Writing Effective Email: 10 Tips To Be Both Purposeful And Polite
If you’re looking for an article on how to get unsuspecting strangers to open spammy email, keep hunting. This post isn’t for you. Also… you should stop that foolishness, because we’re all busy and impatient, and no one wants that kind of email.
This article is about how to improve your email communication skills so that when you send a work-related email to someone, they appreciate how friendly and professional you are, and they understand what you’re trying to say.
Before we jump into those tips on writing effective email, let’s look at the most common types of ineffective email:
- Rambling and nonsensical, and
- Curt and abrasive
Rambling, nonsensical email are commonplace in our work lives. They tend to cover multiple topics at once and may include information that isn’t relevant to the main message.
The biggest problem with this type of email is a lack of clarity. After reading the message, you’re left with more questions than answers. As a result, you’re forced to engage in a frustrating, back-and-forth exchange with the sender, as you struggle to get clarification.
Curt, abrasive email jump straight to the point, but they do so at the expense of politeness. They skip the niceties, like hellos and goodbyes, and may be no more than a sentence or two long (often with an exclamation point tossed in). They’re also prone to signs of carelessness, like spelling mistakes and type-os.
It feels like the sender is barking commands at you. And even if there’s nothing overtly offensive about the message, you feel slighted that you didn’t merit a more considerate, nuanced email. A curt, abrasive email leaves a bad taste in your mouth and damages your opinion of the sender.
So what does an EFFECTIVE email look like?
Email messages should be both purposeful and polite. The reader should feel like you’ve answered their question, solved their problem, or at least moved things forward in some way. And the tone of your message should be respectful, regardless of the topic.
FYI: According to statistics, the average working professional sends over 40 emails per day. That’s 40+ chances to demonstrate your authority and build positive relationships!
So without further ado, let’s jump into the basics of writing effective email.
Tip #1: Always start with a greeting.
I’m amazed (and not in a good way) by how many people don’t bother adding a greeting to their email. It’s as though they’ve forgotten the basic rules of polite conversation!
Greetings are a demonstration of courtesy and respect – so DON’T skip this part.
If you want some options, here’s a list of 45 different email greetings to use at work. That said, there’s no need to overthink it. A simple “hello” will usually do the trick.
Note: Only use “hi” if it’s someone you know well and feel very comfortable chatting with. Otherwise, stick with “hello”. It’s still friendly, but a bit more professional.
Tip #2: Ponder your purpose BEFORE you start writing.
Writing effective email is like writing anything else – you get better results when you plan things out. Before you start spilling words onto a screen, take a moment to consider what you want to say. What’s the purpose of your email?
This may seem obvious, but we’ve grown so casual about sending email that we sometimes fail to give this format the respect it deserves. This is a written communication. It’s concrete. It’s actionable. As such, it’s worth investing a few moments in pondering.
Rambling, nonsensical email happen when your fingers hit the keyboard too quickly.
Think first. Write second.
Tip #3: Be concise.
The most effective email are short, clear, and to-the-point. If you need to send a large amount of text, I recommend putting it in a document and sending it as an attachment. In the body of your email message, provide a brief summary of that document. The recipient can then decide whether to open it immediately, or wait until later. In this way, you demonstrate respect for their time.
Concise writing is about using the fewest possible words, so an integral part of writing effective email is learning how to recognize (and delete) terms and phrases that don’t contribute impact or meaning. Here’s my list of 20+ ditch-able words.
Tip #4: Be VERY aware of your tone.
In writing, tone is the vibe you send out to the reader. Minor changes can make a big difference in tone. For example, going back to the greetings options, “hi” is casual-friendly, while “hello” is formal-friendly.
Because email is all about words, you don’t usually have visuals, like images and videos, to help convey tone. This UPS the power of individual words. The challenge is to be intentional and consistent about your choices. Don’t vacillate between friendly and formal. It confuses people.
As an example, let’s look at this imaginary email from a manager to an employee working under their supervision:
This email gets points for being clear and succinct. But from a TONE perspective, it’s the equivalent of having someone smile at you, then scowl, then smile again. It’s got a passive-aggressive vibe that isn’t helpful.
Let’s try that email again:
Switching from “hi” and “cheers” to “hello” and “thanks” makes the tone more formal (supervisor to employee), which matches better with the purpose of the email. Swapping “end-of-day” for “today” and “no extensions!” for “needs to be submitted today” doesn’t change the message – but it does dial back the aggression. As I’ve already said, little changes can have a significant impact on tone.
Tip #5: Format your message so it’s easy to read
Even when your words are on-topic and concise, your message loses clarity if readers must squint to read it, or if everything is crammed into a single, unending paragraph. To make your email easy-to-read and understand:
- Use one font throughout your email and size it appropriately. You want something large enough to avoid squinting but not so large that the reader must scroll to read the full message. A 10-point or 12-point font size is generally acceptable.
- Give both your greeting and your sign-off a line to themselves. And if your message is more than two or three sentences, break it into multiple paragraphs.
- Stick to plain text and avoid using bold, italics, and colour changes. These options may end up appearing as control sequences or symbols on your reader’s device.
Tip #6: Don’t try to be funny.
Sometimes, it’s tempting to try and add humour to email. It may feel like sprinkling a bit of wry wit, or adding an insider joke, could make your message less dry. Or friendlier.
Ignore that feeling. Seriously. Bury it deep.
Humour is a tricky thing. What’s funny to one person may not be funny to someone else – and may even be offensive. And those extra words inevitably make your email less clear and concise.
Save the witty repartee for face-to-face interactions. Maybe even phone calls. But NOT email. The risks significantly outweigh the potential benefits.
Tip #7: Avoid jargon and slang.
Jargon and slang are words and expressions that make sense to “insiders” but are confusing to others. In your industry, workplace, or community, these words may be familiar, but outside of specific environments, they’re meaningless, or they mean something completely different.
In theory, insider terms are fine when you’re sending an email to someone who knows what you mean. But if the reader doesn’t understand the word or expression, your message is no longer clear.
Chances are high that you will get a followup email asking you to explain what you’re talking about. There’s also a chance that the reader will simply pretend to understand, which is arguably worse!
Remember: Writing effective email is about clarity, not cleverness.
Tip #8: Add a polite sign-off.
As with greetings, sign-offs are a demonstration of courtesy and respect. You may have a formal signature that’s automatically tacked onto your email – and that’s lovely. But it’s also impersonal. So take a moment to acknowledge the person you’re communicating with.
Simple sign-offs include regards, sincerely, cheers, and thanks.
If you’re going back and forth with email, there’s a point where you may stop adding a sign-off. It’s subjective. But your initial email should have one.
Tip #9: Review your email THREE TIMES before you send it.
This sounds more onerous than it is. If your email is short and concise (as it should be), it will only take a minute or two to run through it – THREE TIMES:
- Review spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Sloppy writing implies a degree of carelessness and as a professional, “careless” isn’t a word you want associated with your name.
- Make sure you’ve conveyed your main point clearly and succinctly. Delete unnecessary words and replace jargon with more standard terms.
- Check your tone. Imagine that you’re the reader instead of the sender.
Tip #10: If you’re struggling to create an email, stop and ask yourself WHY.
If you’re stuck in a loop of writing and rewriting an email, it’s possible that the topic is simply too complicated, or too sensitive, for this format. Sometimes, the best way to be both purposeful and polite is to have a more personal conversation via a face-to-face meeting, video call, or even the old-school telephone!
Writing effective email is an important part of being a professional. Your words, and how you use them, are a reflection of your knowledge, your authority, and your interpersonal skills.
It’s worth taking the time to craft email messages that are both purposeful and polite. Ultimately, the secret is to proofread before clicking “send” – and trust your gut. If you’re concerned about the clarity or tone of an email, keep tweaking it. Or switch to another format, if that feels more appropriate.
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