your decision:

  • What kind of relationship do you already have? Have you spoken on the phone or met in person? With some kind of personal contact already in place, a friendly "Hello, Mr. Turner" will probably be just fine. If this is your first contact, probably the standard "Dear Mr. Turner" is more appropriate. (Pro tip: if they have written to you in the past, feel free to replicate their style of address in your email.)

  • What kind of business are you or they involved in? If the business between you and your reader is fun-loving or personal in nature (they are signing up for your comedy improv class, you are inquiring about life coaching services, etc.) a more conversational tone may be appropriate. In most other cases, you can't go wrong with honorific, surname, and a standard greeting: "Dear Dr. Diaz."

  • Have you been introduced by first name? If not, do you know their honorific for certain? If you're unsure about a person's gender or professional status, using the full name is better than getting it wrong.

  • In general, when writing a professional email, steer clear of "Hey" or anything that sounds like you're being cheeky, clever, or sarcastic: "Happy Tuesday," "Howdy," or "Greetings!"

  • Always include a greeting. Just starting off with the name is, indeed, too abrupt.

Now on to the body of the email. Email writing is not letter writing. Keep it short. As you well know, emails come through a mile-a-minute, and no one wants to be burdened with a long, elaborate email. If your email is too long, your reader may resent you immediately, skim instead of reading carefully, or put off reading it entirely. Here are some rules of thumb for keeping your emails concise and readable:

  • If you feel so inclined, open with minimal but sincere pleasantries: "I hope you are well" or "Happy New Year" is fine, but this is not the place to give a life update. Even if this is someone you are friends with, separate out personal chit-chat from your business emails.

  • Provide essential context only, heavy on the facts: "We spoke last week at the online media conference about a potential collaboration."

  • Include a single requested action per paragraph: "Let's set up a meeting." If applicable, include details related to that action item in that paragraph: "I'm available any time Thursday or Friday this week or Tuesday of next week after 2:00." Try to position the request in the first or last sentence of the paragraph so that it doesn't slip through the cracks.

  • Requests should be concrete and relatively simple: yes/no response, request for materials/information, set a meeting, set a deadline, acknowledgement of your communication, etc.

  • Limit your self to 2 requests per email. Any more than that, and your reader may complete one request and then consider the exchange finished. If you need something more from this person, send a separate email.

A note about subject lines: Use your subject line to indicate the specific topic and/or request for this person: "Approval for hard drive purchase." Anything that doesn't fit that description doesn't belong in this email. If you find yourself writing a subject line like "This and That" or that includes several different topics, you are asking too much in one email.

And finally, the sign-off. This is a bizarrely emotional topic for some people. There are numerous online rants dedicated to pet peeves around certain sign-offs. You may want to find one that works for you and just stick to it. An innocuous "Regards," "Best," "Thank you," or "Thanks," is probably the safest bet. If you lean towards the formal, "Sincerely" is a neutral and familiar option. As appropriate to the content of the email, you may employ something like, "Looking forward to our meeting" or "Talk to you soon."

Just stay away from the cutesy, bossy, or self-conscious (unless it is inextricable from your business persona): "Peace and love," "Yours truly," "Blessings," "Let me know right away," "Have a simply fabulous day," etc. And, of course, don't leave your name hanging out there with no sign-off at all (at least not on a first email--if you've been having a lot of quick back-and-forths, a sign-off may not be necessary every time).

With these tips in mind, you should be ready to up your game as a writer of professional emails.

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