Email style 20:11 on Monday
Some time ago I posted a request for lyrics in the International Songwriter Association email newsletter. The amount, promptness and enthusiasm of responses surpassed my all expectations, but the quality and style of the emails did not. Absolutely no offence to anyone who replied to me – I do not judge anyone based on their ability to write email – but when you’re asking for lyrics the email you get will undoubtedly create an image of the sender’s abilities. Want it or not.
This prompted me to create what you could call an update to an old article I’ve held in much respect, Email Typography by Sean Cavanaugh. This is not a rigid set of rules that have to be obeyed by every living being on the planet. It’s a set of guidelines I’ve found useful when I send (and receive) email.
Here are my fifteen points on better email communication:
1. Respect the recipient’s time
I think this is the most important rule of all. And the more you work with email, the more important it becomes. Respecting the recipient’s time means concentrating on what is important for the recipient. It means being brief and simple. It means making sure your recipient understands what you’re saying. It means trying to think of the context and presumptions affecting the recipient when he/she will be reading the email.
We all use email with different frequency and hence might have a slightly different sense of urgency. Some check their email every 5 minutes and others once every week. Respect the recipients choice of urgency, especially when emailing them for the first time. Don’t spam them two times a day for not replying within a day, unless:
- you have a serious need for a quick answer,
- you are sure this particular person can help you, and
- you don’t have the person’s phone number.
Email is good for many things but not for urgent life or death matters.
2. Be kind
Different countries and different cultures have a different view on what is regarded as “friendly enough”. Try to anticipate the views of your recipient and respect them. Start your email with an appropriate salutation and remember to sign off. It’s not always easy to please everyone, but pay attention and you’ll learn.
As this is the first piece of your content the recipient will see, you better make sure it’s good. It has to be concise and give the recipient a good idea of what the email is about and why it has been sent to him/her.
For my ISA request I got an email with the subject of “ok”. This email was very lucky to avoid the automatic junk filters at the mail server and on my computer, and finally avoid being thrown away manually by me as spam.
Quote the previous message or messages only as much as is needed to establish context, but no less. Delete all other text left from the original message. This makes your email shorter, easier to read and understand.
Preferably include a reference to the original message once in the beginning of your quote, clearly stating the date and writer of the original message. And remember quotes should be always preceded with an appropriate number of > characters:
On the 1st of June 2003 Tarzan wrote: > > Jane here, could you please send me > > your order number again? > > Hi Jane, it's 1234567. Thanks! I'll write it down now.
If you’ve received more than one message on a single subject from the same recipient, consider consolidating them into one message by quoting all original messages with their appropriate dates and pasting the quotes into a single reply.
Do not send attachments before asking a permission first. Not only are you wasting bandwidth by sending files you’re not even sure the recipient can open, but you’re potentially wasting your recipients time.
Imagine your recipient is reading her email with a laptop connected through her mobile phone. If it takes considerable time just to download long text documents, think what it takes for a 2-megabyte MP3 file. Everybody is not on broadband, and you got to respect that.
6. Separate paragraphs
Separate paragraphs clearly by using a blank line (carriage return) between every paragraph. This is a must for good readability.
You could also consider adding double spaces between sentences. I find it visually more pleasing and easier to read, especially with mono-spaced fonts, but I feel it’s really up to each one to decide.
If you think your email is too long for the recipient to read straight away, consider adding headings that separate your text into logical chunks. The rules for a well written subject apply to “sub-headings” as well. The recipient can then skip through the email quickly and find the parts that require immediate action.
I would like to say acronyms shouldn’t be used at all, but I’ll tone it down and suggest you use acronyms the way they are used in the press for instance. The first time you use an acronym, you write it out. Like I would do if I introduced you to International Songwriters Association (ISA). And later I would just talk about ISA and you’d know what it is.
Not only is this suggestion simple for you and the recipient, but it effectively rules out stupid internet acronyms like LOL or FYI or BTW (which I personally tend to use). If you really wanted to write “This is For Your Information (FYI) only”, it would look so ridiculous I say it shouldn’t be banned for humour’s sake.
9. Shorten long URLs
If you need to paste long internet addresses (URLs) in your email, shorten them using a site like snurl.com. Long URLs can get split on two lines by the email reader and become unclickable for the recipient. Don’t make him/her copy paste the URL together, snurl it.
10. Creating emphasis in plain text
If you need the equivalent of bolding or underlining to emphasize words in a plain text email, you can use *asterisks* or -hyphens- or _undescores_. But use them sparingly.
There are a number of ways to create bulleted lists in plain text too:
- my first bullet - second bullet + a plus sign will work too + and a blank line between will create good separation between lines :: two colons and two spaces work well too :: especially when the bullets contain many lines of text
They’re cute, but when your email smiles at the recipient with 20 different faces, it gets annoying. I would like to prohibit the use of smilies for good, but I do think they are useful even if not justified in certain cases.
12. Stay away from HTML email
Especially designs that include images are bad for many reasons. Images easily multiply the size of the email tenfold or more, hence making it slower – and more annoying – to download over a slow connection. Email with a background picture or the recipient’s name written in animated flames very rarely looks good, and more importantly it almost never adds any value for the recipient.
Rich text can be justified in some cases, if you are absolutely sure it will benefit the recipient. Simple and sparingly used emphasis with bolding usually works best.
13. DON’T SHOUT
Writing in all caps looks very bad and gives the impression that you’ve just learnt to write.
13. End with the right signature
I suggest you keep your signature to four lines at maxium. Sending an email where half of the content is your “cool” signature serves nothing but to confuse the recipient. Keep it as simple as possible and include your email address. Believe me it will come handy at some point. It is also a good habit to start your signature with a line with nothing but two hyphens and a space on it. Some email programs identify this as the start of signature and automatically remove signatures when quoting.
14. And before you send…
…proofread your email. This is the second most important thing after respecting your recipient. This is respecting you. If your email is full of typos, badly structured, and written during a sudden heat of emotions, tomorrow you will regret pressing that “Send” button. And you can quite much throw away any hope of being respected and taken seriously by your recipient.
Oh it’s here twice – how did that ever happen to me.
Also worth reading
- Ten Steps for Cleaning Up Information Pollution by Jakob Nielsen